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Platform Paper 39
In 2013, growing dismay over changes in the repertoire of Australian theatre erupted in a debate about the value of original drama versus adaptations of classic plays. Playwrights who thought their work neglected argued the need for drama that reflected and interpreted contemporary Australia. Original work, directors countered, was costly and the outcome uncertain; classic adaptations were still Australian and offered greater audience satisfaction. Julian Meyrick, however, believes the adaptive mindset goes back further than the present quarrel, to the beliefs and practices of our theatre’s commercial founders.
Today we have surrendered the ground won by the New Wave forty years ago: an Australian dramatic consciousness. It is not about defending Tennessee Williams over David Williamson, he says, but about understanding the specific needs of our national drama. Audiences no longer appreciate the difference between creating a new play and buying an old one, and both the theatre profession and public policy contribute to this confusion. Making new work is hard primary research. To succeed at it we need a dedicated national theatre. Not a hero building or a star-artist company, but a co-commissioning, co-production house that will address seriously the development of new Australian drama—and the construction of our own classic repertoire.
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Working with a group of playwrights, discussing the changes in the industry we all perceived, I mention the film Serpico where Al Pacino, a whistle-blowing cop, explains how his colleagues will kill him. No one has to do anything, Pacino says, just not be around when needed. Absence of support is enough to end his life. ‘Tell that one’, say the playwrights. ‘Never mind the academic arguments. Tell that one.’
Christine Croyden is a Melbourne playwright and life member and director of Melbourne Writers' Theatre. She's currently collaborating on a musical and writing a screenplay based on her most recent play, How to Survive an Earthquake.
I enjoyed reading Julian Meyrick's Platform Paper and attending his recent discussion of it in Melbourne. He illuminates many things playwrights have been feeling about our theatre culture/wider culture for some time. I particularly liked the section 'Adapting ourselves to death' as so much of it rang true. Especially his discussion of how repertoire has coalesced around a director-led development model at the Malthouse.
This has been the case for years and I fear it is extending to independent venues in Melbourne, where programming now focuses on the director and the marketing potential of the work. I was interviewed recently by the publicist and marketing manager at one of these (expensive) venues about a new musical I'm working on with a well-known composer. The questions they had for the producer, composer and myself were: Who is the director? Who is the publicist? Do you have a website? This is where playwrights live now in Australia. And while I understand, to some extent, that a market-driven approach to theatre needs to be in place for sustainability, when reputable independent producers are paying to stage co-op productions of artists they believe in, surely the track record of the artist should be first consideration, rather than 'Who's your publicist?' We independents take huge risks-financial, personal and artistic-and if venues continue down this track with marketing as the gatekeeper it doesn't bode well for theatre artists or audiences.
At least there's still La Mama, which always supports independent artists, and in a much smaller way Melbourne Writers' Theatre; but neither have the capacity to meet demand. At Malthouse the emphasis is director-driven theatre. Red Stitch likes to focus on international work, and the approach of the MTC seems to be whatever will keep the subscribers happy. Although NEON is a great initiative and one much appreciated by independents.
The argument of the moment is that Australian plays are mostly bad. If this is the case it's because Australia doesn't know how to grow or value playwrights, and only supports a select few. During my years at Melbourne Writers' Theatre I've read many plays, most of them written by people who will never go through the process of writing draft after draft and endure reading after painful reading in an attempt to achieve something worthwhile. However, occasionally a writer with the required stamina comes along and we do what we can to encourage them. This always includes a recommendation for professional dramaturgy by one of only two experienced dramaturgs in Melbourne. (There are so many people calling themselves dramaturgs these days, and this is yet another stumbling block for playwrights, who can be seriously stymied by bad advice.)
For me writing a play is about taking a critical position in relation to my own culture. The imperative to write them remains strong; so I continue, even though I can't see things improving for playwrights in a hurry, especially while marketability is valued above all else. As Meyrick points out:
Why pursue a corpus of plays that can be brought into being only with difficulty, uncertainty and effort, rather than identifying what 'the best' drama has to offer and sticking with that? Because there comes a time in the life of a people, as there does in an individual, when articulating a response to a changing world becomes more pressing than a need for assured success.
Surely that time in Australia is now.