I don't know what happened to 2007. One moment it was shining before me, bright with everything that new years are supposed to be bright with, and then suddenly it was a long shadow streaming behind me. It's the sort of thing that makes you come over all philosophical, though I think some mischievous god has been playing with time.
2007 has been a big year for Little Alison. After seven years hard labour, I finished my fantasy quartet, all 2000 pages of it. I also completed my next collection of poetry, called (with only a smidgeon of irony) Theatre, which is coming out with Salt Publishing next year. The blog's had a good year - in 2007, TN had around 165,000 unique visitors (almost quarter of a million hits), an average of about 20,000 a month, almost tripling the traffic from last year.
I've gone full circle and ended up where I started, back in the hurly-burly of daily newspapers (where, as Stella Gibbons memorably remarked, one's style, like one's life, is nasty, brutish and short): I became Melbourne theatre reviewer for the Australian, and began doing the odd gig for the Guardian. And then Howard was voted out of government and I accidentally deleted four years of email. No wonder I'm tired.
In between all that, as a quick glance at a list of my reviews will reveal, I saw, and wrote about, almost 100 shows. Which seems like a lot to me, though battle-hardened veterans (I'm looking at you, Mr Boyd) might snort dismissively: a proper critic sees six shows a week, and tots up a total of something like 300. In my defence, I can only say that I've never pretended to be anything but an improper critic.
While I'm crunching the numbers - it's kind of fun and, in its own limited way, revealing - I count around 30 of those shows as things I wouldn't have missed for the world, making an excellence rating of about 30 per cent. That's pretty good going with something as volatile as theatre. This heads up to about 15 duds, shows that bravely challenged the trend of time's quickening and made it run like a river of porridge. This leaves around 55 per cent in the "good" category, shows I enjoyed without their blowing me away.
I've never been in a position to see everything on in Melbourne, and all through the year there have been shows I couldn't get to, and which - after hearing breathless reports from my extensive network of theatre spies - I'm sorry I ended up missing. But all the same, it's a fairly decent sampling. And it seems to me that, generally speaking, Melbourne theatre passes the medical with flying colours. The hue is rosy, the limbs are making lively gestures, the renaissance is on. There are those who like their culture dead, the chief zombie being Robin Usher of the Age, but me, I prefer to leave the theatre with my heart beating.
This liveliness has been driven by three major institutions - the Malthouse, the Melbourne International Arts Festival and the Victorian College of the Arts - with strong support from the independent theatre and dance scenes.
The Malthouse has had a year of consolidation, with an eye turned to crowd-pleasers like Geoffrey Rush in Ionesco's Exit The King or Sleeping Beauty, and return seasons of successful shows from the independent theatre scene - The Pitch, from La Mama, The Eisteddfod, from the Store Room, or A Large Attendance in the Antechamber, from everywhere.
But it's also found space for experimental gems like Anna Tregloan's Black, the Bessie-winning dance/theatre piece Tense Dave, or the unruly anarchy of Uncle Semolina & Friends with OT. They put on a cabaret season, including the incomparable Paul Capsis, and they produced one of the Melbourne Festival's highlights, Barrie Kosky's The Tell-Tale Heart.
I've enjoyed everything I've seen there this year - it's been various, stimulating, controversial and fun - and I can't say that about anywhere else. I'm not going to argue with any of those who are saying that the Malthouse is the most exciting theatre company in Australia.
And then there's the Melbourne Festival. Well, a lot of words have been spent on MIAF, so I'll just say that for this bright-eyed rabbit, this year's festival was, taken as a single event, the highlight of the year. Artistic director Kristy Edmunds delivered the goods bigtime: I spent 17 days buzzing around on a permanent high. If I lived in Singapore, I would have been arrested and sentenced to flogging. Aside from The Tell-Tale Heart, my highlights were Jérôme Bel’s The Show Must Go On, Dood Paard's Titus and Athol Fugard's Sizwe Banzi is Dead (though Laurie Anderson was pretty cool...)
One of the peculiarities of Melbourne is that some of the best theatre here is made by students. The VCA sucks in talented youth, trains it within an inch of its life, and then gets the most interesting directors around town to throw it at fabulous texts. Ambition is the byword. The VCA production of Hélène Cixous's The Perjured City was one of this year's top shows. Their end-of-year productions of King Lear and A Dollhouse weren't far behind and I'm told that Yes, which regrettably I couldn't get to, was equally impressive.
