conversation, interview, Theatre, writing

in conversation: cat commander on collaboration, questioning yourself and australianess

Cat Commander is a beautiful playwright and actor. Her upcoming show, YOU TOOK THE STARS, will mark the first time that she has been the writer rather than the writer/performer/producer/everything else. It is a massive step for us as playwrights, when we first place our words into the mouths and hearts of others. Cat and I sat down over liquorice tea to talk about this new stage in her life and career.


The first image that comes up when you google search ‘Cat Commander’

Fleur: Turning on the recorder. They are informal. The one I just typed up ends with “I’ve got to go because I need to eat some chips” so don’t feel that it’s like “NOW WE ARE TALKING!”

Cat: Okay. Okay.

Fleur: So tell me, Cat, what have you been thinking about this week?

Cat: The new sensation of what it’s like to be the playwright who is not onstage. I’ve done my job. I don’t have to do anything else. I feel like I could have done with a distraction this week to keep my mind off the fact that I don’t have anything to do.

Going into rehearsals today, I added an extra line. Maybe I did it because I felt like I needed to be involved. I also think the line needs to be there but I wonder if it was a bit of me going “argh! I don’t have anything to do and I feel a bit left out!”

Fleur: Are you loving that though?

Cat: Yeah! That’s good too! Part of me is going “oh you’re going to really miss it when you see it onstage and the people are applauding” but part of me is also going to love standing at the back every night.

Although there’s nowhere to hide! In rehearsal today, Kasha (Kaczmarek) delivered one of the monologues to me. It was this surreal out of body experience of going “I wrote that!” But it is also something I would say! So somebody has taken shit that I’ve said and is saying it back to me but making it make sense for their own brain! Kasha and John (Shearman) are such good actors. Even though I know what’s happening, I’m surprised by the way they make it real for themselves.

Fleur: Do you find your nerves different – you haven’t got to opening night – but are you actor nerves different to your writer nerves?

Cat: I actually feel pretty secure about this play because the bit that I enjoyed doing, the writing, I’ve finished. If it had gone on at first to third draft I think I’d still be panicking. “Fuck! I don’t know what this play is about!” But there was a massive jump between the third draft and the fifth or sixth or whatever this one is. I’ve figured out why I’m writing this and why I think people should see it and why I feel like it is worth of actors putting their time into. I think that is the thing I’m asking myself constantly about theatre: Why should people see it? Why should they pay to see it? Why ask actors to give up their time? I know what it’s like. I don’t want to give an actor a piece of work that’s not worthy of their time and energy.

Fleur: I’ve always thought that about your writing: what a delight it is for actors. I feel that comes from you knowing what feels good and hard to experience on stage but I hadn’t thought about it as also being this sensitivity to of what it’s like to invest months of time in words when you don’t know why you’re saying them.

Cat: I’ve thought a lot about it recently. I guess there is so much debate going on around theatre in Melbourne. So much of what gets up in Australia is largely irrelevant to us. It is overseas writing.

YOU TOOK THE STARS, promo image by Ben Prendegast featuring John Shearman and Kasha Kaczmarek

YOU TOOK THE STARS, promo image by Ben Prendegast featuring John Shearman and Kasha Kaczmarek

I was just in the States and I had someone ask me – and he was so curious and excited – asking me “what sort of theatre do you put on in Australia? What kind of plays?” And I was like “well… a lot of your plays. A lot of American plays.” And he was so genuinely shocked. “Why would you do that? Why wouldn’t you put Australian plays on?” That’s the question I keep asking myself. I’m really interested in American writing but I want audiences to experience our life on stage. I want actors to act without the falsification of using an accent. It is such a barrier to actually creating something beautiful, actors worrying whether they are getting their accent right. Or you are seeing an actor struggle with a text that’s clearly not meant to be spoken in this languid Australian accent.

Fleur: I ask those questions much more of independent companies, I must say. Why aren’t you producing local writing? It pisses me off when I see independent companies staging another production of LaBute. Look around you!

I’m sure that’s partly my ego as a local writer going “there are amazing writers here! Look! Right in front of you, fuckers! Why are you trying to make work that feels like mainstage? Why are you not digging your hands into the earth of Melbourne and pulling something out?”

Cat: But isn’t it interesting that we have this perception that it’s the funded theatre companies’ prerogative to put on overseas work and it is us, the struggling battlers that have got to put on and support our own stuff. Wouldn’t it be interesting if we lived in a world where amateur companies were going “let’s have a go at some overseas stuff” and it was the flagship companies were going “find me a new work! Let’s pump money into a writer.”

Fleur: Oh I absolutely don’t think it is the mainstage’s prerogative to produce all the overseas work! I would fucking love if one of them went “do you know what? This is our season of new Australian work.” I guess I just want independent artists to be trusting and supporting each other.

Cat: It is just a shame that we don’t have the population or the interest to support a wider range of programming from both mainstage and independent companies.

What I would really like is to have time and support to make sure it’s right before it goes on stage. To know what right feels like. I think that’s what I’ve been trying to figure out.

I think if Melbourne could do with any more theatre it would be really meaty Australian work that up there with the dramatic structure of what’s being produced on the world stage. I don’t think conventional theatre is dead. I don’t think we’re ever going to want to stop seeing two people talking to each other; being outside of it yet still part of it. You are because you’re a meter or two meters or ten meters away.

I’m learning to think more thematically. To go “if I could sum this play up in a word or sentence, what would it be? What is it really about?” It’s not about two people talking to each other. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about people dealing with anxiety and trying to make love exist in the world where love seems so fucking impossible.

Last week I was thinking about myself the way an actor might think about a playwright. If I were the actor doing this play, I would google the playwright and I would find out what had been happening in the playwright’s life. That made me think.

I lost a friend last year and that sent me into a spiral of existential l doubt and questioning stuff. That made me go “oh, the word ‘death’ comes up a lot in this play.” It is clearly about a fear of dying and love is kind of all about a fear of dying. We’ve gotta make meaning out of this weird existence of ours otherwise why are we here?

Fleur: Oh dear. I’m just imagining my actors trying to google me to figure out what made me write The City They Burned. “Well she got naked a lot then got angry at God. Hmm.” That wouldn’t work. But I keep having these conversations with audience members who are asking just that. Where did this come from?

Cat: Yeah, I’m interested to have those conversations because I’ve never had them. I’ve never had that objective conversation where it’s not about “what did you thing of me? Was I doing a good job of the thing I wrote and acted and directed and did all the fucking sound cues?” Now it will be “hey, what did you think of this thing that I helped create.” I feel like I’ve been a part of something rather than an instigator of everything. It feels a bit more like what the artistic process should be like. I’m into this collaboration thing. I’d like to do more of it.

Fleur: It is an amazing feeling. It feels like such a privilege to have all these brains focus on your work with such love. I don’t think you can do new work – and indie, unpaid work – without a lot of love. Theatre is too hard to make without love. You make it with people you are in love with.

Cat: I think there should be ferocious debate and I think you should have intellectual respect for each other. I don’t think it should be 100% yes.

Fleur: Oh it should be hard! Hard isn’t a bad thing. But find those people who challenge that challenge you because they want it to be good. They want to be part of something good and they know you can be good.

Cat: The thing that I like about indie theatre is that part of the process is me cycling to South Bank on a Saturday morning to pick up some monkey ears from an old friend. “You’re a drag queen! You know how to sew! Why don’t you make me some monkey ears?” And there are probably lots of people who could have done that but, again, I want to be working with people I like. And people who make them regardless of the fact that I don’t reply to emails because I’m totally strung out and have no idea what’s going on right now.

