Monday, 26 January 2015

Postcard from Sydney

The Australian Theatre Forum 2015: Art and Politics

As with my previous Postcards from over east, I’m beginning this one on the long flight back west. The occasion this time: the Australian Theatre Forum in Sydney, which I attended as an ‘independent’ delegate, courtesy of an Artflight grant from the WA Department of Culture and the Arts which partially covered the cost of my trip.

There were 23 of us there from Perth, compared with 7 from the the Territory, 8 from the ACT, 9 from Tassie, 28 from South Australia, 32 from Queensland, 102 from Melbourne and 104 from Sydney – which I guess pretty much reflects national discrepancies in terms of population, arts funding and cultural empowerment (not to mention even bigger discrepancies between the capital cities, regional centres and remote areas across the country). In other words: as an actor and a regional artist I was in a double minority.

The first ATF was in 2009 at Arts House in Melbourne. I didn’t go; actually not many ‘independent’ artists (actors, playwrights) were invited; it was mostly people with ‘positions’ in organisations and their staff. The companies were however allocated a limited number of extra places to distribute to chosen ‘guest-artists’; I was offered one at the last minute, and pointedly declined.

Apparently it was wonderful. An overseas ‘guest-expert’ in a brainstorming conference technique called ‘Open Space’ came and facilitated the whole event. Delegates told me they found themselves thinking ‘outside the box’ and having ‘creative’ conversations they’d never had before. Then they all went back to their jobs.

ATF 2011 at the Brisbane Powerhouse broadened the brief: a limited number of subsidised places were made available for ‘independent’ artists; successful applicants could then then apply to their respective State funding bodies for a grant to assist them in attending. I jumped through the hoops and went.

This second ATF was a bit of a let-down, at least according to those who’d attended the first one. After an enthusiastic opening address about the current state and projected future of the theatre industry (which felt a bit like a revivalist prayer meeting), a high-speed version of Open Space followed that afternoon. We were invited to call out concrete proposals for the future, from which a list of topics was drawn up on butcher’s paper, as the basis for discussion in sub-groups over the next few days. The final afternoon culminated in a manifesto of ‘resolutions’ for the future, which we all felt great about before going back home to our jobs (or lack thereof).

Actually, I had a great time. The Brisbane Festival was on, so I saw some theatre (some good, some awful); got to know Brisbane a bit; caught up with some mates; and felt part of ‘the national conversation’. There was a great sense of collaboration between freelance artists and company staff, all of us sitting at the same table. It was a glimpse of what could be, in the German philosopher Habermas’s phrase, ‘the ideal speech situation’. Of course it didn’t last.

In fact it was at that ATF that I had a road-to-Damascus moment. My proposal on that first afternoon was to establish – and fund – a genuine ensemble theatre company, like the one I’d been part of in Melbourne back in the 80s. It didn’t make the final cut (in fact no-one at my sub-group meeting agreed with me) but I took it home with me. It also clarified my mind wonderfully about what I felt was wrong with the industry: essentially, that it was no longer being driven by artists.

I didn’t go to the 2013 ATF in Canberra. I felt like I’d had my bite of the cherry, and to be honest I wasn’t sure I wanted or needed another. Apparently the mood this time was a lot angrier, and there were some chaotic discussions about race. One story that struck me was about a colleague of mine, who stood up during an argument and said he wanted to be identified simply as an artist without reference to the colour of his skin. He was rounded on by an Aboriginal artist for being a typical white male – only to discover that my friend was in fact Chinese.

This year I decided to go. It would be in Sydney at The Seymour Centre, during the Sydney Festival; there was a more structured daily agenda of speakers, panels and topics to choose from; and I’d just received a Creative Development Fellowship grant from DCA that would shortly see me heading overseas. I was also a month down the track from a knee operation that precluded me from performing for a while; so it would be the first tentative step, as it were, on my forthcoming travels.

In short: it felt like a good time to check in on ‘the national conversation’ and see where it (and I) was at.


ATF Diary

Tuesday 20 January

Thanks to the time difference (plus the added insult of daylight saving, which puts Perth even further behind the rest of the country), I leave Perth at 10am and get into Sydney at 5.30pm with barely half an hour to get to the opening Public Keynote Address and Panel on ‘Art and Democracy’. I’ve got a date with a Sydney friend and colleague who’s waiting for me when I arrive.

