Saturday, 2 February 2019

Farewell, Andrew McGahan

My friend Andrew McGahan, that great Australian novelist, passed away yesterday. Pancreatic cancer is persistent and February is the shortest month.

I first met Andrew in 1991, just at the moment when Praise changed the shape of Australian fiction and became the book of a generation. I had taken up a job at Queensland Theatre Company, charged with finding ways to develop the state’s playwriting culture. For a young director at the beginning of his career, this was quite a task. I had never set foot in Queensland. Praise was my introduction and Andrew became my buddy.

We hit it off immediately, hanging out, devouring beers, and talking about and exploring anything that took our interest. He was very happy to discover the theatre and even became a resident writer at the company. I commissioned him to write a play. Bait follows the story of Gordon Buchanan, the central character of Praise, just as he begins working in the absurd bowels of the Department of Social Security. If Praise was chiselled from Bukowski, Bait channelled Kafka.

Andrew was my assistant director for a few QTC theatre productions at that time. It was really a way for him to gather a bit of theatrical knowledge. He was an easy delight in the rehearsal room, always intrigued by what we were doing. The actors loved him. In Bait workshops, as we worked on the shaping of the play, he was able to bring these new skills to bear. We had such fun.

Bait was the sequel to Praise, and 1988 was the prequel. One day, Andrew handed me a brown box. It contained a draft of the book in loose-leaf A4 pages. I was so excited. No one had ever given me a draft of a novel to read before! By that time, Praise had already entered our culture, a marker in the lives of many, so I felt I was being handed something very special. But, as with all things with Andrew, in life and in death, there was no outward ceremony. He just thought I’d be interested in reading a draft, and it’s what friends did.

I still have that brown box. I have never been able to dispose of it.

Many years later, I arrived back in Brisbane to take up the artistic directorship of La Boite. I inherited the 2009 season from my predecessor Sean Mee, but there was something perfect in the fact that the first production was a theatrical adaptation of Andrew’s magnificent The White Earth. Andrew had adapted his novel alongside director Shaun Charles, who had been part of our theatre family back in the early 1990s and had become Andrew's principal theatrical collaborator. Andrew was also co-director of the show. It gave me, and I think Andrew, a lot of joy to reunite in this way.

Andrew met everything with calm and clarity, including his own death. He was also one of the most generous people I’ve ever encountered. I once rocked up to his house in Melbourne and spent most of a day drinking red wine and talking about, well, all the important and unimportant things. He always disarmed me - he always called me 'Dave' - and I think on that day in particular, through his own utterly genuine interest in the world and others, he made me effortlessly and contentedly confessional. I left unburdened, and happy. That was Andrew. Calm, clear, generous, graceful.

All love to you Andrew, and to you Liesje, and to all who will so sorely miss you.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

On Stan Lee and the Marvel of the Superhero

The paeans to Stan Lee at his passing this week make us more aware than ever of the power of superheroes.

They are an American invention, up there with jazz and musicals. And the story of superheroes is the story of change in America.

Superman, essentially the first, arrives in April 1938, towards the end of the Great Depression. He fights corrupt businessmen and politicians as a champion of ordinary Americans. He’s a socialist people’s hero. He is also an immigrant from another world who is accepted and gives back. In his story is the DNA of the American ideal.

Batman, arriving in 1939, is the opposite. He is human and urban while Superman is alien and regional. Superman is day and idealistic while Batman is night and revengeful. They are the Superego and the Id. This duality reflects America’s growing divide.

Spider-Man is the first teenage superhero, and Marvel’s mascot. What a gift: a confused teenager, trying to balance crime fighting with passing calculus, becomes a superhero! Stan Lee’s great maxim, introduced in the original August 1962 issue, becomes Spider-Man’s guiding principle: ‘with great power there must also come – great responsibility!’. It enters our psyche.

