In Which Ms TN Discourses At Length ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

In Which Ms TN Discourses At Length

KO: REVOLUTION. What takes place as indicated by Ko is believed in only after it has been accomplished. Hexagram 49, I Ching.

It's no exaggeration to claim that there has been a revolution in local theatre over the past five years. From this end of the telescope, it might appear to be a Boojum revolution, during which certain verities about theatre have "softly and suddenly vanished away". Consider how times have changed! Next year almost every major company in Australia, from Melbourne to Brisbane, has a new artistic leader, ushering in a new generation of theatre makers. Even that stalwart defender of the deadly middlebrow, Robin Usher, is writing laudatory pieces about independent theatre, and I haven't seen a snarky mention of "the fringe" in the local mainstream press for ages. Suddenly everything, it seems, is groove and roses.

It was not always thus, and I'm not sure that it is thus even now; the present accord on the virtues of the young seems more to me like a strange detente. The amnesia and kneejerk conservatism of much mainstream commentary is, after all, as evident as it ever was, and its capitulation to the inexorable rise of a new generation of theatre makers probably signifies less than it seems. For once, vital theatre is where it belongs, in the limelight. Theatre has even become hip. Yet our media culture, with certain honourable exceptions, has a short attention span and an even shorter memory, as every artist who has worked for more than a decade knows to his or her cost.

For all that, it's beyond argument that Melbourne's theatrical landscape - and more widely, Australia's - has changed out of sight over the past five years. In 2004, a main stage hit like Hayloft's Thyestes was all but unimaginable in Melbourne. You might have seen something like that in the "fringe", heroically staged without sufficient resources or time, as Australians have always had a talent for poor theatre. But rapturously received on a main stage? Only by the rarest of accidents. Now the presence of work from companies like Hayloft or My Darling Patricia in main stage seasons around Australia barely makes anyone bat an eyelid. This change has happened so rapidly and so completely that it's easy to forget how impossible it once seemed.

There are many reasons for this shift, and to talk about all of them requires a book. This post will focus on Melbourne, with the caveat that there were other, equally important things happening elsewhere. In a few years, somebody else will write the history of what happened in Australian theatre culture in the first decade of the new millenium (and I seriously doubt it will be me). This is my report, from one of the many frontlines. And it is, as this blog has been from the beginning, a personal account.

There are four major reasons why Melbourne's surge of artistic vitality flourished and evolved, rather than its promise withering, as happened so often in the past, on the vine. Two were major institutional appointments. The most significant was the remaking of the moribund Playbox Theatre as the Malthouse, after the appointment of Michael Kantor as artistic director and Stephen Armstrong as executive producer, on which I'll mainly focus in this post. As Kantor and Armstrong leave the Malthouse and usher in a new team headed by Marion Potts and - later in 2010 - associate director Matt Lutton, it seems timely to reflect on what has been achieved over the past five years.

Another crucial appointment was Kristy Edmunds as artistic director of the Melbourne Festival, a position she held for four years from 2005, building on the artist-centric festivals that characterised Robyn Archer's tenure. Equally important was a surge of new talent - especially from the VCA, perhaps the true heritage of the radicalism of the Australian Performing Group and the Pram Factory - which has seen a generation of autonomous and skilled theatre artists who were not prepared merely to be industry fodder, and who sought to shape the culture to fit their ambitions, rather than the other way around.

And lastly, there was the rise of the theatre blog. For I've been part of this change as well as a witness to it, bearing out the adage that observation inevitably changes what is being observed. There are, as I've often pointed out, many theatre blogs; but Theatre Notes was the first in Australia, and can take a little credit for the changes in public discussion that followed. Not all, by any means: a conversation cannot exist without other voices. Nevertheless, the story of the past six years is, in part, mine as well; and if I don't tell it, nobody else will. (I feel I ought to do as Neil Gaiman does in his twitter notices, and label this: WARNING: Blog post contains me.)

