audiences, criticism, Dramaturgical Analysis, My own plays, Responses, Theatre, writing

brutality, brittleness and some merciless gods

So I’ve been thinking a bit lately about what we can ask of our audiences. About hardness, culpability and the hurt that words can bring. A few weeks ago I saw Roslyn Oades’ Hello, Goodbye, Happy Birthday and I felt so grateful to see a piece of theatre that was new, innovative and at the forefront of its field just be gentle. New and innovative so often means jagged.

I’m aware that theatre happens both onstage and in my body – the body of the audience – and I am aware that the theatre that is me goes through phases: sometimes I can take whatever you have going and other days, for whatever reason, I am more brittle.

Last night, at Merciless Gods, I was brittle from muscular pain and painkillers. This brittleness (and my fun drug cocktail) in no way clouded my vision: I saw a stunning production. I saw actors perform with incredible control, intensity and generousity. I saw a lighting design that made me gasp and I heard words that cut. And I was shaken because it was hard and jagged and I was brittle and tired.

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Charles Purcell in Merciless Gods. Photo: Sarah Walker.

A few weeks ago, I wrote this scene (edited down here) for my new play, Whale. I doubt it will make it to the final or even third draft because dramaturges seldom have time for this sort of wanky self-doubt, but this scene was in my head last night.

WRITER:

I think I need a break

Does anyone else need a break?

MAN:

Are you okay?

WRITER:

How much is too much to ask of theatre?

MAN:

I’m not –

Sorry

Not following

WRITER:

Like

We want it to be relevant and have a message

We want it to say the big things but

Like

Right now relevant means fucked

It means

Give them a shitty night

I just

Think that maybe there needs to be a moratorium

Maybe we need to ask our audiences

Do you want us to be relevant and frightening

To put shitty decisions on your lap and force you to feel culpable

Or do you want to come here and forget about it?

MAN:

Okay I hear you

I just think

Now you’ve started

Maybe you need to finish this one

Okay?

You can write a comedy next year

Would that make you feel better?

Yeah, that’s definitely not going to make it to draft three.

Every time I ask people these questions, their answers blow me away. So – prompted by Merciless Gods but in no way entirely about that show – I wanted to give people a chance to answer the questions that I keep coming up against. Here, in an act of beautiful generosity, artists and critics answer my questions:

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Photo: Sarah Walker (again)

How much is too much?

Sarah Walker: You know, I think there really isn’t an answer to this question. Because I’ve seen shows that have depicted horror – true horror, but they’ve cared for the audience in that space. Given them a sense of power. Whether it be to politically empower people – say, this is happening but it can be stopped and you can do something to stop it, or to just fight horror with love, with hope – to say, just feeling is an act of rebellion. Loving is a weapon against hate. Those are the shows that have justified their brutality. I think the problem comes when a show brings you darkness but doesn’t give you a way out. That is the work that shuts people down. That makes them feel powerless.

Myron My: I don’t believe there can be such a thing in theatre because ultimately it is all make-believe. As long as it’s done with care and respect. I think it’s important that while we yearn for love and happiness it’s really important to explore and reflect on the darker elements of life, and what better way to do it than through theatre.

What purpose does brutality serve of our stages?

Eliza Quinn: I think sometimes its the escapism of theatre that can feel brutal – like “Oh, I just spent two hours in this nice warm theatre and I went into a totally different world that made me feel something that might have been vaguely euphoric or sublime, and now I’m outside and it’s cold and wet and I don’t know how to reconcile what I saw in there with what I know is happening out here.”
Sometimes it’s like a performance is asking too much of me by being so wonderful and joyful. Then I exit the theatre and go home and turn on the news and there is no joy.
Like I feel as though the performance or text or whatever didn’t give me any tools with which to navigate the world outside. And I ask myself if that’s the point of theatre? If it is there to give you the tools to deal with the real world or if I should just be grateful that a whole lot of people put in so much effort to entertain me. Sometimes it feels like I am asking too much of theatre.

Sarah Walker: I think of all artists, theatremakers particularly feel this responsibility for their work to interrogate, to challenge and to reveal. We’re okay with film being entertaining and silly and comforting, but I think theatremakers feel like that isn’t enough – feel like they have to ask the big, awful questions with their bodies and their text. Perhaps it’s something about the liveness of theatre – the reality of the human figure sweating and fretting and heart-beating in front of you. Something about that dynamic seems to force us to try to create work that makes people feel, and it feels wrong or cowardly to just make people laugh or feel delight. It’s not, of course. The ideal work is one, I think, that acknowledges that the world is terrifying and brutal and cruel, but reminds us that there is beauty, there is hope, and that we can cultivate those energies and emotions in a way that isn’t just ignoring the bad.

