Response from Neil Pigot ~ theatre notes

Friday, September 18, 2009

Response from Neil Pigot

On Monday, I pointed to Neil Pigot's recent Age op-ed as part of a global sweep of items of interest, making a couple of brief comments. Neil wanted to expand his points, and asked me to post his response. So here it is, with a brief reply from me below.

It is difficult in this age of the blog to actually construct a sensible article for one of our daily newspapers. The Age has over the years stripped back the number of words available to the likes of me from 1,000 then 900, then 850 and now 750 words per piece. The problem becomes making a cogent argument about major issues in a format that doesn't really permit you to unpack anything. But a cogent and robust argument it must be.

The article that you have commented on in your Monday rave has I believe been misunderstood by you and I will assume that if it has been misunderstood by you then it may have been misunderstood by many. Without wanting to unpack the entire article and my deeper thoughts about Australian theatre I'll simply address your two major sticking points.

Yes, the Fringe Festival is a great time to be in Melbourne. I too get a great fillup from the work that appears on the Melbourne fringe year round. The point of the article that you seem to miss is the one that you make. Yes we have a vibrant fringe and yes we have a stable mainstream but we have no middle ground. Most of the work that takes place in this town is made for free, or just about for free. What you forget is that ten years ago we had a healthy mid range in this city of four million people. Five or six professional companies that produced work that paid people a wage and provided a stepping stone to the main game if you can call it that. The problem that you fail to acknowledge is that after the theatrical revolution of the 60s we had a period when Australian theatre was vital, relevant and more importantly paid.

What we see now is a perverse regression to a model that was dominated by the Tait Brothers and J.C Williamsons. For all of the first half of the twentieth century virtually no Australian theatre appeared in the big houses of this country. The Taits imported work from Britain and The US at the expense of Australian Drama. Any endemic piece was performed in back rooms and "fringe" venues much in the same way that it is now. We're more sophisticated these days. We have Jo Murray Smith writing new work that travels but the work that I believe is culturally representative is being done in Melbourne predominantly on the fringe. For free. To small audiences in productions that are often compromised by their circumstance.

We live in a state that proclaims to be Australia's cultural capital and yet we have only two fulltime professional companies. 4 million people with two theatre companies! This state government is the most fiscally stingy per capita in terms of real arts funding of any in the country. What governments fail to recognise and from your response I can only assume you miss the point too is that if all the organs of a theatre community are not in place, if one or other area is dysfunctional, then nothing works. Your reviews of MTC shows have to me revealed a person expecting more from a company that has nothing more to give. What you seem to expect from the MTC, and this is just a sense on my part, is what you should be expecting from a mid range scene that doesn't exist. The result from my point of view is an historical return to the bad old days before The Doll.

And this is where I begin to get a little bit annoyed with you, more so with Cameron. Your blog is very influential and whilst it's great that you rave about your love of the fringe, your work is pure comment. There is little analysis in your reviewing or posting. You have the power to be an advocate for a more holistic approach to the understanding of the form and yet you choose to simply be a forum for comment about what you like, don't like and are looking forward to. Yes, I'm looking forward to the fringe too, but I look forward to it knowing that the work that will be presented is created independently, with little money, being written by talented writers that will see little return for their effort financially, actors, directors and designers the same and not only that, the work will have little chance of progressing beyond the fringe and I know that many of those artists will fade not through lack of talent but through lack of opportunity.

No, I don't want you to take out the clapometer at each show but I would like you to consider the broader impact of the work intellectually and culturally in an increasingly marginalised profession. I guess what I'm saying is think less about what you like and a little more about what people are trying to do and become a little more active in this debate. For me that is your role as much as it is mine.

Neil Pigot

To which I say: My comment about the Fringe was not about whether I like it or not (the Fringe Festival is always a bit of logistical nightmare for people like me). I was merely observing a fact: that audience capacities in the Melbourne Fringe compare favourably with every other fringe festival in the world, which mitigates your claim that theatre is dying and that audiences are dying with it. One could point to other examples, including the increased audiences at the MTC and the Malthouse last year.

