conversation, Guest Blogger, interview

acts of violence, part 2: guest blogger bridget mackey in conversation with theatre-makers about violence

Part 2: Conversation with Chi Vu

Chi is a Vietnamese-born writer and director. Chi and I did our Masters together at the VCA and I really appreciated this opportunity to talk to her about the use of violence in her work.

Chi starts our conversation by telling me that she doesn’t actually enjoy watching horror.

Chi: I think I’m only willing to put myself through the process of watching horror movies, to get my emotions messed with, if there’s a purpose to it. If I feel like the director and the screenwriters have a point they’re trying to make through the violence. If it’s just gratuitous violence then I get really angry. I try to avoid seeing those kinds of movies by asking around before hand: have you seen this movie? Is there a point to the violence? I do that to make sure that what I put myself through is for a reason, rather than simply feeling disturbed about it, but then not getting anything more out of it. I guess in some ways it’s like people who go through an ordeal. You would go through that, take that big risk, if you thought it was worth it for some reason. So I think movies are like that.

 I ask Chi about her approach to horror and violence in her play, The Dead Twin.


An stunning image from Chi Vu’s The Dead Twin, photo by Jave Lee.

Chi: Director Deborah Leiser-Moore and I are exploring the trauma of war, and how when the older generations have gone through trauma, it’s actually quite violent to ask them, ‘Hey what happened, can you tell me?’ Because they often don’t want to re-live that, which they would have to do in order to tell you. But the younger generation wants to know: what was it like during the war and why are we here? That search for the truth can be a real act of violence against the older generation, even though it’s not done with malice. So sometimes there is just silence around the whole topic. Sometimes the older generation thinks that this is better for the the younger generation – because it will set them free of the horrors of the past. But it doesn’t work that way, because the children are haunted, regardless. Marianne Hirsch studied the children of Holocaust survivors. She came up with the idea of postmemory: that the second generation ‘inherited’ memories that the older generation experienced which are so vivid it’s almost like your memories. So you are haunted by that trauma. Deborah’s other performance works also look at war trauma, especially those of ex-soldiers from around the world. I’m really excited to be working with her on this piece.

But also, the secret story to The Dead Twin – and I don’t mind if people don’t interpret it like this at all – is about repressed identity, whether it’s cultural or linguistic, or some other repressed identity. I feel like the Vietnamese side of me is like a twin that some people with a mono-cultural or monolingual mindset don’t want to acknowledge as a really important part of me. And they could be Vietnamese or Anglo-Australian. For example, you might get some first-generation Vietnamese person who’s conservative who thinks you should be writing in Vietnamese or else it’s not valid. And it’s like: well I don’t. I can read it, but I don’t write it in the way a monolingual person would. I will write in a way that a bilingual or ‘translingual’ person would. And does that make my work not relevant to people around the world? I don’t think so. So one of the traumas I’m exploring is the expectation that ‘You should be one of us, and only one of us, and not also part of something else,’ which I find really violent to my psyche.

Chi explains that the use of genre in her work is not about the horror or about the violence.

Chi: I’m using horror because it’s a genre that allows me to explore how people cope with being really vulnerable. The Dead Twin lets you feel what it’s like when you live in another culture, or when you are part of an oppressed minority, you do feel this extra level of vulnerability. So the horror genre works when you’ve got generally likeable characters who are put in vulnerable situations.

Bridget: There’s a review of your novel Anguli Ma that was published in The Australian that identifies the way you fuse two worlds together, which I find interesting. The review says “Chi finds a perfect chemistry between Australia’s history of serial killers in decrepit suburban wastelands and a refugee community’s repressed memories. It is genuenly terrifying.”

Chi: Yeah, I mean, I’m definitely not writing within a Vietnamese lineage. Like if you compare me to someone who’s in Vietnam writing about anything to do with ghosts, the supernatural, killing, etcetera it’s very different. So it is very much this way of trying to talk about issues, but being somewhat responsible to a minority community as well. So, on one hand, you can spend your whole life just writing celebratory works that say ‘culturally diverse people are lovely, multiculturalism is great, look at us get along together’ and you know, there’s certainly a place for that. But I just got to a point where, for that particular work, I wanted to write about violence in the community, but in a way that wasn’t going to give the Andrew Bolts of the world free rein to say ‘look at these horrible people, why do we let them into the country?’

