Monday, 23 December 2013

Postcard from Perth 6

Reviews and Reflections on Theatre in WA

2013 Postcard Awards

I have my doubts about ‘best of’ lists, awards, competitions or prizes. I don’t really know what it means to ‘win’ – or how comparatives like ‘better’ or ‘best’ apply – in theatre or the arts. In the field of sport, for example, one can measure speed or score points in order to make determinate judgments; in the dialectic of art – unlike sport, or science – quantity doesn’t necessarily translate into quality (pace Hegel, or the tailor in the well-worn Jewish joke). Rather, the individual work or performance should be judged on its own terms and according to its own 'rules', so to speak. This is one of the consequences of the concept of autonomy referred to in my Postcard last week on independent theatre.

I know awards have a function in terms of professional recognition and promotion; and on occasions I’ve even been honoured to receive or be nominated for them; but I’m not sure about their validity or long-term value. The experience on the night is gratifying for some, but awkward, embarrassing or humiliating for others (winning in place of someone else, being nominated but not winning, or not being nominated at all – it's hard to say which is worse). In any case, there’s something deeply vain (in both senses) and even fundamentally narcissistic about the experience.

It’s a bit like reading your own reviews: an essentially futile exercise that can’t really tell you anything, except how you feel about someone else’s opinion of your work – which you were probably better off not knowing in the first place. To paraphrase Lacan: you can never see yourself as you want to be seen from the place where you want someone else to see you. Caveat emptor, by the way, to any Perth theatre industry readers of this blog.

Nevertheless, if I close my eyes, I can imagine an award-ceremony where there’d be no pre-established award-categories or even preliminary lists of nominees; instead, surprise-awards would be granted for the occasion, using categories created for and inspired by the individuals and works themselves. To use Kant’s distinction in the Critique of Judgment, such awards would be acts of ‘reflective’ rather than ‘determinate’ judgment, because rather than applying pre-existing criteria, the judges would have to use their imagination to ‘invent’ new ones. In my mind, this would be a lot more fun for everyone involved – judges, recipients and audience – and perhaps dispense more justice, too. In fact, I wonder if such an approach couldn’t also be applied to arts funding assessment criteria, instead of the Procrustean practice of ‘scoring’ applications; but that’s another story, for another Postcard.

So, as my final Postcard for the year – and in the spirit of Christmas – I offer my own ‘reflective’ list of awards, based on the theatre I’ve seen in Perth in 2013. Needless to say, the list isn’t exhaustive in terms of what I saw – or even liked – let alone in terms of what was on. I’m calling them my Postcard from Perth 2013 Issue Stamps, but you can call them ‘Postcard Awards’ or ‘Posties’ for short, or whatever else you prefer for the purposes of your CV. I’m giving them in no particular order, other than chronological.


To kick off the year, Perth International Festival and FringeWorld in February provided me with at least three memorable experiences, in the theatre and out of it. In fact FringeWorld itself gets my 2013 Festival Award for being just that: a genuine festival – that is to say, a seasonal feast of events that capitalized on Perth’s unique small-town summer vibe and transformed the city in and around the Cultural Centre, as people of all ages and backgrounds participated in a manageable array of shows and events, taking place outdoors and indoors, in pop-up and permanent venues, mostly in the immediate neighbourhood of Perth Train Station. I’ve had colleagues, friends and family visiting Perth during Fringe and Festival time over the last couple of years, and I’m proud to share with them what is now my favourite Fringe: still small but perfectly formed, in comparison with the behemoths of Adelaide and Edinburgh (in which small local shows are often lost while commercial winners take all).

Local emerging writer/director/actor Will O’Mahony’s play The Improved for emerging company The Skeletal System at The Blue Room (where it was part of their Summer Nights Season) gets my 2013 Breakout Debut Production Award. He’s since also written, directed and performed in Great White, which was also at The Blue Room in June and will be restaged at PICA for Summer Nights this coming February. Will is an engagingly truthful actor, and gets similar and consistent performances from his casts; his staging is spartan but elegant, without being showy or laden with gimmicks; but most impressive of all is the writing, which combines easy-flowing naturalistic dialogue with surreal narrative tropes and dramatic conventions. Will’s plays are parables, but they yield no easy moral, message or meaning. They make me think of the stories of Kafka, the novels of Murakami or the screenplays of Charlie Kaufmann; but they’re quintessentially theatrical.