The event is staged in the largest of the three theatres in the Seymour Centre, and it’s a bit of a mish-mash. The opening speaker is Goenawan Mohamad, an Indonesian poet and playwright who presents a sweeping account of the last thirty years of Indonesian theatre in the context of its political history. He’s urbane, witty, conceptually rigourous and emotionally restrained, but the urgency of the body of work he refers to is plain. I’m struck by what appears to be its evident emancipation from literalism or didacticism: it seems to owe less to Brecht than Artaud. ‘At the end of the day,’ Goenawan points out, ‘a play is an event.’ He describes the outbreak of radical Indonesian theatre in the 60s and 70s as ‘no longer shaped by the need to represent an idea, big or otherwise’. Specifically, ‘the visible took precedence over the speakable’ so that ‘words are no longer a force that gives the world external to language a form’ but instead become themselves ‘parts of the world’. He closes with the statement that Indonesian (and implicitly all) theatre is political ‘not because of its loud protest but because of its challenge to the words of power’. He also draws a clear distinction between political engagement and artistic autonomy, both of which he acknowledges as essential but essentially differentiated forms of activity. At one point he refers to Ho Chi Minh as an activist who also wrote poetry that was not ‘about’ politics. I could listen to him all night.

Unfortunately the facilitator (a TV presenter and journalist with no background in theatre or the arts) is out of her depth, the questions that follow are clumsy, the other panel members don’t gel, and the discussion drifts in circles. I feel like I’m watching TV, as I often do with panel discussions; there’s something inherently glib, superficial and sensationalized about the format itself. I notice a simplistic tendency on the part of the Australian speakers to politicize art and reduce everything to content without recognising the role of form and the function of representation, which is surely as central to the art of theatre as it is to democracy. Not for the last time during the Forum, there’s a failure to analyse the terms of the debate.

My friend agrees: it’s a bit of a let down; we’d both much rather have listened to Mohammad, perhaps in conversation with the most astute of the panellists. We have dinner and dissect the event, the theatre industry, and our own recent and forthcoming professional adventures. I’m glad I came after all.

Afterwards she helps me with my hand-luggage while I hobble down Glebe Point Road to my guesthouse, a beautifully restored old Victorian terrace with a bus-stop and a fruit-shop across the street. My first-floor room opens onto a balcony; there are bats in the Moreton Bay figs outside; the air is humid and sweet. Ah, Sydney.


Wednesday 21 January

Day Two begins with a Welcome to Country and a Curator’s Welcome from David Williams, followed by a Keynote Address from actor, director and Artistic Director of Ilbijerri Theatre Company Rachael Maza. It’s the first of three successive morning keynote addresses by Aboriginal cultural leaders and arts professionals, though not all them of them are exclusively or even principally known as theatre artists, the other two being Richard Frankland and Rhoda Roberts. Astutely, Williams has structured this year’s Forum to address the issue of Aboriginal theatre head-on, but has he chosen the right people to do it?

Rachael is a brilliant speaker, and begins by lightly tracing the issues as they surface in her own life-story and its historical context, before taking a deep breath and plunging into the substance of her address: a political demand for ‘land-rights, sovereignty and self-determination’; and a cultural demand for Aboriginal people to take charge of telling their own stories, rather than continuing to rely on well-intentioned white directors and playwrights to do the job for them, with inevitably one-sided results (The Secret River gets ritually speared for using language to further marginalize the Aboriginal characters).

‘Aboriginal theatre’ is bluntly defined as ‘theatre created and performed by Aboriginal people’. At last, a definition of terms – and one that immediately throws up a host of questions, if not apparently for anyone in the audience. I applaud along with everyone else the existence of Aboriginal directors, artistic directors and theatre companies; but I can’t help asking if other imperatives (colour-blind casting, for example, especially on the mainstage) aren’t equally pressing; and more profoundly what the (essentially colonial, European, generalized) term ‘Aboriginal’ means in a post-colonial, multicultural and increasingly deterritorialized world. This isn’t to say the word doesn’t have a meaning; perhaps it has more than one; and perhaps none of them is entirely stable. And if there are multiple, labile ‘Aboriginalities’, then there’s a much more differentiated discussion to be had about identity, culture and politics.