Chi: How do you achieve violence in your work?

Bridget: I think Kindness is violent in a sense that there’s no catharsis in the piece. There’s a character who’s clearly suffering but the other characters ignore her suffering. For me it is important to tell that story that way, in order to put the audience in the older woman’s position. There’s no relief from her suffering. The play is set in an office and I think there’s violence in doing a repetitive job day in day out, that in order to do it you’re repressing something about your humanity.

Chi: So, how have you seen theatre do violence differently to film?

Bridget: I think it could be something about the spectacle that theatre can achieve. What I like about Romeo Castellucci’s work is the atmosphere that he creates. You sometimes don’t know why it’s violent. It’s kind of like watching a David Lynch film and you’re watching it going, I’m so terrified right now and there’s nothing actually terrifying on screen.

Chi: Or they are all terrified of a fingernail.

Bridget: Exactly. But I think at the moment in my work, I’m not really using violence – or horror – as a narrative device. But my characters have violent urges because they want to get out of the situation they are in.

Chi: I think in theatre people don’t expect to actually see the gore or the monster, whereas in film, we are sort of expecting it at some point. I made myself watch Seven recently.

Bridget: I’ve never seen it.

Best images for facebook timeline cover Se7en Movie Se7en,Movie

At the scene of the crime in David Fincher’s 1995 movie, Seven.

Chi: I mean, it was out in the nineties. And I know people who’ve said: don’t watch it, it’ll change you forever. The fear of actually watching the film is quite massive. So I made myself watch it. And really, you don’t actually see any acts of violence. It’s the consequences of the violence that are so terrible. It’s totally like Oedipus Rex in that way. The violence happens off screen, we hear about it. And Seven, sure, there are some images of people who are dead, but we don’t see them being killed. So, in a way, that’s probably more theatrical than other films, like The Shining.

Bridget: I actually love The Shining.

Chi: I think it’s actually an amazing metaphor of colonisation of Native American Indian land. But yeah, in The Shining we are there with the characters as they’re being chased by a guy wielding an axe.

Bridget: Yeah.

here's johnny

…Here’s Johnny! (The Shining, 1980)

Chi: We’re in that present moment, we don’t just hear about it afterwards. So yeah, The Shining’s probably more like a horror film whereas Seven feels more theatrical – it’s still an amazing film with an amazing script. I remember watching The Shining with someone who was about ten years younger than me, and she was like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s a bit slow’. I think in some ways that points to why Seven is slightly dated, in that back in the mid-nineties there wasn’t YouTube, so these things in the film were truly shocking, but now…you can just go on Youtube and…

Bridget: Watch a person’s head get cut off.

Chi: Yeah, you know? It’s almost like you have to be really conscious to avoid seeing these things if you don’t want to see them. So then somehow that changes what an artist has to do to comment on violence.

Bridget: Yeah. Maybe this is an impossible question for anyone to answer. What would you like your audience to come away from The Dead Twin thinking about?

Chi: Just to back track a little bit. I remember being dragged to see a zombie film, and the subtext of that zombie film was The Iraq War. And I remember sitting there in the cinema, sitting through watching people being eaten, no cut-aways, just remaining with the humans being eaten alive by the zombies. And I was thinking: I can only remain in this seat because these are zombies and I’m watching a zombie film. If the movie was a realistic version of what is going on in Iraq, I wouldn’t have been able to stand it, I would have had to walk out. So in some ways, the artificiality of a genre helps you to experience things that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to sit through.

Bridget: Yeah, I think that’s true.

Chi: So, I guess I would like the audience to be engaged with the characters and the story and the stunning visuals that Deborah and the actors conjure up. And that’s it. If people want to find other meanings in the work, we can have that discussion too.