Across the road at PICA as part of Summer Nights was Birdboy, devised and performed by Wet Weather Ensemble, following a development at Robert Wilson’s Watermill Centre in New York. Wet Weather are an ambitious multi-disciplinary group making a dreamlike, hand-held form of devised work that owes a lot to the aesthetics of free play which I’ve alluded to in earlier posts as a distinctive feature of Perth independent theatre-making. Deliberately messy in style and realization, Birdboy nevertheless gets the 2013 Two Roberts (Wilson/Lepage) Award for Multi-Disciplinary Practice, comprising the Wilson Award for Sheer Beauty and the Lepage Award for Emotional Resonance.

Also in the Fringe but outside the aegis of Summer Nights or the Cultural Centre venues was The Wives of Hemingway, directed and co-devised by Zoe Pepper for her company Side Pony and staged under the dilapidated palms at North Perth Bowls Club. Featuring a car-chassis, giant Tiki puppets and a dazzling and courageous cast of three (Tim Watts, Adrienne Daff and Josh Price) freely exchanging characters, wigs, genders and sexualities, Wives gets the 2013 Postcard Stamp for Transgressive Clowning and Literary-Historical Pantomime. Zoe’s work with Side Pony and her collaborators has a playful ‘let’s-dress up-and-pretend’ aesthetic (their previous major work The Pride also had three performers – again two male and one female, Adrienne Daff – dressed in lion-suits) which is hilariously entertaining but frames a darker analysis of the politics of role-play that reminds me of Carol Churchill (and Genet before her).

In the International Festival, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart by the strategically named National Theatre of Scotland stood out for me. This was an immersive performance designed to be staged in a pub; I saw it at Little Creatures Loft; there were also performances at The Melbourne Hotel. Written in rhyming couplets and featuring an ensemble cast of actor-musicians playing multiple roles, it began as an earthy satire on contemporary academic fashions (set at a conference on folk literature in a Scottish Border village) before transforming into a thrilling mythic descent into hell. Prudencia gets the 2013 Postie for Pub Theatre with a Nightmare Twist.

After that it was a long time between drinks. That’s partly because I spent much of the year in shows myself rather than going to see them. Scrolling through my iCalendar the next entry that jumps out is Fat Pig at The Blue Room in May–June. Produced by longstanding local independent company Red Ryder, this well-crafted if rather unexceptional Neil LaBute play was skilfully directed by Emily MacLean and featured a dynamic modular design by Fiona Bruce, artful lighting and scoring by Joe Lui and pitch-perfect performances by Alisa Osyka, Brendan Ewing, Will O’Mahony and Georgia King. Red Ryder consistently deliver a brand of independent theatre I associate with The Old Fitz or The Darlinghurst in Sydney: low-budget but highly professional productions of contemporary plays that don’t necessarily break new ground in terms of form or content but feature a team of crack local artists at the top of their game. A show delivered with more finesse would be hard to find on the main stages. Fat Pig gets the 2013 Postcard Stamp for Perfectly Realized Production.

My next award somewhat controversially goes to Alienation, a Perth Theatre Company co-production with Penrith-based Q Theatre Company, in June–July at The Studio Underground – and specifically to two remarkable performances by Luke Hewitt and Natalie Holmwood. This show was much criticized, and indeed publicly disowned by the playwright – in a printed slip which was handed out by front-of-house staff to audience members as they descended the stairs to the theatre, stating that the production didn’t reflect the author’s intentions. I mean, please. Without further entering into or taking sides in this futile controversy (which lead to the cancellation of the Q Theatre season) I simply wish to record my enduring memory of two actors, characters and stories fearlessly laying it on the line, risking our laughter and finally touching us deeply. As a production and a play Alienation may have been undramatic, overlong and lacking in distance from its subject matter or clarity of focus and tone – all risks typical of group-devised, documentary or verbatim theatre (exacerbated in this case by an evident creative mismatch in the process of its making). Nevertheless it attempted something remarkable, and achieved it in the case of at least two performances. Luke and Natalie share the 2013 Postcard Performer’s Award for Onstage Integrity and Courage Under Fire.