That’s why I can’t do Tinder. People go, “you’re a writer, you should be really good at that!” No! I’m good at writing both the voices! When I don’t know what the other person is going to say I’m like “No! No! I don’t want to be a part of this!” You’re expecting me to give you the part of my brain that I’m using for the thing I care about! Anyway. That’s the next play, clearly. How much I don’t care about relationships. You Took The Stars is a play about how I’m really interested in them and now it is like “I’m completely disinterested because I am burnt the fuck out.”

Fleur: Well that’s a way to end it:

But, you’re fucking excited! You’re about to have your play open! How does it feel?

Cat: I’m over the moon. I couldn’t be happier.

Fleur: Congratulations. That’s really special.

Cat, Kasha, Matt Furlani and John, photographed by Ben Prendegast

Cat, Kasha, Matt Furlani and John, photographed by Ben Prendegast

conversation, criticism, dance

in conversation: gabriel comerford on critical culture, brisbane and why dance

Gabriel Comerford and I recently spent six weeks living and working together in regional Queensland. Gabe is a contemporary dancer, an amazing artist and a joy to collaborate with. He inspired our students so much and kept me (relatively) sane. Towards the end of this project, we recorded this conversation whilst driving at 100kms an hour somewhere between Toowoomba and Dalby. This follows on from many conversations we had about the state of criticism in Brisbane. He’s not a fan.

Gabriel Comerford and Caitlin MacKenzie

Gabriel Comerford and Caitlin MacKenzie at Melaka Art & Performance Festival, Malaysia 

Fleur: As someone who lives in a city that is almost devoid of arts commentary, how do you think this affects you?

Gabriel: The fact that our reviews that are so emotion-based and lack commentary means that there’s no conversation happening between artists and audiences that goes any deeper than “did you like it? Yes or no.” Good commentary gives audiences perspective and lets them connect with artists. They feel like they can be open about their reactions to and interpretations of the work. They realise “oh, it’s okay that this is how I felt about it” and that goes beyond “I didn’t like it”.

Fleur: I think as artists it puts us on such a back foot to be waiting for the reviews with this feeling of defensiveness. If all you’re getting are those accusatory why-did-you-put-me-through-that responses, it is hard to keep valuing that response time and time again. They’re not giving you the respect you want to be giving them.

Gabriel: I can really only speak for Brisbane. I think that defensiveness has become so ingrained. There’s a great deal of people who say that they want that constructive criticism but, when they get it, their reactions are not those of people who are seeking a dialogue about their work.

I want people to tell me that they love or hate it and then why. That doesn’t mean I’m going to change it but we need to be able to understand why an audience member reacts a particular way… Dramaturgically, we can only see a certain amount of our work because we’re so entwined in it.

Fleur: When you value your audience’s opinions, they’ll discover opinions they didn’t know they had. I find this all the time with the audience conversations. At the start they’ll be a couple of quite vocal people and a someone going “I don’t know what I thought. Don’t ask me.”

Gabriel: “I didn’t think anything!”

Fleur: Exactly! And as it goes on most realise how many opinions they have. Even if they don’t come to the theatre often they know how something made them feel. And you don’t just have to respond to theatre or art within the context of other theatre or art experiences. You can respond within the context of life because you have lived. Sometimes that’s all you need.

It’s also difficult at Q&As mind you because… well we’ve all been in the audience when someone has asked a question that’s not a question. That eye rolling moment of “oh you’re just – ”

Gabriel: “You’re just telling us your opinion.”

Fleur: Yeah! But that’s because the framework is such that we say, “you will sit there and ask us, the undisputed experts on our own art, questions. We have the answers and you have the questions.” It is actually a very different thing to create a forum where we say, “don’t even pretend that’s a question! Put that out there as a statement! Own that!”

Gabe somewhere in a paddock outside of Dalby during the project we just completed.

Gabe somewhere in a paddock outside of Dalby during the project we just completed.

Do you think about stepping up to perform that job of critical commentator yourself?

Gabriel: Yeah, it is definitely something that I’ve started thinking about and talking to people about; how I feel and react to the way art is talked about in Brisbane, particularly in the dance world. There are really only two dance reviewers in Brisbane that get published. Often I don’t agree with their views. Perhaps they write great reviews but they can be so out of touch with contemporary dance and what’s happening with the independent work being made around Australia. I don’t know if it’s a generational gap thing or something that comes from our isolation in Brisbane. I’ve definitely started talking to my peers and saying, “this is something we need to take ownership of.”

In the last two weeks I’ve seen two or three theatre shows, some circus and some dance. Obviously I have opinions about everything I see and I have experience and exposure to all three of those genres but I don’t know that I’m situated to review or critically respond.

Fleur: Fuck that. Do it.

Well I say, “fuck that” and “do it” but when a reviewer is coming at it with a very conservative expectations born of ballet, like you mentioned, they can end up with a defensiveness when they talk about contemporary forms. “I didn’t get this! Why didn’t you make my kind of work?” I wish they would declare their bias. Don’t go in expecting one art form to be like another.

But I also, I do believe whole-heartedly that you don’t have to have done a theatre degree and post-grad to be able to respond to theatre.

So moving away from critical responses… Why dance?

Gabriel: Biggest question in the world. For me.

Fleur: Good. It should be. Otherwise why are you doing it.

Gabriel: I think all of the reasons and none of the reasons.

The dance that I am passionate about is guttural and emotive and incredibly raw. I appreciate beautifully crafted, technical dance but it’s not what moves me. I want dance that feels human. It doesn’t feel like these crafted, chiseled bodies: it feels like the imperfection of humanity. You put that onstage and give the audience the power to connect to that humanity and see something of themselves onstage. The majority of your audience see and understand beauty but they don’t relate to those lithe bodies with legs flying everywhere. But they relate to this guttural, human clashing of bodies and running and jumping and power.

Fleur: What it is to have a body.

Gabriel: Yeah. It’s that ability to express things that can’t be put into words. There are a thousand adjectives to describe an emotion but sometimes not one of them can express it the way that a simple movement or gesture or moment of connection with another human being can.

Fleur: What do you think that Australian dance needs more of?

Gabriel: Money would be nice.

Gabriel in The Danger Ensemble's CALIGULA

Gabriel in The Danger Ensemble’s CALIGULA

Fleur: What do you not see happening?

Gabriel: What I don’t see is the work that I love. So many of the European companies like Ultima Vez and Ballet C de la B make these big, unpolished productions. They are amazing and the dancers are amazing but they don’t need to be a clean-cut show. There’s ugliness. I think there’s a lot of perfection and beauty put on stage in Australia at the moment. I don’t know where that comes from. I think it’s Australia trying to find its own voice, which is great. I don’t want us to be trying to copy the great European companies or feeling that we have to mimic but –

Fleur: But Australia as a culture is also not this refined, pretty, abstract thing. It can be all of those things (because we are fucking complex) but it is also raw and rough and comic. This isn’t getting onto our stages?

Gabriel: Not the mainstages, anyway. There’s this sense of making dance for the upper-echelon crowds, who perhaps are the clean-cut and the refined, and not for the general public: not for the masses. I guess what I want to see is stuff that reflects that Australian culture a little more organically. I think there are choreographers who are doing that stuff in Australia. I think Antony Hamilton’s work is not necessarily the guttural thing but it has a connection to its people – its audience. You leave going “that was about me!”

I think there’s great work being made in Brisbane and there’s an incredible bunch of artists who believe in great work. At the moment our lack of infrastructure makes it so hard to make the work we want to make and need to make. Lizzie and Zaimon Vilmanis at Prying Eye Dance Company just did their first show as independents. They’ve been building it over about four or five years. It was fantastic. It had that sense of human-ness and ugliness balanced with some beauty. I think we need more work like that in Brisbane.