Certainly the ecology here (as I have often commented) has changed out of sight, and it is no longer the polar situation you describe. Yes, mid-range companies, as I have often commented, were destroyed in the mid-90s in an act of cultural vandalism by the Australia Council. Yes, it took years for the culture to recover. And now things are different. No, we don't have Anthill and the Church: we have a different and much more flexible structure, where barriers between independent and mainstream, or local and international, are much more porous. Which means that what you say about the inability for independent theatre to move to other audiences is simply not true, however true it is that it remains - as it remains everywhere - a struggle to make theatre. Independent theatre - again like all art - depends on a gift economy, but a lot of people are paid, and a surprising number of indie companies are full-time structures.

The Malthouse, the Arts Centre's Full Tilt program - and, if it gets the funding, I hope the MTC - provide main stages for independent companies around town
, and you must have missed that the Malthouse had a Broadway hit with Exit the King. The Malthouse in fact regularly tour their shows internationally. Local companies like Aphids (which recently traveled very successfully to Denmark with their beautiful show Care Instructions), Back to Back (international stars and festival stalwarts, most recently in Germany last month), Stuck Pigs (who won the best fringe show prize in New York) or Ranters (regular travelers in Europe) get out and find new audiences elsewhere. Those and others, like Red Stitch, or Theatre Works, which provides space and resources for an intelligently curated program, are the energies you're missing. Yes, there are problems; for example, I think we'll see the GFC hit the theatre scene in earnest next year, as sponsor contracts end, and that will have knock-on effects in all sorts of ways. But I just can't see the same clouds louring about our house as you do.

I don't really have anything to say about your comments about what I do here on the blog. But I do think that you must have missed a few things.


Abe Pogos said...

Neil, though I'm an old friend of Alison's, I'm sure I'm not alone when I take issue with your characterisation (more like character assassination) of her blog:

"...your work is pure comment. There is little analysis in your reviewing or posting."

Either you're not a regular reader of the blog or you're reading it with the TV on.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Abe. I must say that I really did think that, over the past five years, TN has been considering "the broader impact of the work intellectually and culturally". And I have definitely attempted to move beyond squees and boos. But maybe I've been wasting my time.

Geoffrey said...

Talk about choking on my piece of banana cake! Neil, with all due respect, your observations about theatrenotes (pasted in by Mr Pogos) are absolutely unfounded, and I am astonished that you were prepared to commit them to public as part of your 'argument'.

My point is the antithesis of yours. I am one of those independent writer/producer/director/actor people who have faded: but not through either lack of opportunity or commercial success. In one of my plays, the cast were paid twice during the run – twice – and amounts which were considerable at that time for a profit share arrangement (which as we all know is referred to by many as the 'free economy' or the 'gift').

I believe you really have no other option but to read any number of pieces on this blog and then return and retract your comment. That would be the polite thing to do. Search Arthur Miller for one and then claim there is no analysis.

Gilligan said...

"The problem that you fail to acknowledge is that after the theatrical revolution of the 60s we had a period when Australian theatre was vital, relevant and more importantly paid."

More importantly paid? Sorry Neil, but you are missing the point by a country mile. People don't become artists because they think it will be a well paid job, they do it out of passion for their art. Yes, it would be nice if we all got paid and could live comfortably, but that has never been the case and never will. By the nature of the job only a handful of artists will earn a regular income, usually after years of practice, and most will live hand-to-mouth on small wages- usually working other jobs. But all of that is beside the point.

The reason most people do work for free and produce it with little or no funding is because if they didn't it simply wouldn't get done. We have a rich and diverse theatre scene here in Melbourne. No, it's not funded as well as it should be, but it probably never will be. That doesn't mean there isn't incredible work being produced. I think most artists would rather do art that is important and that they care about for free than perform for the MTC in work that is pointless and get paid.

Also, as someone who goes to the theatre usually 2 or 3 times a week, I can say most productions (especially the good ones) play to good sized audiences. This applies to both the MTC and independent theatre.

And to be honest Neil, I don't see you making a large contribution to Melbourne theatre, so perhaps you need to pull your head in.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Gilligan. I do wonder about the basis of this wonderful time when everybody got paid. I don't have the figures at my fingertips, but my hunch is that a lot more theatre artists are paid for their work now than in the 60s and 70s. After all, the Australia Council wasn't founded until 1973. It would be interesting to know the actual facts, as opposed to assertions.