Next on the list is writer/director/devisor Ian Sinclair’s Little Mermaid in August–September at The Blue Room. Ian is a founding member of Wet Weather Ensemble, and incidentally also gets the Gloria Swanson Award for Cross-Dressage in Birdboy. In contrast he directed but restrained himself from appearing in The Little Mermaid under the aegis of Houston Sinclair Productions. This enchanting show was co-devised and performed by amphibious actor/dancer Jacinta Larcombe and more earth-bound actor/archetypes Ben Gill and Georgia King. Ian’s work is camp, dreamy, post-Pop, Gen Y theatre. Mermaid gets the 2013 Postie for Poignant Use of Soap-Bubbles and the Leonardo di Caprio Award for Breaking Up with a Bedroom Wall Poster of Leonardo di Caprio.

September also saw a remount of It’s Dark Outside at The Studio Underground, created and performed by Weeping Spoon artists Tim Watts and Arielle Gray with Chris Isaacs, and commissioned by Perth Theatre Company. I missed this show the first time around in 2012, so was thrilled to catch it before it headed off on tour again. Tim and Arielle’s previous hit Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer has toured the world since its debut at The Blue Room back in 2009; Chris is also a playwright whose new work Flood is being produced by Black Swan for Fringe World in February. Following in the footsteps of Alvin, Dark Outside was a low-fi spectacular mix of puppetry, object-theatre and digital animation (Black Light Theatre of Prague meets Pixar, so to speak) and also featured an unforgettable mask performance by Arielle. It gets the 2013 Postcard Stamp for the Use of Mask and Animation (Live and Digital) in the Process of Coming to Terms with Loss.

Weeping Spoon’s most recent show Bruce, devised and performed by Tim with fellow Spoon Wyatt Nixon-Lloyd, also had its debut season at The Blue Room this November–December (and was reviewed in an earlier post). Bruce gets the 2013 Postie for Multiple Animation of a Single Item of Kitchenware as well as the M. Night Shyamalan Plot Twist Award.

Writer/director/lighting/sound designer/composer Joe Lui’s The Tribe for his company Renegade Productions was staged in two parts at The Blue Room in October, with Part One upstairs in the Main Space and Part Two downstairs in the Kaos Room. Devised and featuring Renegade stalwarts Paul Grabovac, Mikala Westall and Ella Hetherington, and fastidiously designed by India Mehta, The Tribe was the latest instalment (or instalments, if you count both parts as separate shows) in Renegade’s steady output of post-dramatic, post-humanist political theatre. The Tribe gets the 2013 Bertolt Brecht and Antonin Artaud Awards. There’s no one else making theatre like Joe (or Renegade) in Perth or elsewhere.

Around the same time in October, the 2013 Proximity Festival at PICA featured 12 artists performing 12 fifteen-minute works in 12 rooms 12 times a night to one audience member at a time. This was the performance event of the year for me personally, but is hard to judge in my capacity as a participant artist if not a participant audience-member (although the boundary between the two was inevitably somewhat blurred). Nevertheless, the intrepid Proximity curatorial team (producer Sarah Rowbottam, co-curator James Berlyn and provocateur Kelli McClusky) collectively get the 2013 Star Trek Award for Enterprise in Boldly Going Where No Woman Or Man Has Gone Before – arguably shared with audience-members and artists alike, in keeping with the festival’s participatory nature.

I’ve already reviewed James Berlyn’s Crash Course and Ahilan Ratnamohan’s SDS1 – both at PICA in November – in previous Postcards. Crash Course gets the 2013 Award for Immersive/Participatory Theatre; SDS1 the 2013 Award for Relevance in (and of) Performance.

