Postcards from Sydney: Australian Theatre Forum

Postcards from Sydney: The Australian Theatre Forum 2015

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'. 


For the third session of the morning I head upstairs to the foyer of the Everest Theatre for a ‘Respect Your Elders’ panel conversation about ‘Remembering Playworks’. I’ve always been interested in Playworks, which was an important national women’s playwriting organisation with a strong contemporary performance edge that ran out of Sydney from the 80s through to the early 00s. 

There are 11 ‘nostalgia’ sessions like this one programmed throughout ATF. Later in the week a friend comments that too many events (including some of the Keynote Addresses) have spent too much time looking back at the past, but I reckon what Foucault called ‘the history of the present’ is critically important, especially in an evanescent artform and an amnesiac national culture. This is the case above all when we’re dealing with minority communities, cultures and artforms like women, children, Aboriginal people, regional and community theatre, children’s theatre and puppetry (I’m using ‘minority’ here in terms of power and status, not necessarily numbers). 

The audience for this particular event is however relatively small, and mostly female. I also can’t help noting that it’s been relegated to the foyer rather than inside one of the theatres, and that there’s continual background noise from hordes of children who are being taken to a kid’s show in one of the main theatres downstairs. In short: it feels very much like we’ve been put in a typical ‘woman’s place’. 

That said, it’s probably the most informative and thought-provoking session I’ve attended so far. A panel of speakers who were involved in running Playworks throughout its history reflect on the organisation’s achievements, challenges and vicissitudes, especially navigating the political and cultural changes (in theatre and feminism) that occurred during the 90s. Once again I’m struck by the tension between artistic freedom and the politics of identity – and within the latter, between collective and individual rights. This tension is marked by a historical and theoretical shift from the more ‘separatist’ feminism of an organisation that was intended exclusively for women to a more inclusive one that also served playwrights from other marginalised groups (e.g. working-class writers in Newcastle) regardless of their gender, and the debates about the identity of the organisation itself that ensued. Alongside this I sense a parallel tension between a more concrete, practical and prosaic definition of ‘women writers’ and a more abstract, theoretical and poetic notion of ‘women’s writing’ (the former perhaps more in the tradition of Anglo-Saxon feminism, the latter more influenced by French feminist theory of the 70s).

An elder playwright in the audience stands up and says she benefited from Playworks back in the early days, but didn’t have time to follow through professionally once she became a mother. She wishes the organisation still existed to support her now that her children have grown up and left home, and she has time to write again. 

It strikes me that this story is emblematic of the particular disadvantages women face collectively (as differentiated from other minority groups). Once again it also reflects a historical shift from more collective to more individual notions of politics and theatremaking from the 70s through to the 90s and beyond. Despite progress in terms of language and consciousness, this shift has allowed structural inequities to continue beneath the surface. If you see yourself purely as an individual rather than as a member of a group, you’re less likely to recognise yourself as subject to these inequities, or to do something about it.

A colleague observes that playwrights feel particularly victimised by this shift because (unlike actors or directors) they’re often introverts, used to working alone and dependent on others to put on their plays for them or advocate on their behalf. Of course, this doesn’t apply to writers who are used to collaborating with directors and ensembles and having a voice in the rehearsal room.

Perhaps it’s time to rethink these notions again (of the individual and the collective), along with the division of labour between the sexes and the balance for both between work and family life. As the era of neoliberalism (on the right and left) begins to show signs of coming to an end, it’s a good opportunity for all of us (women and men, playwrights and others) to look back to the lessons of the previous era before plunging on into the unknown.


After lunch, I head back downstairs to the Reginald Theatre for ‘Pathways to Diversity’. The panel includes one artistic director (white, middle-class, male, gay), two young culturally diverse independent artists (at last!) and the Artistic Director of the Australian Theatre for the Deaf (white, female, deaf). 

The testimony of the independent artists is especially refreshing. Unlike the others, their tone is upbeat, streetwise and unguarded. For example one of them gives short shrift to a suggestion from the audience that ‘positive discrimination’ is the way forward. I sense a more flexible, inclusive and post-colonial notion of identity here. Diversity emerges as something real, existing and potentially desirable for everyone. Conversely, the artistic director ties himself in knots trying to be an advocate for diversity, while acknowledging this needs to be a ‘personal’ rather than merely a theoretical commitment, but struggling to articulate what this means for him.