This year dance indelibly entered my theatrical lexicon. It was, on the whole, a year to catch up - I saw several wonderful remounts. I've already mentioned Tense Dave, but there was also Lucy Guerin's Love Me and Aether, Chunky Move's Glow, and, courtesy of MIAF, a retrospective of Merce Cunningham. I might be learning something... Among the new work, last week's Brindabella from BalletLab was a knockout, and La Mama also hosted a memorable performance of Deborah Levy's B-File.
Outside the institutions, my top shows were Little Death's notable production of Philip Ridley's Mercury Fur, Simon Stone's wonderful adaptation of Wedekind's Spring Awakening and Ranters Theatre's gorgeous Holiday. Outside Melbourne, a tiny Adelaide company, Floogle, enterprisingly flew me over to see their production of Pinter's The Homecoming, which was as elegant a reading of that play as I am likely to see. There was Eleventh Hour's rivetingly erotic retelling of Othello. And - sacre bleu! - one of my theatre highlights was seen at the Melbourne International Film Festival - A Poor Theatre's The Tragedy of Hamlet: Prince of Denmark, which counts because I saw it first as a play and because it's part of the Malthouse's first season next year.
In fact, there was a lot of Shakespeare around in 2007, with a decidedly mixed hit rate. Bell Shakespeare made me eat my words by putting on a good production of Othello, but the much-anticipated RSC production of King Lear, with Sir Ian McKellen notoriously shedding his underpants, was one of this year's huge disappointments. I was forced to watch Peter Brook's film to remind myself that the play really is more than a comic opera.
So it wasn't all champagne and skittles. Which brings me to the Melbourne Theatre Company, currently looking like the ailing limb in an otherwise rather fit theatrical body.
To be fair, it wasn't all bad. Arthur Miller's All My Sons was a straight production of a classic that went like a train, although I admit that contrary reports from many reliable sources of the subsequent season made me wonder if the cast had reserved all their vim for opening night. I thought the MTC's production of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the most moving of the three I saw this year, and Thom Pain was a delightful surprise. I had a long argument with Alan Bennett's The History Boys, but I felt it was worth doing all the same.
The rest was a mixture of the forgettable, the competent and the plain awful. The MTC served up some of the worst nights I've spent in the theatre this year. It began the year ominously with the bafflingly bad production of Joe Orton's Entertaining Mr Sloane, and ended with what is my vote for worst show of the year, Jean Giraudoux's The Madwoman of Chaillot. Midyear there was the ineffably sentimental tedium of The Glass Soldier, one of the bottom five low-points of TN's theatrical year. It's notable that all three of these shows were directed by artistic director Simon Phillips.
I guess Phillips has had a distracting year - not only is the MTC building a new theatre, but he's been out and about in the commercial world. But given the liveliness and invention of the theatre culture around it, our state company ought to be doing better. Much better. To go back to the dubious number crunching: if the dud percentage of theatre generally was 15 per cent, the MTC's individual dud percentage was around a third. And although several shows made my "good" category, not one blew me away.
Next year's program is, in prospect at least, similarly uninspired. But to finish on a positive note, next month the MTC is importing the STC's magnificent production of The Season at Sarsaparilla, so Melbourne will have a chance to see what happens when a state theatre company attempts to make theatre, instead of just putting on plays.
Well, that was my 2007. It was a vintage year, and it's brought me a great deal of pleasure. I want to thank all the theatre companies who kindly provided me with tickets, the many people who have encouraged me through the year, my blogger colleagues and, most of all, my readers and commenters (especially those who take issue with me). I've had a brilliant time, and I hope it's mutual.
TN is now taking some badly-needed time off, and will be back refreshed and - theoretically, at least - raring to go in the New Year. Me, I'm heading back to my poetic roots over the Yuletide break, and writing a new translation of Beowulf. (I don't know why, but sometimes one can't help these things). So a happy solstice to all of you, and I'll see you in 2008.