What has been at stake in all the cultural conflicts of the past few years has been the question of legitimacy. When Peter Craven and Robin Usher attacked Kristy Edmunds's festival programming in 2006, part of one of the most sustainedly vicious campaigns I've seen against an artistic director, it was on the grounds that the work she programmed was "fringe" work, not fit for our main stages. Since the issue was the main stages of Melbourne, it was unsurprising that the Malthouse came in for some collateral damage. Craven described Benedict Andrews's brilliant production of Marius von Mayenburg's Eldorado as "resolutely anti-mainstream, sometimes to excruciating effect". Whatever that means. The message was clear: "fringe" theatre, whatever that was, was ok in dusty church halls and small theatres, where it could be safely ignored: but an anti-mainstream mainstream (whatever that was) was an abomination not to be tolerated.

I wrote an opinion piece for the Age in response, in which I pointed out that the term "fringe" was meaningless, and that the fringe/mainstream dichotomy was almost entirely false. And there it might have rested, as a minor flurry in the press that passed without disturbing the status quo. This is certainly how it always worked in the past; theatrical energies have, again and again, been successfully marginalised by attacking and, at the last, ignoring them. Once a show closes, the only place it exists is in the memory of those who were there: in the absence of meaningful critique, the public record becomes a record of amnesia. But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum: the forum changed. The internet, with its challenge to the monopoly on public discourse held by the mainstream press, came into its own.

The web was so foreign to theatre culture in 2004 that, when I rang theatre companies to give them the glad news that I was starting a review blog, almost everyone asked me what a blog was. As I outlined in my first post, Theatre Notes was an experiment: I had no idea whether a critic with no institutional ballast behind her could create an online readership. Three years later I was straddling the print-digital divide as Melbourne theatre critic for the Australian, a post I enjoyed but never sought, and which I have now resigned. (And hello to my successor, my Esteemed Colleague Mr Chris Boyd!) Last year I won the only prize that exists in Australia for critical writing, the Geraldine Pascall Critic of the Year. The speed of the transformation of Ms TN from unknown blogger to one-woman cultural institution was startling, and it's fair to say that I feel deeply ambivalent about it. But there's no doubt it's been a fun ride.

What I didn't know six years ago was how exceptionally lucky I was. There could not have been a better time and place to begin a serious theatre review blog than Melbourne, 2004. Unlike London or New York, Melbourne is a relatively small city, but large enough to sustain a diverse culture and, significantly, to support audiences for independent theatre. At the same time, the theatre culture in particular suffered from limited arts coverage in the major dailies, where it was mainly regarded as a branch of "entertainment". Aside from Real Time, there was almost no serious discussion of the performing arts anywhere. Theatre Notes was the right thing at the right time: an independent review blog that by the sheerest chance was launched right at the beginning of a theatrical renaissance. What a gift.

I was also - and have always been - a different kind of theatre critic. Not a new kind, despite using pixels instead of print. My idea of criticism is, in fact, rather old-fashioned. Since I began reading critics in my 20s, those I found most illuminating were almost always artists. My models included the visual art criticism of Frank O'Hara, who wrote about his colleagues and friends Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Cy Twombly; the poetry criticism of Octavio Paz or Randall Jarrell or Yves Bonnefoy; or the literary thinking of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who practically invented modern literary criticism. It seemed to me that practising artists who worked as critics brought a different weight, tact and imagination to their writing about art, and I aspire to do the same. (Aspiration, I might add, doesn't mean achievement).

I have never been interested in writing consumer guides, which is generally what theatre reviewing is considered to be. I wanted to talk about art - what it is, what it might be - which can only be done with any real meaning by considering individual examples. I wanted to think about theatre seriously, as a unique, fascinating and volatile form and a socially embedded art. I am, I guess, a rather literary theatre critic: writers reviewing their peers has been commonplace in literature since Goethe. That there is a place for this kind of criticism in the theatre became evident very quickly.

Like the critics I admired, I was reviewing my peers and colleagues. Michael Kantor, for instance, has directed my writing twice. The first was The Burrow, an opera based on Kafka's short story with a score by Michael Smetanin that premiered at the Perth Festival in 1994 to, as the Song Company's manager remarked with disgust, "critical acclaim". This remains one of the works of which I am most proud: I thought it beautiful, strange, powerful and moving. A couple of years later, Kantor directed a theatre text I wrote based on Georg B├╝chner's story Lenz, which premiered at the Melbourne Festival. I was so dismayed by the production that I wanted my name taken off the credits and refused to attend the opening night. Perhaps these polarised experiences might balance out as "objectivity"; it's more likely, I think, that they add up to a lively appreciation of Kantor's virtues and faults as a director.