Chi Vu’s play The Dead Twin will be presented as part of Flight: A Festival of new Writing (Yes, Fleur and I are both presenting work in the Festival too!)

conversation, creativity, Guest Blogger, Theatre

acts of violence: guest blogger bridget mackey in conversation with theatre-makers about violence

A word from Bridget:

I believe that there is a restlessness to modern life, an overloading of the senses and that this leads to an unhealthy suppression of emotions. I’m a playwright. In my work my characters find escape through violence and I often have them commit violent acts. As an artist using violence as a narrative tool do I have any responsibility towards my audience, my work or myself?

Topping my list of Best Theatre Experiences of All Time are two pretty violent shows – Thyestes by The Hayloft Project and Tragedia Endogonidia by Societas Raffaello Sanzio. Did I enjoy these shows because they allowed me to access and purge repressed emotions? Or was my enjoyment more to do with aesthetics? I think back to Roy Orbison’s vibrato, theatre babes brandishing guns, the way the stage blood took its time to pool and expand across the blinding white stage space. I also remember enjoying how sick the shows made me feel. Maybe cool aesthetics gave me access to a deeper emotion, led me into the nightmare.

For the most part, I hate screen violence. I am extremely over seeing women portrayed as victims. I get pretty bored in action movies. My brain switches off. There are some exceptions to this (for example, I just held a David Lynch themed birthday party) but mostly when I watch yet another person killed on screen I wonder what the hell it’s doing to my psyche.

Baz Luhrmann demonstrating the appeal of babes, weapons and drama in his 1996 film Romeo+Juliet.

Baz Luhrmann demonstrating the appeal of babes, weapons and drama in his 1996 film Romeo+Juliet.

Thankfully, I grew up in a violence free environment both at home and in my wider community. This is a fact I find problematic when it comes to my enjoyment of violence on stage. Does my violence free past mean that for me violence on stage is a fetish? Is it dangerous? Or is it totally valid? Maybe even a necessity?

I have interviewed three Melbourne based theatre-makers: Daniel Lammin, Chi Vu and Rachel Perks about the different approaches to violence that they take in their work. These conversations will be published over three blog posts on School for Birds. Thanks Fleur!

Part 1: Conversation with Daniel Lammin

Daniel Lammin is a playwright and director. He also works as a film reviewer. Daniel’s work for the stage often explores real-life incidents of violent crime. We meet in the Malthouse courtyard for a chat but men in sequinned G-Strings keep running into our line of vision. This provides to be too distracting for the both of us so we settle for a park bench on Sturt Street.

Bridget: At one point during our dramaturgy internship with Playwriting Australia last year you said ‘I love violence’ and I was like, ‘I love violence.’ So, I guess I just want to talk to you about why you love it.

Daniel: I think that violence is one of the most exciting, dangerous and delicate emotional tools, or narrative tools, you can use in order to tell a story. A show I did last year, The Cutting Boys, ended in an act of murder, cannibalism and sex. I had to spend the entire time asking: am I justified in making this as blunt and extreme as it is? And if I had come to a point where I couldn’t justify it, not that everyone would agree with me, then I would never have done it. I feel that a lot of the time when people use violence it’s just to shock, because it’s kind of sexy. But, if your intention is just to be edgy or disturbing, or confronting, you’re only going to make work that only serves that purpose.

I’m keen to talk to Lammin about his thoughts on the difference between violence on film and violence on the stage. I tell him that Snowtown is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen but that I regret watching it because I found the violence so distressing.

Daniel: Violence doesn’t mean anything unless you’re seeing it through the eyes of someone else, through the eyes of a character, or the eyes of a community. If you were just watching the brother being killed in the bathtub in Snowtown, you would go ‘oh that’s horrific and disgusting’ and turn off. What makes that sequence so affecting, and so horrifying, is that his younger brother is watching, and then participating, and you’re watching the act through the relationship and the history that they have. It feels very dangerous making people watch a horrible act just for the purpose of shocking them.


A gentler moment from the 2011 movie Snowtown.

Bridget: You mentioned that you thought that violence on film could be more effective than stage violence?