Watergate happens, and so Captain America (whose first appearance in 1941 saw him punching Adolf Hitler) confronts a villain who turns out to be The President. This President shoots himself in the head in the White House. After that, Captain America becomes Nomad, rejecting his country.

The Civil Rights Movement happens, and so The X-Men fight against bigotry in a society fearful of difference. They reflect Harvey Milk and Malcolm X. The rebels become the heroes. The Black Panther arrives in 1966, before the Black Panther movement. Importantly, he’s African, not African American.

When we get to the Vietnam War, we get Iron Man. War is big business and Tony Stark is an arms dealer. He’s based on Howard Hughes. He has shrapnel in his heart, and is an alcoholic. Later, he renounces the manufacture of weapons and works for the good of all.

In 1975, as vets return from the war in Vietnam, The X-Men return, darker and uglier: antiheroes. Wolverine is our Id. He has to slice himself apart. Man or animal?

Luke Cage, in 1972, is the first black superhero to be the title character of a comic book. Unlike Malcolm X, he has bullet-proof skin.

Through the 1950-60s, Wonder Woman (an ambassador of the Amazon people who was fighting the Nazis when she arrived in 1941) is domesticated and de-costumed. That’s America. But, thanks to Gloria Steinem, she returns in the 1970s, back in costume and with her superpowers. Linda Carter!

Storm arrives in 1975 too. Born in Harlem, she is the first African-American member of The X-Men and their frequent leader. She can control the weather. The Phoenix prevents the complete destruction of the universe. She eats stars.

The Punisher arrives at a time – in the 1970s and ‘80s – when New York is in a crime wave. He is judge, jury and executioner, obsessed with vengeance. We don’t always believe that what he's doing is right.

Gen X brings Deadpool, the first ironic superhero. But he still wants to be a good guy. In the new millennium, The X-Men are back and it now seems that being a mutant is a bit like being gay. But the outcasts are winning.

Tony Stark returns in 2008 and he’s dealing arms in a different war. He changes his mission: from supporting the war in Iraq to questioning the war on terror. By 2013 we get Ms. Marvel, a Muslim superhero.

This is a truly American artform. It’s inclusive, speaking to colour, gender and religion. It makes superheroes of rebels and underdogs. It inspires us to something beyond ourselves.

Stan Lee didn’t create all of these superheroes, but he was the greatest of the creators. His influence, I think, is up there with The Beatles. He taught us that we all, despite our flaws, possess superpowers. He made us believe that we can impact the world in a great adventure, being kind and good, even though our life might still be a mess. Excelsior, he exclaimed, imploring us ever upward. And now, in heaven or wherever he is up high, he is bending the ears of angels with astounding tales, and they are marvelled.

Monday, 12 February 2018

Strangers in Between

Last night, in Melbourne, I saw a new production of Tommy Murphy’s Strangers in Between. It’s a play I developed with Tommy at Griffin Theatre Company in Sydney back in 2004/05, before directing the premiere at Griffin in 2005. It was such a show of strength from Tommy that I quickly commissioned him to adapt Holding the Man, which we got on stage a bit over a year later.
I hadn’t seen the play onstage since then, and perhaps because of that I was caught off-guard. Here was a mature play, perfectly measured. Tommy was only 24 when he wrote it, but scene after scene displays a writer in clear command of comedy, character and, perhaps most impressively, of the contours of human emotion.
It’s also, in the words of director Daniel Lammin, ‘a play whose heart is wholly good’. You can’t fake that. And it’s emboldened with that heart’s blood that the actors thrive. Wil King inhabits Shane, Guy Simon summons up two fantastically different characters with disarming ease, and Simon Burke brings an ocean of understanding and, well, love.
It was particularly special to see Simon play this role. Back in 2004, Simon participated in the very first workshop of the play at Griffin, reading the same role he essayed tonight, and for which he was then much too young. When we transferred Tommy’s Holding the Man to London’s West End in 2010, Simon, then living in London, graciously took on one of the roles for the ten-week run. During that run, a reading of ‘Strangers in Between’ was given, and Simon read that role once again. I guess it was always meant to be, somewhere, sometime.
Strangers in Between has ghosts in its bones. And for me, last night, as I breathed with the artists in front of me, I also sat with the ghosts of that wonderful original cast – Sam Dunn, Brett Stiller and Anthony Phelan – remembering them living in Alice Babidge's  designs and appreciating afresh the love they brought. Like these new actors, they filled characters who manage to close the in-between gaps and make family. What a thing, to bring a play to life. And what a thing to renew a play, allowing it to speak with clear new currency. At both these things, and for the lives these characters seize, I dropped a tear or two.
Strangers in Between heads to Sydney’s Seymour Centre in a few days. See it. Like all of Tommy’s plays, it speaks of love. And we are always in need of that.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Brisbane Festival breaks records