I think there’s a growing audience that loves the break in narrative and not having had their hand held through a story and through a show. The Danger Ensemble’s Caligula was a really good example of that because it really divided audiences. Some absolutely loved the lack of narrative and the lack of clear progression through the work and some hated it for the same reasons: “Where’s my story? I didn’t understand what was going on!” People will find their niche and that will dictate what they go and see but I think there is a big mix in Brisbane as far as work that crosses the dance and theatre line – the music line. Multi-disciplined work. But what Brisbane needs is just to make more work.

Fleur: I’m going to stop this because I literally need to eat some chips.

Gabriel: Yeah, you haven’t eaten yet!

Fleur: No, I haven’t.

Gabriel: I see you speed camera. So discreet.

Gabriel Comerford is part of MakeShift Dance Collective

Guest Blogger, Politics, Theatre

a letter to mitchell browne, ‘why should artists at work fund idlers at art?’

I’m so happy to bring you this letter. One of my favourite artistic collaborators, Dave Lamb, has written this beautiful, eloquent, generous and immensely clever response to Mitchell Browne’s Syndey Morning Herald article ‘WHY SHOULD ARTISTS AT WORK FUND IDLERS AT ART?’ Enjoy and, if you happen to know Mitchell, please pass this on. Dave wants to hang out. 


Hi Mitchell

My name is Dave, and I’m an artist. We’ve never met, although you assume an awful lot about my lifestyle.

Last week I read your opinion piece on the Sydney Morning Herald website, along with the comments it generated. I must admit, I originally felt a lot of the ire that was expressed there, but I realise it’s not fair or productive to respond with scorn or sarcasm – that would only serve to distance our positions further, and one of the chief goals of the arts is, in my opinion, to bring different perspectives of life closer together in an attempt to create mutual understanding.

I respond in that spirit, not to criticise or correct you but hopefully to further our understanding of each other. Most importantly, I don’t want you to feel that all I’m saying is “you don’t understand art” – that would be unfair, narrow-minded and probably quite offensive to you. My hope is that this response reaches you and that you read with an open mind, and possibly come to a different understanding of the potential and importance of the arts to our society.

Your central point – that $200 million funding for the Australia Council is in effect a robbery of hard-working taxpayers to fund the laziness of artists – seems to me to have 3 elements: firstly, that tax revenue would be better used if spent directly by the taxpayer; secondly, that artists take advantage of funding to be lazy and self indulgent; and finally, that funding the arts in general is a waste – that the people paying the taxes should be able to choose to pay or not, in whatever amount and for whatever work they deem worthwhile.

I agree that all government expenditure warrants scrutiny, and I understand that it’s easiest to complain about funding for the things that you don’t believe benefit you – I personally don’t believe that as much funding should go to the defence force, or to religious counselling in schools, or diesel fuel subsidies for mining corporations, but there are cases to be made for the programs and business models that receive that funding.

If we were able to choose where our tax revenue went, the very real possibility is that some things that were crucial to our society (roads and public transport, or maybe health and education, or perhaps defence) would receive far less funding than they need, because people don’t use them every day, or don’t recognise the flow-on benefits that such funded services provide. We live in a pluralistic society, which generally means that we accept the unique perspective and needs of every person that lives within our borders. Pluralism is about more than just race or religion or creed, it’s an understanding that even though I don’t particularly like or value the things that some other people do, our society and government operates to give as many people as possible the freedom and ability to live in the way they choose.

For some people, that includes the arts.

polyglot theatre

SOUND OF DRAWING, Polyglot Theatre, 2014, Sarah Walker

The purpose of government funding for the arts isn’t solely to pay an individual artist. Funding is often used to subsidise ticket prices for national arts events – exhibitions, festivals and companies – ensuring that access to art forms across a wide range of disciplines isn’t restricted just to those who can afford it. It means that participation in art, creatively or receptively, is possible for people from all backgrounds and sectors in our community, and sends a message that we encourage representations of lives other than our own – Pluralism. The existence of government funding for the arts is a statement that art is important to the development of a society beyond its current understanding of itself.

The $200 million funding is distributed to both individual artists and companies across myriad art forms for several purposes. In some cases, the funding is used to develop and present a piece or series of works in an artists’ discipline, in others it is used to fund further training in a particular field or form. In all cases, the recipient must have proved both a level of skill and capability in their practice that shows they are pursuing this art form as a career, as well as a plan detailing how they will use the funds to contribute something to the society that has paid for it.

Funding isn’t just handed out to whoever is standing in line with an idea – grants are given to artists who have already invested their own time and money in educating themselves and expanding both the skills of their craft and their knowledge of arts history and practice to understand where they fit and what they can contribute. For many artists, years have been spent working several different part-time jobs so that they can afford weekly classes and workshops. Crucially, the time spent on these unpaid creative endeavours is not the same as engaging in a hobby or playing for enjoyment. For a career artist, it is work.

The impression of the artist being idle is an old one, and if any artistic career looks easy than it’s a testament to the skill of the artist. The audience should only see the finished result. They shouldn’t see the pain, the uncertainty, the regret, the self-loathing, the incessant questioning and reassessment and screaming silently “What the hell am I doing this for?”

As an actor, particularly while performing in schools as an aid to English education (yes, that gets funded too, but out of the education budget rather than the Australia Council) one of the most common questions I am asked is “How do you remember all those lines?” The answer, invariably, is “Hard Work”, but the audience isn’t there for the hours of rehearsal and forgetting and paraphrasing, they only see the lines being remembered. Hopefully.

Often, we will pay for the hard work ourselves, either because we want to showcase our talents or because we believe so strongly in the work that we want to give it to an audience. But some works require financial backing beyond the capacity of a part-time cafe job. That’s where funding comes in.

Rehearsal photography, COMPLEXITY OF BELONGING, Chunky Move, MTC, Melbourne Festival and Falk Richter, 2014, Sarah Walker

Rehearsal photography, COMPLEXITY OF BELONGING, Chunky Move, MTC, Melbourne Festival and Falk Richter, 2014, Sarah Walker

The potential end result of funding individual arts projects is that individuals and companies receive both awareness among the audience and income from the presentation of the work, both of which afford them the opportunity to create more and different work supported by their own financial resources and a connected audience base that has the potential to grow by the expansion of access and awareness.

The intent, just as in any other instance of government funding, is that from an initial investment a company is able to grow to the point of self-sufficiency, generating employment for more artists, which in turn generates future tax revenue for the government that exceeds the initial investment – tax revenue on both the income from and audience and the wages paid to artists. The investment is intended to ultimately create ongoing return.

Funding for individual artists serves a similar purpose. The artist receives the grant to assist them in activities to further their skills and develop new networks. Think of it in the same way as a commonwealth supported trade apprenticeship – by providing support for an artist to undertake classes, workshops, creative development or exploration of form, the funding assists the artist in developing skills and networks that further their career prospects and employment potential, leading to more work that converts back into tax revenue for the government.

And now, some perspective on that $200 Million you’re worried about Mitchell. It equates to less than $9 for each Australian citizen. Of course, not all Australians pay taxes. Statistics from the 2009-10 financial year indicated that 55% of adult Australians paid tax – that’s around 7.15 million people. So the $200 million in funding for the arts is around $28 for each taxpayer.