Pictures from top: Glow, by Chunky Move; Luke Mullins in Little Death's Mercury Fur; Geoffrey Rush and Julie Forsyth in Exit the King, Malthouse; Black by Anna Tregloan, Malthouse; Kagemi, Sankai Juku, Melbourne Festival; Ben Hjorth in the VCA's King Lear; Ian McKellen in the RSC's King Lear; Don's Party, MTC; The Season at Sarsaparilla, STC.
Monday, December 10, 2007
I don't know what happened to 2007. One moment it was shining before me, bright with everything that new years are supposed to be bright with, and then suddenly it was a long shadow streaming behind me. It's the sort of thing that makes you come over all philosophical, though I think some mischievous god has been playing with time.
Saturday, December 08, 2007
I'm afraid it looks as if all those emails are presently irretrievable. Which includes (the real nuisance) my database of addresses for the mailing list for the blog. Any readers who want regular notifications of updates will have to email me again - alisoncroggon at aapt dot net dot au.
On the other hand, my empty inbox is a beautiful thang...
Friday, December 07, 2007
Brindabella, choreographed by Phillip Adams and Miguel Gutierrez, composed by David Chisholm. Set and lighting design by Andrew Livingston, Ben Cisterne and Ben Cobham of Bluebottle, costume design by Doyle Barrow. With Derrick Amanatidis, Tim Harvey, Luke George and Brooke Stamp. Music performed by Lachlan Dent, Peter Dumsday, Timothy Phillips and Nic Synot. BalletLab and Malthouse Theatre, Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse until December 8. Bookings: 9685 5111. ...every attempt Enough of the apologia, I hear you cry... So I’ll get down to that business of attempting the impossible, and tell you about the dances. Description will have to suffice. So hwæt, my little athelings. Between this flower picked and the other given Aether, with a deal of comedy and poignancy, explores this nothingness, a space that in the 21st century is overloaded with noise, and rather bleakly suggests that humans, for all their technological ingenuity, are still alone, still halted in bewilderment before the threshold that separates self from self.
Aether, choreographed by Lucy Guerin, composed by Gerald Mair. Motion graphics by Michaela French, costumes by Paula Levis, lighting by Keith Tucker. With Antony Hamilton, Kyle Kremerskothen, Stephanie Lake, Lina Limosani, Harriet Ritchie and Lee Serle. Lucy Guerin Inc and Malthouse Theatre, Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse.
Last week the Croggon wordhoard collapsed in a heap of disconnected vowels. This poor minstrel stood in the halls of the thane – I’m speaking metaphorically, of course – and could spit out nary a hwæt. (Ok, I admit it: I’ve been reading Beowulf and the Geats have got to me). It was in this mode that your disconsolate bard took herself to the Malthouse to see Lucy Guerin Inc and BalletLab.
A major reason I enjoy dance is that it doesn’t have words in it. Or if it does have words in it – both Brindabella and Aether have a few – it doesn’t tend to have very many; and they function, as in poetry, as much in their texture and rhythm as in their meaning. So the conjunction of the wordhoard going awol and two pieces of contemporary dance was, as you might imagine, a happy one.
On the other hand, dance – being a medium that employs meanings and articulations very far from words – is, at the best of times, very difficult to write about. At the hoardless times, it’s just about impossible. And there are other considerations highlighted by dance that haunt all the writing I do on theatre.
Writing about performance of any kind is always an act of uncertain translation, a recording of complex sensory and emotional impressions that will, always and inevitably, falsify the experience. Words are slippery; they betray the wordsmith, they lock down the multiplicity of experience, they elide memory, they deceive and seduce into their own reality.
The act of writing is a translation, among other things, of the present into the past tense. This is one reason it’s so much easier to write about language-based art: anything written down is, a priori, in the past tense (this is why writers have a tragic view of life). It’s hardest of all to write about work that exists in time; unlike, say, a painting, it can’t be contemplated and returned to. All these things add up to a constant addressing of the impossible. The certainty of failure is, of course, no reason to refuse the attempt. In a way, this blog is a record of such attempts – as Eliot said:
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it.
The first thing is that these two pieces, run in tandem as a short dance festival at the Malthouse, are an exercise in contrast. Aether is all subtlety and complex motion, where Brindabella is a crude and sumptuous excess; the beauty of Aether is cool, intelligent and restrained, the passion throbbing beneath the icy discipline, while that of Brindabella is about the frank unleashing of the anarchies of sexuality.
