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Platform Paper 3
In a groundbreaking assault on the present state of our performing arts, Julian Meyrick examines the past, accuses the theatre of being stuck in the 1970s and calls for a national overhaul. ‘Before anything else, the profession as a whole must embark on a heartfelt examination bent on answering one vital question: what on earth do we think we are doing? ... Unless we have a grasp of our root involvement in the art form, then we are taking a living artistic medium and reducing it down to a mentally-inert production line of variable product whose purpose is mere self-perpetuation.’ The solution, he says, lies in the hands of practitioners. In a closely-observed argument Meyrick shows that the theatre has become hierarchical and competitive; that the once-thriving centre has been eaten away, leaving only the major institutions and the fringe. A culture cannot grow richer without a memory, he says. ‘When this doesn’t happen the result is stunted growth: a theatre culture which repeats itself, because it doesn’t know how to manage its inheritance.’ Meyrick proposes a more democratic and collaborative structure, abandoning the funding wars and developing a genuinely national strategy. He analyses why the old ways are paralysing new thought and outlines the first steps towards change.
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Talking about ‘Australian theatre' in a general way is fraught with difficulty. For a start, there's its geographically dispersed nature. What currently passes for authoritative overview is often no more than an extrapolation from one kind of work in one city. 'The theatre' in the upper-middlebrow-makes-you-think-a-bit sense does not typically cover either the orgiastic populism of a Lion King or the local triumphs of the Rockhampton Players. In other words, 'the theatre' means government-supported, non-commercial, non-amateur theatre, usually in a state or territory capital.
Peter Eckersall on Platform Papers 3: Trapped by the Past
Julian Meyrick's insightful and urgent call for a deeper consideration of history, memory and intergenerational communication among contemporary theatre-makers is timely. His argument certainly rings true for the generation that tried to find work in theatre in the 1980s: in an era of declining funding the doors of the cultural sector were closed. Those who were fortunate enough to have work hung on to their jobs for the next ten (or twenty) years. Meanwhile, Meyrick, like many of us, started his own company-not a bad thing. But, as his analysis of MITP makes clear, creative output was never a problem; rather the lack of resources and financial support was, and continues to be, the burden of the independent arts.
Meyrick notes the decline in theatre production overall and the associated closure of medium-sized companies, a familiar if sobering story for artists and audiences. It is a strange anomaly that, while the populations of the main cities have increased dramatically over the last twenty years, the training of artists, the diversity of artistic production and the options for audiences have decreased almost to the same proportion. One is reminded of the proliferation of global flows amidst the decline of diversity and choice. As I will argue presently, in the double-speak of neo-liberal capitalism, in reality more is less.
Meyrick points to conflicts between old-school 'Anglo' and 1960s-generation New Wave theatre-makers in an effort to, in part, account for the fact of a shrinking repertoire. Aware that I may be oversimplifying the issues here, I shall call this a struggle between old and new left notions of culture and associated debates about the nature of cultural production. Certainly, a Ganglands-style critique of the cultural production of the baby-boomer generation is valid. The vision among baby-boomers of an Australian theatre has been criticised for being literal and bureaucratic, and 1980s and 1990s 'gatekeepers' were particularly active. However, while the generational split was intense, the notion that it prevented theatrical renewal perhaps needs further consideration.
I argue that theatre no longer operates in relation to debates between the old and new left. However clearly Meyrick identifies a powerful historical paradigm, these forces themselves no longer exert the influence they once did. Instead, the dominating order of neo-liberal capitalism, 'culture wars' and intense social euphoria have become the principal contexts for theatres' development. Let us briefly consider these aspects.
As Meyrick's essay demonstrates, regardless of the quality, theatre will be condemned by box-office failure. Inversely, conservative programming, and cute marketing will most probably signal success, if economic indicators are narrowly applied. The problem here is that a risk-adverse or excessively corporatist mindset is not good for theatre.
