Monday, 16 December 2013

Postcard from Perth 5

Theatre Reviews and Reflections from WA

Declarations of Independence

Last week I was asked to contribute to a list of things that make Perth a great place to make work.

My first response was to take a snapshot of the artificial beach (complete with sand, deckchairs and sun-umbrellas) currently occupying the amphitheatre outside Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts in front of the Cultural Centre screen (which shows non-stop contemporary art short videos during the week and family movies on weekends over the summer). During the day the beach is full of kids and families playing, and at night adults cool their heels in the banana lounges outside the PICA bar.

I see the Cultural Centre beach as a symbol of everything I love about living and making theatre in Perth. It’s a free, peaceful, democratic, down-to-earth, communal space to play in. I mean 'play' in the sense of 'free play', not ‘playing the game’. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the difference between playing and games, and the affinity between playing and art, in connection with Ahil Ratnamoham’s performance work at PICA based on football. One of the most important things about play, I’ve decided, is that it’s collaborative. You watch kids play, and there’s something utopian about the way they take on and discard roles, tasks and objectives as the mood takes them. They achieve what the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called ‘flow’. I believe that’s what we seek as artists, and perhaps as audiences too.


Last Wednesday I was invited to an informal meeting of the WA Theatre Network in the courtyard behind PICA bar after work. The occasion was a visit to Perth from Nicole Beyer from Theatre Network Victoria. TNV is an industry advocacy body funded by Arts Victoria, focussed on the small-to-medium and independent theatre sector. Its brief includes the coordination of similar state-based ‘networks’ across the country, funded or otherwise.

There was a bar tab courtesy of The Blue Room, and a small crowd of about thirty or forty independent-theatre-types turned up (two hapless punters in suits left as soon as the speeches started). The meeting was hosted by Kerry O’Sullivan from The Blue Room, who gave a welcoming address. This was followed by a brief and inconclusive report from Michael Daly at the WA Department of Culture and the Arts (DCA) about the current and future status of the Theatre Works Grants: a special one-off funding round earlier this year which distributed around $380,000 – previously earmarked for Thin Ice Productions and Deckchair Theatre Company, both of which wound up at the end of last year – to independent or small-to-medium projects at various stages of development or production. We were told that tenders had currently closed for consultation on what should be done with the money next year. (All other things being equal, I couldn’t help thinking, why not simply do the same thing again: give it to the independent artists, to make more and better independent theatre, and get paid for doing so? But as an independent myself, I can’t claim to be altogether objective about this.)

Next came three short speeches or ‘provocations’. First, Nicole Beyer read out her passionate response – to be published in the next edition of Platform Papers (a quarterly issue by Currency Press of essays by practitioners on the performing arts) – to David Pledger’s recent and stunningly articulate Platform Paper on ‘Re-Valuing the Artist in the New World Order’, an outline of which he presented at the Australian Theatre Forum in Canberra earlier this year. Among other things, David’s essay is a scathing attack on the corporatization of arts funding and practice in Australia, and in particular the ideology of ‘managerialism’ which he argues has distorted the funding guidelines and initiatives of the Australia Council and its state-based counterparts. In reaction, he exhorts us to re-prioritize ‘the artist’ as the central figure in arts practice – and indeed as an emblematic figure for the necessarily creative global economy and politics of the 21st century.

Nicole’s response to David’s critique (which she broadly endorsed) was followed by a provocation from Fiona de Garis from Performing Lines WA – the local producing body for independent theatre, dance and performance artists. PLWA is currently funded by the Australia Council under the Managing and Producing Services (MAPS) initiative, which supports similar bodies in NSW, Victoria and Queensland. Fiona’s speech acknowledged the irony that whenever independent artists ring her up to ask for guidance in finding a producer, she doesn’t know whom to recommend – the reverse irony being that getting independent projects off the ground, let alone funded or programmed, is increasingly contingent on having a producer on board from the get-go. As an independent artist I can testify to this double irony, having spent years producing my own unfunded work, and then recently being obliged to return part of a small grant because I couldn’t credibly nominate a producer (the one I’d originally lined up got a managerial job with a mainstage theatre company).

The final provocation came from Amy Barrett Lennard at PICA, and concerned the limited availability and viability of venues for independent work. Amy’s cautionary tale was about the PICA Performance Space, the floor of which recently caved in due to termite damage beneath one edge of the seating rostra just prior to a performance, despite repeated requests for maintenance funding from the local authorities. As this is one of the main venues for the forthcoming Fringe Summer Nights season, which begins in late January, I couldn’t help fearing for my seat, if not my life, in little over a month’s time.