As its name suggests, Aether – an ancient word for air – is a meditation on the medium of communication. Speech, written language, the technological means of communicating, are all (as I have suggested above) a third thing, neither what is said nor what is heard, and have their own determinations. To quote another poet (it’s a week for poets), Giuseppe Ungaretti:
the inexpressible nothingness.
The dance is divided into two parts, the first roughly about the medium of technology, the second about human attempts to communicate. When we wander into the theatre, the dancers are already on stage, idly fiddling with torn up pieces of newspaper that are arranged in coiling patterns on the stage floor. Even before Aether begins, Guerin is dividing our attention: it is impossible to watch all the dancers at once, and so you watch one and then another. The number of dancers on stage kept changing, as if by magic: I continually missed their entrances.
When the dance proper begins, some words creep across the bottom of the blank screen that dominates the back of the stage, as if unseen hands are typing them. Gradually the writing creeps up the screen, becoming more and more fragmented, and the screen fills up with numbers and graphics, obscuring the text until it becomes unreadable, one more broken sign among too many others.
Meanwhile the dancers, dressed in unisex tunics, perform increasingly complex movements, creating continual eddies of harmony that break into arrhythmic disruptions. There is a particularly beautiful sequence where the dancers link hands and weave in and out of each other’s bodies in a continually surprising fluidity, like a human Möbius strip. The dance demands that you choose where to watch – complex things are happening at extreme ends of the stage – mimicking the effect of information overload. And it’s beautifully detailed: in particular, you notice the subtleties of hands – fingers are compellingly expressive in Aether.
The screen narrows to a slit and then vanishes, signalling the second half, which concerns itself with the less abstract physicalisation of human communication. I mean no disrespect when I say that parts of this reminded me of Mr Bean: there are elements of clowning, especially in Antony Hamilton’s brilliant and disturbing performance of a man struggling to speak to others. Speech is evoked by wordless noises and intricate movements that mimic the patterns of conversation. But speech itself is not absent: there is another very funny sequence where, speaking in precise chorus, the dancers tell us about the vagaries of rehearsal.
Perhaps the most beautiful dance is created by a stroke of lighting genius. Keith Tucker opens a strip of white light across the darkened stage, as if using the shutter of a very big slide projector. It begins with lighting a single undulating finger, and gradually widens until the beam of light illuminates a strip of the whole stage, about a metre deep and a short distance above the floor. Only parts of the dancers are illuminated: their legs or their arms rise from a sea of darkness and dip back in, or a man sits up and is startlingly headless. The final image of Aether returns to darkness, the light dwindling until it illuminates one finger.
It’s compelling, intelligent work that moves you at obscure and unexpected levels of consciousness. And I was glad there was an intervening week before I saw Brindabella, which is an entirely different pickle. If nothing else, these two works indicate the depth and variousness of contemporary dance in Melbourne now.
It occasionally happens that a performance can produce a strange sense of dissonance. You realise that you have no idea whether it’s good or bad; all you know is that you can’t stop watching it. (This is, admittedly, true of a car crash: but I associate this feeling with some of the most exciting theatre I’ve seen). Moments in Brindabella, a collaboration between BalletLab’s Phillip Adams and New York choreographer Miguel Gutierrez, made me reflect that, although I had no idea if it was any good, I was quite sure that it was brilliant.
Loosely based on the fairytale of Beauty and the Beast, it cheerfully destabilises aesthetic judgement, pillaging influences as diverse as Jean Cocteau, Disney and porn flicks. Yet the effect is far from a flippant post-modern irony. It is, rather, a passionate work that at times attains the anarchic energy of a pagan ritual. It’s perhaps most like a 21st century Dionysian mystery, a kind of contemporary Bacchanal that releases bestial and divine energies through ecstatic dance.
Through its three acts – La Belle, L’Amour and La Bête – we witness a complex process of playful destruction. The four dancers gradually strip away their social dress, even their gender, until they are four possessed, erotic bodies, personifying the anarchies, clumsiness and beauty of raw sexual desire.
Bluebottle’s lighting and design is one of the stars of this show: it’s nothing short of stunning. The only design elements are the huge curtain - actually white, but painted with light and lifted or ruched in various ways (the curtain technician was working very hard) - and light itself. Behind the curtain is an utterly bare stage, and at one point the huge back door is opened to the yard outside, giving even deeper perspectives.