What did the brutality of Merciless Gods do to you?

Bridget Mackey: I think that we should see brutality on our stages. There’s a brutality that exists in our world and I think that we should be made to look at it. I think that Christos Tsiolkas is a writer who makes us look at things that we, as a society, don’t want to look at. And Little One’s production of Merciless Gods has skilfully dramatised the quality about Tsiolkas that I appreciate. To be honest, there’s a brutality to my own desires. I’m talking about both sexual desires and things I’d like to do or say when I’m angry or frustrated. Of course, I am sometimes ashamed of these things and don’t act on them. Sometimes I act them out in a safe way. I figure other people are the same. So, I think the stage is a good place to explore darkness and brutality. Sometimes when we look at things closely we see them for what they are, and realise we are not alone in our experiences.

Sarah Walker: When Stephen and Dan were interviewed on Smart Arts, they both used a word to describe the stories that made up the show, and that word was ‘tender.’ And I feel like that was what I took away from that production – this sense of profound tenderness. I will admit that I watched it partly through a camera lens, which always distorts my experience of a production. But what I felt during those vignettes wasn’t the stark, clinical slap of brutality. It was the ache of love, of longing, of people desperately trying to figure out what it was to be human. What it meant to be alive in a cruel world that took things away that you cared for. So many of those characters were just aching – aching, but in the space that absence or pain carved in them, that ache became something of substance. Became love that filled the hole and defined it. My overwhelming takeaway was that humans can be hideous, but they can also be so, so tender. So human. And that that love and tenderness wasn’t just a response to pain. It was a force just as strong as the horror. There was something I found comforting in it, because I’ve felt that pain, that loss. Not in the circumstances of the characters in the show, but I recognised those feelings. And knowing that we all feel those things – it helps to make us feel a little less alone. And the more complex pieces – Petals, for example, still had moments of profound beauty. Pete Paltos singing, his voice filling that huge space, brought beauty to a monologue that is otherwise horrifying. That a character who could be so brutal could also be so beautiful was meaningful, and complex, in the way that the world is complex.

Have you seen a show that has asked too much of you?

Jessica Bellamy: I have seen shows that asked too much of me, but for me, that “too much” was along the lines of: pretend you can empathise with the couple trying to buy a house, give a shit about that wedding, laugh at those jokes that to you are not funny, not relatable, not coming from a world that empowers you. The last show that asked too much of me was The Odd Couple. I sat in the middle of the theatre, surrounded by a room of half-tittering and half-snoring white hairs and I felt tears run down my face because I knew this sort of theatre and this sort of “comedy” is what so many people want, and what I should be reaching for if I want to make the sweet big money out there one day, but does it have to be within a tapestry of middle class sexist bullshit? When I see plays like this, where the wise and witty and weird are mocked and ignored, I think: theatre can be a bully sometimes. Theatre should be a refuge and a solace, but plays like this just remind me I am not welcome. There is no place for me in a canon like this. I did not find Merciless Gods brutal. I found it refreshing, honest, sad, ugly and beautiful. I heard voices that we do not often hear, do not listen to, that get lost under the weight of those who are amplified too often.

Merciless Gods is by Dan Giovannoni from the book by Christos Tsiolkas​ and directed by Stephen Nicolazzo. It is playing at Northcote Townhall until August 5th.

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Brigid Gallacher, Photo: Sarah Walker (as always)

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audiences, criticism

‘everyone’s a critic’: a talk

On Sunday I spoke at Scratch Warehouse’s second Artistic Spread event: bring a plate of food and they will bring three visual artists, three performers and three artists to speak about what they do. Because I’m a shameless self-documenter, I recorded it and today I thought I would share it as a sort of audio School for Birds post, as it is mostly about what I do on this blog and why I do it.

Those who regularly read me will see that I plagiarised myself terribly and at the beginning I also sound a little hesitant as I’m not reading from my notes but I really enjoyed putting this together. I think it may have kind of surprised everyone with how ridiculously poetic and academic it got but all the more reason that I think you birds will like it.

Covered in this talk: criticism, empowering your audience, how I conduct post-show audience conversations and what I’ve learnt from them, The City They Burned and how to engage with criticism as an artist.

Enjoy.

Speaking at Scratch's Artistic Spread #2

Speaking at Scratch’s Artistic Spread #2. Looking pained about stuff.

