I have recently taken to writing for The Australia Times in the capacity of theatre reviewer and such stuff.
Here’s the link to my article concerning Australian playwrights and the current state of Australian written content on the antipodean stage.
Or, for the link averse, you may read it below:
A year after Sydney was founded as a penal colony in 1789, The Lucky Country hosted its first theatrical performance. The Recruiting Officer was staged by convicts in honour of King George’s birthday and attended by an audience of prison officers. It was a comedic take on the recruitment of men in a small town. Not a rollicking start to a nation’s theatrical history, but a necessary first act nonetheless. It would take another 45 years before Henry Melville’s The Bushrangers was performed in Hobart as the first Australian written and performed play. Its themes were surprisingly contemporary and as relevant then as now, with themes of bush life, discrimination, honour and treachery.
To say that the infancy of Australian theatre was characterised by excessive bawdiness, impromptu stage invasions and a certain larrikin-esque attitude would not be stretching the truth. More music hall than drama society, early theatre was populist entertainment and mostly patronised by the working and criminal classes. It featured minstrels in black face and parodies of the ruling classes. Things could not be any more different now; where only 16.3% of the population go to the theatre on a regular basis and the play is likely to be a re-interpretation of an already established, classic, written by an overseas playwright, dealing with weighty metaphysical issues.
Australia had finally become a federation and, with thanks to a unique history hewn from two world wars, the misery of Gallipoli and The Kokoda Trail, and the jaw dropping extravagance of the gold rush which furnished the adolescent cities with architectural gems far beyond their cultural level, among other events of significance, Australia could now explore themes of national identity and direction. A young country without centuries of cultural adornments and mythical achievements by nation making heroes. It was founded by illiterate criminals and their gaolers, not idealistic pioneers and wealthy dreamers who would have brought a rich cultural tapestry with them to seed a nation’s imagination, like a grain of sand in a pearl oyster. We had the anti-hero Ned Kelly then and we still have him now, clutched close to our hearts.
Australian theatre didn’t come of age until Ray Lawler unleashed The Summer of the 17th Doll onto a thirsty audience who eagerly lapped up its intoxicating themes of mateship, loyalty, dreams and 1950s sexist stereotypes; the ”ocker’ persona was now well and truly established. Prior to this, years could go by without an Australian written work being performed on stage. The Melbourne Theatre Company was founded on the back of The Summer of the 17th Doll; the first production to be exported, which found success in the West End but sadly flopped on Broadway.
Theatre for the working man was on the way out thanks to the distractions of cinema in the early 1900s and then television in the 1960s.As such, its subject matter slowly changed to reflect the middle class, white Anglo-Saxon world, its main patrons.
Sometime around the time when man first landed on the moon, Australian theatre truly became of age and entered a period of rude health called, originally enough, The New Wave — with David Williamson and Jack Hibberd, among others, finding success and thus helping to establish many new stages on the back of their creative popularity. Sydney and Melbourne saw new production houses spring up like The Nimrod, La Mama and The Pram Factory.
Williamson’s Don’s Party again illustrated the rampant misogyny of the era alongside the failed aspirations of the male characters, while Bob Ellis’ and Micheal Boddy’s hugely successful musical The Legend of King O’Malley dealt with the loneliness of the outsider and the larrikin nature of the average Australian — even when they’re an elected member of parliament.
You will not find an abundance of plays dealing with female issues of the time because, well, there really weren’t any female playwrights getting the necessary exposure in Australia. Dorothy Hewett, Mona Brand and Dymphna Cusack were the grand dames of Australian playwrights, but mostly found fame overseas. Hewett’s and Brand’s communist and feminist leanings were unpopular during a time of male dominated political conservatism, however Brand has had many more plays staged out of Australia than Williamson, the successful male playwright. It could be argued that their themes of race discrimination, feminism, socialism, atomic weapons and Aboriginal rights beat the pedestrian tropes of male playwrights hands down; but they weren’t anywhere near as popular despite their relevance to the theatre’s audience.
In 1992 Jane Harrison was commissioned to write the hugely successful Stolen, a play about the lost children, as they were then known. Her Indigenous Australian background gave her license to explore the issues of identity theft. The play was well received and toured extensively around the world, demonstrating that Australia was far from an adolescent of nationhood, lacking a cultural history. It has an estimated 60,000 years of indigenous settlement. How many fantastic stories are tied up in the Dreamtime? Stories that cannot be told or adapted by Anglo-Saxon playwrights due to, justifiable, cultural sensitivities.
Recently Patricia Cornelius penned Savages, examining the shocking gang rape of a woman on a cruise ship, based on actual events; not dissimilar to The Boys by Gordon Graham. Again we appear to be returning to common male related themes and the mistreatment of women. Hardly light-hearted material and not a song and dance routine in sight, unlike the notable comedy festival success of Keating! The Musical and Shane Warne: The Musical. Not exactly highbrow subject matter; but undeniably successful and dealing with mercurial characters that the general public can identify with, without having a degree in the performing arts and being aware of in-jokes relating to Ibsen or Beckett. Instead, they return to the style and content of early Australian vaudeville.