Anonymous said...

Ahem, Stuck Pigs won an award in the new york fringe (there were dozens handed out - including a couple of versions of the one they received). The awards of this particular fringe festival seem to be about garnering media attention for the festival, rather than necessarily rewarding the standout productions from the festival.

BUT!!! The production, in its entirety of The Black Swan of Trespass, as with the other Stuck Pigs productions (The Eisteddfod comes to mind with startling immediacy) are truly some of the very best theatre this country has ever produced. and one doesn't have to go through 40,000 years to know that. One only has to to catch it twice, to feel it.

Neil, sorry my friend, but, your argument seems to be just a bit of a whinge. I mean, what do you think we should all be paid? That's like saying everyone who attends the Victorian Institute of Sport should win a medal in the olympics, it's like saying that every actor should end up like Kate Blanchett, it's like saying every scientist should end up winning a nobel prize/working for a pharmaceutical company.

Come on dude! That op ed is a nothing piece, written very well, but a nothing piece all the same. It merely bemoans, but suggests nothing.

The truth is, if one is to win at any game, one must commit, persevere and struggle. This applies in any field. The arts are no different and the rewards are immense.

One can only say that the danger of course in all this, and what is I think one of your underlying arguments, is the sheer waste of money spent propping up the administration of the arts:
- Malthouse spend what on admin each year? Compared to their $100,000 for development of new work. Yes you read that right, a whopping $100,000 on new work development. For a publically funded company that is just shiite.
And that is just one example.

much love etcetera.

Alison Croggon said...

Ok, let's get down to some analysis, because it's a bit hard here to know what the complaints are and what the argument is. It's all getting muddy. And I might as well say what I didn't to begin with about TN, because it was just too depressing.

Neil's said his piece on reviewing ("personal feeling") which as the piece above shows, clearly refers to me. Those comments suggest that if he reads the blog at all he seldom ventures past the first three paragraphs of any review, which are generally my Dorothy Parker moments, and that for some reason he can't process the constellation of intellectual reference and argument that the blog as a whole has woven together over five years. Clicking on the tag cloud might be a good start, Neil. And yes, that's his problem, not mine.

He is welcome to disagree with me, but just as I have to go to a show to write about it, he ought to read the blog before he damns it for the lack of qualities - analysis and cultural and intellectual context - that are actually its strengths. His comments also suggest that he doesn't read the Australian, where I do a different kind of reviewing with, generally, much less analysis - although there is a recent change of policy there which meant last Thursday I filed my first 900 word review since 1992. And it seems that in being critical of the MTC (which is by no means always the case - I have hotly defended shows I thought worth defending, eg, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), I am being unfair and mean and asking too much of it - presumably that it do good theatre - that should properly be asked for a missing middle sector. Hold that thought. We'll see if that whinge changes to something else next year.

Alison Croggon said...

Other points:

In his original article, Neil blames "intellectual apathy within the profession, a warped political conception of theatre, self-indulgent reporting and a public that sees theatre as a series of increasingly expensive cultural diversions" which "have combined to temporarily stall the form, leaving it loitering without intent."

* There is either too much funding, which causes artists to be complacent grant-fed bunnies and has caused the crippling lack of maverick outsiders, or not enough, which means the "fringe" is starving and inadequately resourced to make good theatre. Hard to know here how both are possible.

* I'm not sure what that "warped political conception of theatre" is. If he's talking about my conception of political theatre, which is a bit complex to tease out here, perhaps he could read the recent review of The Lower Depths to get an idea of one aspect - how is it "warped"? Or he is talking about something else? There are a number of companies and artists around who are very articulate about their politics. Although they might not fit in the right/left paradigm that has strangled so much of the intellectual discourse over the past decade.