Brisbane Festival wound up on Saturday night after 22 days.  

There were 540 performances, 60 productions, around 20 venues, five world premiere commissions, 11 Australian premieres, and more than 1,400 artists from here and around the world, including those from 28 Queensland arts companies. Those artists, through their skill and insight, shared wonderfully different ways of living in and looking at the world.

We broke lots of records: the biggest box office ever, the biggest crowds at our hub at Treasury Brisbane Arcadia (mostly enjoying free shows), our largest ever Theatre Republic, the most number of performances.

At Treasury Brisbane Arcadia alone, around 300,000 people engaged with the Festival – that’s an average of 15,000 people for every day it was open. Amazing.

Saturday night's massive festival finale was Sunsuper Riverfire, Australia's longest fireworks display, drawing around 500,000 people to the edges of the winding Brisbane River and a great many more to the live television broadcast on Channel Nine. It's Brisbane's biggest annual public event. 

But there are many ways of measuring success. The biggest doesn’t always mean the best. I could share many stories of success that have nothing to do with the sale of a ticket.

Here’s one I like. This year, we had around 320 volunteers. In events like ours, if you fill 70% of the shifts you’re doing very well. Volunteers can lose interest over time, and work and study can get in the way.

This year, we filled 98% of our shifts. Our volunteers believed so much in the ethos and offerings of the Festival that they maintained their enormous commitment right to the end.

That belief, that commitment, was evident among many, not least the audience. And for that, I am grateful. 

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Brisbane Festival and the Road Less Travelled

(This article was first published in The Courier-Mail on 24 August 2017)

I HAVE just returned from the world’s largest arts festival. I travelled down many paths searching for work to include in next year’s Brisbane Festival.
The Edinburgh Fringe offers 3600 different productions from every corner of the globe. Its open access philosophy – anyone can be part of it, if you’re prepared to lose money – means that much of the work is pretty rough. But taken as a whole the event provides a fascinating snapshot of the things that are occupying the world’s artists. Right now.
There are many shows about Trump, democracy, Brexit and migration. There is an Arab Arts Focus and the transgender experience is the subject of a number of very good shows.
The arts can explore complex things in ways that surprise us. We all live in echo chambers of some sort, and that’s not always good. The arts extend our contact with the world beyond the boundaries of our lot.
This is part of a greater humanist project – to increase the level of empathy in the world and to make a more civil society.
We can see all around us, in Charlottesville and in Barcelona, and more and more it seems, what happens when civility breaks down, when echo chambers go unchallenged.
If the Barcelona terrorists had been able to imagine themselves into the thoughts and feelings of those they mowed down, they would not have done what they did. It’s difficult to be cruel once you’ve allowed yourself, feelingly, into the mind of your victim.
Their crimes, and those of the American white supremacists, come from a failure of imagination and a victory of ignorance.
This year’s Brisbane Festival, like all arts, is part of that great humanist project. It is full of surprises. It is joyous, and offers great nights out to get the mind and heart singing. Amongst it all you will find shows to crack the echo chamber.
You’ll encounter shows from our neighbours in the Asia Pacific – from China, Korea, Indonesia and Singapore. You’ll make discoveries about race, politics, terrorism, Islam, gender, and autism. You’ll hear love stories and stories to love. If you think you might vote ‘no’ in the upcoming postal vote on same-sex marriage, then there’s a show or two that might encourage you to think differently. You’ll find places to party, too.
A great festival, like all storytelling, is like a magnet dragged through the randomness, pulling the chaos of things into some kind of shape, and, if we’re lucky, some kind of sense.
A great festival is a cube, not a square. It’s best enjoyed when you take hold of it and turn it around to discover what’s on the other side. It might not be what you expect. It might be a marvel.
Actually, it’s not even a cube, because across the 22 days of Brisbane Festival there are 513 performances to choose from. There are plenty of perspectives on offer, plenty of paths you can take.
So trust your gut, dive in, take chances. See some favourites, but also take the road less travelled. It will make all the difference.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Old and New, Glass and Rachmaninov

