it’s all about the money #2

He could have ditched the first paragraph, stopped right at the end of the second sentence, and just copy-pasted that the length of the page, like so:

LET’S get one thing sorted. Any crisis the Australian theatre might be facing now is entirely a matter of money.

— The Australian

The post-dramatic stage

Mainstream theatre is moving towards an edgy yet stylised realism, writes John McCallum in the first of a series of essays taking the temperature of the arts in Australia today

LET’S get one thing sorted. Any crisis the Australian theatre might be facing now is entirely a matter of money. The playwrights, directors, designers and actors are in place and ready to go.

The artists are talented and energetic, but they are struggling in a culture that for at least 10 years has systematically devalued the arts and tried to represent them as the plaything of an elite coterie, rather than the fundamental investigation of what it means to be human and part of a society.

You can see this problem all over the country in “independent” theatre. The term, drawn from the idea of the indie film industry set apart from Hollywood, means, in the case of the mostly non-commercial theatre sector, profit-sharing co-operatives or small professional companies struggling to maintain an artistic identity, whose members have to go off and wait tables or drive cabs for a large part of each year.

As in the case of education or science, this is all a result of what author Shelley Gare has called, with a nod to Geoffrey Blainey, “the triumph of the airheads”.

Properly resourced, the value of great theatre is clear. One of the artistic successes of the last year has been the Sydney Theatre Company’s Actors Company — a well-funded group of 20 actors who after three major productions are working together superbly. The dynamic interaction of great individuals working together over a period of time has produced two moving and thought-provoking examinations of what it means to be an individual in the troubled early 21st century, and another show that was simply fun.

We all know that it takes many creative people a fairly long time to make a good film. Most of our favourite serious television dramas have large teams of people who work together over several series. Why do we still expect great theatre to be thrown together in four to eight weeks by a group of people who, in most cases, will never work together again? The Actors Company has been together for two years. It’s not much, but it’s a start.

Our theatre, financially oppressed and publicly derided by people who’ve never seen it, has become dependant on the passion, enthusiasm and dedication of a dwindling group of high-calibre theatre workers who increasingly have to work for nothing but love of their art. As Murray Bramwell, The Australian’s Adelaide theatre critic, puts it: “We are riding on the idealism of younger artists and we can’t expect them to carry us forever.” Why should we care? Let theatre go, some people might say. We should care because live experience, in our screen and media culture, is still valued.

Serious new-media art, reality TV and internet culture are driven by new understandings of “liveness”, understandings that are derived from the ancient idea that it’s nice to have your performers in the same room.

Artistically what has been exciting is the renewed emphasis on physical theatre, contemporary performance and non-realistic, often extravagantly theatrical, work — and this has at last begun to creep into the mainstream. This new, post-dramatic theatre (American writer Richard Schechner coined the term in the 1970s and it has recently been theorised by the German critic Hans-Thies Lehmann) thrives on real actions and events in the performance space and direct dialogue with its audiences, not oblique representations, based in hackneyed conventions, of a fictional world outside it, usually far off and in another country.

Shakespeare parodied such conventions in the play the rustics perform in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “All that I have to say is that this lanthorn is the moon; I the man in the moon; this thorn-bush my thorn-bush; and this dog my dog,” says the actor, frustrated by the nitpicking mockery of the smooth-talking noble lovers lolling comfortably in each other’s arms; those who wouldn’t know a good story if it got up and bit them. By being frank, the rustics finally win them over, and that is what the theatre is trying to do now.

The old model of worthy productions of classic plays and “sensitively” directed realistic productions of new ones will continue, but the best work now is that which transforms the classics and the conventions, or which uses new media and new forms to deal with urgent problems.

Two of the best international productions that visited Australia last year were, surprisingly, radical revisionings of Henrik Ibsen’s classic realist drama A Doll’s House: one from Berlin’s Schaubuhne Theatre, Thomas Ostermeier’s production, Nora, at the Adelaide Festival; and another from New York’s Mabou Mines, Lee Breuer’s Dollhouse, at the Brisbane Festival. In each case, real experiences in the theatre — metonymised by a fishtank and some savage (but still represented) violence in the first, and a collection of short-statured men around whom Nora has to crawl in the second — resulted in explosively theatrical finales.

Another reason we need the new theatre is that it can question — live and in the room — the personal and political issues we receive through the media, that once might have affected us more directly, before we started getting dizzy with the spin.

Nigel Jamieson’s Honour Bound — a multimedia and dance work about the confinement of David Hicks at Guantanamo Bay — and Melbourne Workers’ Theatre’s We Built This City — with dancing bobcat earthmovers battling against an evil crane — prove that political theatre is still alive.

Verbatim theatre, in which the text is entirely based on the words of interviewed eyewitnesses, is enjoying a revival, and its impulse is the same as that of the post-dramatic performance companies: let’s stop pretending in the theatre and find something real. In recent years there have been several high-profile mainstream examples, including David Hare’s Stuff Happens, about the US in Iraq. One of the most moving, however, was the independent company Urban Theatre Projects’ Fast Cars and Tractor Engines, about life in the western suburbs of Sydney.

The artistic highlight of 2006 was a work by Australian director Barrie Kosky, who reintroduced frank theatricality to mainstream theatre in the 1990s, and who then went off to work in Europe because there, he claims, people don’t have quite the same airhead attitude we do. Perhaps the theatre there simply has more money.

Kosky’s The Lost Echo for the STC, using the Actors Company, was a work that returned to the classics, in this case Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but transformed them, vividly, sometimes luridly, using an extraordinary mixture of music, dance and outrageous stories and images. It was an eight-hour marathon, telling many ancient tales of what it means to live in a world in which unbridled passion and pragmatic sense fight each other with bloody results. Some lolling nobles thought Kosky was trying to shock them, and seemed to resent that, but a theatre that can’t shock is not doing its job.