Tuesday, 10 December 2013

A Response to Wesley Enoch

La Boite is one of several established theatre companies around the country housing programs that support ‘independent theatre’, a term commonly held to mean theatre made by groups of artists coming together, often with little infrastructure and few resources, to make work they passionately believe in.

In his Philip Parsons Memorial Lecture delivered on Sunday, the Artistic Director of Queensland Theatre Company, Wesley Enoch, called such programs ‘immoral’. In essence, he claimed that established theatre companies use independent theatre companies as sources of unpaid labour. He quoted figures for a recent La Boite Indie show that were incorrect.

Wesley's reprimand drew responses from Melbourne Theatre Company here, and Griffin Theatre Company here. Wesley spoke about La Boite specifically, though disappointingly he misled his audience on the facts. As it applies to La Boite, I think his view is misjudged.

It’s very easy to create agitation when you suggest that ‘all artists should get paid award rates’. Of course they should. Who could reasonably argue otherwise? Why isn’t it happening everywhere?? I really wish it were that simple.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Reflections on the Occasion of World AIDS Day

John’s groans had become almost whispers. Every time he stopped breathing we all sat upright holding our breath. ‘John, you’re tricking us,’ Lois said.

This went on for some time, his breathing becoming shallower, quieter. He began blowing saliva bubbles. His mouth filled with saliva which started to run down his chin. Bob grabbed a tissue and started to wipe it. There was the sweet smell of faeces in the air. Not a lot of dignity in death, eh?

John stopped breathing.

He was dead.

I walked out along the colonnade. The sun was shining. Such a beautiful day.

Then I was hit by grief. The tears came and kept coming. Snot ran out of my nose as though it was being wrung out of me. I wish you were here to help get me through this. I’m not going to see you again, am I?

A pigeon was startled by me and took flight. Was that John? I wish you were here. I shut my eyes and felt him put his arms around me from behind. I wanted to lean back and put my head on his chest but he wasn’t there. The feeling had been so strong that I wasn’t sure it hadn’t happened. I put my arms around myself and started crying again.

A family walked past me. A little girl asked her mother, ‘Has someone died?’

‘I think so.’

That’s from the book Holding the Man, and it’s Timothy Conigrave describing the death of his lover of 15 years, John Caleo, on Australia Day 1993, over 20 years ago.

It’s now 30 years since the first AIDS-related death was reported in Australia.

That’s a generation ago. Australia can be proud that our response was swift, thorough and honest, perhaps the most effective in the world, emerging from bold and decisive bipartisan leadership rarely seen these days. For many, the Grim Reaper TV ad is forever seared in the mind. Many lives were saved. And many have been lost, including, of course, those of Tim and John.

Deaths from AIDS-related illnesses in Australia will reach 7,000 over the next few years. That’s a small portion of the 25 million who have lost their lives to the disease worldwide, but it's still a figure that causes ache and reflection. There are around 35,000 people living with HIV in Australia at the moment. That's a small portion of the 35 million worldwide, but it remains a cause of concern.

There is still no vaccine or cure for HIV or AIDS. Without treatment, HIV infection remains a death sentence. With treatment - just one tablet a day - people can lead normal, active, healthy lives, with a life expectancy similar to those don't have HIV.

We face new challenges. There were 1,253 new HIV diagnoses in Australia in 2012, an increase of 10% over 2011, and the highest number of new infections for 20 years. For some men in their 40s, decades of safe sex practices can lead to fatigue-driven complacency. However, most of those new diagnoses were young men in their teens and 20s.

I guess that ignorance is more powerful than fatigue.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

On Louis Nowra winning Patrick White

When Louis Nowra's Inside the Island received a savage review in the Sydney Morning Herald, Patrick White hand-delivered an outraged letter to the editor in support of the play and its author. When it was not published, White paid for it to run as an advertisement in the newspaper for two weeks. White later cooled to Nowra, as he did with so many others, and would sometimes refer to the playwright as 'Louis Kiama'.   

White was probably unaware that Nowra left his degree at La Trobe University over a dispute with his professor concerning his dislike of White's novel The Tree of Man.  

Louis Nowra in Kings Cross with his very clever chihuahua, Coco
Louis Nowra was yesterday presented with the Patrick White Literary Award, this year worth $23,000, for his ‘prolific, passionate, principled contribution to Australian literature across many fields’. The annual Award was established by White who used the money from his 1973 Nobel Prize in Literature to establish a trust. It’s given to a writer who has been highly creative over a long period. Nowra is only the third playwright to win in 40 years, after Alma de Groen in 1998 and John Romeril in 2008.