I mention this history because of the oft-cited "bias" that my critics claim I have toward the Malthouse. For all my distaste for generational generalisations, it's perhaps not surprising that I should have similar values to others my own age, who were, for better and worse, young artists under the Baby Boomers. At their best, the Baby Boomers remain keepers of the radical flame, and are invaluable repositories of cultural memory; at their worst, schooled in bitter divisions and simplistic binaries, they became ever diminishing defenders of their own power bases. (I am speaking here of poetry as much as of theatre).

Just as I was excited by the possibilities unleashed by Edmunds's Melbourne Festivals, and have always kept an interested eye on Melbourne's independent artists, I have never made any bones about supporting the Malthouse's project to enliven and diversify Melbourne's main stage theatre. God knows that it needed to change. My interest in this was entirely selfish: having decided to stay in Melbourne, after several years dithering over whether to move to Europe, I would much rather live in an exciting culture than in a dull one.

This has never meant that the Malthouse gets a free pass, and there are reviews on this blog to prove it. Like Robert Brustein, Michael Billington or Kenneth Tynan, I consider myself a critic-advocate, but I have never believed that advocacy is an uncritical act. Bias, at least in the conventional meaning of the term, always is.

Six months after I started TN, Kantor and Armstrong took over the Playbox and redesigned its corporate structure from the ground up. Kantor's first production, early in 2005, signalled their intent: to redefine Australian theatre. It was, shamefully, the Melbourne premiere of Patrick White's The Ham Funeral, in repertory with a new adaptation by Tom Wright of Daniel Defoe's Journal of a Plague Year. As I said in my review, "Michael Kantor's first presentation ... offers an alternative means of imagining Australian theatre, outside the narrowly nationalistic or topical concerns which have dominated the Playbox aesthetic since the early 1990s. And although I don't feel it's an unqualified artistic success, I left feeling more hopeful about Melbourne theatre than I have for many years."

The significance of headlining White, our only Nobel laureate, was clear: it was about choosing the road less travelled, looking back and picking up the threads of a modernism that had been abandoned in favour of an increasingly jejune blend of naturalism and "issue-based" plays. Most importantly, it was about seeing theatre as a whole phenomenon, in which design and performance were as important (not more important) as the writing. Predictably enough, this led to the Malthouse being attacked for abandoning writers, a puzzling criticism given that they premiered at least as many new plays as the Playbox. But it's true that they have never programmed David Williamson.

My hopefulness was borne out in the work that followed, in a series of seasons that plugged into and, crucially, encouraged the richly diverse independent scene. It's hard to over-emphasise how important this has been: not only directly, in commissioning and re-staging work, but in how it legitimised a diversity of theatre practice that had formerly been consigned to the "fringe" as minor and unimportant. This second point is more significant than the first, although less easy to measure. The Malthouse encouraged a culture of dialogue and exchange, a culture that welcomed intelligent criticism, rather than attempting to shut it down, and in tandem with the increasing digital conversation, and a good bar, it began to be a social and artistic hub.

A notable feature of the Malthouse under Kantor and Armstrong has been its fostering of younger talent, giving proper support and productions in the main season, rather than fobbing them off with workshops and readings. And it was the first company to recognise the potential of the blogosphere, one year printing a long list of theatre blogs in its program. In tandem with Edmunds's festivals - and, importantly, Belvoir St and the STC in Sydney - it fostered an outward-looking, internationally confident theatre culture that was unapologetic about taking the art seriously.

This institutional support in turn led to an increasingly confident independent scene, which at last had an intelligent establishment to both woo and resist. One of the great pleasures of the past five years has been watching the evolution of so many young companies from small, co-op productions in venues such as La Mama or Fortyfive Downstairs or tiny rooms in Brunswick or Northcote to main stage triumphs (and back again - the preferred "career" model is not so much a ladder leading upwards in a straight line, as multiple platforms of parallel practice). I've seen so much good theatre that I have become parochial (me!): there are times when I can't imagine a better place for a theatre enthusiast to be.