For some people that’s still a lot of money, and I understand that it might seem like there’s no return for them, so what does their $28 get them? Reporting from the last 6 years shows funding being distributed to professional theatre companies around Australia, which subsidises ticket prices for the audience; to art galleries to facilitate free entry; to tours of performances and festivals to regional Australia, ensuring arts access is not restricted to major urban areas. It has facilitated new work from musicians – both classical and contemporary; from writers – both literature and performance; from actors, dancers, visual artists, jewellers, sculptors, circuses and more. All of this work was available to Australian audiences in return for that $28 of their tax revenue. And if they chose to engage, they would walk away with so much more.

Quantifying the effect the arts has on society is always a difficult prospect. Statistically, in a study performed by the Australia Council in 2010, 53% of Australians engage in the arts as an audience, and a further 40% also actively participate in creating art. That’s around 9.2 Million artists engaging in theatre, music, literature, visual art, dance, craft and more and 12 Million receiving that art.

In financial terms, ABS data from 2009-10 shows that the cultural and creative sectors provided a Gross Value Add of $86 Billion to the Australian economy, outstripping the contribution of both retail and education, and more than doubling the contribution of Agriculture, Forestry and Mining at $29 Billion. As a point of comparison, the mining industry alone received $492 Million in government subsidies in 2012-13, along with generous tax concessions.

But art is intended for more than financial gain – Phil Scott wrote (also in response to your piece, Mitchell) that “Art sees society through an individual and questioning perspective”. He echoes the opinion of Shakespeare, who thought the purpose of theatre “both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ‘twere a mirror up to nature.” I agree with them both, but frame it a little differently.

I think the power of great art is not that it tells us who we are, but that it allows us to recognise elements of ourselves – emotional states, or behaviours, or hopes and dreams and fears – in other people. If we are told that we are a certain thing, either good or bad, we can listen and agree (or not), but remain largely unaffected. But in seeing elements of ourselves within a fiction or a representation – either on stage, or within a piece of music, or in the form of a sculpture or twist of a brushstroke – we have a very real chance of understanding that aspect of ourselves by recognising it and describing it in our own terms.

This is, I believe, a far more powerful and instructive form of self-reflection – nobody has told you “You are this thing”, you haven’t needed to be defensive or react to them to protect your idea of yourself, but you’ve come to understand something about yourself by observing. And once we acknowledge that we can understand more about ourselves, we acknowledge that we have the ability to change if we choose. And once we acknowledge we have that choice, then we become very aware of the effects of the choices we make. And then we can extend our understanding towards others, observing their choices and the effects they have. And, potentially, we find it easier to accept things in others we have previously just reacted to.

The writer, Dave Lamb, in a promotional image for Pop Up Playground and the MSO's PAPER ORCHESTRA, Sarah Walker

The writer, Dave Lamb, in a promotional image for Pop Up Playground and the MSO’s PAPER ORCHESTRA, Sarah Walker

Do you see what I’m trying to say, Mitchell? Art gives us the opportunity to observe and understand both ourselves and others without threat or fear. Good art tells us something we didn’t already know, and great art helps us understand the things we already did. It shows us who we are, asks us if we accept ourselves in that way, and gives us the power to change if we choose. The very best art will tell us not just who we are, but who everyone is, and will allow us to accept and understand not just what makes us different but what makes us unalterably the same.

I hope you choose to engage with the art available to you as a result of government funding Mitchell. I hope you take a chance with your spare time and surprise yourself. If you’re ever in Melbourne and looking to fill an evening, I’d love to take you to a show that was funded by an Arts Council Grant and sit and talk about it afterwards. If you’re here during the Fringe or International Arts Festivals, I can make a week’s worth of recommendations – I’ll even pay for the tickets, it’s the least I can do.

Art offers us opinions and perspectives other than our own. Art offers us choices. But the first choice has to be ours. I hope you make that choice Mitchell, I hope you discover the other worlds that are there for you, and I hope it inspires you and your talented tradie mates to share your stories with the rest of us – I bet you could teach us a thing or two, and I hope I get to learn them.

Yours faithfully and artistically,

Dave Lamb

Dave is a Melbourne-based actor who is currently appearing in The City They Burned. He tweets at @davenlamb and, if you want to see him doing something utterly ridiculous… He calls this evidence that you shouldn’t take him too seriously. My deepest thanks to Dave for this wonderful letter. 

More of Sarah Walker’s amazing photography can be found here


audience conversations, audiences, conversation, Responses, Theatre

in conversation: on theatre, football, indigenous leadership and walking into the bigness

I love conducting audience conversations. I love that moment of walking up to strangers in a foyer (or as they leave a tent) and asking if I can stick a microphone in their face for twenty minutes. But in truth, they are seldom strangers. Not really. Even the English comedians I spoke with about Adrienne Truscott’s Asking For It had people in common. Because, of course. The world isn’t very big and theatre is very small. But the people I grabbed after Richard Frankland’s Walking Into The Bigness were truly strangers; that elusive ‘real General Public’ that I’m always searching for, who see art as audience members rather than makers, friends, lovers. It was a beautifully mixed group: four middle-aged women and two elite athletes, recent retired AFL star, Aaron Davey and olympian Kyle Vander Kuyp. This conversation was wonderful. I love that it captures a meeting between strangers and by about the second minute of recording I all but disappeared as the participants began to interview each other. So here we go. Theatre, football and Indigenous leadership: the conversation you didn’t know you needed. As one of the woman, Sue, said “see what this show brings out?”

'Walking into the Bigness' show photography by Pia Johnson.

‘Walking into the Bigness’ show photography by Pia Johnson.

SFB      What just happened in there? What did you see?

BETSY  A life story. A life story of a very incredible man. Five different people assumed the same character.

KYLE    I think the characters really brought out the language – the indigenous language that me and Aaron had a bit of a laugh about. We’ve heard that in our own aunties, uncles and cousins. You hear that language come out. And the racism that he suffered. There are so many layers to his life.

I think they did a great job of bringing the whole audience in, whether they were Indigenous or non-Indigenous. It was a story about a man and yeah, he happens to be one of our Indigenous leaders that we all look up to.

AARON  Yeah, obviously there’s still a divide in this country between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. It was fantastic to put that in a play and make it a cultural lesson. It’s a culturally safe place where everyone can sit down and have a laugh –

SFB      And a cry.

KYLE    And a cry, yeah.

AARON And if we can get a lot more well-respected leaders within our mobs to tell their stories, I think that goes a long way of educating not only the people in the theatre but the whole country. If we can get it in art and performance like that where you can see the fun side and sense the seriousness of it, I reckon that’s amazing. Myself and Kyle are both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island men and there were a lot of more non-Indigenous people in there tonight, which was special for us guys walking out.

LAURIE Can I say, it does remind us that it is such a current story still. That’s the heartbreaking thing. It grabs my heart and makes me sad and makes me cross. For you guys, how do you watch it and come out smiling? How do you do that?

AARON  It motivates you. We’re working with a lot of young people and I’m doing a mentoring role with young trainees and helping kids get into employment and education. And maybe you can start to break the family cycle if you can maybe say the right words to a young kid.

I was on the phone at work today to a mum for about an hour about her son. I think that is a lucky gift to be able to have a conversation with a mum or a trainee or even the host employer and say “hey look, you need to give this guy a little bit of a break at the moment.” It bites you a bit hard. You have days where you’re really flat but having a show like this just gives me a spring in my step again. Let’s re-load. This is what we’re all about.

'Walking into the Bigness'  show photography, Pia Johnson

‘Walking into the Bigness’ show photography, Pia Johnson

SFB      I think for me, the overall feeling I left with was a sense of pride rather than despair. To see a strong Indigenous man standing up and telling his story. And that it ended with that beautiful scene where he asked the kids “do you want to be boy-men, do you want to be boy-boys or men” and having them say “nah, I want to be a man.”