Meanwhile the deaf panellist (communicating in sign via an interpreter) is more sceptical about the blanket term ‘diversity’ itself. In the case of disabled people (as with geographically and economically disadvantaged communities) the burning issue is a practical one of access and participation, whereas for multicultural and queer artists the more specifically aesthetic question of representation seems to be paramount. 

I’m reminded of the issue of childcare for women playwrights that was briefly raised in the Playworks session. Plainly, diversity is not a harmonious rainbow but a differentiated and non-synchronous site of potentially conflicting and conflicted interests and desires. 

Someone from the audience protests that there’s been no discussion or representation of sexuality by the panel. Someone else points out that there’s been no mention of class either (as distinct from culture, gender, sexuality or disability). I silently reflect on the fact that both categories are generally absent (or rather unspoken) as terms of debate during the forum (though the artistic director on the panel responds to the protest by declaring his own sexuality). The language of class in particular has largely disappeared from public discourse, despite valiant recent efforts from the likes of writers like Tim Winton and Christos Tsolkas. Again, this reflects a historical shift in post-war (and more particularly post-Cold-War) politics and culture, at least in the developed world. However, things may be undergoing a tidal shift in the wake of the global financial collapse and more recent political developments in Greece and elsewhere. Expect to hear a lot more about ‘class’ in the coming decade, and perhaps even at the next ATF.

The fact is that working class people by definition have even less of a voice than other disadvantaged groups because lack of education, income or other means of access to positions of power defines class inequality. To put it another way: as soon as these deficiences are remedied, you cease to be a member of the working class; whereas if you identify as disabled, gay, female, Aboriginal or from another cultural background, that remains the case whatever these signifiers mean for you. That’s why the issue of class continually slips through the net of identity politics.


Following afternoon tea I wander back up to the Everest theatre for a plenary discussion called ‘What’s the Risk?’. The panel features a festival director, a freelance director, a literary manager and an indigenous ‘engagement co-ordinator’ and is facilitated by the general manager of a major organisation. 

As with the opening keynote session in the same venue on ‘Art and Democracy’, the topic is vague and undefined, the discussion drifts, the panel fails to gel, the panellists have little in common and appear to be making it up as they go along. After a few minutes, I’m bored, and leave. There’s no ‘risk’ onstage here. 

Once again I wonder if there’s something about the TV chat-show panel format that lends itself to idle chatter, especially framed by the architecture of a large proscenium arch theatre. To be honest, I’m not sure I’d enjoy watching theatre here either. The intimacy of the Reginald downstairs is a little more focussed; but in general the whole Centre strikes me as suffering from the typical flaws of most purpose-built multi-functional arts ‘centres’. It’s no wonder theatre companies and audiences shun them.


I hobble down the road to Carriageworks in Redfern to have an early dinner before seeing a Sydney Festival show: Nothing to Lose. It’s a new dance theatre work by outgoing artistic director Kate Champion for the company she founded, Force Majeure. 

There’s a Sydney Festival artwork in the cavernous industrial-chique foyer of the venue: contemporary Chinese artist Zhang Huan’s Sydney Buddha. Two gigantic Buddhas face off: one entirely constructed of incense ash, the other an aluminum mold (from which the former is cast). The ash Buddha is slowly disintegrating: he’s already lost a hand, and some of the folds of his robe. The aluminium head of the mold lies on the floor beside it. 

I find the work sad and strangely vacuous, at least in this context. It seems displaced, decapitated, desecrated, emptied of spiritual meaning, and eroded of any critical or political edge. 

The boutique café at the venue is closed, so I head back down the road to the nearest pub for a $10 steak and a schooner. The ambience is refreshingly working class and free of ATF delegates. Then I head back to Carriageworks to meet a couple of friends and see the show.


I find Nothing To Lose a striking but ultimately confused and confusing work. Created by Champion in collaboration with artist, performer and ‘fat activist’ Kelli Jean Drinkwater, it hovers between contemporary dance and community theatre but doesn’t wholly satisfy me in either capacity. 

