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.        

Should we have adaptations of classics plays?  Of course. For thousands of years, adaptations have been one of the Western theatre's life bloods. The Greeks started it. The torch they lit stills flares brilliantly, throwing light on our relationship with time and taste. Writers and directors have fruitfully adapted classics, to the delight or distaste of audiences, for longer than the Athens Fire Brigade has been in existence. Many Australians have done so.

Simon Stone
Are these adaptations rightly called 'new Australian works'?  Sometimes. I think Simon Stone's play, called The Wild Duck but very far removed from Ibsen's play of the same name, was a new Australian play and a very good one. The War of the Roses, an often radical rearrangement of Shakespeare by Benedict Andrews and Tom Wright, was a great Australian production, but was it a 'new Australian work' in the way we commonly understand that phrase? No, and no one claimed that it was. Sometimes, though, the question can border on the unreasonable. Jane Howard, writing for Guardian Australia's new Australia Culture Blog, gets a little too close to calling Eamon's Flack excellent production of Tony Kushner's Angels in America a new Australian work, simply because, to her, the production speaks with an Australian sense of humour. 

Are these adaptations being credited appropriately?  Not all the time. To pick on poor Simon Stone once again, I think he should have called his play something other than The Wild Duck when he (rightly, I think) took the top writing credit. Patrick Marber, when he reframed Strindberg's Miss Julie (1888) in an English country house in July 1945, and took top writing credit, had the right mind to call his new English play After Miss Julie. As Aubrey Mellor pointed out in his letter today, when Tennessee Williams wrote his version of Chekhov's Seagull, and took top credit, he called it The Notebook of Trigorin. It's just common sense. It's perfectly fine to take an out-of-copyright author's work and to wring it into something genuinely new which you then call your own. As I argue, theatre artists have been doing that since the Greeks. But it's good that we can be respectful of our ancestors, give them due credit, and not dupe audiences into thinking that the orange is an apple. 

Are these adaptations crowding out new plays?  This has been the clarion contention, but I haven't seen a scrap of evidence. It might well be that there are fewer new Australian plays being produced, but it's not at all clear that this is attributable to a perceived new penchant for adaptations.  

Are Australian playwrights getting a rough time at the moment?  I suspect soI think there has 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. I think some of our theatres have lost the intellectual and cultural capacity to best nurture plays and playwrights into full dramatic life. Some of the literary departments in our theatres are 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. 

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.

There are are a few good opportunities around at the moment: the Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature in tandem with the State Theatre Company of South Australia is offering the Jill Blewett Playwright’s Award commission at $12,500 (adaptations considered); ATYP's Fresh Ink National Studio is calling for entries for 18 writers to work with Jane Bodie, Angela Betzien and Declan Greene in residence for a week at beautiful Riversdale; Belvoir is accepting applications for the $20,000 Balnaves Foundation Indigenous Playwright’s Award; and the Australian-American Fulbright Commission in partnership with Inscription, the Copyright Agency and the Australian Council, has established a new Fulbright Professional Playwriting Scholarship, valued at up to $32,000, which provides the opportunity to spend three or four months in the USA developing a new play. I'm sure there are other opportunities. 

Still, such opportunities need to find their way to the stage. That's the crux. I hope the Playwrights-in-Residence project we just launched at La Boite Theatre Company, in partnership with Griffin Theatre Company and Playwriting Australia, will lead playwrights Future Fidel, Julia-Rose Lewis, Kathryn Marquet and Maxine Mellor to that place. Some of my richest experiences as a director has been with new plays, and I look forward to more of them.

While the current bushfires might not produce a playwriting phoenix, rising in plumage in golds and purples and reds, it might produce, I hope, some deeper thinking and action. I hope the Australian theatre can, collectively and distinctively, find even richer ways to express our stories exercising all of the full and fertile means available to the contemporary imagination, which includes the playwright's voice. It's what audiences and artists expect.


  1. Are these adaptations crowding out new plays? This has been the clarion contention, but I haven't seen a scrap of evidence. It might well be that there are fewer new Australian plays being produced, but it's not at all clear that this is attributable to a perceived new penchant for adaptations.

    I think this is the crux. If we're going to have intelligent discussion we need to know what we're talking about - we need hard facts and figures. I'd be perfectly happy to do research into how production and commission numbers compair to 10, 20, 30 years ago if only there was funding. In the mean time, we're being subjected to op-eds based on opinions and gut feelings and not facts, which helps no one at all.