The second and third points speak more widely to the constraints of neo-liberal ideology and their impact on the arts. During the Howard years, social debate and cultural discourse in Australia have been shaped by surveillance, self-censure and hostility to a radical imagination. As a result, practically every mainstream cultural organisation has been subjected to political interference and ideological reprogramming. Nevertheless, at crucial times, events programmed by a diversity of organisations including museums, galleries and public broadcasters have worked to make their fields of artistic production critically relevant. It is interesting to observe how little mainstream theatre has been willing or able to speak to the social condition in these ways. While a diversity of views is a characteristic of the independent theatre sector, the major performing arts organisations appear to be increasingly homogenised. Moreover, this theatre seems to be absorbed by euphoric and superficial sensibilities. As a result, it operates as a kind of globalised cultural product: the latest import, the revival, the summer musical, a night out with the stars. In Zygmunt Bauman's terms, this might be a globalised place of artistic inertia: 'Everything may happen but nothing can be done.' This kind of artistic levelling does not compare well with recent work by companies such as Not Yet It's Difficult (Melbourne), Performance Space (Sydney), Marrugeku (Sydney-based, but national), or the aforementioned major organisations in other fields of artistic production.
Seen in this light, Meyrick's argument seems to reach an endgame. On the one hand, new Australian plays have failed to attract audiences; on the other, so-called flagship companies are unable to develop new artistic forms. In responding to Meyrick's essay, then, we might add to the list of correctives a greater expectation that the whole community of Australian theatre turn its attention to issues of vital national importance and address them from divergent and critical perspectives. Imagine if a major theatre company programmed a whole season of works inspired by the themes of war or compassion, for example. This is not a utopian suggestion; rather it acknowledges an historical function of art to give insight. Thus, we might come to expect a more radical political and aesthetic stance for theatre. Ironically, this lynchpin united the two former generations of theatre-makers who, despite their differences, were deeply committed to the idea that theatre was a form of social construction and cultural intervention.
Meyrick's essay points to the fact that structural and cultural issues are interrelated. Theatre should be a cultural project of national importance. His argument is cogent and well worth making. We shall wait with interest to see whether, when, and how the fruits of his labour impress upon the major companies.
Chris Mead on the plight of the playwright:
About this time last year two leading female playwrights established a writers' group. The propitious moment of its founding was beleaguered, however, by total doubt. What were they, a trauma support group or crucible for ideas? With so few opportunities for playwrights one of the writers wondered whether they should actually just give up writing for the theatre altogether. Maybe, she pondered aloud, only five people Australia-wide should be allowed to be playwrights at any one time. Maybe, she continued, since there was a living to be made by only a handful of theatre writers, everyone else should just retire. And this was not simply sour grapes or bitter anecdotage, but the ugly end of theatre pragmatism. An alarming moment indeed.
Julian Meyrick's paper rings similar alarm bells. Containing, as it does, provocation, allegation, fact and insult, it is a familiar trope-the call to arms. Every few years-or maybe perhaps only at moments of generational friction and change-the sky falls in. This is a good and necessary hue and cry, for Meyrick has re-activated the mechanism at the heart of theatre history-it is always dying, always in crisis, always needing adversity/enmity/imminent destruction to revive, thrive and survive. His argument is cogent and meaty and difficult to refute (once one realises his terms of reference). And things now are worse than ever before. For sure. What was most startling about Meyrick's argument is the way in which it has been interpreted by his readers, including the press.
Sure, there are loads of plays as well as playwrights by the lorry load, and, sure, it feels a little bit like there's a boom in theatre at the moment-OK, maybe just a resurgence, and look, Ma, with almost no cash!-but, so what? Meyrick asks in no uncertain terms why theatre's intellectual substructure is so bereft. We barely look back at all, and certainly not in anger; the serious damage was done years ago, but we've given up trying to fix it, happy to make do and improvise with the exigencies. As a result, the middle has been punched out of the industry. And we respond by saying (a) it's not about the generation gap, 'cos we all get along just fine, cough, cough;
(b) I wuz robbed; (c) the glass is half full (tours, Urban Theatre Projects, pumping Fringe etc.); (d) but things would probably be better if we had more money; and (e) he's Melbourne-centric, and did I mention tours and UTP? Intellectual substructure? Infrastructure reform? Err, well, no, probably not.