I’ve known Louis for over 25 years. We first met in the rehearsal room of Rex Cramphorn’s premiere production of Louis' The Golden Age for Playbox in 1985. Patrick White greatly admired Rex, one of Australia’s great directing talents, and of course also championed Louis.

Later, in 1995, I directed the premiere production of The Jungle for Sydney Theatre Company, with a fabulous Kate Fitzpatrick, whom Patrick White adored. He wrote his 1977 play Big Toys for her. I soon learned why both Patrick and Louis, and indeed Rex, had been so fond of Kate.

During rehearsals of The Jungle, she was in the throws of an infamous case in the NSW Supreme Court: Kate Fitzpatrick v Charles Waterstreet. She was suing her former lover, the famed barrister who would later become the model for the central character in the TV series Rake. She was claiming about half the value of an Elizabeth Bay flat. There was more: ‘I'll have the Brett Whiteleys, you can have the Tupperware and the Brescia beanbag,’ she offered in court. One of the Whiteleys was the portrait of Patrick White that served as the cover of David Marr’s great biography of White. It was Kate, incidentally, who had organised a lunch so that Whiteley and White could meet. On her return from court, our rehearsal room was fabulously full of Kate’s regaling – sensational stories of her many former lovers including Sam Neill, Jeremy Irons, Timothy Dalton, Eric Clapton, Tom Hughes QC and several famous cricketers, and of her close friendships with Kerry Packer, Sam Shepard, a smitten Jack Nicholson, several High Court judges and, of course, Patrick White.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

India, our mother

What is the state of what Mark Twain called the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, and the mother of history?

More than half of India’s population is under the age of 25, with 65 percent under 35. The challenges and opportunities that presents are enormous. It could drive India's flagging economy for a century, overtaking China which is now past its peak. But if the world's largest democracy can't educate, train and feed this burgeoning population, then there is peril. India is home to a third of the world's poor and to half of the world's 30 million slaves. A third of the population lives under the poverty line of US $1.25 a day. I find this frightening. How will India face the consequences of a marginalised youth population existing on a scale unprecedented in modern history?

Meanwhile, on Tuesday India launched a mission to Mars. The Mars Orbiter Mission, known as "Mangalyaan" in India, successfully began its 400 million-km long journey, making it the first Asian country and the fourth in the world after the US, Eurpore and Russia, to undertake a mission to the red planet. The mission was announced only 15 months ago, shortly after an attempt by China flopped.

India, in many ways, is our mother. Will Durant, author of the eleven-volume The Story of Civilisation, summarised:
India was the mother of our race and Sanskrit the mother of Europe’s languages. She was the mother of our philosophy, mother through the Arabs of much of our mathematics, mother through Buddha of the ideals embodied in Christianity, mother through village communities of self-government and democracy. Mother India is in many ways the mother of us all.
And again
It is true that even across the Himalayan barrier India has sent to us such unquestionable gifts as grammar and logic, philosophy and fables, hypnotism and chess, and above all our numerals and our decimal system. But these are not the essence of her spirit; they are trifles compared to what we may learn from her in the future.
Let's hope she survives.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

A Visit to Verdi's Otello

Last night I went to Opera Queensland's production of Otello, directed by Simon Phillips and conducted by Queensland Symphony Orchestra Chief Conductor Johannes Fritzsch. It's an opera I've been fond of for many years, so it gave me great pleasure to freshly admire Verdi's great achievement.

There are around 300 operas made from Shakespeare's plays. Only three are of the first rank: Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and two of Verdi's - Otello and Falstaff. Verdi, who celebrates his 200th anniversary this year, adored Shakespeare, even though he could not read English. He devoured new translations. Famously, he sat with King Lear beside his bed for years, but could not find an operatic solution. I suspect that the failure of almost all Shakespearean opera often has to do with an unwillingness to dispense with the poetry. The plays are already brilliantly full and require no further music - a reason why non-poetic texts often make the best operatic source material. In Arrigo Boito, Verdi had a fine librettist who knew how to strip, distill and rearrange a text in a way that allowed Verdi's music to flourish. With Otello, they made an opera that is better than the play. 

Sunday, 13 October 2013

STC's Romeo and Juliet - some observations

Eryn Jean Norvill as Juliet and Julie Forsyth as the Nurse. 
I saw Kip Williams' Sydney Theatre Company production of Romeo and Juliet on Friday night. The play, one of Shakespeare's early experiments with tragedy, is a good test of a director. It's a flawed work, relying too much on plot and too little on the substance of its titular characters. Juliet can shine, but Romeo rarely does. Often, we spend most of the second half of the play longing to get to the crypt and be done. There can be a lot of shouting. Too often, we grin at the vagaries of Verona's postal service rather than lament lives lost young. The play requires an inventive director.

