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.

To be honest, I don't think the argument in The Australian has been framed in the most useful way. It's a pity it's been framed as auteur vs author. Both can, and should, happily coexist. If there's a problem - and I believe there is - it has nothing to do with Simon Stone or Shakespeare. It has everything to do with how some of our theatres have lost the intellectual and cultural capacity to best nurture plays and playwrights into full dramatic life. Some of our theatre literary departments are now poorly staffed and sometimes inadequately trained. And even if there is adequate capacity, there is often a disconnect between that work and those who make the programming decisions. Too often, we have the playwright as simple content provider, hurriedly assessed and easily dismissed.  

Nor do I think there's anything wrong with Andrew Upton, STC's Artistic Director, saying that "literature, which is all well and good in the book club and the streamlined curriculum... does not count for much in theatre". I can think of no worse advice to a young playwright than to suggest they aim for literary value, whatever that might be. A playwright's task is in the dramatic - and often that has no basis whatsoever in what we commonly think of as the literary. Using Shakespeare as an example of a playwright who is at once poetic and dramatic, as Rosemary Neill does, is of no help. Such thinking can often lead to characters on stage who sound like writers. It is, in my view, one of the the most common flaws of contemporary writing for the stage.        

I've noted shifts in my own seasons at La Boite Theatre Company, and have recently created a Playwrights' Residency, in partnership with Griffin Theatre Company and Playwriting Australia, of a type that I hope will correct the balance. It's an unusual position for me. My career has very much been centred on new plays - of the almost 20 productions I've directed for Sydney Theatre Company, for example, well over half have been of new plays; and my time as Artistic Director of Griffin saw me helm exclusively new work. Curiously, though, my time at La Boite has not been characterised by 'new Australian plays' - and for good reasons I think. I felt a few years ago that La Boite's repertoire needed to breathe in different ways - with refreshed classics, new international plays of certain kinds, and new works that did not necessarily centre the writer. The palette, I felt, needed new colours. But now the time has come for a new balance. I hope this new Playwrights' Residency, involving three women and a Brisbane writer arrived from the Congo, and linking with leaders in the field, will contribute to the national theatre culture in a way that is driven by the local. I hope it will provide a distinctive, fulfilling and much needed way forward.         

The second article in The Australian today is on the "newly liberated audiences". Audiences, it says, are "becoming involved in performances, talking back to the actors on stage, taking their drinks into the auditorium and - a vexing practice in some theatres - taking pictures and tweeting. It's as if the fourth wall of theatre convention has been knocked down, and players and audience are part of an interactive, multi-directional experience". Now, anyone who knows their Western theatre history will know that audiences have periodically been "liberated" in this way. The Elizabethans, the Restoration audience, and many audiences of the 1970s, for example. In some senses, it's not new.

But I do think there's something happening now. We are in an era of participation. I've written about this elsewhere. We see it all around us. We can comment on most news stories - and the comments often tell us more than the story itself. We don’t just receive the news; we participate in it. We can personalise our news sources, essentially working as editors. Television now enthusiastically invites us to “tell us what you think” through social media, with comments tweeted throughout many programs. Not so long ago we simply watched. Wikipedia means that we can all participate in the documentation of knowledge. The best public libraries are now lively public spaces, social and creative. The days of going to a library to borrow a book are well and truly over. Art galleries often run on the ‘view and do’ model, offering opportunities to make art as well as to see pictures. Technology, especially, means that we are now a generation of creators – not just consumers. Anyone can make a film. Just use your phone. Anyone can compose music on their computer. People can self publish like never before – and go nowhere near a printer. The border between professional and amateur – to use that old dichotomy – is now very blurry.

People feel they have a right to actively create, not just passively consume. They expect, somehow, to share in the tools, to influence, to comment freely, to experience a deeper level of participation and even ownership. They increasingly expect a more personalised experience of theatre, just as they can now personalise their news sources, their TV viewing, their music playlists, their phones, their computers, and so many other aspects of their lives. They expect a social as much as an aesthetic dimension to their arts experience.

This, for me, is the background to this "newly liberated audience". It's something I've quite consciously explored at La Boite. Three Shakespeares - Hamlet, Julius Caesar and As You Like It (probably the first three plays Shakespeare wrote for the new Globe Theatre) - were produced in quite an "Elizabethan" way in our round theatre of another type, La Boite's Roundhouse Theatre. The audiences were notably boisterous. A few years on, there is barely a show at La Boite in which the actors simply talk with each other. In almost every production there is a fun and fluid relationship between actor and audience, manifesting in a million ways. Audiences have come to expect it and it guides our programming. The result has been, indeed, a "newly liberated audience". In all of my theatre going life, I have never known an audience that feels so free to do what it likes - to laugh, cry, get up, talk back. This is not theatre far away at the end of a room. This is theatre that acknowledges the shared room. This is theatre that attempts to live and breathe with those who have gathered to see it. And it's an audience that is young - around 45% of the La Boite audience is aged 30 or under (an insane statistic) - and if not young, then very young at heart and completely up for the game, for the conspiracy of belief, that lies at the heart of theatre.  

I wonder what conversation these articles, and responses, will provoke at the Australian Theatre Forum.


  1. Nice work DB - look fwd to reading more - KG

  2. "Such thinking can often lead to characters on stage who sound like writers ..."

    Um ... there are occasions -- many in fact -- when the characters on stage ARE writers. Some are highly charged, prolix policy wonks. So they SHOULD sound like they have a literary bent.

    Thank God Aaron Sorkin had the good sense to ignore such an inexplicably nonsensical edict.

    Why there is this compulsion to dumb down theatre dialogue to the point of Championship Wrestling is beyond me.

  3. Quite right Rutegar. If a character is a writer, then they should probably sound like one.

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