BETSY   It helps the young people to embrace their culture, doesn’t it? Not be ashamed but be proud.

AARON  Sometimes people struggle with their own identity. I sort of done a talk at my kid’s school a couple of weeks ago. Never assume that the darkest Indigenous Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander person is a lot more traditional or knowledgeable than the fair-skinned ones. That’s not always the case. My daughter is pretty fair and someone in the class said “that’s not really Michaela’s dad”. My daughter’s got blond hair and my other kids have got brown hair. It’s just one of those things. It’s still about educating the country.

I had a young guy ring me. He’s fourteen-years-old and his teammate called him a – a – an ‘Abo’. The young boy texted me two nights ago and said he’s going to walk away from footy because he don’t feel like he can go anymore. They’ve only got one game left and he wanted to come watch me play. I said to the young fella, “you can either shy away from it or you can nip it in the bud and show how strong you are.” So he went to training last night and rang me afterwards to say “I done it”. This young kid’s got a pretty tough upbringing and so that’s where Kyle and I can play that role in the community.

KYLE    And we would have had that when we were young. We had people give us the right message at the right time. It becomes a cycle. Aaron’s had ten years in footy and he said today to a group of people “it hasn’t been smooth. It’s been bumpy and I have to be honest.” I think that honesty hits kids too. They go “oh I thought AFL careers are all dollars and spotlight” and it is hard. It is hard work. And there are great moments but there is hard work. I think Richard’s story really talked about hard work. Getting up. Dusting yourself off. What was that line? “When life knocks you down, get up and smack it down” something like that. That’s what we gotta keep doing.

BETSY   Like that young kid. He got up and smacked it down.

LAURIE Did he retaliate to those kids that said that to him?

AARON  He got really defensive and told the coach “I’m going, I’m not coming back, I’m gonna quit footy – “

LAURIE  But physically?

AARON  Nah, nah, nah. Nearly. But he was good. When he rang me – you can tell in their voice. He said, “I went to training” and I said “I’m proud of ya. I know how much courage it takes.” For someone fourteen years old and they’ve played footy with each other for years! And it might have been a slip of the tongue but yeah.

Same thing happened at Melbourne with one young guy. I took him and another guy out for dinner – both non-indigenous – and the asics boot had just come out. They’re black, red and yellow. And this young kid is real respectful. I’ve got a lot of time for him and he goes “oh you see these new boots I got? Got the ‘Abo’ boots!” And he didn’t realise. I said to him “look, I’ll tell you now, you’re lucky you’ve said that to me. If you was to say that to another Indigenous person you would have probably got your mouth punched in.”

But they just assumed it was short for ‘Aboriginal’. It’s one of the most offensive words. And we can hear it in there (in the theatre) but if someone walked up now and called me an ‘Abo’ I’d get real defensive. In there you’re in a culturally safe space that’s all about learning but you come out the door…

SUE      This Dipper guy (Robert DiPierdomenico), he said it

AARON  Yeah, he said it to my cousin. Gavin’s (Wanganeen) mum and my dad are brother and sister.

ANNIE  You look a bit alike!

AARON Probably got similar chins, I think. They call it ‘the old Davey chin’.

LAURIE I always thought he was such a lovely looking young man. And so are you, you see. So there you go.

SUE    You know Dipper said “I didn’t mean it offensively because I’ve been called a ‘wog’ my whole life and I didn’t mean it like that.” What is the difference? Is there a difference?

AARON  I think it is because of the history behind it.

BETSY   It’s more derogatory. It’s much more derogatory.

AARON  I live in Oakleigh South and there’s a big Greek community and one of my neighbours walked up when I was down the street and he goes “hey Aaron, what did you think about the whole issue?” He goes “surely it’s not that bad. I used to get called ‘wog’ all the time when I played soccer.” I said “look, I don’t mean to be real negative on it but it’s a lot more different because we’ve had so many challenges.” It’s not to say that the Greek people haven’t but if they only knew half of the history. It is a form of ignorance as well. Everyone says, “be strong”, “be tough skinned” but…

BETSY   It’s challenging.

AARON  Exactly right.

'Walking into the Bigness'  show photography, Pia Johnson

‘Walking into the Bigness’ show photography, Pia Johnson

LAURIE That’s the other thing that I thought the play brought out as well. There’s a line in it that said “you’re walking in the footsteps of your grandparents for one thousand – “

All join in: One thousand and fifty generations. Yes. Yeah!

LAURIE For me, it wasn’t just about his life. It was the story of a people. It was everybody’s story.

SUE      Is that something that the younger people struggle with? That power of the Elders? Do they listen to the Elders, the young people now?

AARON  I reckon respect for Elders is probably the biggest value of our mob. I’m doing a bit of stuff now with the Koori Court as a ‘respected figure’. So I’ve sat in a room for three days in a forum and I’ve had all these old people – and I’ve always been told to respect Elders. So after we had a bit of a de-brief and they asked, “what did you take out of the last three days?” And I said “to be honest, I was pretty intimidated first day, sitting in that room. I didn’t obviously give too much because I didn’t feel it was my place to be speaking over people a lot older and more experienced. That’s just not how I’ve been brought up.” Your Elders are Elders no matter what mob you’re from. So you have all these old people sitting on the Koori Court and some aren’t even from the Wurundjeri land or Bunurong land. I’m from Darwin. I’m from NT but it’s all about respecting your Elders. Those young kids are real intimidated and they’re embarrassed because they’ve brought our mob into disrepute.

BETSY   AFL has done a lot.

AARON  Yeah. I walked in ten years ago as a real shy kid. I was always proud to be Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander but I’ve learnt so much in my ten-year journey. I can walk away and give back and really encourage guys to get to know about their own mob. If you could have seen me do an interview when I was in my first, second, third or even up until about five years ago, I couldn’t even string two words together. I always thought I was the shy kid but you just develop and when you’re placed in the role of the role model…. Now I say to the young guys “you can be someone” and to the people around them I say, “it’s about you reassuring them.” You keep telling someone they’re no good at something, they start believing it. If you start telling someone they’re good at something, they’ll start believing it.

SUE      See what this show brings out? It brings all of this stuff.

SFB      Doesn’t it? I don’t want to hold you guys here, and I know that you want to get over and congratulate Richard, so I’ll just get you to go around and say where you’re from and what you hope people will get from this.

AARON  My name is Aaron Davey. Recently retired AFL player, originally from Darwin but my father’s family is from the Kokatha tribe, southwest of South Australia, north of Ceduna. And my grandfather is a Torres Strait Islander man from the western islands up in the Straits.

I guess this show is all about education. You can take a lot of things from it and all you need is for one of the people in that room to go and tell their friends about it and it spreads. Culturally, it is a journey. We’re all on a journey. There was a lot more non-Indigenous people in there tonight than Indigenous so hopefully one day everyone will learn about our great culture. Which will be near impossible. But take what you can out of it and spread the word, whether it’s to your grandchildren or friends, and eventually we’ll get there.

BETSY   I’m Betsy Laurence. I live in Hampton, Victoria but from California originally. I’ve been in Australia for twelve years and have been fortunate enough to go out Bush and work in some communities for short times. I feel very privileged to have been able to do that. So many Australians have not had an opportunity like that. I think that seeing a show like this raises awareness for people. You’re bringing it to the people. You’re bringing that cultural experience of people’s lives to the general public so people can give back and get involved in Australian cultural history. Be more aware and open and help our fellow Australians.

