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DO WE NEED A NATIONAL THEATRE?

‘In dreams begin responsibility’, WB Yeats Last December, I took part in a forum at the Griffin Theatre in Sydney asking the question ‘does Australia need a national theatre’ (a NTA)? The answer for the other panelists seemed to be ‘no’. Our current institutions are as much of a national theatre as we require; are superior, in fact, being a respecter of difference, not a homogenizing device that could cost a fortune to establish and run. Do We Need a National Theatre? ‘In dreams begin responsibility’, WB Yeats Last December, I took part in a forum at the Griffin Theatre in Sydney asking the question ‘does Australia need a national theatre’ (a NTA)? The answer for the other panelists seemed to be ‘no’. Our current institutions are as much of a national theatre as we require; are superior, in fact, being a respecter of difference, not a homogenizing device that could cost a fortune to establish and run. This is a simplistic response and the question deserves more consideration. A NTA would not be an ad hoc addition to the organizational furniture, but the focus for a certain kind of conversation - about where we are headed as a country, what we want for our theatre and from it. This is important talk to have. A thumbs up/thumbs down reaction strips the issue of its historical meaning and political implications. A NTA does not have to be a clone of the UK National Theatre. It does not have to be a monument or a mausoleum, an expensive gilded box wherein theatrical wit and wisdom goes to die. It can be what we need it to be, fashioned to suit Australian conditions. It is disingenuous to argue that our theatre sector is fine as it stands, that it hasn’t got serious structural problems that need addressing. It would take too long to list all these here, but one is worth highlighting: the problem of linking innovation and commercialization in the right way: of taking the best Australian theatre produces and ensuring Australian audiences everywhere get a chance to see it. At the moment, the negotiations required for a ‘national’ tour (often just three states) are ponderous and uncertain. A NTA is not a matter of principle or faith. It is a means to an end. The question needs to be addressed in a rounded manner. So let me start to do that here. First, the matter of ‘the national’ – national anything, be it theatre, gallery, museum, orchestra etc. It is a difficult notion to pin down. Is it a feeling? A kind of collective pride? Is it an idea? A kind of political structure? Does it reflect a reality or an aspiration? Is it a way of projecting our international presence or transcending our regional differences? Is it a matter of our communal sense of self, of asserting ‘who we really are’? If it is all of these things no wonder it is easier to ignore the NTA question and simply accept the current situation. Or easier when, as a country, you have historically been the invader, not the invaded, the colonizer, not the colonized; when your culture has never been seriously threatened or suppressed. Countries like Israel, Norway, Ireland and Finland have pasts that do not permit them inertia at a national level. If you want to discover what’s important to you as a people, let someone take it away. The question of ‘the national’ then springs rapidly into focus. Currently, ‘the national’ is not present in a very meaningful way in Australian politics. On the Right it is all a matter of money. Australia is an economy, a money making machine. On the Left is it is all about service provision. Australia is a community of differing needs. For both sides of politics, expressions of the national are awkward, even embarrassing, something that gets in the way of free trade agreements and social justice issues. The national doesn’t disappear just because politicians find it hard to talk about. It is displaced. It becomes the preserve of extremists and eccentrics. It becomes a marginal rhetoric, out of sight most of the time but influential in potentially baleful ways. There is a direct relationship between the present lack of positive thinking around ‘the national’ in Australian politics and the appalling actions of Scott Morrison, which were our appalling actions because done in our name and supposedly for the common good. Understood in this way, the question of a NTA is not separate from a range of other issues to do with the core values of our society, the Australian way of life in the deepest sense. Is ‘the national’, and so an NTA, about identity, about asserting ‘who we really are’? If it is, then it is unitary rather than unifying, restrictive and, inevitably, homogenizing. But like ‘the national’, identity encompasses a multitude of perspectives. People are rarely one thing, rarely own simple cultural allegiances, rarely, in Australia especially, have uncomplicated pasts. A NTA would be a dud if it sought to dictate, rather than explore, ‘who we really are’. Its job is not to push a monochrome idea of nationhood but to negotiate a diversity of identities. It is about providing a space for our collective imagination, a framework of shared possibility. This takes us closer to the benefits a NTA could provide. Not the elimination of cultural diversity but a means whereby diversity can claim some common ground. Like different streams uniting in