Meyrick suggests that there is a deep structural malaise here that has gone unacknowledged, the legacy of an ad hoc industry. And a reactive industry lacks genuine vision, most especially with respect to new writing. Where is, for instance, a Granville Barker, Devine, or Daldry to kickstart new work with the resources it needs? Can't blame the audience. Maybe it's the population size? Unlikely. Development has been divorced from production, fringe from mainstream, boomer from X. Gaps and lacunae are the order of the day. Where is the middle ground, i.e. the 'small-to-medium' theatres that generate new work? What are we going to do about it? What's the point of a fancy smokestack if there's no coal and the engine's on the fritz?
I asked a similar question at last year's National Playwrights' Conference in a session I had pretentiously called 'Colloquy'. The response was something like 'enough already'. The gathered professional folk didn't want to sit around gasbagging any more about our woes. Instead, they wanted to get on and do it, move plays closer to production, get actors moving, writers writing and audiences laughing, thinking, feeling. Just do it. Sure. And the vision thing? The middle ground? Well, maybe, next year.
John McCallum on Playbox's honourable repertoire:
Julian Meyrick's essay has many provocative things to say about the state of our theatre, but one thing he does not comment upon, and that hasn't been mentioned in the press coverage since the essay appeared, is Playbox Theatre's actual repertoire. A central plank of his argument is based on a simple quantitative table of box-office data entitled 'Paid Attendances at Playbox Theatre, 1998-2003' (pp. 67-9). This was picked up in a feature in the Age by Robin Usher with the heading 'Getting Bums on Seats' (1 February 2005). The table is used to argue that the funding for Playbox to do new work hasn't been as effective as it should have been, that there is now no 'middle ground' of small-to-medium companies with the resources to develop new work and that the old guard of the New Wave generation has failed to hand on the baton to new young artists.
I am based in Sydney and have no axe to grind about the politics of Melbourne theatre, but there are obviously two ways of looking at this table. One is to observe the poor attendance figures, including the clear decline over the five years, which Meyrick notes. The other is to look qualitatively at the plays they did. The Playbox repertoire, even if we only take the five years covered in Meyrick's table, is impressive. More importantly, in the light of his argument, it clearly straddles the generations. Many of the plays have had a national impact, and all of them have been published. This is part of Playbox's legacy.
Usher quoted the public funding figures for Playbox ($1.374 million a year) and the MTC ($1.574 million a year), and commented that MTC had used not much more money to present a longer, more varied season. Well, duh. MTC doesn't need as much money, pro rata, because it has a large established audience base-the audience that Michael Kantor says he now wants to attract to Malthouse. It costs money to do what Playbox has been doing, producing between eight and 14 new plays each year. Naturally, there is a significant failure rate. Maybe there are selection issues. The fact that audiences don't always come to new Australian work is well-known-ask anyone in the film industry. The two off-thegraph box-office hits of the five years of Meyrick's data were Black Swan's and Belvoir's visiting production Cloudstreet and Secret Bridesmaids' Business, a cheerful but inconsequential commercial play. But if you want to add concerns about the value of the arts to a bums-on-seats measure of success then look at the rest of the repertoire. Here are a few examples from the five years of the table, using Meyrick's data.
In 1998 Andrew Bovell's Speaking in Tongues played to 74% capacity-not bad, but it had an even larger audience when it was made into the film Lantana. In 1999 Cloudstreet reached 93%-not surprisingly-but Louis Nowra's great Asian historical drama The Language of the Gods only made 29%. In 2000 David Williamson's Face to Face, admittedly one of his best plays of the last ten years, played to 80%, while Michael Gurr's interesting Crazy Brave and Debra Oswald's fine underdog drama Sweet Road only played to 28% and 47% respectively.