One should always resist triumphalism; as the UK government is presently demonstrating with alarming brutality, decades of work can be destroyed with the mere stroke of a pen. As a more diverse menu of theatre has been offered by the Malthouse and the Melbourne Festival, public taste and curiosity has, however slowly, widened. Importantly, young people are now going to see theatre again.

This influence has filtered through to the Melbourne Theatre Company, both by raising the bar and suggesting possibilities. This year the MTC will produce Malthouse regular Lally Katz for the second time. Benedict Andrews's first adventure in Melbourne, the aforementioned Eldorado by Marius von Mayenburg, was critically slammed (though not by me) and a box office disaster. A year later, in 2007, his STC production of White's The Season at Sarsaparilla, artistically the equal of Eldorado, swept the Green Room Awards when it was programmed at the Melbourne Theatre Company. And earlier this year, Marius von Mayenburg's The Ugly One was given an exquisitely elegant sell-out production in the MTC's Studio by Peter Evans, which deserved way more kudos than it received.

It's impossible to second-guess the future of the MTC after the departure of Simon Phillips, since there is no word yet on the new artistic director; but a critic is always hopeful. If the MTC continues to broaden its aesthetic purview, and especially if it continues to support the new works program fostered under Aidan Fennessy, Melbourne theatre will thrive.

Melbourne's contemporary theatrical landscape has been created by many hands, but it is simply unimaginable without the Malthouse. Having transformed the view, it's right that Kantor and Armstrong should leave the company in the capable hands of new AD Marion Potts, again breaking the rules: it used to be that artistic directors hung on to the plum jobs with every fibre of their being, until forced out with a crowbar and/or death.

But what of Kantor's artistic achievement over the past five years? It bears some examination, and not only because Kantor has often been dismissed, inaccurately in my view, as a mini-Kosky. In a familiar pattern, Age critic Cameron Woodhead, while saluting the institutional legacy outlined here, savaged Kantor's work in his year-end wrap-up this week. "When Patrick White said that the enfeebling vice of Australian theatre was amateurism," says Woodhead, "he couldn't have picked a better example than Kantor."

Woodhead labels Kantor's work as part of a "wider movement" called "post-dramatic theatre". He vaguely equates this with the director-auteur, who "devalues" narrative and character and claims that the text is dead. It's not at all clear that Woodhead has a clue what post-dramatic theatre is: he dismisses it as "really just a modish phrase for postmodern theory applied, belatedly, to theatre", and furthermore declares that it refers to no art of any interest. Woodhead's excoration is even more puzzling when you consider that he lauds Thyestes - as pure an example of the post-dramatic theatre as one could point to - as one of the shows of the year.

For the record, "postdramatic theatre" is a term that was first used in the 1970s to describe "happenings". It was given ballast by German critic Hans-Thies Lehmann in an influential 1999 book, Postdramatic Theatre, in which he analysed through a broad theoretical lens some of the most important post-war theatrical experiments. Artists he considered included Robert Wilson, Tadeusz Kantor, Heiner Muller, the Wooster Group, Forced Entertainment, Theatre de Complicite and Societas Raffaello Sanzio. (And what a bunch of mediocrities they are.)

Kantor is, like his peers Barrie Kosky and Benedict Andrews, an inheritor of these late 20th century influences, and like Kosky and Andrews, he has forged his own aesthetic. Unlike both of them, he draws from profoundly Anglo traditions of performance. I haven't always liked the results, but I've enjoyed a lot of them; and some deserve to stand with the best theatre Melbourne has seen in the past five years. His directorial strengths and weaknesses were on show in his first productions of The Ham Funeral and Journal of a Plague Year, and over the past couple of years I would argue that his work has refined into considerable achievement. There have certainly been occasions when I agree that he simply settled for empty visual spectacle. But to claim this comprehends the entirety of his work, or to mistake his various explorations of rough theatre for "amateurism", is deeply unjust.