It opens with an arresting image: the bodies of seven ‘fat’ performers reclining motionless onstage, piled up or leaning against each other in apparently easy intimacy. I find the image strangely confronting, beautiful and even erotic. It’s also stunning lit by Geoff Cobham. I’m vaguely reminded of the languorous beach photos of Max Dupain or Tucker’s disturbing painting of sunbathers as geometric chunks of flesh.

I feel disappointed though as the show continues. There’s no further physical contact between the performers, although at one point audience-members are invited to come onstage and prod them as if they were inert objets d’art. Otherwise the show consists of a series of unison dance routines and solos which I find surprisingly uninteresting choreographically except as demonstrations of what ‘fat’ bodies can and can’t do. Voiceover and spoken text intervene and further reduce image and movement to illustrations of ‘fatness’ as a social issue, stripped of its problematic and ambiguous carnality. 

In short: community theatre prevails; nothing wrong with that; but even in this capacity, I can’t help feeling that the performers are ironically disempowered by being deprived of names, characters or stories (real or imagined) beyond being ‘fat’ – and presented en masse rather than as individuals whose physical difference would need no commentary in a dance theatre or contemporary performance work by the likes of Castelluci or Ballets C de la B. Here lumped together and collectively labelled ‘fat’ they become little more than identical objects or signs of wonder, pity or amusement. There’s also a lack of differentiation that troubles me between some who are simply large of frame and others who look as if they are struggling with health issues.

It occurs to me that Western dance as a form suffers from its own body-image disorder. This in turn reflects broader psychological, social and cultural issues affecting physical and mental health in Western society, including poverty and affluence, addiction, advertising and hyper-consumption. In this respect, anorexia and morbid obesity are two sides of the same coin, onstage or off. None of this is explored in the show, which remains preoccupied with issues of discrimination and ‘fat rights’; but I can’t help wondering if these preoccupations aren’t circular and ultimately self-defeating when framed exclusively in terms of identity politics.

I hasten to add that a ‘big’ theatre colleague sitting beside me in the audience feels very differently about the show; for her, it’s a much more positive and empowering experience. The same is true for a friend who unexpectedly appears onstage as one of twelve ‘extra’ performers in the closing unison war-dance. It’s a great community theatre finale, and the audience responds with similarly uniform enthusiasm. How can we not give them a standing ovation? 

Afterwards I catch up with my unexpected friend, who’s not normally a performer (and isn’t particularly large either). She moved to Sydney from Perth a few years ago, and it seems like she’s finding her place here now, personally and professionally (she’s working in arts administration as a programming assistant at the Opera House). She walks me back through the park to Glebe Point Rd, and we part ways.  

I catch the bus back to my guesthouse, and ponder the complexities of identity and diversity. Art, artforms, politics, places, cultures, communities: all spheres that interlock but I still feel need to be differentiated between each other and within themselves.


Thurs 22 Jan 

On Thursday morning I sleep in (WA body clock still three hours behind) and miss the third morning Keynote Address, by Richard Frankland. I feel guilty, but decide to take my time and do my knee physiotherapy exercises before catching the bus back to the Seymour Centre. I’ve got another big day at the Forum ahead and another Sydney Festival show to see that night.

When I arrive I have a catchup morning tea with a Perth independent theatre colleague. We talk about the challenges of doing what we do, especially in her case as a female director who’s interested in group-devised work with local writers rather than the currently dominant model of young male auteur directors with strong visual preconceptions and an interest in re-imagining classics.  We also talk about the prospect of hosting an independent theatre festival in Perth each year or perhaps bienially. What better place for indies across the country to convene in winter than the city at the edge of the world? 

After morning tea I head down to the black-box Reginald Theatre for ‘Digital Frontiers’, a Breakout Session with a panel featuring a Resident Artist in Education with a major company, a writer with some experience in multimedia, and the creative producer of a venue that recently hosted a festival of live art and another ‘festival’ that experimented with international digital collaborations. Someone sitting to my right is busily using a hand-held digital device, and after a few minutes I ask her politely if she’d mind switching it off as I can’t concentrate on what the speakers are saying. She apologies and does so without protest. After a few minutes someone to my left starts doing the same thing, so I repeat the same request, and he looks at me silently for a moment before complying.