So: three interventions about systemic failure in funding, producing and programming independent theatre; and all three, I couldn’t help remarking, from well-meaning, salaried arts advocates, producers and administrators, rather than unsalaried artists. David Pledger, QED. The very phrase, ‘unsalaried artists’: a pleonasm if ever there was one. What does all of this portend for so-called ‘independent theatre’ in Perth and elsewhere?


Meanwhile on the other side of the country, QTC Artistic Director Wesley Enoch delivered the annual Philip Parsons Memorial Lecture at Belvoir Street last Sunday. The title of his lecture? ‘I Don’t Do It for the Money.’ His putative subject? Independent theatre: its personal, financial, ethical and cultural implications; and in particular its more recent co-opting by mainstage companies in the form of unwaged ‘independent’ seasons like ‘Neon’ at the MTC, ‘Helium’ at The Malthouse, ‘Stablemates’ at Griffin and ‘LaBoite Indie’ at La Boite – the predatory economics of which Wesley openly called ‘immoral’. Needless to say, this part of his lecture has since drawn stinging counter-attacks from some of those companies (and from a few independent artists as well).

I think these counter-attacks miss the point. Wesley’s provocative critique is part of a broader and more realistic reflection on the current state of play, tendencies across the sector, and its likely future. Read more thoroughly, his lecture actually advocates a more profound incorporation of the values and principles of independent theatre into the modus operandi of the mainstage companies, rather than merely exploiting its artists, or worse, chewing them up and spitting them out again. Be streetwise; engage with your audience and ‘fan-base’ directly; spend less on paid advertising; in fact spend less across the board; find other ways to raise cash; strip theatre back to the essentials (performance rather than production values); strip company infrastructure back to essentials; salary-sacrifice; put your money where your mouth is; respect the fact that artists have lives; rehearse part-time. And finally, as independent artists: reflect on whether what you’re doing is giving you what you need. Look after yourself, and the ones you love. To cite the Indonesian proverb referred to by Wesley at the end of his lecture: remember to plough your field as well as practising your craft. 

Only yesterday, my weekly Equity e-bulletin directed me to a recent MEAA paper on ‘The Independent Theatre Sector and Unpaid Performers’, which is currently being considered by the National Performers Committee. This provides a more traditional labour-union perspective on the issue, although it rather narrowly identifies ‘independent theatre’ as something that apparently emerged in Sydney in 1997 at the Old Fitzroy Hotel, as distinct from ‘fringey, alternative theatre’ (which I imagine describes what I and my collaborators were doing in Melbourne in the 80s – or perhaps do in Perth now).

‘We will be consulting members who work in the sector,’ the Equity e-bulletin solemnly proclaimed. Expect more on this front soon.


My reservation about all these interventions is their adversarial tenor. Artists versus funding bodies; artists versus management; companies versus each other; independent theatre, for or against? In this regard I’m reminded of other recent theatrical controversies: adaptations versus ‘original’ plays, for example, or directors versus writers, or even (especially vexed in Perth) the issue of ‘local’ versus ‘imported’ actors. Perhaps these squabbles are fundamentally about competition for scarce resources and lack of funding across the sector. Perhaps they reflect the cycles of fashion, or generational conflict and change. Or perhaps they simply represent the dynamics of competition and conflict in any sphere of human activity: between private, corporate and public interests, for example, or between workers and employers. Certainly artists have always been marginalized and powerless, notwithstanding their serendipitous access to glory.

Nevertheless, I believe that what serves to divide us is also the motor of development and change. I welcome interventions like those of David and Wesley: not least because, as a friend expressed it recently, they open up ‘room to think’. More precisely, they remind me where my own principles lie, both alongside and athwart their own.

I started working in theatre in Melbourne in the 80s as a collaborator, and I’ve never stopped. As a member of an ensemble of devisors – actors, writers, directors, producers, sometimes all at once, sometimes taking it in turns, sometimes inviting outside specialists to join us, and all on a project-by-project basis, initially unfunded and nomadic, then supported by the Australia Council and Arts Victoria (without undue ‘managerialist’ restrictions) and housed as a kind of resident-parasite by small-to-medium avant-garde company Anthill at their crumbling venue in Napier St, South Melbourne – we didn’t call ourselves ‘independent’, ‘fringe’ or ‘alternative’: just a good old ‘collective’ of ‘theatre workers’ (did I mention this was Melbourne in the 80s?) who ‘told stories theatrically’ (not necessarily ‘Australian’ stories, mind you).