    The Jill Blewett is interesting to refer to. This is the first year it is being offered resulting in an industry-standard commission fee, in previous years it has been a flat $10,000 prize and, unfortunately, we've seen very little come out of it on the public side. I'm excited to see how STCSA is tackling commissions and their commitment to giving new Australian plays second productions.

    And since I'm here: I've copped a bit of flack for the Guardian piece. I may be arguing "a little too close" but I honestly cannot remember the last time I was so excited by the feeling of a play being so much of the time and place it was from and the time and place we are now. I certainly hate to think some people felt I was arguing against the need for (actual) new Australian play scripts - as my bookshelf can attest.

  2. Thanks for your comments Jane. I'm sure some useful figures are available from Playwriting Australia. They do a lot of that kind of research.

    I don't think anyone who knows you or your commentary would ever think that you were arguing in The Guardian against the need for (actual) new Australian plays.

  3. Thanks for this, David; it's a great contribution to the present discussion. I think what a number of writers, including myself, Andrew Bovell and Lachlan Philpott want to bring out of this is a wider debate about the nature and future of Australian theatre. The idea that we want "better" theatre or "higher artistic quality" seems to me to have taken us nowhere, or at least not very far, and what we should really be aiming for is something making a real contribution to the debate about what Australia stands for. It seems perfectly obvious to me that the last real theatrical breakthrough we experienced - the one that brought us Williamson, Hibberd, Romeril and Hewett (to name only a few) - was very consciously aware of its political mission to carve something called "Australian Theatre" out of a landscape dominated by British and American culture, but that just as the tide of republicanism was successfully fought back by political conservatives, so too was the desire to have a genuine Australian theatre examining, challenging and redefining the Australian character and way of life, so that now we are in a paradoxical situation where our craft skills - for actors, writers, directors and designers - are vastly improved, but the things we're actually saying have regressed to platitudes about art - reflected, I think, in both the decline of audience and the profile of our particular artform. This is obviously a very contentious thing to say, suggesting a much bigger debate, but it is one I think that is very important, and to which I hope the theatre community might turn its attention, and to which it is indeed hopefully already turning. I don't think anyone is comfortable in framing the current imbroglio as a "Directors Vs Writers" debate, least of all the many good directors, such as yourself, Chris Drummond and I daresay Neil Armfield, who deeply value the work and sacrifice of writers; but also writers such as myself who have built their careers in collaboration with our friends and colleagues, the directors; and the sooner we can get away from such a framing, the sooner we can get onto what must be all our goal: the desire to say something real about where we live.

  4. Thanks for this David. It's timely and of importance to many of us. My feeling it that respect for Australian stage writing is lacking, especially in the major companies, who refuse to read unsolicited new Australian plays and instead shunt them off to a central agency. This means that instead of having their play read by a number of readers in major companies, they are read by precious few. Where is the spectrum of opinion there? The flagship companies plead they don't have the resources - yet they have the resources for directors, designers, actors, admin staff, ushers... why not for new Australian writing? If this is not a priority for them - with all the cultural implications involved - then what do they stand for, and indeed what are they there for? What is their purpose, beyond re-staging classics, West End and Broadway hits?

  5. Thank you David and all for this contribution in the recent 'debate' / 'debacle'. As I wrote online a few weeks ago and discussed in person at length with one of the participants - the gist is as David noted as have I and others a) we need to move away from the binary approach of either/or, or, this vs that (as in writers vs directors), and, b) begin to look at the breadth of cultural issues at play underneath the current 'debate'/'debacle'. In my experience as a playwright, director, auteur, adaptor, director of complete unedited classics, as well as actor/performer in approximately 120 live productions - I think there are a range of cultural issues at play. Particularly there is, in Australian theatre, an ever present series of "gatekeepers" who control, dominate, prevent, waylay a wide range of authentic discussion. Writers and artists who write such as; David Malouf, Robert Treborlang, Richard Bell, Fiona Foley, and of course Donald Horne and a range of others have tried to lay the cards on the table. But the gatekeepers at every level and in every organization try to keep their poker hand closed. Playwright Nicolai Erdman in his play The Suicide has the mother-in-law of the unemployed protagonist, says "There is enough work in Russia for the whole world. The problem is there is not enough influence to go around." The Australia Council is deified, and has always been so. There is a fundamentalism in the theatre about how things are done. Debate by example is the disgusting behaviour year in year out in parliament. No wonder one can feel the fear in most gatherings/forums and a genuine debate of fresh voices and old ones, of representatives of varying cultures, of different aesthetics. The articles around writer vs director and other binaries listed by David is only the merest tip of an iceberg of repressed communication. It is as Stephen points out - a cultural question. The problem is the framing of the questions at this stage and the voices that are allowed to raise the stakes in a gatekeeper dominated theatre culture.