Brindabella begins with a coup de théâtre. The three musicians, in an orchestra pit before the brothel-red curtain that dominates the stage, begin the prologue to David Chisholm’s continually surprising score, in this case a sensual scraping of cello and percussion. The opening dance is the fascinating play of the musicians’ shadows across the curtain. Then the dancers step onto the forestage. The sole woman, Brooke Stamp, is dressed in a ball gown that is a Cocteau fantasia, holding a hand mirror, while the three men - Derrick Amanatidis, Tim Harvey and Luke George – dressed as elegant Beasts, whirl around her, in a dance that is a parody of the narcissism of Beauty. Finally the curtain lifts, and Beauty vanishes into the cavernous darkness behind.
The dance moves from an almost (but not quite) parodic evocation of classical dance towards an athletic nakedness, the beast inside the beauty. The transitional dance is a long and strangely compelling sequence where the four dancers simply jog around the stage. Their running is oddly formal – they are almost always facing the audience – but otherwise it is just running, an exhausting physical effort. As they run, they gradually strip off their clothes down to their underwear, throwing their garments into the audience in a dissociated strip tease, and gradually their unity begins to fragment, the physical effort becomes harder, one dancer outstrips the other in a burst of energy. Maenads, I thought. It must be my classical education.
Another highlight is a comically dark dance in which the dancers have pine trees strapped to their backs and howl like wolves, that again suggested an obscure pagan ritual; something perhaps to do with a winter festival of death and rebirth. There’s a gesture towards gay porn that involves assembling a surreal bicycle enhanced with dildos, and a long sequence to a screaming electric guitar and kitsch lights that is, well, simply about fucking. It is somehow glorious, transcending its own self-conscious tackiness to become a celebration of sexual bodies.
The final sequence is a brief coda of ethereal beauty in which the naked dancers, adorned with feathers that gradually are shed around the stage, are silhouetted against a golden light. It has a disembodied serenity that suggests the mystic edge of the erotic.
It’s a commonplace for artists to claim that they are exploring the nature of desire, but it is quite rare for someone to actually attain it. In this dizzyingly various dance, walking a very narrow line between self-conscious parody and the extremities of passion, Phillips and Gutierrez have made a genuinely erotic work.
Picture: Aether by Lucy Guerin. Photo: Rachelle Roberts
Enough of the apologia, I hear you cry... So I’ll get down to that business of attempting the impossible, and tell you about the dances. Description will have to suffice. So hwæt, my little athelings.
Between this flower picked and the other given
Aether, with a deal of comedy and poignancy, explores this nothingness, a space that in the 21st century is overloaded with noise, and rather bleakly suggests that humans, for all their technological ingenuity, are still alone, still halted in bewilderment before the threshold that separates self from self.
Wednesday, December 05, 2007
In a moment of IT genius, Ms TN accidentally deleted her email program - and with it (temporarily, I hope) several thousand emails and hundreds of email addresses. I'm hoping this will be rectified in the next couple of days; meanwhile, if I owe you an email, you'll know why...
Monday, December 03, 2007
On Thursday...[executive director of the Australian Major Performing Arts Group, Helen] O'Neil sent a letter to the group's 28 member companies praising Garrett's appointment as minister for the arts. But she warned members, including the Australian Chamber Orchestra and the Sydney Dance Company, of possible cuts under a razor gang directed by the new treasurer, Wayne Swan.
Garrett is not prepared to commit to funds allocated in the May budget, and will not use his position to influence the states on support for the arts.
UPDATE: Jim at Rage and Enthusiasm gives a must-read analysis of the implications for regional arts in Australia, claiming the Labor policy falls far short of what is needed. And fearing that the idea of arts "access" for regional areas might be skewed by a bit of urban snobbery.