The artist in education on the panel talks about a schools project involving digital workshops that didn’t work, and another that did work involving two audiences, one of live participants and a second audience observing the first one ‘live’ onscreen. The multimedia writer then describes a performance in which a ‘fake’ panel discussion with a live audience was ‘hijacked’ halfway through (presumably through digital devices) by virtual characters advocating internet freedom. I don’t quite understand the details of the event (as at this stage I’m still being distracted by the flickering device of the man on my left), but apparently the audience rose up in protest against the digital hijackers and voted that they be ‘deleted’ so that the live panel discussion could continue. Our speaker offers this as an example of how multimedia can successfully create a new kind of performance; but I’m not sure that it isn’t on the contrary an example of an audience wanting to return to an unmediated live event. The creative producer then describes how most of the digital collaborations she recently hosted at her venue ended up using comparatively little ‘live’ digital interaction because of the vagaries of skype connections and time zones, and instead mostly relied on occasionally exchanging emails.

During the discussion I raise my hand and ask the panellists if they’re concerned about the ecological, social, psychological and physical health impacts of digital technology, given the back-up electricity demands required by 24-hour global internet servers; the environmental and social justice infringements involved in extracting raw materials and their manufacture in underdeveloped countries; and the crippling effect of our widespread addiction to hand-held screens. The panel agree but don’t have any answers. Neither do I, except to reflect that digital technology is no environmental panacea or passport to artistic or political freedom. In this respect, digital devices are like cars: we have to learn how to moderate and perhaps even regulate their use.

After the discussion, the man to my left introduces himself and tells me that he found my request to switch off his device ‘confronting’. I apologize for confronting him, and we have a polite discussion about the issue. He informs me that there’s a ‘live’ Twitter feed going on throughout the forum across different venues, and that I’ve infringed on his ‘democratic right’ to participate in the virtual conversation. I ask him what he thinks about my ‘democratic right’ to attend the actual session I’ve chosen as a member of a ‘live’ audience without being distracted, and he suggests that I can always sit somewhere else. I silently reflect on the fact that there’s a double standard here. As with the use of digital technology onstage, its use in the audience creates an ontological hole in the shared experience of live performance, including public discussion forums. We agree it’s a complex issue and part amicably, but I can feel which way the wind is blowing. Perhaps ‘democracy’ and ‘live performance’ are two more terms that need to be articulated and differentiated a little more carefully.


After lunch I head back down to the Reginald for another Breakout Sessions, ‘Who Owns The Story?’ The facilitator is a director and former artistic director with a special interest in community and cross-cultural collaboration (and a previous ATF curator); the panel includes two more artistic directors, an Aboriginal actor and director, and a verbatim theatre maker. 

My heart sinks as the facilitator spends the first ten minutes of the session inviting people in the audience to come down to the stage and write questions for the panel up on a whiteboard before the discussion has even begun. My spirits lift again when the first artistic director panellist begins to speak about her experience of being invited to direct a show in Mexico with a company most of whose members had direct or indirect experience of being abducted or terrorised. When she questioned her own appropriateness as a director, the leader of the company countered that it was precisely in her capacity as an outsider that they valued her artisic perspective.  

The discussion that follows wrestles with the Protean question of cultural appropriation, artistic rights and individual responsibility. The verbatim theatre maker is up-front about her own right and responsibility to edit and stage documentary material, shape the story and create the final performance. The Aboriginal actor and writer is more ambivalent about the question of rights and responsibilities, and the other artistic director on the panel acknowledges that things are ‘messy’ but thinks they’re better for being so. I’m not so sure.

When question-time comes, the topics on the whiteboard are quickly left behind. I put up my hand a couple of times but the facilitator tells me I’ll need to ‘jump in’ and then fields the discussion back to another questioner. Eventually I seize my opportunity, and suggest there’s a difference between the form of storytelling (which is the work of the artist) and the content of the story (which can come from anywhere and perhaps doesn’t ultimately belong to anyone).