In 2001 one of Melbourne and Australia's most distinguished New Wave playwrights, John Romeril, had his adventurous Miss Tanaka (57%), and the young urban writer Raimondo Cortese had his provocative St Kilda Tales (51%). In the same year one of the most important and powerful plays ever written about Australia's dark heritage, Andrew Bovell's Holy Day, played to 34%; and Dorothy Hewett's last play, Nowhere, a wonderful distillation of a lot of what she had been trying to say throughout her career, played to 58%- again, not too bad, but less than you'd expect for one of the greatest writers for the stage of the last 50 years.
In 2002 there was an important season of studio productions of new plays by black Australians, including Richard J. Frankland's Conversations With the Dead (okay, it was more of a success in Neil Armfield's later Belvoir production, but it was Playbox that made it happen) and the premiere of Daniel Keene's astonishingly beautiful, theatrically eloquent, multi-award-winning play, Half and Half, and also of Joanna Murray-Smith's successful Rapture. In 2003 Playbox commissioned and produced Stephen Sewell's Myth, Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America. At the time of writing, it is in its third Australian production and about to be produced in New York and London. That year there was also Ben Ellis's astonishing anti-New Wave play Falling Petals, and Matt Cameron's magic fable of the dark side of suburban life, Ruby Moon. Whatever you think of these plays-and, obviously, I've picked the ones I admire-you cannot say that Playbox's repertoire has been insignificant. And you can't say that bums-on-seats are a measure of value.
I worry that the debate provoked by Meyrick's essay will throw up a model in which the new work of adventurous young artists will be seen merely as grist for the mainstream mill. New writers need to have their work produced, not endlessly workshopped, and Playbox at least did that. (And this year Griffin, Malthouse and Black Swan are all making their spaces available to smaller companies that actually do shows as well as productions.) I hate to sound like an old New Waver, but let's not pretend that 'paid attendances' are the only measure.
On Thursday 20 January 2005, at the Stables Theatre, in Sydney, a public discussion/forum was held on the subject of Julian Meyrick's Platform Paper. Julian Meyrick's opening statement was followed by contributions by Rob Brookman, Lyn Wallis and David Berthold.
Lyn Wallis addresses the Next Wave:
Julian's Meyrick's essay, Why our Theatre is Facing Paralysis, raises many fascinating questions about the links between generations of artists.
I am one of the last wave of theatre-makers to have enjoyed the nurturing support of a particular segment of Meyrick's 'middle ground', before it crumbled in the wake of 'mainstream-to-the-regions' touring initiatives such as Playing Australia. For me and other artists of my age, this 'middle ground' was represented by regional and community theatre companies. When the death knell sounded for many of these, another valuable commodity was lost, a vital training ground for artists at entry level. In terms of an organic system of development and mentorship through intergenerational contact, nothing has really replaced it. Twenty years on, I find myself working as a mentor and facilitator with the Next Wave. Together with dynamic independent companies being primped and preened by 'season hubs' such as B Sharp and its brothers- and sisters-in-arms across the country, this Next Wave of artists and producers is staging a little cultural tsunami all of its own.
There has been no 'middle ground' for them and, in response to being exiled, they've grabbed some tools from the family shed and determinedly dug a corner patch in some bloody hard soil. I strongly suspect that this wave is a lot like the old New Wave; they are a rambunctious, confident and slightly anarchic lot, who certainly aren't thinking about what they are creating in a cohesive way at all, but are responding purely out of need and out of an instinct that tells them what's missing in the general scene. Working collectively in a very fluid way, they are addressing some of our past mistakes. We should pay their efforts some serious attention.
First, they are actively bridging the divide between artists and facilitators. It's a joy to have joint meetings with Next Wave directors and producers, in which conversations about art, money and audiences overlap and intertwine, in which there are mutual admiration and support, and a recognition that each one of us would have a much more difficult time of it without the others.