Sunday, December 02, 2007
Little Alison is still in reset mode. On Wednesday night she saw Lucy Guerin's Aether, a work of exquisite complexity and beauty, but can she find the words to describe it? (The audience is expected to shout out: "no, she can't!") It takes a certain answering complexity in the mind to respond to work, and for the moment - I live eternally in hope of tomorrow - TN has the aesthetic sophistication of a shoelace. This lack of creative brio must be why I find myself coming over all editorial. What the hell. It's Sunday, the newly cleansed house is sparkling, and I'm sure you've got a nice cool beverage by your elbow. Right then. There's a whiff of the MFA creative writing circle here, a phenomenon common in the US, where aspiring poets (for example) learn how to write poetry in an MFA program, are published because they have an MFA, and go on to become creative writing teachers who run MFA programs...a rather pernicious professionalisation, as many have suggested, which explains the smooth edges of so much contemporary American poetry. Short & Sweet has its own version - aspiring S&Sers can enrol for the Short & Sweet playwriting course in early 2007, where they can presumably learn how to write plays for the festival. It's almost, as a quick look at the website will verify, a small industry, and it's expanding rapidly: there are now S&S festivals for dance and music theatre. On the face of it, as I said, it's mostly harmless. But if Short and Sweet is embraced as a way forward for theatre, I worry. In fact, says Nevin, the 2008 STC season includes seven Australian plays. "Forty-seven per cent of the plays done over my time here have been Australian," she says. "Thirty-five people have been commissioned and next year we're doing seven Australian works." But now I'm hot and I have to move my desk (only writers know what this means). So I'll leave it to others to tease that one out...
This week, for example, the Short and Sweet Festival is back again at the Victorian Arts Centre, apparently bigger and better than ever. Now, in blogland Short and Sweet has a controversial history. Some of you will remember the wrath visited upon Ming-Zhu last year, when she blogged as a participant in the 2006 season (Chris Boyd's useful summary here, my commentary on the commentary here, and my review of some plays here.)
Patrick White winner Patricia Cornelius is one of the participating playwrights this year, and she was in the Age last week doing the PR thing. Though I noticed Cornelius seemed to argue against the idée fixe that audiences now have the attention spans of the above-mentioned shoelace. (Wherefore the wowed audiences at Ariane Mnouchkine's six hour epic Les Dernier Caravanserail, I wonder? surely if theatre is considered exciting in itself, it doesn't have to be marketed as something that won't hurt for long? - but I digress...) It is this attention span that, it seems, necessitates such festivals, which provide "access" to the arts.
I have all sorts of problems with the word "access". For a start, in my experience the demand for "accessible" art usually comes from people like Andrew Bolt. I am all for community arts, an aspect of culture that was sidelined by the Australia Council's restructure under the Howard Government, which saw off the Community Arts Board and left institutions like La Mama struggling to carry the slack. But I'm hoping - given that S&S organiser Alex Broun has been very active organising arts policy forums for the new Labor Arts Minister, Peter Garrett - that S&S isn't seen as a model for a brave new accessible arts world, because I think it is, at best, harmless and, at worst, a way of seeming to support emerging artists while actually doing very little of substantial worth.
(Aside from good community theatre programs - of which I think organisations like Big hArt are a model - I actually think that the best thing that could be done for access to theatre would be to make tickets cheaper. In Paris, you can pay 10 euro to see Pina Bausch at the very comfy Théâtre de la Ville, whereas a ticket to The Madwoman of Chaillot in Melbourne will set you back almost $80. But again, I digress...)
The short play festival concept is at best a dubiously scattergun way of nurturing new work. But it's attractive in many ways - it's very feelgood, and it's cheap. Participants volunteer their services for a chance at the prize money, thus removing at one stroke the major problem in performing arts budgets: the wages bill. There's something strangely circular about it. As I said in my review of one of last year's shows:
But that's not what I wanted to talk about at all.
What caught my attention in the Age was a comment by Patricia, where she talked about the "desperation" felt by many writers about the lack of outlets for their work. I don't argue with the desperation; we have all - those of us of literary dispositions - felt this at one stage or another. "There are so few avenues for people wanting to write for theatre now," she goes on to say, "especially with the exclusion of Australian work from our major theatres."
This is where I do a double take. Which major theatres "exclude" Australian work? Even the MTC, which is surely among the most backwards of the major companies in this area, has this year programmed new works by David Williamson, Joanna Murray-Smith and Justin Clements (it has a rather better record in previous years). I can't say I'm excited by the Murray-Smith/Williamson duet, but there's no arguing that it's new and it's Australian.