I cite the example of a verbatim theatre piece I worked on that was based on interviews with asylum seekers. We gave the participants right of veto over the raw transcripts, but not over the finished script. I use as counter-example a solo show I wrote and performed that involved Aboriginal characters, local language and an indigenous dreaming story that I myself dreamed up. I involved an Aboriginal consultant from the area where the story was set, who contributed to the content and encouraged me to do what I wanted. After the final performance another Aboriginal colleague in the audience (who happens to be the panelist who’s sitting in front of me, and who now smiles and acknowledges the coincidence) confronted me and objected to the stereotyped Aboriginal characters in the story. I defended myself at the time by saying that the story and characters were based on real people and events, but acknowledged that ‘my story’ had offended him and was perhaps inevitably prejudiced by my own cultural perspective. As I tell this story, I think of The Secret River and Rachael Maza’s response in her speech a couple of days ago to what she saw as the play’s unconscious perpetuation of prejudice. As I understand it, though, this is an argument for Aboriginal people telling their side of the story as well; not for claims of ownership, censorship or shutting down the debate.

In summary: I suggest that as artists we’re responsible for our own acts of storytelling and should be prepared to wear that responsibility, rather than censoring each other or ourselves. I want to hear a response from the panellists, but the discussion is shut down by the facilitator: we need to move on, we’re running out of time, we know the answers already, or think we do. 

My Aboriginal colleague on the panel offers to continue the conversation later. After the session, I wander up to him for a chat, but one of the other (white) panellists monopolizes him. She says we need to understand that for Aboriginal people ‘owning a story’ is like ‘owning a house’. I’m not convinced by this analogy.  I feel uneasy about the implications as to who can or can’t tell particular stories. I recognise that traditional communities lay claim to traditional stories, storytelling (and other) roles and practices, but I’m not sure it’s a simple question of property, or even propriety. Once again, I feel a need to differentiate: between the cultural and even cultic value of stories or works of art and their aesthetic, political, personal or even exchange value. There’s no simple rule that cuts across these categories, and I’m not comfortable with the idea of shibboleths and taboos.

Up until now I’ve always thought ‘political correctness’ was a straw-man invented by the reactionary right, but right now I feel like I’m up to my neck in it; and interestingly it’s not coming from the indigenous or multicultural delegates but from the dominant ‘white’ cultural gatekeepers, custodians and ‘facilitators’. Perhaps I’m just an inveterate contrarian (over dinner that night a friend affectionately refers to my ‘sheer bloody-mindedness’) but once again (as with the session on digital frontiers) I feel like identity politics and ‘group’ rights can lead to a form of ‘group-think’ that doesn’t tolerate difference or shades of opinion. I’m not having a good day.

When I catch up with my Aboriginal colleague outside the theatre and suggest we have lunch, he tells me he’s busy. Another time. 


After lunch I attend a third Break Out Session on ‘ “Independence” Within An “Industry” ’ (double inverted commas intentional). It’s hosted by a thoughtful and generous independent artist from Melbourne who opens with a confession of his own financial and career compromises over the last year. The room is crammed with indies (whoever we are) young and old, and he encourages us all to break off into twos and threes and ‘confess’ our own stories of shame and stress. I’m sitting with two writers (one also a critic), and our confessions are all about money (mine is about asking for free tickets). Then he invites us all to call out practical offers and suggestions about how to share resources and lighten the load. 

The session is both encouraging and strangely deflating. By the end, I feel like I’ve been at an encounter group or AA meeting. I look around the room and wonder what if anything we all have in common, what if anything ‘independent’ or ‘industry’ mean in this context and whether they’re even helpful terms. We all seem pretty dependent to me: on each other, on significant others, on audiences, venues, funding bodies and other organisations, big and small. And is ‘industry’ the right word for a sphere of activity that’s clearly not driven by profit, and people who do what they do out of passion (or compulsion) rather than for money? Perhaps co-dependency and collective neurosis would be more appropriate diagnostic terms.

More specifically, what’s the difference between being an ‘independent’ and simply being a freelance artist (like most jobbing actors or freelance writers for example)? The fact that as ‘independent artists’ we’re self-employed, or initiate and make our own work? Perhaps (as an arts accountant in the room suggests) we’re a socio-economic category, like entrepreneurs or small-business-people. But what’s the difference then between being ‘independent’ and simply being an artist? And is it a badge of pride or a label for a ghetto? I’m not sure. 