* There are no new audiences, even though the Fringe Festival has a high comparative level of audiences, and the MTC and the Malthouse last year both logged increased attendances. (This year's figures for mainstream companies might be affected by the GFC, but that's not the fault of the theatres). I can't think of a major company now that doesn't have an audience development program. It would be interesting to get figures on this one, particularly on audience levels between the 1990s - when all was apparently tickity boo - and now. Perhaps Neil has some in his back pocket. The only ones I know of are those notorious Playbox figures, quoted in Meyrick's Platform Paper, which showed the Playbox's average audience capacity was around 30 per cent. The Malthouse, in comparison, does average houses of roughly around 60 per cent, and for a lot more shows. It would good too to see comparative figures on development budgets.

* The lack of mid-level - small to medium is I suppose the bureaucratese - theatre companies. Again, I'd like to see figures.

* Intellectual apathy - I guess it depends who you're talking to. I see quite a lot of intellectual engagement, but then, my major point of intersection with the theatre community is through this and other blogs, which are full of intellectual curiosity.

I guess what I'm saying is that I'd like Neil to back his argument up with some hard research. Otherwise it really is just "comment".

Neil said...

Guess I should just pull my head in. What have I done for Australian theatre, clearly not much. I'm going to avoid getting into an online stoush but would love to talk at some stage Alison about all this.


Alison Croggon said...

Hi Neil - I agree, an online stoush about whether or not you've contributed to Australian theatre isn't helpful or illuminating. (And please watch the ad hominems, guys). But some evidence-based argument would be very welcome.

Anonymous said...

well what have you done Neil for Australian theatre? I mean, you're an actor, a very fine actor, but there you have it. You are a functionary of the form, rather than a driver of it. You are ultimately expendable (just ask any producer), who can be replaced with any similar sized/sounding/looking actor of about the same requirements. This is a truth, it may be painful, but may well be a truthful pain that aspiring dramatic artists should be told. There is nothing in being cast in something where the cash is any good that is more important than a) what you look like, b) whether you are known, c) whether the director likes you.

Now you might say that Ms Blanchett or Mr Rush or Mr Ledger are extraordinary artists, well I take umbrage at this fact. They are just naturally talented people, who have worked hard. Their 'star power' is concocted and is used to make money. The parade of new faces in the entertainment industry is testament to this fact. The fact is that the hype (and Malthouse use this very well) is what the company/production is about. Not the art. To confuse any of the major performing arts organisations in this country with artistry is just to ridicule the mesmeric dance that true artists embrace.

The artist is not encumbent to money, unlike the egotistical professional. The ego is all, and that is why as an actor you are good (trained and hard working), but as a writer you are even better (just need to improve).

At the end of the day neil, the writer (the composer, the choreographer) is the artist, but the functionary of that art (the scenic painter, the violinist, the actor, the dancer, the director (in circumstances) are mere functionaries.

This is proven by the fact that a) only one musician will compose a piece of music, and yet many many musicians can play that piece of music. Yes they may place inflections on it, that is merely their style.

At the end of the day a playwright will construct a work of literature designed to be brought to life on the stage, and any number of actors, directors, designers will do credit to that piece of writing in any way they interpret it. But they do not create it, they do not hold the responsibility for the artistry of the creation of it.

Thus, the writer is the artist, the others are the facilitators of this art. To assume they are anything more is just ego.

Thus, the problem with funding/lack of funding is the preponderance on funding non artist activities. The funding of junkets and market development activities, the funding of administration expenses, the funding of any manner of business functions. These are business functions and they are not artistic functions.

Thus, the points I have made are salient and clear, and unremitting they advance themselves, despite the apprehended violence of uproar now approaching...and yet leaves on final question, what is a reviewer?

Well they are a writer, expressing a clear and original thought(s), thus they are an artist. Yet they are interpreting an art work, and they wouldn't be there at all without that artwork, thus they are a functionary of the artist.

They are therefore, like you Neil, an artist and a functionary. So in essence, you're both right, and you're both wrong.

You like?


PS: MY comments above previously regarding stuck pigs award in the new york fringe festival might have been an unfair use of this particular group of artists...I was merely trying to illuminate a point. I for one would triennial stuck pigs.

Soothsayer said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Geoffrey said...

Well, I don't know about that, Soothsayer, but I do know:

1. There are artists who engage with the commercial validation of their work and there are those who don't. How many times has it been said that sometimes the work we do for a wage is never as fulfillling as the work we do for a hopeful share of the profits? I couldn't count the number of times that I've been in that conversation! A successful funding application does not artistically validate creative endeavour, and it never will. If it did, we'd be well and truly shafted. Trying not to be too cynical, it's more often about who's in your address book. We all know that.