And beyond this, a strictly artistic question: can an artform like theatre (or indeed art itself – as opposed to a person, a culture or even a nation) be Aboriginal, or indeed ‘black’ or ‘white’? Or do terms like ‘theatre’ or ‘art’ belong to a different language-game – one that throws into question notions like ‘Aboriginal theatre’ or ‘Aboriginal art’ (or indeed ‘white theatre’ or ‘white art’) as somehow reductive of the very theatricality or artistry in question. This isn’t to say that works of theatre or art are somehow beyond culture or politics; but perhaps their theatricality or artistry needs to be determined according to more differentiated criteria than simply the culture they belong to. This is what Adorno calls ‘the autonomy of the aesthetic’: an endangered species in postmodern culture, but one that we neglect at our peril, if not at the risk of artforms and even art itself becoming extinct.

After morning tea, I attend a ‘Breakout Session’ on ‘The Betterment Clause’, a proposed amendment to the standard MEAA contract that would enable actors to be released by theatre companies in the event of a ‘better offer’ – typically a film or TV role. It’s a focussed, meaty and honest discussion by a panel facilated by a general manager and featuring an MEAA representative who is also an actor; another actor who is also an associate director with a major company; an artistic director of another major company; and another general manager and CEO.

I’m struck by the absence of an actor's agent on the panel – or for that matter an actor who isn’t also a union rep or on a company payroll. Agents and freelance performers are after all the ones most likely to invoke such a clause. Needless to say, a similar clause already exists allowing employers to break contract and dismiss actors, but this doesn’t receive the same level of scrutiny.

Unsurprisingly, the general consensus is that such a clause on behalf of actors would be deleterious to the interests of companies and audiences, and would have a direct negative impact on the all-important box office. Again, the direct impact on an actor’s wages and profile (positive or negative) of getting a film or TV role or, conversely, being dismissed isn’t given comparable weight. After all, it’s the actor, not the company CEO, who gains or loses a job.

I can’t help thinking: surely it should be enshrined in contracts that actors are free to leave their employment for personal as well as professional reasons, for example in the case of illness or bereavement? Of course, this happens in practice all the time without any need for lawyers at twenty paces. Once again, though, its ad hoc nature underscores the relative powerlessness of actors, and contract workers generally, in comparison with their employers.

I’m also struck by the relatively small number of actors actually attending the conference, let alone appearing as guest speakers, on panels or even as facilitators. This structural imbalance of power reflects that of the industry as a whole: the real politics, perhaps, of ‘Art and Democracy'.


Humph’s ATF Diary continues later this week. 


  1. Thanks for your insight Humphrey - genuinely appreciated.

    I'm interested in hearing your thoughts about addressing the relative powerlessness of actors, and contract workers generally, in comparison with their employers.

    Maybe the subject of another blog?



  2. Thanks Rick!

    I’ve touched on this theme in previous posts: for example, the series of posts on my experiences at APAM, the one on the Biennale artists and most recently the one on 'art and creativity'. But I’ll consider a more focussed treatment for a future post. Very briefly: the industry (like others) is currently divided between employers, managers and permanent staff, on the one hand, and contract employees (artists and production crew) on the other. This needs to change. From above: by including artists (especially actors and writers) and crew on staff, on boards, and in public forums like ATF and APAM (that’s one of the reasons I started my blog). From below: by artists and crew setting up their own groups, companies and organisations (which is one of the reasons I have my own company as well as working freelance).

    Actually I think a culture of job-sharing and position-sharing across the board would be a good place to start (and much healthier for everyone!). I’d like to see more shared AD positions in major organisations for example, which would also provide an opportunity for greater cultural and gender diversity.

    I’d also like to see more ensemble-based companies in which the members of the ensemble actually had power within the company. For example, I was part of a company in the 80s called Whistling in the Theatre which was a collective of actor-devisors. We were also an incorporated association so we took creative, financial and administrative responsibility for our work. We even employed directors for specific shows rather than the other way around!

    I know times have changed since then, and no single model is perfect, but I think we need more diversity – and more equitable sharing of power. It’s not just a question of democracy: the art will be better too!