It occurs to me in this regard that jobbing actors and freelance writers are generally more squeamish than self-proclaimed indies about calling themselves ‘artists’. Perhaps they’re just less pretentious, or more realistic. Or perhaps they’ve just settled for a different badge, a different ghetto, a different group identity. Once again I’m struck by how few of them (especially jobbing actors) are here. A sense of powerlessness, voicelessness, scepticism or even futility about the very idea, meaning or purpose of having an Australian Theatre Forum? Perhaps they just can’t afford to be here. Most of the jobbing actors I know are either working – or working in some other job. I wonder how many would apply for a place or qualify as an ‘independent’ delegate. Once again the class structure of the industry rears its head. 


Picking up on this theme, the day ends with a Plenary Session entitled ‘Smashing the Silos’. It’s back in the larger Everest Theatre, and I guess it’s described as ‘plenary’ because it’s intended for everyone: major and small-to-medium organisations, independents, freelancers (though once again I don’t see many freelance actors, technicians or stage crew here). The title refers to ‘collaborations between big and small companies and independent artists’: the ‘silos’ in question presumably being the funding and resources of the major organisations. These have been sheltered from massive cuts to the Australia Council by the current federal government, which have mostly impacted on small-to-medium and project-based companies. The facilitator is an executive producer with a small-to-medium organisation, and the panel consists of two independent artists who’ve done co-productions with larger funded companies, a producer with a major organisation, and the artistic director of another major organisation that started small. 

I’m dreading another Q&A, but in the event it’s a refreshingly honest kiss-and-tell. The facilitator is very much part of the conversation and successfully mediates between the panellists; the discussion progresses; and I sense a genuine desire on the part of organisations and artists to make compromises and share power and resources. During question-time, a colleague from Daily Review calls on the major organisations to show solidarity with small-to-medium and project-based companies in the face of funding cuts that disadvantage the latter while leaving the former untouched, and the artistic director on the panel is disarmingly outspoken in his attack on the government. An independent company artist stands up and asks for access to programming and the artistic director tells him to ‘come and see him’. The producer of the other major organisation addresses the thorny question of hosting independent seasons without paying the artists; she acknowledges that it’s a transitional step, and she hopes they’ll be paying them in another five years. So do I.

All in all, I feel that this session is the most productive I’ve attended so far, and I leave the Forum at the end of the day feeling a little more sanguine about being an ‘independent’ and perhaps even part of an ‘industry’.


That night I have dinner with an old friend at a restaurant behind the Wharf Theatre on Walsh Bay. Luna Park grins at us across the Harbour and we reminisce about being part of a theatremaking collective back in the 80s. He reminds me of my ‘bloodymindedness’ and I burst out laughing. Some things don’t change.

After dinner we cross Hickson Rd and see another Festival show: French master-clown-mime-designer-director-theatremaking genius James Thierry’s Tabac Rouge at the Sydney Theatre. I saw Raoul – his last touring show to visit Australia – at the Perth Festival two years ago and was blown away. Tabac Rouge has been talked down by some people, perhaps because of its lack of overt narrative; but I find it even more thrilling than Raoul, and more profound. The physical and visual storytelling is clear to me: Thierry himself embodies an isolated Prospero-like figure surrounded by servants and offspring who are also fragments of himself. It’s about power and letting go, and I’m weeping by the end. This is theatre that doesn’t need to prove itself by speaking its message out loud or presenting identification papers. It’s justified by its artistry, has its own truth-content and makes its own rules. In other words: it’s art.

Friday 23 January

My final day at ATF. I miss the morning’s Opening Keynote Address (again) and attend a ‘Writing Room’ session (the third and last one) on ‘Writing Time’. The room is full of playwrights: it’s an oddly intense, introverted atmosphere. The facilitator is from a playwriting organisation, and the panel consists of a dramaturg and three writers. I enjoy the focus on craft, but have the feeling no-one really knows what they’re talking about, or how to talk about it – they just know how to do it (or not, as the case may be). I enjoy hearing about plays I haven’t seen or read though (past, present or to come) and imagining them in the flesh. I have a strong sense of the transience of the artform, and the amnesia that afflicts us as a culture. 