Secondly, the Next Wave is not altogether abandoning its patch of soil when more lucrative opportunities come along. There is an investment going on here which is not just about using the fringe as a stepping stone, or as a place to work when there is no other work, but as a place to work willfully, to engage with one's peers in a passionate endeavour, to create a kind of theatre that may not be happening elsewhere and, sometimes, to do great work. How is this wave of indie artists hanging in there, albeit by their fingernails? The creation of 'season hubs' has certainly helped. Sydney is at the forefront of this trend, but examples of it are to be found in most states and territories.
So, is this relatively new territory, solid ground? No, it isn't. I am fearful, because I see this fantastic bit of turf erupting before my eyes, and yet in my heart I know it could just be like Brigadoon, a beautiful, unreal place that only appears for one day every hundred years. The reality is that most of these artists, producers and technicians are working for next to nothing and that, if they didn't pour their blood, sweat and tears onto those little patches of earth, we wouldn't have the jewel-like flower we have now-the liveliest, most cohesive, best independent scene we may ever have had. It desperately needs more resources, and quickly-before these groups grow weary of the penniless grind.
What about formal development strategies? At present, our most damaging practice is to identify the best and brightest and to propel them with all the force of a Saturn V rocket into the stratosphere. Yes, it's the 'Hot Young Thing Ballistic Arts Program'! Guaranteed to get your picture on television, but also to render you paralysed by motion-sickness and lofty heights! And then, of course, there's re-entry-without a heat-shield. But, surely, we are helping here? No, it isn't help, it isn't development and, in truth, it's rarely survivable. As we jump up and down in our desperation and good-hearted enthusiasm to get the future on the road, we better make damn sure we're not trampling our prodigies to death in the process. Beautiful gardens take time to grow. And this new patch of ground has enormous potential-but it will only flourish with help, and a more considered approach to its development.
Nicholas Pickard responds to David Berthold's contribution to the Stables forum, from which an edited extract was published in the Australian on 27 January 2005.
In responding to Julian Meyrick's argument, David Berthold asks, 'Have any of these [professional theatre] companies, over the past decade, taken up an inspired independent production and worked to develop it?' But Berthold makes no mention of the efforts of the fringe scene outside of the independent theatre scene. I refer to the fringe as a body of practitioners who exist without the support or approval of an independent venue. They are the theatre practitioners that can't get past a submission process, let alone break into paid work at a flagship theatre company.
My experience is a case in point. While completing my postgraduate directing studies at the Academy of Theatre, University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, I commissioned an Australian playwright to write a play for six actors, all graduating students. As we received the script in stages by email from Sydney, we spent an exciting three months workshopping, rehearsing and re-writing in an atmosphere of cultural exchange and bi-lingual confusion.The result was a critically-acclaimed production that has been seen by audiences from the far-reaches of the Balkans and throughout central Europe. One of the most interesting reactions came from a Slovenian reviewer: 'It is possible to recognise distinguishable features of modern time and space in a story from such a far-off continent. To the audience the story seems extremely close, happening at our end of the global village, so to speak.' Our cross-cultural collaboration had worked: we had created theatre that was new, unique and 'universal'.
It is interesting to compare this show's success at several European festivals, to the lukewarm reception it received in Australia. After three years and ten submissions we have given up trying to remount the show here, and have resorted to more 'commercial' submissions that seem more likely to gain the attention of independent-theatre decision- makers. The real disappointment for me, however, has been that approaching independent theatres with proposals based on development and collaboration has received only negative reactions. But my principal concern is the lack of variety in our independent theatre-work, particularly new Australian playwriting that puts our directors, designers and actors to the test, that is inherently theatrical and seeks to develop the craft of theatre, that is risk-taking and unique to Australia.