Since then, I’ve worked as an actor, writer, director, devisor and dramaturg with mainstage and independent (or whatever else you want to call them) companies and artists, and co-founded or been part of other ensembles, here in Perth and back over east. But I’ve never shaken that primordial sense of what it means to be in a theatre company, a sense that was imparted by that formative experience: the sense of being a company of theatre-makers, collectively owning the work, working together, making theatre together, and I believe making a special kind of theatre, that meant something special to our audiences. I tried to articulate this at the Australian Theatre Forum in Brisbane in 2012 by asking: why couldn’t there be more (or indeed any) funded theatre ensembles today, in the same way that funded dance companies or orchestras are taken for granted? Surely the very phrase 'theatre company' refers primarily not to an administrative husk but to a creative core; and that much-abused term 'creative' crucially includes performers, along with writers, directors, designers, and so on. ‘You mean, why can’t theatre be more like a band?’ a younger indie artist asked. Right on.


I came to Perth for family reasons, and I found a village of collaborators. Funding, venues, companies and audiences are limited, but in the independent sector at least there’s a healthy creative camaraderie. In fact it sometimes almost feels like being part of a virtual ensemble; almost, dare I say, like what I’d call a ‘real’ theatre company.

I’m co-devising a new work now in the bowels of the State Theatre Centre with a director/choreographer/dancer, a sound designer/composer and a videographer/photographer/graphic designer, all of whom I’ve worked with on and off in various combinations for the last ten years. We’ve developed a common language. We work efficiently. Our egos don’t get in the way. We come up with stuff together that we wouldn’t think of separately. The work guides us. We collaborate. We’re friends. Like kids on the beach, we play freely. We achieve flow.

Sometimes I'm not altogether comfortable with the blanket term 'artist' to describe what we do. To be honest, it feels a bit imprecise, a bit precious, and perhaps a bit dated, too. Not only does it conflate very different forms and disciplines, but it also tends to invoke nebulous ideas of creativity or personality while neglecting the practical demands of being a professional composer, musician, painter, sculptor, playwright or poet. Bach, Michelangelo or Shakespeare were all skilled tradesmen who knew how to negotiate and put food on the table at the end of the day. They ploughed the field as well as practicing their crafts. The Romantic myth of 'the artist' is a recent invention (as Foucault said of the concept of 'man'), inviting notions of unique, unclassifiable and unworldly genius, with attendant special privileges, and perhaps even 'special needs' (to be serviced in the end by somebody – for example, producers, managers, administrators or funding bodies, to name a random few). In short, like all myths, it doesn't reflect the exigencies of reality. In the realm of theatre, perhaps it's more useful to speak of performers, writers, directors, designers, composers, stage managers, producers, administrators, publicists and even reviewers, rather than simply referring to 'artists' as if we were a separate species of humanity. Perhaps in the end what we do is not so different from everyone else, or indeed from each another, after all. As Mandela said, what we have in common is ultimately greater than what divides us.

I also wonder if perhaps we need to reconsider the term ‘independent’ with regard to theatre (or indeed film, which is where the contemporary use of the term in this generic sense probably originates). It doesn't seem to reflect the reality that theatre of whatever stripe always depends in the final analysis on resources like money, time, energy, a venue or (at the very least) an audience. Perhaps (following Adorno, who borrowed the term from Kant) we might speak of 'autonomous' rather than 'independent' theatre to refer to a sphere of activity that makes and follows its own rules while still remaining dependent on other sources for its raw materials – human, financial, infrastructural and even narrative or thematic (plot, character, setting, subject-matter or other forms of content). Or perhaps as ‘independent artists’ we just need to accept that there are limits to what we can do. Independence, like freedom, is a guiding ‘idea of reason’ (as Kant said) that may not be encountered or fully realized in actual experience; and autonomous art, or indeed art in general, remains ‘an illusion’ – perhaps the only one (to paraphrase Adorno) that ‘does not pretend to be the truth’.

Perth isn’t ‘independent’, in terms of theatre or anything else, despite political or economic declarations to the contrary. It’s just not big enough to sustain a self-sufficient industry all by itself. It’s a great place to make work because there’s so much space around the work, literally and metaphorically – the inspiration of the void, those gaps and lacks and absences, the spirit of the place, and the country around it, the weather, the beaches, the forests, the hills, the desert and the sky. But to be sustainable, work here depends on collaborations: between artists, and between them and non-artists; across skills and disciplines, companies and sectors, venues and organizations, communities and cities, across the country and across the ocean. In particular, more work made here needs to be shown and seen elsewhere to be viable long-term; and more artists need to be able to come and go to sustain and develop their craft and careers, to maintain a dialogue between here and elsewhere, and between our work and our lives.

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