The next session I go to is even more focussed on craft, and remembering things: the final ‘Respect Your Elders’ session is a conversation with Peter Wilson, puppet-guru and erstwhile artistic director of Handspan, the company that virtually invented visual theatre in Australia in the 80s. Seeing some of his productions back then – especially Secrets and Cho-Cho-San – transformed my sense of what puppetry and visual storytelling could be. He’s a wise, witty, vulnerable and generous conversationalist, and I’m enchanted all over again, as I was by the work all those years ago. It’s good to be reminded of the path others have walked – and in a sense the path that’s led us here. It helps me to understand where we are – and perhaps what’s missing. 

The 70s and 80s in Australia were a time when grassroots social and cultural revolution from below was fostered by political revolution from above, and artists rode the wave. In the 90s and 00s, that process stagnated: movements and groups become institutions; a new professional cultural class took charge; and a new cultural divide separated administrators from artists, and perhaps artists from audiences. More recently there’s been another generational shift, but unlike the previous one, the structures of power remain unchanged. The new revolution, it seems to me, must proceed undercover, as it were, micrologically, in the gaps and interstices. I had some inkling of that in the session on ‘Smashing the Silos’ – perhaps not so much smashing the silos, though, as burrowing beneath them, or inserting oneself through the cracks.


After lunch, we’re all transported on buses to the Opera House for a final Keynote Address by Flemish festival director Frie Leysen: ‘About Embracing the Elusive: Or, The Necessity of the Superfluous.’ It’s a feisty manifesto for autonomous art, and a timely intervention at the end of a Forum which I feel has dealt too much in terms of content and too little in terms of form; too much in terms of ‘the industry’ and too little in terms of the artform itself. I’m encouraged by her provocation that ‘art, culture and entertainment’ are ‘completely different’; and that art shouldn’t be asked to solve the problems of society or politics. She champions artists rather than single works; and arts organisations, venues, festivals, funding bodies, markets and even audiences are firmly put in their place – that is, defined in relation to art and artists, rather than the other way around. The pleasure-principle of consumerism and the reality-principle of commercialisation are both attacked in the name of disturbance, difficulty, imagination and intuition. 

Afterwards, a motion of no-confidence in the Federal Government is passed around. I’m sympathetic, but I can’t help feeling that it’s a feeble gesture which completely misses the point of her speech.


That night I reunite with my Sydney friend who met me on the opening night of the Forum, and another friend and colleague from Perth who’s moving to Sydney, and we head out on the train to my final Sydney Festival show, Bankstown: Live. It’s a community event by Urban Theatre Projects occupying a residential avenue in Bankstown. Under a brooding Sydney sky, there’s a welcome to country by an Aboriginal elder, a Philippines-inspired spirit-house street procession, and an outdoor ballroom dancing event by couples from the local Vietnamese and other communities, followed by a program of formally and culturally diverse works and performances staged in front and back yards. 

My friends and I stay for a storytelling theatre piece, The Tribe, based on a novel about growing up in a Lebanese-Australian family. It’s beautifully performed in a backyard by a Palestinian-Australian actor and friend who trained in Perth, and accompanied by a cellist, gusts of wind and flocks of parrots in the impressive eucalypts that stand sentinel over the old delapidated timber house. 

The work, like the whole event, is slightly sentimental; but I feel that I’m participating in a genuine community theatre project, which has its own standards and indeed constitutes its own artform. In this sense, it’s every bit as autonomous as puppetry or contemporary dance. 

We eat street-food at interval and then decide to head home. I’m weary, and my flight leaves early tomorrow morning. On the train back, I realise I’ll miss my friends, and the vibrant, teeming, multicultural metropolis of Sydney. But I also miss my community back home: my partner, my kids, my own suburban street, and my theatre colleagues and friends back in that remote city across the continent, on the edge of a different ocean.


Humph attended the Australian Theatre Forum in Sydney with the support of the WA Department of Culture and the Arts.

1 comment:

  1. Hi. I am a big fan of your audio book Shantaram!!! I was wondering if you could do the next book as well! It is already out! big fan thanks. could you please email me on if you have time :))