Cornelius is by no means the only person to say this - it's a common perception. The formation of PlayWriting Australia out of the two former bodies, the Australian National Playwrights Centre and Playworks, is a new attempt to address the difficulties playwrights face. There's an organisation mooted called Melbourne Dramatists which, aside from having the worthy aim of getting playwrights to talk to each other, aims to mitigate the prejudice theatre companies allegedly hold against Australian work. There are playwrights' conferences all over the map, there are workshops and masterclasses and competitions. Playwrights, it seems, need all the help they can get.
I do not doubt that it's hard to get new plays on, despite the support of champions of new writing like La Mama or Griffin Theatre, nor do I wish to dismiss the concerns of writers. But I will point out that it was ever thus. I only need to ask my husband, who is now approaching (or even in) his third decade as a full-time playwright, a "profession", if it so might be called, which combined with my own, means that we do not own a house, a car, shares in Telstra, a country estate or any of the other material accoutrements considered necessary for a comfortable bourgeois life. (Although we do own a lot of books, cds and dvds). And he's successful, accounting - according to the Australia Council anyway - for a quarter of Australia's entire literary exports.
Yes, there's no doubt that it's tough - though equally, it's tough for directors and actors and all those other parts of the industry that face the prospect of 90 per cent unemployment. But is it really as bad as claimed? Do major companies really ignore Australian work?
Robyn Nevin, former artistic director of the STC, addressed this head-on earlier this year. "There's been a perception out there that I've been unwilling to program new Australian plays. Obviously there have been new Australian plays that I've not produced. I've rejected them. Perhaps that's what has generated this criticism because the facts tell a different story."
The company that gets most schtick for ignoring writers is the Malthouse Theatre. Rodney Hall was one of the first to accuse it of "abandoning" writers, just after the new team took over from Playbox in 2004, and it's been a constant bone of dissatisfaction ever since. The Playbox, the story goes, programmed playwrights, and the Malthouse doesn't. I've heard this so often that I think it's worth looking in detail at the facts.
The past three years' programming doesn't bear out this assertion at all. In 2004, the final Playbox year, the Playbox produced six new Australian plays, its total work for the year (the previous year, the Playbox presented eight). The following year, the new writer-free Malthouse put on, in a season of 11 works, seven new Australian plays - and I mean, plays, texts written for theatre - by Wesley Enoch, Tom Wright (two), Lally Katz, Patricia Cornelius, Margaret Cameron and Ben Ellis. Plus a production of Patrick White. There were seven plays- plus a literary adaptation - in 2006, as well. Since 2005, it's mounted new works by Stephen Sewell, Gareth Ellis, Michael Watts, Ross Mueller, Lally Katz, Tom Wright, Rebecca Clarke, Melissa Reeves and Peter Houghton.
It beats me how that is abandoning writers, although there's no argument that the Malthouse is programming a broader vision of theatre. But the perception that writers are ignored persists, despite the facts. Are writers simply responding to the fact that there are many more plays than stages to put them on? (And perhaps I have answered the S&S question above - is it a place for the overspill, a kind of valve to let the pressure off some dangerous cultural steam?) But it seems to me that these persistent complaints are actually part of a deeper and more complex conflict about the place of writers in contemporary theatre. Which is, actually, quite an interesting discussion.
There's a whiff of the MFA creative writing circle here, a phenomenon common in the US, where aspiring poets (for example) learn how to write poetry in an MFA program, are published because they have an MFA, and go on to become creative writing teachers who run MFA programs...a rather pernicious professionalisation, as many have suggested, which explains the smooth edges of so much contemporary American poetry. Short & Sweet has its own version - aspiring S&Sers can enrol for the Short & Sweet playwriting course in early 2007, where they can presumably learn how to write plays for the festival.
It's almost, as a quick look at the website will verify, a small industry, and it's expanding rapidly: there are now S&S festivals for dance and music theatre. On the face of it, as I said, it's mostly harmless. But if Short and Sweet is embraced as a way forward for theatre, I worry.
In fact, says Nevin, the 2008 STC season includes seven Australian plays. "Forty-seven per cent of the plays done over my time here have been Australian," she says. "Thirty-five people have been commissioned and next year we're doing seven Australian works."
But now I'm hot and I have to move my desk (only writers know what this means). So I'll leave it to others to tease that one out...