A major problem with the independent scene in Sydney is the effect of the current submission process. The criteria for success are weighted almost entirely towards the commercial/ marketing/advertorial merits of a project. Each venue receives over 100 competing submissions each year, thus diluting much of what practitioners want to do-the effect is catastrophic. The result for independent theatre and its audiences is that these 60-100-seat venues, all desperate to stay commercially viable, make conservative and predictable programming decisions. Exciting and challenging theatre is pushed aside, uneconomic and irrelevant.
The inspiration I derive from people in Sydney's theatre scene to create exciting theatre, new scripts, new ideas, and their willingness to experiment, often without financial or other support, is a constant source of encouragement. The balance, however, between inspired theatre and the lightweight, thematically conservative fare currently on our stages needs to be adjusted: what we need is theatre that, by means of a range of investigative processes and collaborative rehearsal, tries to break down boundaries between scripted theatre, physical theatre and performance art.
I don't pretend to know how independent theatres should be run, but I believe that the most effective way of forcing professional theatre to take up 'inspired independent productions' is to actively encourage its creation. I believe that audiences are yearning for originality, and if independent theatre can provide it, professional commercial theatre-makers will be obliged to rethink their programs and practices. For all of us, to coin a phrase, it's probably a case of who dares will win.
Deborah Klika on the mainstream and the margins
The recent papers by Julian Meyrick (Trapped in the Past) and Robyn Archer (The Myth of the Mainstream) raise some issues about the need for greater debate about how the arts are funded in Australia and our expectations of Government funding agencies.
Meyrick gives an honest and personal view of the development of theatre practice over the last thirty years. In short he claims that the cultural storm troopers of the 1970s have become the cultural gatekeepers of the noughties. It felt like Mark Davis and Ganglands all over again. Meyrick's analysis explains how and why the change took place and the effect on the cultural landscape. And while Meyrick may be focussed on the losses, his in particular, his paper highlights the need for a broad spectrum of artistic practice and funding that encompasses both old school processes and New Wave values. Robyn Archer's paper extends the theme; that a broad spectrum of arts practice is essential for a thriving (artistic) culture. Further, that any narrowing of that practice will ultimately produce conservative, safe, work that slowly but increasingly becomes bereft of ideas and creativity. Which brings me to this response.
Robyn Archer is right to debunk the myth of the mainstream; there should be no mainstream, but the reality is that there is only a mainstream and nothing else. We have managed to cut off (or at least under-fund) the margins, and consequently the space in between where work gets developed, supported and our identity celebrated. This space 'in between' is where many artists work, whether it be a physical or psychological or sociological space. It is where the risky, innovative and new forms of artistic practice develop and, if funded, flourish. These are the margins, where ideas bubble up from small spaces, diverse cultures, personal experiences; stories, images; performances that tell us how our society is really travelling. It is where those cultural storm troopers came from thirty years ago. Margins exist, like the mythical but real, mainstream, and each is defined by the existence of the other. It is no longer just a binary opposition of old and new; we are experiencing a shift in how art is created and experienced. A shift some describe as moving from 'models' to 'systems'; maybe from 'form' to 'process'; maybe a combination of both. Whatever the shift, it is a challenge that we all need to debate.
Which brings me to the recent Australia Council for the Arts decision to abolish the Community Cultural Development and New Media Arts Boards and fold some of the work into other Boards. In light of the broad overview and themes being articulated by Meyrick and Archer this restructure by the Council raises some questions.
The Community Cultural Development (CCD) Board and the New Media Arts Board were the two areas of Council that explored, and had connections to, those margins, those new areas of arts practice and ideas. They were the research and development arms of cultural and artistic practice. They explored processes, systems and new collaborations. The work of those Boards reflected what is increasingly becoming common artistic practice, as Archer points out-hybrid arts that cross, even refuse to be bound by, traditional boundaries. Boundaries that Archer says should be abolished. Boundaries that the Council has long recognised make it difficult for much arts practice, namely youth arts and cross-art-form work to be funded. I applaud Council in attempting to correct that difficulty with the establishment of the Inter Arts office, but would argue that such a move will not address the issue and is done at the expense of other, important, work that connects us to our culture and to the future.