Daniel: Yeah, I think that film can reach a level of reality a lot easier than theatre can. I don’t think you ever want a piece of violence on stage to really be completely realistic because that kind of turns people off. Maybe it’s that I’ve never found violence as much of a problem on film. Film also has the ability to play with genre. You can watch a film like Hostel even though that violence is stupidly graphic, but you can revel in that, because that’s what that genre does. Plus, with film there is a sense that it’s removed from you. If you watched Thyestes, on screen, you’d be like, oh that’s disturbing, but watching it a few feet in front of you? It’s right there, you’re watching living, breathing things sweating and reacting. It becomes something quite different.

Bridget: I loved Thyestes.

Daniel: It was one of the best things ever.

Our conversation moves to Ugly Mugs a show that was part of the 2014 Malthouse season.

Daniel: Making a piece of theatre that shows just the idea of violence towards a person, or a community, or a minority is kind of blunt if it’s not shown through the eyes of an actual person. Ugly Mugs was on at the same time as my show The Cutting Boys, and was about very similar ideas. I felt Ugly Mugs would have been a far more effective show if I had actually been made to confront the act. You’ve got a show about violence against sex workers. I want to see a show that makes me feel sick to my stomach about violence in the community against a sex worker and how horrific that is as opposed to –

Bridget: What about the argument though. Say, if you’re making an anti-war film, you run the risk of sensationalising war to make that anti-war film. Do you think maybe in Ugly Mugs, to have the depiction of violence could be seen as –

Daniel: Exploitative?

Bridget: Exploitative in a way.

Daniel: Yeah, I mean definitely, I guess it just comes down to how it’s handled. I think that it’s the job of the creator to sit back and ask if they are being exploitative. I did a short play years ago about the murder of James Bulger, the two year old who was killed by two ten year old boys in the early nineties. It was something I had always wanted to do because I found the whole thing so disturbing. But I skipped that step of actually questioning: is what I want this to do working? Is it effective in the manner by which I’m doing it? By accident it kind of was, but I learnt a big lesson. If you want to show that an act of violence is something that’s wrong, you need to make sure that you’re doing it in a way that it doesn’t exploit, and that your intentions are clear.

Bridget: When did you have the realisation that maybe it was exploitative?

Daniel: When it was in front of people, basically. When I was watching it with an audience, and seeing an audience react. I mean, there was no violence in it. It was the manner that the content was given to the audience that was uncomfortable. Enough people enjoyed and responded to the piece to suggest to me that I hadn’t made a massive mistake, but it scared me enough to go, there is a level of interrogation that I need to make sure I have if I keep wanting to do this.

Bridget: What’s the best use of violence that you’ve seen on stage?

Daniel: Barrie Kosky’s Women of Troy. It’s funny, because it was the first thing of his that I’ve ever seen and I’ve learnt that his shows are usually a lot more flamboyant and colourful and this was under fluro lights, stark, cold, blunt. There was a sequence in it where a woman was dragged into a locker, while the rest of the women were singing a Mozart Aria, she was trapped in there and raped by one of the guards. The woman comes out, she stands on a box with her underwear down around her knees, covered in blood, stands there and vomits –

Bridget: Fuck.

Daniel: – and by itself, well, that’s the point where you see most of the audience just get up and walk out. But he’d invested us in the plight of the characters, and in the plight of the narrative to the point where that happened and my brain just broke, because it was like seeing a succession of images that all amounted to something far more powerful.

Bridget: Were you in our dramaturgy class when Patricia Cornelius talked about needing to ‘earn moments’ from the audience?

Daniel: I think so.

Bridget: She said, you can’t give an audience a thing and say ‘deal with it.’ You have to lead them to it.

Daniel: I have this rule, with any of the disturbing things that I keep going back and making, that you have to make the audience laugh in the first five minutes. Because you’ve got to relax them to the point where they actually can ease themselves into what it is you have to tell them. And then they’re more susceptible. They’re more prone to listening to you. And they’re weakened so the punch in the face is going to hurt more. That’s what Stephen Spielberg does in Schindler’s List. He eases you in, makes you feel comfortable, and then assaults you with the most horrific images in humanity that you can imagine. And it is that thing, of earning the right to be able to do it. And I think generally in theatre that you have to earn big moments. You’ve got to earn a pause, you’ve got to earn a climax, and you’ve got to earn a twist. Patricia is completely right.

Bridget: Um, I’m really sorry to bring out a review of your work. The Rebecca Harkins-Cross review of The Cutting Boys?