Last but not least, The Blue Room Theatre gets the 2013 Productivity and Diversity Awards, as well as the Lifetime Achievement Award for Venue (and Bar) at the Edge of the Universe.


The observant reader will notice a pronounced lean in this small tower of awards, in favour of independent artists, works, companies and venues. Whether this simply reflects my own subjective tastes and tendencies or the objective state of things, I couldn’t possibly comment. In fact, the same disclaimer applies to all these Postcards from Perth. Hopefully, though, there’s a discernible connection between what I like, see, think or do, and what’s actually the case. That’s the point of awards after all, or any other form of reflection. 

I’ll be posting the next one in a fortnight’s time on 7th January. Merry Christmas and Happy 2014.

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.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Postcard From Perth 4

Theatre Reviews and Reflections from WA

A Plea for Diversity

Summer is upon us, and theatres are winding down in Perth, as they do all over the world when the thermometer goes up and people prefer to amuse themselves outdoors. Shakespeare In The Park anyone? More precisely, ’tis the season to do pantos, hunker down in (preferably air-conditioned) workshops for productions being staged next year, and/or start gearing up for Fringe World or even Perth Festival, both of which kick off in late January/early February. I’m busy developing work myself over the next couple of months, but I’ll be covering both Fringe and Festival shows in this blog when the time comes. Meanwhile I’m not seeing much action, but mostly spending my days being creative in the bowels of the State Theatre Centre, which otherwise hosts little more than a few parasitic end-of-year pre-Christmas functions. So, as the man said: I will be brief.


A few weeks ago I was invited as an erstwhile member of the former Theatre Board (now defunct) of the Australia Council (restructured in the wake of the Australia Council Act 2013) to participate in a half-day Strategic Planning Workshop on the future direction of the Council.  I met with three other Perth-based ex-boardies and peer panellists (two of us from theatre, two from the music sector), together with an Ozco representative and a hired consultant/facilitator, who steered us through a series of exercises designed to pick our brains and notate the results. The Sydney duo were at the regional tail-end of a State-capital-city tour, on the basis of which they would be drawing up a set of recommendations.

It was an interesting day. We were asked to begin with a series of words that described the Australian arts and culture we wanted to see in ten years’ time. Avoiding those old chestnuts ‘excellence’ and ‘innovation’, I found myself championing ‘diversity’. I acknowledged that the term itself had a certain unmistakable chestnut flavour, but I said I was inspired by the concept of biodiversity: an ecological principal which I felt could be equally applied to the cultural sphere. Specifically I felt it should apply to a genuine diversity of works, artists, companies and artforms (including threatened and endangered species) as well as audiences, communities and even generations. We need to be mindful of access and participation, equity and sustainability, in the arts and culture no less than in sport and recreation, health, education, housing, infrastructure and the natural environment; but more specifically we need to ensure that both traditional and contemporary, ‘innovative’ and ‘excellent’ work is made and seen around the country.

It has to be admitted that, with the best of intentions and efforts, the Australia Council has not always scored well in this regard. I remember the funding round I sat on as a member of the Theatre Board: we rewarded excellence and innovation, and we did our utmost to be fair, given a heartbreaking paucity of funds to distribute, and faced with a heartbreakingly strong round of contenders; but the overall program of work we funded scored poorly when it came to regional diversity, and perhaps artistic diversity, too. In a nut-shell: the vast bulk of the funding went to Sydney and Melbourne, and the lion’s share of that to contemporary and hybrid work (much of it by young and emerging artists); all of which was undoubtedly excellent and innovative, although it left older or more traditional art-forms, artists and audiences somewhat short-changed. Arguably this reflects the cultural dynamics and demographics of the nation, and perhaps also the specific needs of the independent and small-to-medium sector of the industry (which the funding pool in question was largely designed to benefit) as opposed to the more mainstream ‘major organizations’ (who receive their funding separately and directly from a designated ‘Major Organizations Board’). Within this somewhat restricted ambit, the Board’s overall choices scored reasonably well in terms gender and to a slightly lesser extent multicultural diversity, at least with regard to individual artists (if perhaps not quite so well in terms of that other old chestnut, class).  And yet overall (perhaps as the only currently practising artist on the Board, and the only member from Perth) I couldn’t help feeling that somehow genuine diversity was being denied.