2. If we lack anything, we lack brave and fearless Producers: those people who make it happen ... who recognise the worth of bothering, and who take commercial considerations into account. That's what they do, and I wish there were more of them.

3. Creative vision is rare and intuitive instinct ... and it is that we should be developing, because if we do, surely audiences will follow? Not necessarily mutually exclusive, I know ... but it's not wrong to suggest that most audiences will sniff out something exciting and get there.

4. Melbourne still lacks a singular independent resource centre/body/facility. Something like The Actors' Institute in London ... or perhaps even something that doesn't exist? Where indie producers and likely co-conspirators can get support, advice, mentorship. Or is there something already that I am not aware off? Or is that one more step toward Neil's vision of a mutant beaurocracy that is possibly the enemy of what independent creatives need and seek?

Uh oh.

Gilligan said...

Just to clarify my earlier comment, when I told you to pull your head in Neil it was because I find it strongly offensive to criticise both the independent theatre scene and the writing of the leading theatre critic in the country, whilst your own artistic output is to act in main stage commercial plays and claim that the most important thing is to get paid for your work. You are a great actor Neil, but your values are way out of touch with Melbourne's artistic community. I'm not interested in getting into an online argument either, but your comments have been both public and inflammatory.

Geoffrey said...

It's peculiar to me that threads within this conversation have become about appeasing Neil Pigot's bruised ego. What happened was that he saw fit to criticise theatrenotes for something it most certainly is not, which is lacking in analysis. Differing opinions about everything are great, but false statements about the worth and merit of something are not. Before you take your bat and ball and go home Neil, I think you owe it to Alison, and to her readers, to retract your comment. That would be the polite thing to do.

Anonymous said...

Having just read the latest review on this blog (Persé), I'm glad it wasn't me who said this blog lacked analysis. It's got me thinking I need to read more.

Alison Croggon said...

Might be an idea, some of you, to check the comments policy (link in the sidebar), thus saving me the trouble of making like a kindergarten teacher. Personal abuse is out.

I think Neil is entitled to make observations about the scene without having his artistic credentials called to account: and for the record, I reckon actors are artists, period. I think it's bullshit to talk about actors/musicians being "interpeters" while writers are original creators, yada yada. It should be so obvious that it needn't be argued, but for me that attitude stems from a fundamental lack of respect for and understanding of performance, and just because work is transient is no argument for its dismissal, otherwise what is theatre? In many ways, an artist who makes their work again and again in front of other people, instead of in the privacy of a study - which is precisely what performers do - should generate more respect.

Thanks those who have kept their eye on the ball. There is some interesting debate to be had, and it would be good to have it.

Anonymous said...

Lamentable frenzies of provocation aside, there are some points I find interesting here. Quite aside from the ‘problems’ of theatre in Melbourne, there has been a distinct ‘problem’ of criticism as well. We know this. This blog, though arriving suddenly and vividly on the scene, has grown from a small oasis, something characterized by a kind of state of exception, to a very powerful river, perhaps typified by the superior quality of its analysis. I’m sure Alison didn’t desire to be so powerful, or perhaps more accurately, perceived as arbiter, however with such influence it is hard not to be drawn to themes of intellectual or formal pursuit. The question of advocacy, though not dealt with particularly easily, is an unhappy side effect of influence. For my money for the last fifteen years there has been a truly wonderful energy in the Melbourne theatre, produced or not. Good work now has not come from nowhere. Exposure to Alison’s work (and the Space this forum provides) is for me most valuable for enriching and better understanding not only the context and range of response to work that is made, but how that response and work sits in relation to the times in which we live. It can be limiting to get into the debate about what is missing, and certainly not my area of interest in suggesting how that might be rectified in terms of general attitude or more money. In this way I think of the community of artists as responsible for responding to a wilderness, not a culture. The culture is inherent in the response. On the question of ‘broad support’ for theatre arts, no-one involved in the small to medium theatre could deny the huge challenges it faces. Success teaches you nothing, and success stories can be misleading. Visual artists can't be said to be broadly funded - the assumption that you work in spite of the economy is deep. And there are perhaps more false boundaries than real ones between the solo and collaborative arts.