SFB      We just did an interview recently with Julian Meyrick, who is a theatre historian. He said that Australian theatre has a deep fear of our past and I said that I think that is not just true of theatre. Australians in general are so horrified by our own history that we’d rather not confront it.

BETSY   Your history is very new and what’s happened to these lovely people is a recent thing. It is very raw. I think ‘how can we have treated people this way’ and ‘how can we still be treating people this way’. They are people. It takes one match to light a room.

Most people have wandered away by this point. Laurie whispers to me.

LAURIE Did you know that those two people (Aaron and Kyle) are really – he’s really big in the AFL and he’s an Olympian?

SFB      I had no idea.

LAURIE He was Vice-Captain of Melbourne Football Club. Very big deal.

SFB      Look at me, I’m the biggest theatre geek ever.

LAURIE Oh yeah, of course you didn’t know. Anyway what was the question again?

SFB      Your name, where you’re from, what you hope people will take from this.

LAURIE Okay. Got it. My name is Laurie Evans and what I take from this is that I just want to learn more about the Aboriginal culture. I wish that I had that culture and that history of 1500 generations fishing from the same pond.

'Walking into the Bigness'  show photography, Pia Johnson

Richard centre stage, ‘Walking into the Bigness’ show photography, Pia Johnson

Kyle has come back.

KYLE    Kyle Vander Kuyp. I’m from Melbourne but I’m an Indigenous man from the Worimi and the Yuin tribes, New South Wales. From Richard Franklin’s show, I’ll take away how Richard kept getting up from any set back. Any time he got knocked down it was a matter of dusting off and keeping on going. The many things that he was willing to try and have a go at is something I’ll take away. We’ve also got to encourage our young ones out there to try things out. You’re not going to learn about yourself unless you come out of your comfort zone and make yourself vulnerable. Richard makes himself very vulnerable in all of the layers of his life. That’s how I relate to it.

Thank you very much to my participants. They were incredible generous and heart-felt. I apologise if I attributed things to the wrong speakers. Betsy’s Californian accent was much appreciated but there was some guess work going on there. 

audiences, criticism, Theatre

on arts commentary, binary thinking, complexity and using teeth (with guest jane howard)

Not all artists differentiate ‘arts commentary’ from ‘reviews’. I didn’t either until I started writing both (one passionately and one with the deep reluctance of someone too poor to pay for tickets). For many artists, arts writing is a necessary evil; an aspect of our world that we only think about when it comes time to collate reviews but, beyond the need for promotion or validation, it is vitally important.

Although the line between reviews and arts commentary is blurred, I separate them this way: a review is an aspect of arts writing which usually has a fast turn around, an often tiny word limit and, most crucially, they demand of the writer that they reach a decision about the quality of the work. Arts commentary is more complex and multifaceted. The form is fluid, taking in many different types of critical response. The word limits and turn around are very variable (you may see a work returned to a year later). Crucially, arts commentary need not necessarily reach a definitive ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It can be an expansive discourse as complicated as the art itself. Of course the other key difference is the money. Outside of a university setting, few publications will pay for in-depth, long-form commentary on the arts.

Reviews are vitally important. They are a link to our audiences but they are also for our audiences, who have every right to decide how to spend their money. They are an immediate, almost reflexive knee-jerk response. This can be immensely helpful both for artists and historians alike: whilst even some of the reviewers who first slammed Sarah Kane have since admitted that they were wrong, those initial reviews are a fascinating insight into that immediate recoil that audiences experienced before they came to understand the new era of theatre they were entering into.

Jack Tinker's now infamous review and headline

Jack Tinker’s now infamous review and headline

But arts commentary is important precisely because it doesn’t have to be this. I believe that the arts writing we read affects how we respond to work. Complex commentary demands more of us than a simple review. A writer like Alison Croggon asks that we think beyond the binaries of ‘I liked it’ or ‘I didn’t like it’. She demands that we lift our intellectual game. That we take time.

I’ve set myself the goal of not talking about a show until I’ve left the auditorium. This is a piss poor goal, don’t pass judgment for the nine meters from your seat to the foyer, but it can be hard; sometimes the person next to me turns and asks “so what did you think?” the instant the lights go up. That instantaneous response is, to me, the verbal equivalent of the 150-word-plus-star-rating review. It saps complexity and yet, even artists will do it. Good arts writing demands of us our own intellectually rigorous response but it also reminds us of the longevity of performance: whilst a short, sharp review is all about ‘should I see this tomorrow night’, it is vital that we remember an artwork lasts as long as its impact. Good arts commentary doesn’t just recommend or warn against; it says “this made an impact. I will carry the scar of this with me as I walk through the world.” 

One of the many works to scar me last year, 'Savages' by Patricia Cornelius, photographed by Sarah Walker

One of the many works to scar me last year, ‘Savages’ by Patricia Cornelius, photographed by Sarah Walker

So what can we as artists do? We can remove the question ‘did you like it?’ from our immediate responses to shows. We can meet art with the intellectual and empathic complexity it deserves. We can give ourselves time. Don’t be the tight turnaround, 9am deadline; be the monthly or quarterly issue. We can attempt to response in a way that circumnavigates ‘yes’ and ‘no’. We can remember how we want others to meet our work and try and respond accordingly. We all know what it feels like to read a review that has resorted to finger pointing and buzz words without ever trying to tackle the soul and drive of our work. Exceed this. Use you teeth. Chew the work for all the nourishment it will give your soul. Never leave it at a star rating.

But perhaps we can also start asking where the support for arts writing is coming from. Remember that it is for our audience and for us as artists. Remember what depth of analysis gives us and ask who is going to keep it coming. In the decline of print media, perhaps the arts industry itself needs to begin to see the value of commentary and support it accordingly. If arts funding bodies and theatre companies don’t come to the table, we may lose this resource altogether. 

Elbow Room's amazing 'Now more than ever', photographed by Sarah Walker

Elbow Room’s amazing ‘Now more than ever’, photographed by Sarah Walker

Now because I’m writing about criticism and commentary, I thought I would give one of my favourite critic/commentators the right of reply. Here is Jane Howard on deadlines, failure, complexity and conversation:

I don’t mind the morning deadlines. The pressure of a deadline can be a wonderful thing to force your brain into gear. I never see the world with more clarity than at 6:30am, madly typing away. Most of my working hours for reviews are late at night and early in the morning when the world feels somewhat still. There’s a thrill in being able to process something intensely in the quiet.

There is always a fear you’ll get it wrong, you’ll say something stupid, you’ll regret your thoughts in a day or a week or a year. When seeing a brand new work – new story, new words, new movements – this fear is amplified. I’ll file before anything else on this work is published; I have to be one of the first. I have to be comfortable with this possibility of failure or I’d fall apart.

There are always things that are missed in those hours and those six-hundred words. Ideas that don’t make it into the word count; ideas that don’t formulate in that brief period of time; ideas that will click all of a sudden one day or one week or one year later: one day or one week or one year too late. This is when I crave for thousands of words and weeks and months to formulate words. This is when I crave those little conversations that you have over time in foyers and bars and cafes and twitter; with friends and with artists and with editors, that slowly, slowly ease out new thoughts. This is when I crave for it to be 2034 so I have another twenty-years of theatrical knowledge to lean on: surely right now I’m just too young?

If it’s long and takes weeks, or short and takes hours, though, there is just one thing I really want: a conversation. I never want to be a full stop. I’d rather be a comma or a semi-colon or a footnote in something much, much bigger than I could ever create alone.

