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.


ATF 2013 was conventionally structured. A few key note addresses and then a series of panel or talks with times for questions. This approach disappointed many I spoke with, and indeed for me it was a let down. One of the distinguishing features of ATF 2009 was that its organising principle was Open Space, an approach to gatherings that provides for agreement on an overall theme or purpose but also allows the gathering to begin without a formal agenda. In 2009, this approach was expertly moderated by some of the team from UK theatre company Improbable. It allowed for rich and free flowing discussions, and a building of great content over the days of the Forum. Everyone felt heard and everything was imbued with a genuine sense of the practical. ATF 2013 was, I suspect, poorer for taking a more conventional path. Genuine and open discussion seemed stifled, with perhaps too much emphasis given to major organisations of various types.

Despite an emphasis on major organisations, there was fairly piecemeal representation from the major players. National figures came briefly, then departed.    

It was also perhaps unfortunate that three other large national gatherings were happening at the same time in Canberra. When I arrived, many who had been there for the APACA Performing Arts Conference were already conferenced out. It ran from Sunday 26 May and closed just as the ATF was beginning in the same venue. The Australia Council's Marketing Summit ran alongside ATF at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House, through to the close of Thursday. This was a great pity. I know that many would like to have actively participated in both. But it was very difficult to do so. There was next to no discussion about audiences at the ATF, despite this being one of the most complex of contemporary concerns for theatre. There was an implicit assumption that the artists and the marketers have nothing in common. On the Wednesday, the first day of ATF, TippingPoint Australia 2013 was held, a gathering of around 80 artists, scientists, politicians, economists, activists and philosophers exploring how we can work towards a future affected by climate change. The artists involved included Deborah Cheetham, Hannie Rayson, Leisa Shelton and Nigel Jamieson. Attendance was by invitation only. Some of the creative thinking there sounded terrific. Pity we all missed it.

I'm not sure the Canberra Theatre Centre was the best venue. Almost all of the ATF sessions happened on the theatre stage itself, big enough to accommodate us all. It felt to me a dulling environment, and I was only there for a day.

And for all the talk about technology, why was nothing live streamed for those who couldn't attend? Podcasts of the keynotes are still not available.

It's perhaps unfair to offer too much criticism following just as day's presence. But these feelings were also held by very many people I spoke with who had been there throughout. I might also be remembering ATF 2009 too fondly. Being the first such gathering in living memory, it had something of the family reunion about it which gave it a frisson perhaps impossible to recover.  

I do wonder if the ATF has outlived its usefulness. Three gatherings in relatively quick succession might have exhausted some areas of interest. Still, a nation as geographically spread as Australia might well need opportunities for considered assembly.

We were promised on the final day that ATF 2015 would take place. No venue or city is confirmed. If, indeed, it does see life, I hope that the Forum will consider a return to the principles of Open Space and a venue that is freeing and inviting.


  1. David, always worth reading your thoughts. You seem to have captured what many others have been saying. I was not there so I can only go on reports like yours and conversations had post ATF. But I think you may have the essence.

  2. Hi David... interesting to read your comments... oddly, whilst I was also only available to attend for a couple of sessions, I had the opposite experience to you... perhaps because the sessions I attended were the ones you were only able to experience second hand... both the opening session with the futurists and the Thursday morning session that sparked such a lot of response, were provocative and inspiring in their own ways... there was obviously something about being in the room that sent my off on my early departure feeling a bit invigorated by a lot of big and complex ideas that resonate with me still... I can't agree that the ATF has had it's day (I should declare that I'm on the Board on TNV so I have an interest in the event apart from my professional interest as a practitioner)... it seems to me that each forum has its own personality and tone... obviously not everyone will be satisfied by every event but, for me, they provide an important continuum for a far flung industry that enables us, to some extent, to plan ahead for those times when we will all come together... and to find those moments when our interaction with each other can be actual rather than virtual...

  3. Yes, Chris, I heard from many that those opening sessions were terrific. I was sorry to miss them. The ATF will always be a positive thing, if only because it allows such a dispersed theatre culture, geographically and otherwise, to come together. But we should ensure that once we're there - and it's only every two years - the very most is made of the gathering. Thanks for dropping by!