Daniel: Yes! … Oh?

Bridget: At the end of the review she asks: What drives a theatre maker to lower us into the abyss? And I was wondering, from the way that you are talking, it doesn’t sound like an intention you have with the theatre you make, or is it your intention?

Daniel: With that particular show, it was a case of wanting to pull the audience right to the depths… because an act of two twenty-year old boys killing and cannibalising a sixteen-year-old girl is an act of complete inhumanity. I felt the only way to convey that inhumanity effectively was to take the audience to the darkest place I possibly could. I wanted it to be an unforgiving show. I had no illusions that people were going to enjoy the show. I couldn’t even watch sections of the thing because I found it so confronting. And it came out of my fucking head. When that review came out I thought, that is the question that needs to be asked of the theatre maker, certainly of me. In that particular instance, I felt like I had a justifiable reason. I loved that review. It was initially terrifying, but then it’s like, good, it’s an engagement with the work.

The Cutting Boys

The Cutting Boys. Image Phoebe Taylor.

Bridget: I’ve been wondering about Aristotle’s writing about catharsis in the Poetics, in relation to violence on stage. I’m a bit suspicious about whether or not catharsis can actually be a thing that has a social function. Do you think that violence in art creates a space for people to purge emotion?

Daniel: I think it definitely does have the capacity to do that, for people who want that. I don’t think everyone wants that. I do. But in terms of violence, it’s not just physical acts of violence, it’s emotional levels of violence. To choose the lamest thing off the top of my head. Something like, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It’s preposterously emotionally violent, but I want to sit through that, because I want to have that catharsis. Some people don’t want that, and they are completely in their rights not to want that. And I would never want to force a violent show on someone. With anything I’ve done, I always make a point of making it very clear to people that this is not going to be fun. So you’re prepared enough before hand to know whether or not the show is right for you.

Bridget: It’s funny, my Grandma saw my play Hose and I was worried about how she’d feel that I’d written something so violent, and afterwards I asked her what she thought and she said ‘I saw things in nursing that you couldn’t even imagine.’ And I was like, ‘thanks Grandma’. But you know, humanity does have this darkness.

Daniel: Yeah, and that is the big reason why I love working with it, because it’s there. I actually want to be able to talk about the fact that yes, the world is a wonderful place, there are beautiful people in it, there are wonderful experiences, not everything is depressing, but you know what? Some people do really fucking horrible things to each other, and sometimes the way to learn how to deal with that is to actually just show it.

Just as I’m about to thank Lammin and let him return to rehearsals he throws a question back that shouldn’t catch me by surprise, but it does:

Daniel: Why do you love violence?

Bridget: Oh…!? … I think that’s what I’m trying to work out… Sometimes I get really angry and I throw shit and sometimes I have urges to physically hurt other people. Like, I have that, and I’m really ashamed of that, and I wonder if when I see violence on stage it allows me to express that.

Daniel: Stephen King wrote this book about horror, and his thesis is that good horror allows us to experience something that in a normal, moral society, we would not be able to. It allows us to actually be an enactor of violence, and to be a victim of violence and through doing these things, purge ourselves of the desire to do them. I’ve come up with the concept that as a theatre maker I want to hear what the universe sounds like. Everything I do is just built to answer that question. I’m writing a show about Ed Gein, he’s the guy that Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Silence of the Lambs and Psycho are based on. He was suspected of having murdered these women, and when the police confronted him about it they found his house was full of artifacts that he had made of women’s skin and body parts, but they were ones he dug up. I’m fascinated by how lonely someone must be that this is how they choose to fill their world. It’s inhuman, it’s impossible to comprehend, it’s like listening to the destruction of a star, or listening to the darkness that exists in the heart, because if I listen to this, if I can touch it for a fleeting second, I might understand the potential for violence between me, and potential in my friends, or my family or within anybody… … That’s a very big wanky concept.

Bridget: No, it’s great, it’s great.