Image result for alexander Malofeev
Alexander Malofeev

I had a wonderful experience with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra on Saturday night. An 80-year-old American man gave us the rhythms of life, then a 15-year-old Russian boy gave us the melody of life. Alondra de la Parra, from Mexico, was in charge of all. Almost Trumpian geopolitics.
The Philip Glass Symphony No. 11, commissioned by the Bruckner Orchestra, the Istanbul International Music Festival, and the QSO, had its second ever performance, following its January premiere at Carnegie Hall in NYC on Glass's 80th birthday. We heard the repeated rhythms of living, and the jagged.
The audience loved this new work from an old man.
Then an old work from a boy when Alexander Malofeev ravished the Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto, that miracle of melody. This Russian prodigy, winner of the 8th International Tchaikovsky Competition in 2014, is the real thing, brilliant and brave. We leapt to our feet. Nice to know that in July last year he recorded his debut DVD in the Queensland Conservatorium Theatre, performing works by Tchaikovsky, Medtner and Liszt.
A Medtner Fairy Tale encore was a blast.
A nourishing night of life's contrasts and contours.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Ripples of Hope

I am in the middle of directing Tommy Murphy's new play, Mark Colvin's Kidney, for Sydney's Belvoir. It's been extraordinary.   

I remember being glued to the Leveson Inquiry. All that rigorous interrogation and the testimonies of the famous, including a fragile-looking Rupert Murdoch. It felt like we were witnessing the fall of a media empire. It felt like the world was about to change and that ‘truth’ and ‘ethics’ and ‘justice’ would somehow flourish.

Five years on, that feeling is foreign. ‘Alternative facts’ fight with the truth, and justice for many seems more distant than ever.

I was not aware of Mary-Ellen Field’s story until Tommy Murphy, that most intrepid of playwrights, brought it to my attention. Things struck me with immediate force. Here was a very successful woman, a member of the Conservative Party, who bit by bit had her natural faith in the cornerstones of British justice eroded. More specifically, here was someone who had been treated savagely by the media and yet decided to give her kidney to a journalist. How does that happen?

Altruism is mysterious. Evolutionary biology and neurobiology tell us that we’re hardwired for it, but that the trigger can be untouched. We are often suspicious of those who say they expect no reward for their kindness. The idea of absolute selflessness (is there such a thing?) doesn’t quite gel in times when empathy seems to be in such short supply.

But, it happened. Mary-Ellen gave Mark Colvin, that exemplary journalist, a kidney, that spectacular centre of the body’s waste disposal system. That act of kindness, in its private, personal way, helped to cleanse. It added, in its modest way, to the sum of goodness in the world. Perhaps, in the face of crushing malice and injustice, that is the best we can hope for. Perhaps, though, such acts, however small, accumulate and cultivate.

Perhaps Mark Colvin’s Kidney can be part of that current, its own ripple of hope.

Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

(Robert F. Kennedy, Day of Affirmation address delivered at the University of Capetown, South Africa, June 6, 1966)

Friday, 7 October 2016

Have you ever been to a movie?