  6. I was writing a major speech and the cat just walked across the keyboard - and happened to step on the delete button. Gone. Would school teachers accept that from a student today? Great to see people talking - will pitch in another time.

  7. Stephen, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I think you make a much bigger point than mine: while our skills as artists might be better than they were 20 years ago, are we actually saying anything that is of genuine interest? That's quite a challenge. I know that many of things things that you're introducing into the new NIDA Playwrights Course are aimed at opening up this part of the artist's position. All power to you.

    Larry, thanks also to you for your comment. The question of promising to read unsolicited scripts in a theatre company is a complex one. I know that at La Boite we simply can't afford it. We can't afford lots of things - interstate artists, more than one or two large shows a year, specialist costume designers, voice coaches, ushers, and so on. We still read lots of plays, though - it's just that we don't promise to read everything that comes along. You pray that something doesn't slip through. It's not ideal of course, but the choice can often be between engaging readers to read unsolicited scripts, or creating a commission, or creating space for the development of plays you have a genuine interest in. I'm not sure about the larger companies, though...

    Ira, thanks for taking the time to contribute. You probably know that the Australia Council is right now on the cusp of huge structural changes that will see the dismantling of all the current boards and many of the familiar processes. Not much deifying there; or if there is, the god will be of a very different colour. It'll be fascinating to see what emerges and how it affects the way the much increased federal funds are distributed.

    James, get a dog.

    1. I agree with David. James, get a dog.

  8. Thanks David. My comments re reading scripts really apply to the state flagship companies, that do have the resources but lack the respect for Australian writing and culture even to bother to read plays written by people they don't know. It's great you do as much as you can to redress this. Vive la Boîte!

  9. Since my name is mentioned (although with an odd possessive) I might as well chime in.

    One of the most offensive things in the debate was said by Ralph Myers - that we should be "theatre makers" not playwrights, and he summoned up the idea of playwrights as working alone in a garret.

    Okay, I'm a theatre maker. I've been an actor, a stage manager and a director. That didn't help with my first play in Australia, it was rejected by every theatre I sent it to, but it surely helped in America where the play, "The Sum of Us," ran for a year in New York, won awards and was made into a movie.

    Even that didn't help it in Australia, where (until last year) it had only ever had one professional production, at the STC, and has never been professionally produced in the city in which it is set - Melbourne. There was a regional tour of it last year when one critic called it the "much loved" Australian play, which I thought was ironic - how can it be much loved if it is never performed?

    Nor has it helped me with my later plays, one of which is an "adaptation" (of a classic fable) - LOL - but for which I cannot get a professional guernsey. Maybe it isn't very good, I hear you cry, and maybe that's true, but it has been performed in an amateur theatre and was a sell-out success.

    The problem for me is not rejection of the play - I've been rejected by some pretty show bix good minds (sacked by a couple) and accepted by some others. The problem is the lack of the conversation as to why.

    Nor do I count myself as "an artist alone in a garret." None of my work, for stage, tv, film and novels, has been achieved by me alone, all have been subject to the hurly burly of production, cuts, changes, rewrites and the vagaries of directors, producers (and sometimes publishers).

    Two of my books would never have seen the light of day without the collaboration of Alex Haley -who was dead when I wrote 'em.

    So I am struggling with the ideas presented by Mr. Myers as to what a writer is - and what we do.


    we're just following America's lead down the rabbit hole ...

  11. As I mentioned to Alison Croggon who delights in throwing the word "collaboration" around the theatre world like confetti. Collaboration implies inclusion. And at this point, playwrights are feeling cut out of the process altogether and left on the sidelines. Thus they are justified iin question the sincerity of the grand collaborative ethos of the Australian theatre.

    But as noted above this isn't unique to Australia and I fear the bushfire will continue to burn.

    It does remind of the line from the Robert Altman film THE PLAYER when a studio executive laments paying writers for a screenplay.

    GRIFFIN MILL (Tim Robbins) : I was just thinking what an interesting concept it is to eliminate the writer from the artistic process. If we could just get rid of these actors and directors, maybe we've got something here.