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


Dramaturgical Analysis, Guest Blogger, Theatre

Guest blogger: After Simon Stone’s ‘The Cherry Orchard’ (after Anton Chekhov)

Programming Note: Bridget Mackey is my first guest blogger. She wrote this stunning response to The Cherry Orchard and I decided that I wanted in on that. Bridget is a playwright, theatre-maker and owner of an outstanding fringe based in Melbourne. She would also like it noted that ‘A’ consented to his views being published during a phone conversation an hour after the Grand Final. ‘A’ cannot remember this conversation at all. Fleur.

‘Instead of going to see plays, you should take a good look at yourself. Just think what a drab life you lead, what a lot of nonsense you talk!’ – Lyubov Andreyevna Ranevsky (Act 2, The Cherry Orchard)

I. – Falling in Love:

Simon Stone’s adaptation of ‘The Cherry Orchard’ by Anton Chekhov takes place in a white space. I’m watching this white space and it’s the whiteness that fills the absence of memory; or the reflected glow of an orchard in full bloom; or the white-wash walls of a nursery filled with objects from a much happier past. People enter the space. Characters in a play walk on to a stage. I listen to the characters on stage. I observe the way their actions contradict the way they speak about themselves. Chekhov’s characters perform as much for each other as they do for the audience and as they speak to each other (and they speak a lot) I fall in love with each and every one of them. I fall in love with them in the way that I am in love with my family and friends. I love them because of, not despite, their idiosyncrasies and imperfections.

II. – The Test:

Setting: Night. Melbourne. A train station. Bridget & A wait for a train.

Bridget: If Chekhov had been a painter which painter do you think he’d be like?

A: Toulouse-Lautrec.

Bridget: Really?

A: Yeah.

Bridget: Toulouse-Lautrec?

A: Yeah. Because he shows human life from ugly and intimate angles.


(Devotion: the Two Girlfriends, Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec, 1895)

Bridget: But Toulouse-Lautrec makes people look really ugly. Chekhov doesn’t do that.


(The Hangover: Portrait of Suzanne Valadon, Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec, 1888)

A: Chekhov makes people look ugly.

Bridget: But you see everything in so much detail. And you see this detail in the context of the character’s entire lives. Chekhov presents his characters so evenly. It has a calming effect. I think Chekhov is like Seurat.


(The Gardener, Georges Seurat, 1884)

A: Like a pointillists? A pointillist removes the viewer too much to be Chekhov.


(A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Georges Seurat, 1884)

Bridget: Maybe. (Pause)


(Morning, interior, Maximilien Luce, 1890)

Bridget: But I feel like my brain has been stretched out, like I’ve been looking at the horizon. I don’t know. I can’t explain it. (Pause) Did you think that Simon Stone’s version was a bit like The Castle?

A: The movie? No.

Bridget: I got over it but when the play started I kept thinking of this phrase ‘The Bogan Chekhovian.’ I got over it.

A: Thank God.

Bridget: And allowing the characters, or the actors, or whoever, to speak with their natural speech pattern gave an immediacy to the language which helps a contemporary audience connect with the play.


A: It was cool the way the audience was the orchard.

Bridget: Yeah, I loved that.

III. – A drunken rant on the Epping Line.

Setting: A train.

Drunk Woman: I vote liberal! People who want to be rich should vote liberal! I’m rich, I’m proud to be wealthy. Come on, tell me I’m drunk, tell me I’m out of my mind, say I’m imagining all this. Don’t laugh at me. (Pause) Being poor is a choice. Don’t you think? Don’t you think being poor is a choice. (Pause) Don’t laugh at me. If only my dad and grandfather could come back from the dead and see everything that’s happened to me. Everything that I’ve done. They came to this country with nothing. If they could see how their much bullied, half literate daughter, the girl who used to run around with bare feet in winter, if they could see that I own a house now. I own a house now. Sometimes I think it’s all a dream.

IV. – Afterwards.

Setting: Beneath an umbrella.

Bridget: Do you think she was an acting student?

A: I don’t think so.

Bridget: But she was quoting almost directly from the play. Wasn’t she?

A: I know.

Bridget: I couldn’t engage with her properly, I should have engaged with her more, I should have had a conversation, but the Chekhov did something to my brain. I just wanted to listen to her. I feel like I could have listened to her forever.

A: Me too.