one river, it is not about rejecting the part in favour of the whole but of letting the whole be more than the sum of its parts. What I am saying is: we should not see ‘the national’ and diversity as opposed commitments but as mutually supporting ones. They make sense in terms of each other. At the level of the national, cultural diversity can be articulated and protected. Just saying ‘we are all different’ is not an answer to the riddle of belonging that hangs so heavily over modern societies today. It is possible to credit all this but still think a NTA is a bad idea. From time to time, major change sweeps Australian theatre and it is seldom met with enthusiasm. The director John Sumner in his memoirs talks about the resistance he encountered when establishing Australia’s first state theatre in 1952. The commercial firm J C Williamson’s and the amateur and university companies were sufficient, many said, to meet Melbourne’s theatrical needs. The argument was ‘what we have now is good enough’. The argument is understandable. People who run theatre companies don’t do it for the money. Precarious employment prospects, demanding working conditions and lack of public awareness of the challenges they face, can make art form leaders leery of radical change. The situation isn’t helped by governments ungrounded in the reality of creative production, pushing artists and institutions around like pieces on a chessboard. A NTA proposal that wants to be taken seriously must face the fact that the cultural ecology in Australia is fragile, and that arts ministers, while well-intentioned, often have only a hazy sense of how the sector actually works. However, in the 1950s structural reform did not lead to the end of existing organizations. If anything, the new arrangement extended options and lives. A NTA could do the same for Australian theatre today, providing a way of achieving results unobtainable by any other means. In my Platform Paper last year, The Retreat of Our National Drama, I suggested what some of these results might be in relation to Australian drama. But the argument for a NTA does not depend on agreement about immediate targets. Given the piece-meal way our major theatre companies have evolved, there will always be gaps in their collective operation that require incentives to address. These are provided in part by various touring and development agencies, but not well enough, and not with the right degree of coordination and effectiveness. It is pointless to set up a NTA as a straw man, to paint a picture of a resource-hungry body that nobody in their right minds would want and then say it isn’t needed. In my Platform Paper I put forward the National Theatre of Scotland not as a model but as an inspiration. The NTS is a flexible, non-building-based instrument that allows the expression of diverse-identities-within-the-nation in a way that has considerable merit. It is successful because different stakeholders cooperate in a shared effort to achieve common goals. It is not the product of Utopia-style thinking, a bureaucratic pipe-dream forced on the popular will. A national theatre can only exist if a nation wants it to. For this to be possible, a period of investigation is required in which the proposal is examined from every angle. And what I am saying is: it is time to begin. The political philosopher Edmund Burke said of society that, “it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” A NTA must look forwards and backwards at the same time, be both a showcase for the new and a memory for the old. It is not a principled venture, but this is different from saying a NTA shouldn’t have principles. These principles, however, must take the form of an evolving consciousness, a sensibility that seeks to include disparate efforts in a common frame: a snap shot of Australian culture that is, itself, a constantly evolving thing. It is the diversity of Australia as a nation our theatre needs to reflect. A NTA is in an ideal position to make this its primary goal. A NTA cannot be dismissed out of hand because it exists as a question, one that asks for a careful response in balancing the needs of the past and the future in one institution, something Australian theatre has not had to do before. And what I am saying is: now it has to. Australia is many things: an economy, a social structure, a political system, a geographical landmass, a historical narrative. But it also a moral project, and a NTA draws on this even though it is not, in itself, a moral enterprise. The metaphor that defines it best is ‘a conversation’. In talking about a NTA and articulating our own particular needs we go beyond our own particular needs. New possibilities open up. If we don’t want a NTA perhaps we want a YNTA, a youth theatre with national scope, or an INTA, a theatre dedicated to the production of Indigenous theatre. Perhaps its focus should be revivals, or commissioning. Perhaps, like the UK National Theatre’s New Work initiative, it should bring the literary and devised dimensions of theatre together in better fusion. There are so many things a NTA could do, so many things we could ask of it, and ask of ourselves. This debate must happen before we decide whether we can afford to have a NTA because we may discover we can’t afford not to. What I am saying is: what are we afraid of? What have we got to lose? Julian Meyrick