If we jump forward to the present and have a look at the theatre listings in the local press for last year’s Neon Festival, one could be forgiven for thinking that Checkov and Williams had been resurrected as antipodeans with reinterpretations of The Cherry Orchard and The Glass Menagerie hogging the limelight while allegedly purporting to support vibrant independent theatre.
Last year Malthouse Theatre had a schedule of what you could call reruns and reimaginings, starting with Stephen Sewell’s celebrated Hate in January which brings us back to dishonest politicians and family politics, which is still pertinent 25 years on. One has to look as far ahead in their calendar as August before one finds a new Australian play: a one woman act titled Stories I want to tell you in person, being performed by the playwright, Lally Katz, where the subject matter is the life of the playwright. In-between these bookends are works by an Iranian, a Russian and a Briton.
Why is this so? Quite simply it comes down to business and the perennial problem of bums on seats. Even the major Hollywood studios have taken to remaking old films and adding numerical suffixes to already successful franchises rather than take a risk on something new and original.
While researching this article I enquired about the finances required to stage a modest play — nothing fancy mind you, but sourced from original Australian material — and was flabbergasted at the infinite charity needed to get even to the opening night if one is not funded by a mainstream theatre company. At the end of a two week season the players and technicians would be lucky to walk away with enough for a round of boutique beers and perhaps a fish taco to share. The show might be a great critical and commercial success, but small theatres can only hold so many paying punters. If I was a playwright earning peanuts for my craft I too would pack my bags like the hordes of talented actors have done and decamp for Hollywood, where I might expect to get a “fair suck of the sav” were I any good.
Small local markets can only support so many jobbing writers. We already have Joanna Murray-Smith and Daniel Keene (both of whom account for more than half of all Australian plays produced overseas), as well as David Williamson, all perched atop the money tree. Sadly, not much trickles down to the poor wordsmiths fossicking around for an income in-between making lattes and teaching dramatics to toddlers.
Last year the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) hosted the Neon Festival and asked five independent production companies to put on shows with funding to be staged in The Lawler Theatre, which can seat 150. A brave move for the conservative MTC, but unfortunately the independents were not so brave, instead choosing to rewrite proven classics which some would argue, as does the Australian Council for the Arts, can be self assessed as new Australian writing by the theatre company in question.
Australia has no ‘Off Broadway’ scene where new material can be honed and polished to something approaching a theatrical diamond while being supported by an enthusiastic and forgiving audience. In fact, I would argue that Australian culture is fast aligning itself with the glitz and glam of west coast America where the tradition is overwhelmingly cinematic and not theatrical, like the east coast which still has cultural ties to Old Blighty. New work needs this period of refinement and it also helps if they are inherently theatrical and entertaining.
Perhaps there aren’t enough idealistic young playwrights penning brilliantly relevant scripts based on today’s burning issues. The theatre world is still reeling from Wesley Enoch’s incendiary diatribe delivered at the Philip Parsons Memorial Lecture late last year. He sums it up thus:
“Payment for work in the Independent Theatre scene is the equivalent of in theatre busking. In fact, artists make a better living street busking than having a career in Independent Theatre. But that’s okay, because we don’t do it for the money.”
What are the burning issues of today that would get the common man and woman behind the footlights? The metamorphoses of king hits to coward hits, ice addiction, the obesity epidemic, organic versus non-organic vegetables, the refugee crisis, the sex life of Eddie Maguire, or how about why only 16.3% of the population goes to see plays?
Traditional theatrical appreciation requires a certain level of pre-knowledge and initiation into the winks, nods and asides of the stage. Those in the know are declining and already morbidly conservative, you could say they ‘circle the wagons’ and develop a siege mentality to prevent those not in the know from having a look. The insularity of traditional theatre would be a great theme for theatre, but by its very nature would be self serving and inward looking.
There is some relief to be seen in the LGBT theatre of The Sisters Grimm and others, whose limited audience isn’t going to diminish when they put on challenging theatre; they have nothing to lose unlike the mainstream. The midsized production companies have died off leaving the bigger theatres to cherry pick the best of the independents and leave the rest foundering for limited grants and funding.
Despite the doom and gloom one might be inclined to think that there is a wealth of talent lurking around the stage door just waiting to entertain the Lucky Country, but, and here’s the kicker, we as an audience must support the smaller stages and be more vocal in our appreciation of good playwrighting. The playwrights in turn need to tap the zeitgeist and engage the audience in
contemporary themes that are not hidden behind layers of knowing winks and metaphysical nods. Personally, I wouldn’t mind going to see a topical review show laced with bawdy carry on, cutting wit, insightful questions and that elusive quality, theatre magic.
Hollywood is currently smothered by our young and talented crawling over each other for a bite of the golden apple that is mainstream success. I would like to think that when they are done blowing air kisses and walking the red carpet they might come back to populate the green rooms and inject some life into theatre. A bit of government help and support would be welcome but perhaps a fanciful notion, none the less the next new wave is just around the corner and who knows what it will look like; Refugees: The Feel Good Musical We Had to Have.