Audio Stage, interview, Theatre

audio stage, episode five: julian meyrick


If we paid the true value for our cultural experiences, rather than the discounted value of buying American scripts and British scripts and doing those (because we can do that because we don’t have to translate them and the fit is ‘good enough’, as it were, culturally speaking) if you took that out of the equation and we had to pay the full price of it, we would realise that we’re free-loading on global culture. We’re taking that hidden subsidy that Britain and America do invest in their work and we nick it. That allows us to under-invest in our own dramatic culture.
- Julian Meyrick

Episode five. Jana Perkovic and I spoke to Julian Meyrick, historian, arts commentator, dramaturge and director. This is the last episode of the history and documentation season and was such a great way to wrap up. It was our longest episode and we loved every moment. Julian’s comprehensive one and a half minute long history of theatre is just hysterical. Fortunately, our laughter doesn’t drown him out too much. 

The biggest enemy you have as an Australian theatre historian is the fact that everybody believes that this stuff is known and on the record and in fact almost none of it is on the record. You are conscious again of this huge gap between what people think and what is actually the case.

The biggest enemy you have as an Australian theatre historian is the fact that everybody believes that this stuff is known and on the record and in fact almost none of it is on the record. You are conscious of this huge gap between what people think and what is actually the case. Australian theatre is fuelled not only by a neglect of its past but almost by a horror of it; a horror of what’s in that past and a horror that it’s got a past. 

- Julian Meyrick

Discussed in this episode: What Australia thinks it is vrs what it actually is; the ‘certain kind of agony’ that comes with being both an historian and an artist; Australia’s horror of its past; how Australian plays succeed and fail publicly; the cultural hangover called J. C. Williamson; Louis Nowra’s The Golden Age; cultural rights and cultural duties; should Fleur be as depressed as Louis Nowra about a career in playwriting?; what playwrights need to develop; our critical landscape and how in the world does a dramatic canon come about.

I am absolutely sure – 100% sure – that it (the break down in the development of new Australian works) cannot be solved by just trying to pick winners. I don’t think that that is a viable strategy for horse racing let alone for playwriting. You need some deeper philosophical, political, social and artistic sense of what drama is if you’re going to encourage and develop Australian drama into its next diverse and myriad-formed existence.

-Julian Meyrick

New episodes will be released every 2 weeks, and we have made quite an effort to make them as accessible as possible, on a variety of platforms. Stay tuned and enjoy!

Listen to the episode on the website or you can subscribe to Audio Stage in iTunes or Player FM

Podcast bibliography:
Julian Meyrick: Trapped by the Past (Platform Paper n.3)
Julian Meyrick: The Retreat of Our National Drama (Platform Paper n.39)
Julian Meyrick: The Logic of Culture: The Fate of Alternative Theatre in the Post-Whitlam Period (Australasian Drama Studies, April 2014, issue 64)
Sydney Morning Herald: ‘Australian theatre exhausted and waning, claims director and academic Julian Meyrick’ (Steve Dow, May 8, 2014)

For more information about Julian Meyrick, visit his profile page on the Flinders University website.

Photo credits: Christopher Deere.

conversation, creativity, Dramaturgical Analysis, interview, Theatre, writing

in conversation: mark wilson on narrative, surprise, shakespeare and whatever this song is called

Two weeks ago I sat down with theatre maker Mark Wilson for a chat. He is the creator of Unsex Me which I discussed on the blog with audience members  last month. He is an actor, director, writer and dramaturge and is currently undertaking Playwriting Australia’s dramaturgy internship with me at MTC. Mark’s passion for theatre is contagious and his delight in rigorous intellectual interrogation of art left me elated. He is a joy to talk to and, while it can be hard to convey tone in a transcript, know that there was a whole lot of laughter, consumption of brownies and self-decricapting grimaces. So picture this: a cold, rainy day. We are upstairs at the Malthouse, two pots of tea between us. We begin. 


SFB: Tell me what you’ve been thinking about this week, Mark Wilson. What’s been on your mind?

Mark: I’ve been thinking about narrative or plot.

SFB: What about narrative or plot?

Mark: They’re not very interesting to me but sometimes you need it to be the vehicle. The theme.

I saw a film last night and it is a lot about how fucked Ireland is and I thought it was an appallingly made film. After, my aunty said to me “well wasn’t that the most profound film you’ve ever seen?”. I had to say “I can appreciate that the themes were there but I didn’t think it was well made.” I closed my eyes with boredom a few times. It was so achingly sentimental.

SFB: Good for the soul, isn’t it? Achingly sentimental? Don’t we all just want a story, Mark? Don’t we all just want a nice beginning, middle and end?

Mark: Maybe that’s what we want but it’s not what we all need.

SFB: What do we need?

Mark: We need to think about the world.

SFB: So when you read a play that excites you, what is it that’s working for you?

Mark: Well if it is an old play, it’s when characters start reflecting. If it is a new play it is about surprise

SFB: Do you get surprised in old plays?

Mark: Very rarely. I get surprised by the ideas characters express but the plots, almost invariably, are not surprising.

SFB: What surprises you in new plays?

Mark: Form. And… the surprising attacks of angles. Yeah. Often it is a formal shift. Suddenly we are all dancing.

SFB: Yes, seldom is my surprise the actual plot. If people are trying to surprise me with a plot – if that is their big reveal, that some guy has been dead the whole time – well then narrative is the least surprising surprise you can have.

Mark: Narrative: Uuuuughh!

SFB: I don’t know how to transcribe that sound. Just a lot of ‘u’s I think. And some ‘gh’s.

Mark: I think a ‘gh’. I’m a big fan of the ‘gh’.

When a playwright thinks that narrative is their whole job, you’re in trouble. If it’s not working often my first impulse is to get on the floor with it. I want to get on the floor with some good actors. I think my problem is that I look at scripts not as the final thing but as the start.

SFB: I think that’s how people should look at a script. I think a lot of the time a script that is polished and perfect doesn’t leave space for theatre. Sometimes they are beautiful to read on the page and you don’t need to stage it.

Mark: Somebody said that about F. Scott Fitzgerald. He couldn’t write a screenplay because he finished them. The directors he worked with (who eventually kicked him off) they had a movie in their head and their needed something more exciting from the screenwriter but Fitzgerald would deliver a magnum opus in screenplay form, which is useless.

Photography by Sarah Walker as part of her fabulous series, Clutch

Photography by Sarah Walker as part of her fabulous series, Clutch

The best Shakespeare I’ve ever seen hasn’t been Shakespeare.

SFB: What was that?

Mark: The Ostermeier Hamlet. It started with this slapstick burying of the king. They kept on dropping the coffin and it was raining and slippery and the guy who was burying it was doing that kind of dance when you’re like (demonstrates making robot sounds).

SFB: Popping. I’m addicted to So You Think You Can Dance. I’m sorry. Very embarrassing.

Mark: Yes. So they just threw any form, any theatrical technique that they needed at that moment. The most extraordinary moment was Laertes has returned and Hamlet is doing a soliloquy and then he stops and he says, “Laertes thinks I have wronged him. Have I wronged Laertes?” He waits then he asks it again: “Have I wronged Laertes?” Nothing. He asked it a third time and then somebody in the audience yelled out “Ya!” And Hamlet dove into the audience, climbed over the seats and was screaming at this guy in German. Then somebody on the other side yelled out in English “No! No, you haven’t wronged Laertes!” And instantly Hamlet was climbing over that way, screaming in English. So everybody was talking about it and Hamlet was reflecting on what was being said and then slipped back into the Shakespeare. It was extraordinary.

SFB: Holy shit.

Mark: Holy shit! Yeah.