What has often been most striking - and often controversial - about Kantor's work at the Malthouse is its cheerful mixing of high and low art. One of the most common criticisms has been that "it's just pantomime". To which I would answer, why, yes! Stripped of its pejorative overtones, it's an accurate description of a key part of Kantor's aesthetic. Especially early in his tenure, he commonly drew on lowbrow forms such as pantomime, vaudeville or the rock eisteddfod to explore his particular brand of rough theatre.

Perhaps Kantor's greatest sin was to bring these manifestly uncool popular forms into the purview of the serious stage (it wasn't long before criticisms moved from the Malthouse being "too elistist" to its being "too populist"). Underneath all this, there's a strong argument to be made about the connections between the deeply English phenomenon of pantomime and Brechtian epic theatre; among other things, it seems to me that Kantor was nativising some European ideas in Anglo traditions. At the same time, it's salutory to remember that he was reaching into other areas of contemporary art: he brought dance into theatre not only in his programming, but in his Bessie-winning collaboration with Gideon Obarzanek and Lucy Guerin, Tense Dave.

In the past couple of years, Kantor has applied his understanding of vulgar performance to serious writing and created some stunning theatre. He has always been at his best when, as in The Ham Funeral, he is constrained by a brilliant text. His tragic-burlesque production of Dario Fo's Elizabeth: Almost by Chance a Woman in April this year was absolutely true to the spirit of the playwright, and one of the most restrainedly stylish shows he has done. And it's churlish to ignore his brilliant 2009 production of Happy Days, which miraculously sited Beckett in a set of visual lushness and framed one of the most moving performances of the year, in Julie Forsyth's portrayal of Winnie. Now that Kantor is freed of administrative pressures, it's going to be fascinating to see what happens next.

As always, there are many more narratives to unfold, but they'll have to wait for another time. I'm winding up a year in which I've said plenty, and looking forward to a 2011 which promises to be as theatrically rich as the last. I'll be continuing the blog, but in what shape is a question for the future: at this point, I have no idea. On my holidays I'll be rewriting my novel, summoning up my first column for Overland and working on the opera libretto. And maybe doing some web tinkering - it's about time I made a version of this blog for mobile phones. There is, as they say, no rest for the wicked.

See you next year. And prost!

Picture: Julie Forsyth as Winnie in Happy Days.


Nicholas Pickard said...

Thank you Alison. What a journey indeed.

Here in Sydney I have been most blown away by the stuff that's not only coming out of the established theatres, but also the rise and rise of the western Sydney venues.

Urban Theatre Projects, ICE, Campbelltown Arts and Casula Powerhouse to name just a few.

It's coming at us in dance, alternative venues and through new voices with new perspectives.

They don't often hit the mainstream newsprint or arts websites, but people are attending and loving it.

The last six years have seen a new energy where underground festivals pop up like mushrooms throughout the inner city and inner west.

With venues so crammed, it's almost a privilege to be able to get your hands on a milk crate.

You are right about the revolution and it feels as though a new chapter is beginning. It'll be interesting to watch.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Nick - good to hear from you. It's a shame you're not blogging about these things you're seeing!

Kate Foy said...

Cheers Alison. I enjoyed this post, as I do all of your writing. Good to get a catchup on Melbourne theatre and a sense that the independent 'movement' is rumbling the tectonic plates nation-wide. At least, that's how it feels up here.

All the best for 2011.

Alison Croggon said...

Many thanks, Kate. I keep hearing rumours of many things bubbling up your way! Happy New Year to you, too.

Doug said...

Hi Alison,

Do I detect a hint of guilt by association with the Baby Boomers? In your distaste for generational generalisations are you not dismissing the culturally embedded works of the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Lost Generation and Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation?

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Doug. What has F. Scott Fitzgerald got to do with the Baby Boomers? Or am I missing something? In any case, I didn't dismiss an entire generation. I said: "At their best, the Baby Boomers remain keepers of the radical flame, and are invaluable repositories of cultural memory; at their worst, schooled in bitter divisions and simplistic binaries, they became ever diminishing defenders of their own power bases. (I am speaking here of poetry as much as of theatre)."

Zane Trow said...