The CCD field has been around for over thirty years. It is based on a philosophy and practice that reflects the deep Australian reverence for democracy, community and giving a voice to the voiceless. As a practice and philosophy it produced significant advances in artistic practice and policies such as Art and Working life, Art and Wellbeing, access and equity to the arts and support for the less-seen parts of our society. It championed and supported multicultural arts, circus performance and youth arts. It laid some fundamental philosophical frameworks for cultural development, including social capital. And while as a practice and philosophy CCD needed to be revised and re-articulated, it is a unique and distinctly Australian practice that is recognised worldwide. By abolishing the CCD Board the Council has lost an important tool that enabled it to truly shape the cultural landscape. Folding that work into other Boards has not worked previously and dilutes the focus of CCD. It is to the credit of the CCD and New Media Arts sectors that they have managed to retain some of the programs and work in subsequent consultations.
In its defence the Council says it wants to be a strategic player in the arts, to be flexible, and to fund significant projects under the banner of Community Partnerships. Community Partnerships are an important aspect of community cultural development, often bringing large organisations and communities together. Or they can be road shows that come into town, leaving after they have done their bit. Funding them as 'lighthouse' projects means they need to be successful; to be successful they need to be risk-averse, even conservative-one of Archer's fears. But what is really surprising is where Council has now situated this work. In Marketing. The arts as commodity (and audiences as consumers). It is an easy trap believing that marketing artistic and cultural product is cultural development. It is not.
The Council has every right, in fact a duty, to revise its structure and to position itself to best serve the arts. I welcome change and applaud the Council for having the courage to try to make things better. But does this restructure reflect the cultural shift we seem to be going through? Shouldn't we be concerned that our major arts funding body has deleted the words 'new' and 'culture' from its list of Boards or divisions? What is the purpose of the restructure? To be flexible and strategic-to what end and for whom? Audiences, artists or as producers?
Of course, there is not enough money for the arts, and there is no single funding model that satisfies all parties or practices, but unless we start having debates about ideas, cultural identity, and creative practices and keep seeking the best ways that serve Australian artistic practice and the development of our culture we will end up just marketing old ideas.
Raymond Gill on myths, the mainstream and the press
Robyn Archer is such an enthusiastic advocate for the arts that one always expects a certain amount of hyperbole in her pronouncements. While her embellishments are goodnaturedly accepted, if not expected, when she's spruiking an arts festival, one would expect something more researched and thought-through in an essay importantly titled The Myth of the Mainstream: Politics and the Performing Arts in Australia Today. Instead, she offers up a random series of thoughts and impressions, then shoehorns them into an argument about how media, government, the major arts companies and compliant audiences have allowed the 'mainstream' to swallow culture in Australia, rather like an artistic 'Blob'. Oh, why can't Australia be less like the 1950s and more like Iceland, where Archer recalls its 'phenomenal economic success [...] and that an Icelandic parent's proudest experience is seeing their offspring become a poet' (no reference given)!
While she makes some valid points about the dumbing down of culture, a lament anyone over forty living in any Western country would share, Archer overlooks some fairly obvious changes in Australia-changes she has herself brought about in her role as director of many of our arts festivals. She fails to note the proliferation of arts festivals around the country in the past twenty years, festivals that have brought work here that I would consider to be, in the main, innovative and tough. Such work has exposed audiences, critics and artists to ideas and work that they would otherwise have to travel as extensively as Archer to see. At the same time, substantial funds have been made available to festivals to commission, from local artists, new work that is precisely not the sort of 'mainstream' work we are used to seeing our state and national companies present in their annual seasons. There are now scores of artists who make work solely for festivals, not only in this country but around the world; another factor that helps bridge the gap between Australia and the rest of the world.