Senator James Paterson wants Blue Poles sold, and all funding of arts and sport stopped, to help pay off our national debt.

The estimated $350 million the painting might gather would represent about 0.07% of our $470 billion gross national debt.

Paterson claims that we "fund $7 billion a year into the arts". He's wrong. Federal spending on the arts this financial year is $639 million. Not even close.

The budget he's referring to is the culture budget and includes everything from arts, the ABC, libraries, museums, and even zoos. I imagine he's not actually suggesting we wipe all those things away. Or does the Senator genuinely believe that a society with a little less debt is better than one with libraries, a national broadcaster and working artists? Has he ever been to a movie?

Does the Senator also realise that the $7 billion government investment in culture makes a $50 billion economic impact? Does the Senator mean that we should ignore this return?

Does the Senator understand the reality of "subsidy"? Very few areas of our society are not subsidised.

Mining gets about $4 billion a year in government subsidy. The big four banks – among the world’s most profitable – are subsidised, through various provisions, by almost $6 billion a year. Education, agriculture, health and manufacturing are all heavily subsidised. Maybe that's as it should be.

Whatever view you take on government support of these sectors, it's fair to say that the arts sector is one of the nation’s least subsidised.

It's telling that when the Senator refers to Blue Poles, he talk of now being a good time "to cash in on our investment". Is that the language of someone who understands the place of arts in a society? It appears that Blue Poles is only worth something when it's sold.

I'm reminded of Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic: knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

On the Value of Arts and the Place of Subsidy

[A version of this piece was first published in The Courier-Mail on 5 September 2016] 

More Australians go to art galleries each year than go to AFL and NRL games combined. The creative industries employ more people than agriculture, construction or mining.

Around one million people will experience this year’s Brisbane Festival, Brisbane’s international arts festival. Theatre, dance, circus, music, stand-up? With almost 500 performances across three weeks, it’s all on the menu.

How do we value this love for arts and culture?

A festival is a remarkable thing. People relax and become more receptive to the unfamiliar. It’s all in the name. During the festival of a holiday or the festival of a dinner party, we let our guard down and allow ourselves to absorb new ideas and experiences.

It’s also when artists reach for things at the very edge of their imaginations. You could say that ‘‘why not?’’ is the festival spirit.

Part of it is making sure people have access. Brisbane Festival spends more than 20 per cent of its program budget on free events. Ticket prices to other shows are kept low. Specially built performance spaces are also great social spaces – look at Arcadia in front of QPAC, by the river.

Like many arts organisations, Brisbane Festival is supported by government. That investment generates many benefits. It enables an exhilarating gift to the city, enriches countless lives, and delivers an unmistakable economic impact.

Each year Australia’s creative industries make a $50 billion economic impact against a government investment of $7 billion. But we sometimes hear that arts should pay for themselves. This misunderstands the reality of subsidy. Very few areas of our society are not subsidised.

The Australian Institute of Sport spent $332 million of public money on the recent Olympics campaign. Mining gets about $4 billion a year in government subsidy. The big four banks – among the world’s most profitable – are subsidised, through various provisions, by almost $6 billion a year. Education, agriculture, health and manufacturing are all heavily subsidised. Maybe that's as it should be. 

Whatever view you take on government support of these sectors, it's fair to say that the arts sector is one of the nation’s least subsidised.

But let’s leave money and think of value. People have a right to arts and culture. It’s a right equal to political, social and economic rights, and is universal. The value of arts and culture – how they enrich and enliven, comfort and challenge, help make us more engaged, empathetic human beings – is where we best begin.

Then we can think of broader educational and social benefits, which are many, and then of economic value. That’s the best order. Otherwise we fall into Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic: knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

So I’m looking forward to Brisbane Festival. Perhaps a show that blows expectations apart, the discovery of an amazing artist, enjoying a new space for a great night out, the highest note, the deepest current, the widest embrace of that ‘‘Why not?’’ spirit.