Kip's production has a lot of good ideas and makes the play work better than it often does. 

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Nick Enright's Blackrock: when the good do nothing

It's probably true that one's early endeavours are more fondly remembered. Memory smoothes the edges of rough biography.

One of my very first major productions was the first production of Nick Enright's Blackrock. Nick and I were friends - both born in Maitland (along with John Bell and Ruth Cracknell, weirdly) - and we spent some time developing this play at Sydney Theatre Company. Cate Blanchett acted Rachel in the early workshops, and the first cast included a fresh Joel Edgerton, Angela Punch McGregor, Simon Lyndon, Kym Wilson, Rebecca Smart, Paul Bishop, Dan Wyllie, Teo Gebert, Kristina Bidenko, John Walton and Julie Godfrey. It's a piece of which we were all very proud.

Yesterday, a new project was launched called Reading Australia, initiated by the Copyright Agency. It aims to promote and expand knowledge of essential pieces of Australian writing. In July, the Australian Society of Authors’ (ASA) Council selected an initial 200 Australian books, both fiction and non-fiction. The list will grow. The idea is that writers, academics, teachers and libraries collaborate to provide material around these works - essays, readings, visual and audio material, teaching resources - allowing users of the list (mostly teachers and students, I guess) to read, interpret, historicise and connect more deeply with this interesting collection of Australian literature. Click here to hear a podcast of an ABC interview with Angelo Loukakis (ASA Executive Director) and Zoe Rodriguez (CA Cultural Fund Manager) discussing the project. 

Yesterday, material on 20 titles was released. The only play so far is Blackrock, and I was honoured to contribute an essay on my experience of the work. It's geared towards an education audience, but I hope has appeal beyond.

Here are my thoughts:

Saturday, 22 June 2013

The Playwright and the Director: An Australian Bushfire

In late May in The Weekend Australian, Rosemary Neill lit a fire that seems to still be burning. There have been various breakouts since then, including here, here, here and here, each fueled differently. 

Today, The Weekend Australian fans more flames, publishing letters by director Aubrey Mellor and playwright Peter Fleming (alarmingly headlined 'Can Ralph Myers be taken seriously?'). It also reports on playwright David Stevens' dissatisfaction with how Australian playwrights are treated, and on a recent forum at NIDA chaired by playwright Stephen Sewell titled 'Rolling in Their Graves - Working with the text of a dead author'

Roland Barthes, of course, famously argued 'The Death of the Author' in a 1968 essay. He died in 1980.

This 'debate', and I use the inverted commas with purpose, has had unusual longevity. The framing has often been poor: auteur vs author, director vs playwright, adaptations vs new plays, Simon Stone vs Australian playwrights, Ralph Myers vs the baby boomers. But the misleading binaries have not diminished passions. One wonders what lurks below.

The Australian theatre has had these kinds of debates many times before. To offer just one example: when Louis Nowra and Stephen Sewell were in their so-called 'internationalist' phase in the late '70s and early '80s - writing plays NOT set in Australia - many thought that they were not properly contributing to the development of Australian theatrical culture and, more bizarrely, that their works were not truly 'new Australian plays'. That argument is now plainly silly. 

This current debate feels like a cousin to that old one. 

There are some basic questions here which, I think, find simple answers. Let me attempt to gaze through the bushfire haze.        

Sunday, 16 June 2013

What price austerity?

The fragile Greek government, seeking to prove that it's serious about austerity, last week shut down the state broadcaster. This message from the musicians of the shut-down national radio and television centre in Athens was published by Norman Lebrecht:
"Dear friends, these are our colleagues from our National Radio Orchestra and Chorus, performing in tears, in their rehearsal room, yesterday night. The room, albeit hot and humid as the air-condition is not working, is packed with people, while thousands are watching outside on the video wall. Both the orchestra and chorus were shut down along with the state radio and tv channels three days ago. 2650 families are now with no job. Please spread the news, we need your support… Let us keep the art alive! Let us keep democracy alive!"  

Greece has failed to see that austerity economics have never worked. It's a debunked approach favoured by those who mistakenly liken the finances of nation states to domestic budgets. In Greece, income cuts and tax increases have exacerbated a crippling recession, forcing tens of thousands of businesses to close and sending unemployment to a record of 27%. Poverty has become widespread and the suicide rate has doubled in the last three years.