Melbourne theatre then, remains the most interesting in the country. Sydney a close second. There is nothing going on anywhere else. Brisbane remains the most conservative and boring theatre centre in the country. It regularly goes from worse. Only CIRCA here is doing anything interesting. Brisbane's cultural power falls to the visual arts and music and even then it cuts the most interesting music ensembles and forces them overseas - Elision. Theatre here is designed specifically to be as boring as possible, and whatever you've heard you'll have heard from people who wouldn't even know what the Malthouse is, yet alone what kind of work it produces. Let's face it..what other major arts centre in the country has an amateur company as it's "company in residence?".

Stitzy said...

Bravo Alison. Really enjoyed this reflection. You may not end up writing the history of what went down in the early 'naughties' but you're well and truly in amongst it! The landscape really does feel different to 2004 when TNs began. Incidentally, I remember seeing the horse head flyer in the Carlton Courthouse. It peeked my interest and what an enjoyable and fascinating ride thus far. More please.

Daryl Buckley said...

Read your meditations on Melbourne theatre with interest.

I wonder as well whether or not there are also longer term dynamics at play in Melbourne within which the actions of specific individuals and companies are immersed.

My memory of Melbourne before moving to Sydney in 1995, and then again to Brisbane in 1996, was of a city where 'creative error' and the possibility to fail existed. It is so crucial, so important to be able to try things out without damning all future opportunities. At that time I recall feeling empathy for my peers in Sydney. It seemed to me that having the national funding body, the Australia Council present in Sydney together with the nations iconic culture house, the Opera House, led to a situation where the artists I knew felt more pressure for work to emerge fully formed and polished with a somewhat burdening awareness of being in the nations eye. Its highly subjective I know and probably no longer the case but that impression was certainly with me in the early nineties.

I have also had the pleasure of working with both Barrie Kosky and Michael Kantor- Barrie in 1993 and later again in 2007 for operas of Liza Lim in Melbourne; Michael Kantor for five seasons of Liza's 'Moon Spirit Feasting' from Adelaide in 2000 to Tokyo in 2002. Very different personalities and approaches to their practice but as directors both have a strong and open-eyed clarity on the international scene and context for their work... as you trace so well with Michael Kantor. It was a clarity that I found missing in aspects of a post-Bjelke Petersen arts scene within Brisbane oscillating between a nervousness about 'coming of age' as a city and an overconfidence about 'coming of age' and being the new cultural capital of Australia!

At any rate I am glad to hear your summary of the current theatre scenario in Melbourne.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks for your comments, Zane, Stitzy and Daryl -

Interesting point about the "right to fail", Daryl. I think generally as a culture we are a little impatient on that front, but I suspect you're correct about the difference between Sydney and Melbourne. Certainly, the amount of schtick the STC's Actors Company received gave me pause. It was a problematic experiment in many ways, with failures and successes (as could only be expected with a project this ambitious) but the savage attacks on it obscured what went right - when you think of The Lost Echo, A Season at Sarsaparilla, The War of the Roses, the AC had some real triumphs. Maybe this is another episode which needs some perspective, and it will be interesting to see what comes out in the wash a few years hence.

What do Sydneysiders think?

Cameron Woodhead said...

Re: post-dramatic theatre. Have you even read Lehmann? It sounds to me like you've googled his book, but not read it. You should perhaps do so. Then we can discuss his ideas, or lack thereof.

As for me declaring that post-dramatic theatre, as you put it, "refers to no art of any interest" ... that's just a blatant lie. One of the problems with Lehmann is that he ropes together artists of very different stripes, and wrangles them into an incoherent descriptive theory. It's the theory that's valueless and intellectually thin (as I suspect you'd probably agree if you'd read it), not the art.

We're in disagreement about the merits of Kantor's work, obviously. You, however, have had two shows directed by him and have advised the Malthouse on artistic matters. At least you admit your bias these days.

As for the mainstream/fringe binary, on the one hand you claim it's virtually meaningless, and on the other you regularly trot out "mainstream" to slag off the media: eg. "The amnesia and kneejerk conservatism of much mainstream commentary is, after all, as evident as it ever was."

Is that hypocrisy I smell?