Alison Croggon said...

Thanks, Slasher, for widening the focus so usefully. Maybe what is at the core here in Neil's questioning is the question of support for that vital mid-sector. Rather than comparing it to earlier times, perhaps it might be interesting to consider what it is now, and whether what is being done is useful. Or useful enough. As I said up top, making independent theatre is difficult; we don't need to exaggerate the problems, or to elide the vitality, to admit that those problems are real and ongoing, and to wonder how they might be best dealt with.

You're right that the question of being "influential" is a personal bugbear, although advocacy is an important part of all serious criticism. More the problem of me - or my persona - obscuring my actual work. All part of the dilemma of the cultural machine, I guess.

Anna said...

This whole discussion is a little confusing, as I have a feeling that there are statements being made by people (eg Neil Pigot) that are being misinterpreted or interpreted from very different ways of thinking. In my point of view, when Neil says "What you seem to expect from the MTC, and this is just a sense on my part, is what you should be expecting from a mid range scene that doesn't exist," I don't think he's saying that you're asking too much of it, Alison, I think he means that the role that he says should be played by medium-sized companies (to be artistically innovative and provide a platform for fringe artists to step onto and develop before they are ready to make superb works for MTC etc) is being asked to be done by MTC because there is no medium-sized company taking care of that development, in his point of view. I'm sure he agrees that MTC should be making good theatre, but I guess he disagrees with you to their purpose of what kind of theatre they should be making. I think some people believe state theatre companies should just stick to what they are good at - traditional, established, 'canon' plays that will cater to a general subscription audience. You (and I and many others) don't believe it's as simple as that. And often state theatre companies still do that stuff badly!

The other point I'd like to make is that Neil Pigot HAS made one factual mistake that I can identify. He states that Melbourne only has two full-time professional companies and is missing the middle ground between fringe and mainstream. But I just don't think he's looking in the right places. The Australia Council funds small-to-medium performing arts organisations on a triennial basis, designating 25 theatre companies as "key organisations". Last year there was a change and some companies which had previously received funding lost it, whilst new companies were able to access it. Looking at the report from the meeting ( ) I can see seven companies from Victoria - I don't live in that state so I can't state for certain how many of those are based in Melbourne (although I believe it's a good thing for regional companies to be supported). From my knowledge of some of these companies, they do provide a good step between the fringe and emerging, to the bigger stages: eg Lally Katz wrote for Stuck Pigs, then was commissioned to write plays for theare-for-young-people company Arena Theatre, and her latest play has been programmed by MTC and the Melbourne Festival; Red Stitch was previously a completely independent ensemble run by actor/administrator/slaves out of their own passion and sweat (a little bit exagerrated I know), now it is triennially-funded and hopefully will be able to pay their creatives a wage, and they are already commissioning new work by emerging writers, and I am pretty sure that those who do well with Red Stitch should be gracing the MTC stage sooner or later. There also appears to be many venues and organisations that are providing support to fringe and smaller companies - leading the pack always of course is the triennially-funded La Mama. Neil may argue that these companies are part of the mainstream as they are 'accepted' by the government body Australia Council, but that's the circumstances of the world we live in.

I do think Neil Pigot does make some interesting, valid points though in his original op-ed piece - certainly the bureaucratising of the arts does stink, resources are scarce, governments don't seem to 'get' the arts, and artists are sometimes compromised. And so do you, Alison, and many of the commentors, make good points. This is the twisted road that artists travel.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Anna for doing that research. I think some facts are important in this discussion, otherwise everyone is just pointing vaguely and talking loudly. Looking at that list, four companies are based in Melbourne (others, like Back to Back or Hothouse, are in regional Victoria). It's not a lot, and when you think of the vitality of the independent scene seems vanishingly few. There will be many more, like Stuck Pigs, on project to project funding: most indie companies these days cobble together resources from a variety of sources, a grant, a promise of umbrella space by a theatre, a bit here, a bit there. Yes, it's hard, and if you remember, those difficulties were highlighted by the battle over La Mama, which nearly lost its funding. Funding for that sector has shrunk and shrunk (it's not indexed for inflation, and so just gets smaller) - it was last topped up with an emergency dollop of $87m (was it?) by the Howard Government, which brought it back to something like 1990 levels. I don't know whether it's going to be looked after under Labor, who are not very interested in the arts. Which makes accurately identifying problems important.