A friend of mine said “nothing that is five-hundred years old can mean the same thing now as it did when it was written.” And Artaud said “if Oedipus Rex (or whatever play) isn’t working for your audience, it’s not the fault of your audience. It is the fault of Oedipus Rex.” That was big. For me. That the text, which I love, which has fed me, does not work on its own. Peter Brook said that at the beginning of his career he wanted the text to speak for itself but now he realizes the text can’t speak.

Mark laughs.

But a friend was saying that it is fucked in Melbourne because nobody can just do a show. They have to be having all these formal enquiries and that can totally isolate the audience.

SFB: I get that. And I still do love narrative. More than you, I’m sure. I still just like to tell a good story. But I am a very happy theatre-goer. It takes a lot to make me not like a show. I go in excited. You have to fucking pummel me to make me unhappy. Shows that everyone else hated I just go “they told me a story! They sung me some songs! Things were pretty! I’m happy!”

I guess I’m trying really hard to be the dramaturge slash arts writer who doesn’t bring their personal tastes with them. Which is hard because I’m also trying to be an artist who has to be full of personal taste. But I’m trying to ride that balance. I try hard to go into every show saying, “In every production there will be something that I could not have done.” That’s tricky. Sometimes. Sometimes you come out saying “well I couldn’t have done any of that because I wouldn’t have done any of that, would I!” So it is hard.

Sarah Walker, from Clutch again

Sarah Walker, from Clutch again

So you’ve been thinking about narrative and plot.

Mark: I’ve been thinking about narrative and plot. I’ve been thinking lot about this. And about race and how we deal with this stuff onstage.

SFB: Was there a conclusion? Did you find out how we deal with it onstage?

Mark: No. Badly. Nakkiah Lui’s article in The Guardian was interesting. She said we need two types of revolution. The first is allowing and actively casting people who are not white as characters that where race and ethnicity doesn’t matter and the other is an increased amount of material on stages that actively represents the lives of those who are not all white and middle class.

SFB: It is difficult. I said to Danny (Delahunty) before we cast The City They Burned that if we end up with an all white cast I’ll punch us. I’m keeping a tally of all the shows I see this year and I’m keeping a tally of how many actors are in each show and how many are not white. I can’t write a play for nine actors and have them all represented as white. But who do we get at the audition? We see over a hundred people and I think we had two or three non-anglo actors audition for us. But then the company, Attic Erratic, started casting Norm and Ahmed and suddenly these diverse actors all come out of the woodwork. Does that mean that these actors are out there and not coming to these auditions because they presume that they won’t –

Mark: You bet. They presume, understandably, that they won’t be cast as the universal. And it is ridiculous. The word ‘ethnic’ we don’t apply to white people. White people are not ‘ethnic’. What? What? Yeah. Yeah man. What the fuck! We’re neutral. White man is neutral.

The new Star Wars' cast

The new Star Wars’ cast

SFB: I listen to a podcast called Popculture Happy Hour. I’d avoided it for a long time because I know nothing about pop culture but it is fantastic and I’m totally addicted, despite not knowing any of the movies they are talking about. It is just such good discussion. They did one when the photo of the new Star Wars came out and it was a table full of white men, basically. Then people started getting defensive and saying “we didn’t give you the photo to audit” and these guys on the podcast said “that implies that they are two separate things: looking at the photo and seeing that they are all white men.” It’s not an audit if that is the first thing you notice. That is just us looking and seeing the obvious.

Mark: Yes, that stuff is alive politically. And yet we chose not to engage with it.

SFB: There was another story I heard on a different podcast (I can’t remember which, maybe Snap Judgement) about a boy at a segregated school. One day the nun walked in, took down the crucifix and put up a new one with a black Jesus on it. All the kids were staring at her in shock and she says “Jesus would have probably looked more like you then me” and walks out. All these kids are just… minds blown and this guy, who is now an adult, says “still, whenever I think of Jesus, he is black, like me.” And that was such an empowering moment for him as a man, when Black Jesus came to stay.

Mark: Wonderful.

What’s this song called?

SFB: No idea.

Mark: I love this song.

We both listen in silence.

Mark: I think it’s those people who dressed like hippies on the front of their first album.

SFB: Remember me saying a few minutes ago that I know nothing about pop culture? Yeah, still true.

We listen.

So Mark, why theatre?

Mark: Why theatre? Oh no! Well real time, real space is shared. That’s fundamental. I think what fourth wall naturalism doesn’t understand is that we are all sharing the same place at the same time. Stop pretending we’re somewhere else. For me, a piece of theatre that doesn’t acknowledge its theatricality has failed already. Even texts that fundamentally do, like Shakespeare, I’ve seen appalling productions that try to pretend that we’re not here. Are you serious? Are you serious? Come on. Yeah. Real time, real place, same space, we’re sharing something. It’s an event. People come together. It’s that old phrase: we are a socially constructive form. I like that a lot. But then I also like “no, fuck that, I’m an individual in that room!” I guess I want it both ways.

SFB: I’m just firing short things at you now. So what does the term ‘responsibility’ mean for you within your art?

Mark: Yeah, yeah, okay. Responsibility. I think we have a social responsibility. I think we need to acknowledge our advantages in life. Our social and economic advantages. I think that theatre needs to do that in the way that we tell stories. You know, everyone shits on some of these playwrights but they write an unproblematic middle class world, that’s fucked. Like Marcel said in the paper today “we always say that theatre can do anything but we do an awful lot of plays set in middle class living rooms.” I think the responsibility is about how we present the world. Because all the world’s a stage and a stage is all the world. That’s why I find well plotted, complete-unto-themselves plays so boring: they’re assuming that they can present everything; that they are a complete world. Well no, actually. I’m drinking peppermint tea. Somebody picked that peppermint tea. I’m enjoying the fruits of their underpaid labour. And yeah I might be a filthy socialist of the old sort –

SFB: Look at that beard, of course you are.

Mark: Look at this beard! But then look at my pink pants. Yeah. I think it is irresponsible to answer questions and not ask them. The theatre is the place to ask.

SFB: Okay so you’ve said a lot about what we are doing wrong in theatre, how do we fix it? I’m sorry! I’m sorry! What a bitch. Who asks this stuff?

Mark: I think we need to stop producing mediocrity and things with small ambition. I don’t care that it was a hit on the West End two years ago and someone wants to be in it and it will sell tickets, why is this happening? A real interrogation of the social need. I’m not talking about being didactic, I’m talking about asking interesting questions. Why are we doing yet another play that can sit nicely and not offend? It is fucked. It is fucked. But on the other hand, I’m talking about the majors here, and there is a big audience who doesn’t share my taste and that’s fine. That’s totally fine. But my God, when they see an Arthur Miller that should be the best God damn Arthur Miller that anyone in Australia can produce. If not, then there is something wrong.

But really dramaturgy is the thing. And I don’t mean ‘dramaturgy’ as script development. I think that reducing dramaturgy to fit that definition is one of the most appalling things in the world. Why are we doing the piece? Who is it speaking to? What does this choice that we’ve made mean in relation to the text and the audience? That is the thing that needs to fix theatre. Why, beyond economics, is this the play we’re doing? But I also understand that there are enormous pressures in programming but let’s just say that if I was running one of these big houses that question would be asked a lot. And then it would be a question to marketing – “how would you sell this?” – as opposed to a question to the literary department – “how would we sell this?” What!?

I don’t know if anything I’ve said today represents my thinking at all. I don’t know if it’s true. I don’t know if I believe it.

SFB: You’re my fave. And on that note.

Mark: On that note.


Sarah Walker’s beautiful work can be found here. But then you all knew that, I hope.