Austerity is a dangerous idea. Here's why:

Cut or invest? Public investment in arts and culture can drive economic growth. In England,14p is the amount that each person contributes per week via the Arts Council to investment in arts and culture. That's equal to less than 0.1% of Government spending.

Last week, the International Monetary Fund admitted that it got Greece wrong. It might be too late, for this the birthplace of Western democracy and culture.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Australian Theatre Forum: A View

I dropped into the Australian Theatre Forum in Canberra for its last day on Friday. I attended all of ATF 2009 in Melbourne, but none of ATF 2011 in Brisbane. I adored the experience of that first ATF and so really wanted to experience just a little of what ATF 2013 had to offer.


Sounds like there were at least three highlights, each of which I missed. Firstly, there were the opening day keynotes. Medical anthropologist and social historian Lenore Manderson and futurist Kristin Alford, founding director of Bridge8, kicked off. Their question was “Do we even have a future?” Many found it very stimulating to begin with the thoughts of two scientists. Then David Milroy, the first Artistic Director of Yirra Yaakin Aboriginal Theatre, gave a stirring and good humoured account of the growing appetite for black stories and a provocation for how we work together as a theatre community. Many I spoke with were moved and inspired.  

The second highlight was a day two keynote from Kelly Cooper and Pavol Liska of the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma and OK Radio. Their approach opened a space that revealed the need to talk about race. David Milroy had, in his way, set the scene the day before. Here, it generated heat that was not welcomed by all. But it undoubtedly pointed to our uneasy relationship with racism, something which provoked headlines in the sporting arena on those same days. Subsequently, Indigenous theatre makers met privately and reported back to the Forum with a statement calling for support for work towards a "best practice model" when making theatre involving Indigenous culture. And all this in National Reconciliation Week.

People seem also to have enjoyed a presentation of the latest Currency Press Platform Paper, Re-valuing the Artist in the New World Order from David Pledger of Melbourne’s Not Yet, It's DifficultHe joined Martin Portus in conversation.


Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Australian Theatre Forum: Playwrights and Audiences

Ahead of the Australian Theatre Forum in Canberra this week, The Australian newspaper today floated a couple of articles to get people talking.

Firstly, Rosemary Neill followed up her Weekend Australian report on what appears to be a surfeit of adaptations on the Australian stage with an incendiary opinion piece on how in "some areas of the theatre there is an astonishing lack of respect for dramatists". She quotes Andrew Bovell as describing the growing popularity of refurbished foreign classics as "lazy", "easy" and "conservative", and takes swipes at Simon Stone, Andrew Upton and Malthouse Theatre.

There should be a place for such adaptations, and a place for new plays. I don't know how anyone could reasonably argue otherwise. Indeed, such adaptations have always been part of our theatre menu, although perhaps not as obviously as now, and auteurs and authors have always shared the cooking. The question is one of balance. My view is that there has, indeed, been an diminishing respect for playwrights in recent years. Lately, I've heard far too many alarming stories from level-headed playwrights to think differently. Some stories have been shocking. The Australian theatre, as a whole, has always had to fight hard to enjoy a thriving playwriting culture, but it feels to me that the time has come for another round of sensible and mature focus.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Nicole Kidman and my knee

Nicole Kidman placed her hand on my knee. I blushed. She said to relax and not to worry. We were in her trailer at Fox Studios during filming of Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge, just shortly before Christmas 1999. Kim Williams, then head of Fox Studios, was also there, along with Angela Bowne SC. Who knew what would happen?

Nicole put her money on the table, and asked Kim to match it. Kim immediately did, but then to his continuing credit offered to call David Leckie, then head of the Nine Network, asking that Nine match it too. As ever, Kim was true to his word. David happily agreed, and then a few days later the Australian Theatre for Young People had close to half a million dollars over three years.

I recalled this moment at the 50th Anniversary gathering of ATYP at The Wharf in Sydney on 23 February. It was a moment that enabled transformation. I had been appointed Artistic Director of ATYP earlier that year and knew of the challenges facing a company that needed, and was inviting, change.

The Board had asked me to look into a particular possibility: that the company live up to the promise of the national reach inherent in its name. It's difficult to make anything in Australia national - geography is tyrannous - but ATYP has had that promise embedded in its very identifier since 1963.

We went about meeting the challenge in a few ways. Why don't we ask 30 youth arts companies from right across the nation, from small regional towns to capital cities, to each send a young artist to something we'd call the National Studio? There they'd meet and work with some of the best professional artists we could muster. Where better to hold the event than in the middle of the country?