I think Neil's anaylsis suffers from its brutal division of theatre into "fringe" and "mainstream", which makes it all a bit bi-polar. It ignores all the porous spaces I've pointed out, where main stages are available to independents, etc etc. This division also assumes something about aesthetics. I've argued about all this at length elsewhere, in particular at the idiocy of objections to MIAF programming that claimed contemporary performance that appeared in venues like, say, the Paris Opera, was "fringe". Which is why I avoid the word.

It's hard to know what Neil thinks I want of the MTC. If he had read my stuff, he would know that I'm all for well-produced main stage plays. I guess the competing models here might be between a provincial English rep company (which the MTC has sometimes seemed to be) or the National Theatre, which has done some very innovative work as well as keeping those classics plays alive, sometimes both at the same time, and towards which Nevin seemed to be aspiring with the STC.

In part, Neil seems to be arguing that "fringe" work ought to be made by "fringe" companies, ie, off the main stages (if he is erroneously assuming that I demand that the MTC do "fringe" work instead of "mainstream" plays). If that's the case, there are so many basic misapprehensions there I don't know where to begin; but a more nuanced perspective of what is actually happening out there, ie, moving away from the brutalist fringe/mainstream dichotomy, might be a start. Also removing the THEATRE IS DOOMED meme, because that simply isn't true, or if it is true, has been the case for a couple of millennia.

Anonymous said...

If you took quite frankly the administration budget of those 25 triennially funded companies...just the administration would find an enormous slab of cash that could be used to make art. As it stands, this enormous wad of cash is spent on precisely what?

(roughly speaking, this admin budget would amount to at least $150,000 per company x 25 = at minimum $3,750,000). Did you get that? 3 point seven five million dollars just to have people sitting in an office.

To say that administration budget is needed to effectively manage the output is an offense to the thousands of independent artists (combined creating more work, of a higher per dollar cost calibre, to many many more audiences) who do this sort of thing as a necessary part of their practice. Much like a plumber manages their affairs such as tax, advertising, insurance, contracts - ITS NOT THAT HARD!!!

Perhaps if we looked at why an administrator of a theatre company is paid more pro rata than a performer, or just how much money is spent on office space and how much money is spent on catering for board meetings, you would find an enormous waste.

Given Rudd seems to be so proud of his economic credentials, perhaps he could do something about this?

How is that an auspicing company/administrator can take just 5% of a budget to do all that financial administration when a funded company spends a much larger percentage? If you add on rehearsal space and office space, then the independent company is a model of economic sense, while the triennial company is a model of economic waste and flab.

My point is simply that when (an administrator) what amounts to someone who answers the phone and manages some computer documents such as excell spreadsheets is paid $55,000pa (at minimum) and the actor is paid about $48,000 then you have a problem. When you transpose administrator for general manager and writer, or director or designer, the sums grow even more wildly alarming.

When a company uses it's budgeting to pay itself handsomely, then pays it's artists the minimum, then you have a conspiracy (that may not even be aware of itself) that exists to keep the artists down. This is plainly borne out by the facts as I have loosely stated them and would be higlighted by researching annual reports.

You have a problem that nobody seems to want to address. And why? Because the people answering the phone and sitting on their bum all day, being paid well, don't want to pay themselves less, while the artist is busy trying to make work, and they simply don't have the time.

Does this make sense?

Anonymous said...

Dear Australia Council I would like the minimum administration budget of 3.75 million dollars you hand over to a total of 25 companies each year. Here is what I would like to do.

Those 25 companies produce/develop/tour/manage 6 projects per year each. I will do 25 times that.

Therefore, I am developing, presenting, creating, commissioning, touring, managing, thinking about and planning for 150 projects this year alone.

This minimum 3.75 million dollars is just what those companies at minimum spend on administration, and involved absolutely no project costs.