Art and culture made and seen in Australia are as vital to the life of the nation as any other essential goods and services, and like them need to be genuinely diverse to support a genuinely sustainable society. As such, we need Western Australian art and culture too, in all shapes and sizes: commercial and subsidized; ‘major’ and ‘minor’, small-to-medium, fringe and independent; and across artforms, communities and generations.

Let me be even more specific with regard to theatre in a ‘regional’ capital like Perth. We need and have Black Swan State Theatre Company, but we also need a viable alternative mainstage company: ‘alternative’ both literally and figuratively in terms of style and content – think of The Malthouse in Melbourne, Belvoir in Sydney or La Boite in Brisbane. Perth Theatre Company strives to fill this role, but is inadequately funded and housed to do so, and is still in transition in terms of identity. In my opinion the company needs federal funding from the Australia Council as a matter of principle as well as state funding from the WA Department of Culture and the Arts. It also needs a home venue with at least one mid-sized and one intimate theatre: the existing and underused Subiaco Theatre Centre, although out of the Northbridge cultural centre loop, would still be better from an artistic and practical point of view than the financial death-trap of the gloomy, overpriced and undersized State Theatre Centre Studio Underground (although both are currently managed by commercial operator Ogdens, an anomaly that needs addressing). And finally I think PTC needs to change its name to something less misleadingly mainstream: ‘Perth Contemporary Theatre Company’ for instance. This would leave Black Swan in residence at the State Theatre Centre, using more traditional productions in the larger Heath Ledger to cross-subsidize more innovative work in the Studio. Meanwhile, Perth’s excellent existing niche-artform and niche-audience companies also need balanced state and federal funding and adequately resourced home venues: Spare Parts Puppet Theatre, Yirra Yaakin Noongar Theatre and Barking Gecko Youth Theatre. And finally the Perth independent sector, nestled and nurtured at The Blue Room, needs a larger alternative venue in which to spread its wings. PICA goes some way towards providing this, but is more focussed on contemporary and hybrid performance work, in keeping with its profile as a contemporary art space. Rechabites Hall up the road in William St used to provide an alternative, but was barely viable as a building and auditorium verging on ruin; it currently languishes in heritage limbo, mothballed by the City of Perth. Another independent performance venue in the cultural precinct of Northbridge is sorely needed, preferably housing a dedicated producing organization specifically for Perth-based independent theatre: something like the role STRUT plays at King St Arts Centre for Perth contemporary dance. The Blue Room currently does yeoman service in this regard; but it’s overstretched in terms of resources; it does the job alone, with the attendant dangers of becoming a monopoly; and it caters primarily (and rightfully) for emerging artists (and those without other sources of funding). As for funding for independent artists: the closure of Deckchair and Thin Ice last year saw DCA temporarily reallocate the existing funds earmarked for those companies to a range of Perth independent artists who have embarked on more ambitious work over the next year or so. In my view this funding should remain in the independent sector and be matched by more equitable federal funding from the Australia Council to independent artists and companies across the country.


At the end of our Strategic Planning Workshop day, we broke up into pairs to compare notes on places we saw as potential models to aspire to in terms of culture. My partner was a musician, and together we quickly settled on Berlin. What made the city so attractive to both of us? The theatre and music scene obviously; but why? We noted the sheer number and diversity of companies, artists and subcultures in a relatively concentrated urban area and population, and the way artistic practice seemed to penetrate into every available and imaginable form of social space. Of course there's also a lot of public money spent on the arts there, based on a tradition than values culture as essential to the creative development (Bildung) of the individual and his or her society. Down in the basement of the State Theatre Centre or wherever, we’re not just making work, we’re building ourselves.

Could Australia, or indeed Perth, follow or at least learn something from the example of Berlin? Why not? Why not, indeed. As the man sang, from little things, big things grow; and grassroots culture, like grassroots democracy, is where true creative and political freedom begins and ends.