Back in 2006 when Kristy Edmunds was attacked for her programming of MIAF, you lumped me in with Craven and Usher (I see you called me 'little Cameron Woodentop'. Nice.) In fact, my argument about Edmunds' insensitivity to Melbourne's "fringe overload" was hardly coming from any kind of blimpish conservatism.

2006 was a fantastic year for independent theatre, with a strong Fringe and perhaps the best Next Wave festival ever seen (it had a boosted budget because it coincided with the Commonwealth Games). You seemed, as Edmunds was, oblivious to the cultural context. You went to two Fringe shows that year, and not much Next Wave. (Having said that, I'm really glad Kristy stuck to her guns, and that you, in 2010, finally got around to dipping more than a toe in the water of the Fringe Festival.)

Independent theatre is strong at the moment, but looking back, it's been strong more or less the whole time I've been reviewing.

What we are seeing is a more dynamic and fruitful relationship between the independent scene and the main stages. For that the Malthouse deserves credit, although it wouldn't be possible without talented, ambitious emerging artists (thank-you VCA, WAAPA and NICA) as well as the venues and companies (45 downstairs, The Dog Theatre, La Mama, Theatreworks and too many companies to name) that foster their work.


Alison Croggon said...

Hi Cameron

If you have read Lehmann, there was very little evidence in your Age piece that you understood what he was describing in Postdramatic Theatre. You just gave the usual kneejerk description of postmodern theory (which can be, yes, a waste of time - there are people and ideas with whom I have my own arguments - but by no means always). Certainly, what you claimed postdramatic theatre to be bears no resemblance to anything Lehmann says in the book.

The book itself is far from "incoherent" or "thin"; it's a magisterial survey, sure, looking at a whole epoch, rather as Auerbach looks at a whole millennium through a few representative works, and by that virtue may have its weaknesses. But in terms of what he aims to do, it's very lucid indeed, and it's been so influential because it is, in fact, such a clear analysis. As Lehmann says himself, he only considered a fragment of work made over the post war period, and his goal was, contra your claim above, "not to find a conceptual framework that accommodates everything". Rather, he wanted to see what was new about post-war theatre. And the fact is that post-war theatre threw up a whole lot of new stuff, in response to the society it found itself in.

Lehmann analyses 20th century theatre in a world dominated by mass communication, in which both theatre and literature are, as he says, "demoted to the status of minority practices". Lehmann is very clear that he doesn't devalue text - the opposite, since he insists that theatre and literature are both deeply related.

He looks at theatre and literature as forms which are "especially dependent on the release active energies of imagination, energies that are becoming weaker in a civilisation of the primarily passive consumption of images and data", and in which culture is increasingly subject to market forces as a commodity. He insists on the live and multidsciplinary aspects of theatre, and investigates how theatre has become self reflective, which "problematises its status of illusory reality", which are the actual qualities that constitute postdramatic theatre.

These qualities seem to me to apply par examplar to much of the 2011 theatre you praise - Thyestes, A Woman in Berlin, Sappho in 9 Fragments, etc. Which is why what you said about postdramatic theatre made no sense at all.

I dislike the term "fringe" because it's been used to marginalise certain practices (such as those outlined above) as insignificant, even "pretentious". The "fringe" that Craven was sneering at in 2006 was not in fact the Melbourne independents, but artists like Jerome Bel or Romeo Castellucci (Societas Raffaello Sanzio). As I pointed out at the time, what was puzzling about that was that these artists play absolutely mainstream venues in Europe, like the Paris Opera. Or perhaps it isn't puzzling, just the worst sort of parochialism.

And no, I don't admit "bias". Perhaps you should read my essay again. I don't argue with your right to think what you like about MK: there is room for every kind of opinion. What troubled me was just how shallow and unjust your attack on him was.

Alison Croggon said...

PS: Re the "blatant lie": this is what you said about postdramatic theatre:

"Still, to focus on Kantor alone would be to miss the structural and theoretical challenges brought about by a wider movement, so-called post-dramatic theatre. This is really just a modish phrase for postmodern theory applied, belatedly, to theatre. The value of an aesthetic theory should be judged by the art it helps to create, and I can't help recalling Schiller's remark: "In every age in which art has gone to decay, it has fallen through its professors."