The success of arts festivals has contributed to what I would consider a broadening of the mainstream, as opposed to Archer's view that the arts and culture here have contracted into a bland middle ground. How else could one explain the routine acceptance by audiences and coverage by the media of areas of the arts that would once have been considered marginal?
Queer-film festivals, underground-film festivals, fringe festivals, foreign-language cinema, artist-run galleries etc. These are covered by all the broadsheet newspapers in Australia, something I believe would have been unthinkable 15 years ago. But Archer has not even noticed that the space made available for the arts-at least in the case of the Age-has almost tripled over that period.
Archer has a genuine complaint when she levels criticism at some of the arts criticism published here. But, in my view, it applies to only a minority of critics, and her complaints are little different from those we hear from critics in the United States, or, to a lesser extent, the United Kingdom, where the impact of a critic is less because of their sheer number. But to compare what newspaper critics must do-communicate to the broadest audience in succinct and cogent language-to the criticism that appears in the local industry publication RealTime, written by and for arts practitioners, reveals how ignorant she is of the 'mainstream' media. Archer would have us believe that print arts coverage is only about arts page reviews rather than features, news stories and photographs. It might not occur to her that a page-three photograph of an artist or arts event will have far more impact on creating a culture that embraces the arts than will a thousand words of criticism.
Robyn Archer's Coda, 6 May 2005
My research into daily newspapers is extensive-pretty much every day, and sometimes, in the course of a month, in five states in Australia and three or four countries overseas. I am on planes a lot. This last month it was Tasmania, Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney. The dominant page-three article on the arts in this period was about the Archibald Prize, a well-known and much loved portrait-painting competition. The longest piece I saw by Ray Gill- a full-page in the Age-was about the production/ commercial aspects of The Lion King, which is coming to Melbourne. The most interesting were in the Australian Financial Review. I know exactly the demographic that a daily needs to reach, and exactly why Virginia Baxter and Keith Gallasch [of RealTime] made the hard personal and financial decision to create and sustain something which had the capacity to respond to art-particularly to new and adventurous art-giving it the attention that this kind of work demands.
There are many people in Australia who have stopped reading dailies because they target a potential audience for whom space, content and language are dictated by the notion of a mainstream. I believe that the very dictates Ray has outlined in his response to my essay are those corresponding to a political climate that encourages middleof-the-road thinking and work that's on the edge and hard to deal with. I have vast experience of international festival publicists desperately trying, and frequently failing, to place stories about fantastic original local work, stories which don't stand a chance of being noticed if they are put next to a high-profile puff.
It is for exactly the same reason that many people also find the changes in the ABC disturbing. This week, having approached an ABC interview about the essay with equanimity, I was astonished to find myself in a commercial-radio-style heckle, in which I was introduced as 'grumpy' and within minutes described as 'whingeing'. Talk about being marginalised and patronised! With tiny sound bytes allowed and a nervy eye being kept on the clock, It seemed as though I was being asked why a successful entertainer- I was 'remembered' as a 'cabaret singer'-and effective artistic director whose own chutzpah could drum up audiences aplenty would find anything wrong in the world. There were moments akin to being at a drunken dinner party: 'Come on, give us an example! Where's your evidence?' A bit like Ray's demand for evidence and references.
There's evidence aplenty. Just go and talk to the legion of Australian artists who don't get offers from major arts organisations and who are scraping and working so hard to produce works of quality, that still manage to have immense appeal outside Australia. And go to Iceland and talk to people there, too-I did! You can use the internet to research their economy.
I titled my essay The Myth of the Mainstream. The important-sounding subtitle: 'politics and the performing arts in Australia today' was added by the editor, and too late for me to argue about the dangers of seeming selfimportance. And I would be inclined to take to heart accusations of being grumpy, ignorant, a whinger and poor researcher, were it not for the large gatherings I recently addressed in London, Hobart, Sydney and Melbourne, where the very kinds of things I said in the essay, and expressed in exactly the same tone, were greeted with prolonged applause and rewarded with further invitations.