I am going to hand my financial administration and contracting and basic management to an auspicing company and they will take 5% of the total budget for this. That amounts to $187,500.

I am going to contract two secretary's (general managers) and pay them handsomely to handle all phone calls and sheduling. I will pay the two of them $80,000 per year, and with on costs the total cost for these two producers/secretary's is $200,000.

These secretarys will work remotely and across the 150 projects.

I will pay five producers, who will each manage 30 projects each and they will be paid $150,000 per year amounting to $1,000,000

Both the general managers/secrtary's and producers will work remotely, and an office is not needed. Those costs incurred by the producers will be covered further in this document.

At the end of the day I have therefore spent $1,387,500 on total administration for 150 projects.

We have a surplus in administration costs from your initial $3,750,000 of $2,362,500

That is an administration per project of just $9250. However, given we have been lean, let us allow for an additional contingency of 20% for casual staffing and associated costs which adds a further $277,500 amounting to a total spend of $1,665,000.

However, we will also require some materials (producers costs) so let us allow 20% for materials costs and this adds another $277,500 which comes to a total of $1,942,500

Which amounts to $12,950 administration cost per project.

We have a surplus of $1,807,500.

This allows us to administrate a further 139.5 projects per year.

Therefore, if you would like to award us 3.75 million dollars, we can adminstrate 289.5 projects this year.

Does there need to be any further illustration than that?

Rose said...

An independent analysis of the triennially funded theatre organisations of the Theatre Baord of the Australia Council commssioned by the Australia Council in 2003 found -

They create most of the new, innovative work for the Australian theatre

They are the biggest international exporters of Australian theatre

They feed the wider industry with creative talent, ideas and styles of production

They provide significant access for the public to the Australian theatre and have an audience different from the major theatre companies but of a similar size.

You can read the full report on the Australia Council website in the research hub.

Anony-nony said...

I have an idea. Take all the money spent on casting TV and music celebrities in the flaccid productions of our majors and use it to create a fund to support new ideas and real talent. I predict I can make 5 million productions a year, an and-of-year bash, and a take away bag of lollies for everyone.

Alison Croggon said...

Anon, La Mama alone does more than 150 projects a year. More like 300, although I don't have exact figures handy. While I agree there's reason to be wary about excess admin, and I think there are Oz Council funding policies that could be finessed, I'm not sure it's as big a problem in the arts as resentment can make it.

Neil's plaints chiefly make me wonder whether things have moved at all past the issues I outlined five years ago in a couple of essays on this blog - one a response to Meyrick's Platform Paper on theatre history, the other a meditation on some effects of the inadequate funding of state theatres. Maybe it's pleasant in this circle of hell.

David Williams said...

dear anyonymous,

I'm not sure where your speculation about the size of the admin budget of triennially funded 'Key Organisations' comes from. $150,000 worth of funding (the amount that several key orgs, including mine, version 1.0 inc) receive in Australia Council monies is entirely spent on projects. And by projects, I mean artists wages. Almost 75% of our annual turnover in 2009 of $438,000 will be spent employing artists to develop and present 3 new Australian works in 13 theatres across the country. Our admin costs are capped at 7% of turnover (and yes that does include office rental - after 11 years of operation the paperwork just does not fit in my bedroom anymore, so an office is not a luxury but a necessity). The remainder is production costs - theatre rentals, equipment etc. We have a .5 general manager who does all of our project admin and book-keeping, and we don't pay her nearly enough for her time or skills. That's why she, like the rest of us, has to have a second job to pay the bills. I know other Key Orgs are in similar situations.

But I guess we're not lean enough for you.

best wishes,

CEO, version 1.0

(annual salary .8 x $47,984. and yes i am an artist involved in all of these shows)

Jana said...

Katharine Brisbane reported and commented extensively on the creation of Australia Council in her book Not Wrong, Just Different, and the controversies that immediately followed. From memory, it seemed that until the late 1970s most Australian theatre was amateur (as in unskilled), community (as in niche audiences) and unpaid. It was incredibly eye-opening for my European eyes: contemporary Australian theatre, for all its flaws, looks like a genuine artistic ecosystem. I would not have imagined that it was just about willed into existence on the basis of no tradition, little education and not a lot of money.