"If you devalue character and narrative, say the text is dead and cry out for auteurs, you risk exalting directors and designers while disempowering actors and writers."

At least you rightly praise Goebbels. But the implication is clear: that this empty, modish phrase refers to nothing of value, and is in fact instrumental in producing "soulless" and decadent work. This claim that Lehmann is anti-text not only contradicts what he says himself: it also ignores Lehmann's consideration of writers such as Handke and Muller. But there we are.

chrismbr said...

Cameron Woodhead's comments are so obnoxious, carping, accusational and juvenile that it's often very hard for the general reader to see their positive contribution to the thoughts, ideas and conversations generally posted. Well done Ms TN on handling them with grace as always.

Zane Trow said...

Just noting the Courier Mail in flooded Brisbane today devotes an entire page to an amateur theatre company. A different company to the one I mention above.

And, speaking as a Prof. of Perforance Studies ;-), Lehmann is a little late out of the starting gate anyway, so for something to really drive the theatre conservatives round the bend I recommend Adrian Heathfield ;-)...Hi Dazza.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Zane - ah yes, nothing like live art to pep up a conversation! And good luck there in soggy Brisbane. Here in Melbourne, we seem to have moved several latitudes up to the tropics, which is a little enervating.

I'm curious to know your opinion about what David Bertolt is doing at La Boite. From down here, it seems to be becoming a hub for some interesting alternative practice?

Zane Trow said...

Well depends what you call alternative I'm afraid. Bertolt has basically turned a theatre company into a producing venue and he's taken up the model that has been established here by Metro Arts for years and claimed he's doing something new. Metro remains the only source of really good local independent theatre, some of it even looks and sounds contemporary now and again. I just feel ho-hum about La Boite I'm afraid, as I do about the Powerhouse program now. In both programs there are always excetions that prove the rule though. It was interesting for example to see a Briony Lavery show at La Boite, I was her musical director in 1983 (!) and she's always been a writer that is as interested in form as she is in content, which is sadly lacking in Brisbane. So the most interesting theatre in Brisbane for me last year was written by an English feminist ;-) It split the local theatre bods here to, some just hated the fact that actors actually moved around on stage and did things other than just....talking ;-)

It's sureal living in Slacks Creek as I do, which is warm and dry, while just down the road we have Australia's thrid city underwater.

For good local info on the floods see the Lavartus Prodeo blog. I note you are up for an Arts Q forum on the is surprised that Arts Q has actually heard of the intehwebs.... ;-)

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks, Zane.

David Berthold said...

Hi Alison,

I just thought I’d clarify one aspect of La Boite’s programming.

The program that Zane mostly refers to is La Boite Indie. It’s modelled on the old B Sharp and on Griffin Independent (which I created while I was Artistic Director at Griffin, and was in turn modelled on B Sharp), and to a slightly lesser extent the Tower program at Malthouse. In other words, it’s a program of work from independent theatre companies that sits beside La Boite’s own work, just as (say) B Sharp used to sit beside Company B’s work. In that sense it’s not a new idea at all, but it is new for La Boite and is a complement to the excellent work of Metro Arts. We thought it was important to create a new platform for independent companies. Brisbane lacks small venues, and La Boite Indie is one of our attempts to generate a bit more heat around work of this kind.

This year there are four productions. There’s The Hamlet Apocalypse from The Danger Ensemble, a group of mostly Brisbane artists who presented a version of this show at La Mama for the 2009 Melbourne Fringe Festival; a new production of Lachlan Philpott’s play Colder; Umber Productions with a new piece from Elaine Acworth called Water Wars; and Dead Puppet Society with a new piece called The Harbinger that pulls on the power of puppets and propaganda. We are able to offer four independent productions each a season of three weeks.

2011 is La Boite Indie’s second year. We hope it kicks off.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks David. Sounds like a positive addition to the Brisbane landscape. (Which feels a bit odd to write given that so much of it is under water at present, but still.)

Zane Trow said...

Apols David, been off line a few days and I stand corrected, I was not aware of the Griffin initiave. And I should note then that WTF might cheer up the Powerhouse a bit to, despite the water... ;-)