“Artists don’t set out to make work that is either good or bad. Most set out to make you feel stuff. Think stuff. To knot your gut, to dry your mouth, to water your eyes, to clench your fists, to find words and images and sounds and sensations to express those things that are either too big or too small for us to realise on a daily basis.

… With this in mind, know how inadequate a response ‘Yeah I really liked it’ is.”

Why does the word ‘critic’ denote a professional and ‘enthusiast’ reek of amateurism? I think ‘enthusiast’ is a much better word for what I do: I enthuse about art. I think it is sad that enthusiasm sounds like a less intellectual or rigorous response.

Thank you to Kieran for helping me with this audio.

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audiences, criticism, Dramaturgical Analysis, Responses, Theatre

on being in on the joke, vineyards, prisons, Shakespeare and Gina Rinehart

It has been a while since I’ve written about individual shows. In truth, this is because I’ve avoided the theatre lately. I’ve written in the past about my goal to be the most enthusiastic person in the audience as the lights go down. I’ve conditioned myself: lights dim and my heart races. I hold myself up to very high standards and will only go if I know I can enter the room with a loving intellectual commitment to immerse myself in the work. But it turns out that directing full-time in the last five weeks of your Masters is very draining. Who would have guessed? It took a while to recover but the burn has finally subsided and I’ve been so delighted to return to live theatre in the last two days. There is nothing like it.

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Production photo by Sarah Walker, sarahwalkerphotos.com

I kicked off the year with Essential Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, performed in the vineyards of Deviation Road winery in the gorgeous Adelaide Hills. The production was sheer fun. The audience’s obvious delight at every plot twist thrilled me.

Okay so, spoiler alert: Titania falls in love with a man with a donkey’s head. I thought we all knew this but, as one, the audience exclaimed with delight at the deliciousness of this wacky twist! Speaking afterwards with one of the actors, David Lamb, about this response, he spoke of the joy of touring regional areas and having audience members tell them that this was their first theatre show: “The thing about Shakespeare is that he makes his audience feel smart: you see where things are headed just before they get there.”

This is not to imply that someone who does not see theatre often is dumb, but you could easily expect them to feel isolated in Shakespeare: to be daunted by the language and to be playing a constant game of catch-up. But it was not so. The audience felt respected. They were in on the joke. The kids in their fairy capes, the regular theatre-goers and the locals for whom this was a one-off treat were all equalised by this performance. This was Shakespeare, we all got it and it was fucking hilarious.

That is the beautiful thing about Shakespeare. One of the beautiful things. The other is that I can see that production one night and the next see Foul Play’s Macbeth: two plays by the same author, a night apart and a world away.

You see, within Shakespeare is an implicit consent: we enter the theatre/vineyard/garage/alley with an awareness that we could be seeing anything. It isn’t simply that copyright has expired and directors don’t feel a need to please an estate, it is also that every theatre maker feels empowered to paint the work with their own colours; to plant their flag and declare their voice in his words; to appropriate, re-create, deviate, abbreviate; to separate themselves from their colleges and make clear to us their intentions. This can lead to some incredible theatre but it can also be dangerous as artists attempt to cram a script into a framework that it may not be suited to.

Macbeth is the first show for Foul Play and I wholeheartedly believe that this team could create something very exciting. They are committed and they made very bold choices: we saw the production twice, once with an all-female cast and then again with an all-male cast. Such bravery makes me very optimistic that their future shows will be similarly bold.

I am not here to review. This blog is here to talk about the experience of being an artist and to give a voice to our passionate, brilliant, humble community. I am not writing to critique either company. I am writing this because I had two very different experiences as an audience member in Shakespeare plays twenty-four hours apart. I am writing this because Essential Theatre wanted to share something with me as an audience-member. They wanted to share a passion for beautiful words, to create beautiful memories and to empower their audience, enthuse and infuse them with old words still hysterically funny and truthful.

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Cartoon by Mark Knight which first appeared in Murdoch press June 20th, 2012 to accompany an Andrew Bolt column.

The director’s notes for Macbeth say that the production grew out of ‘frustration at the disparity between how men and women in positions of authority are evaluated.’ She wanted to offer us the opportunity to face our own prejudices by seeing the same roles played out by both genders. This is very rich subject matter and made me think of the outstanding Quarterly Essay by Anna Goldsworth: Unfinished Business, sex, freedom and misogyny. In it Goldsworthy talks about how dangerous and sexualised language gets when it comes to women in power. Consider the language used to describe Gina Rinehart as opposed to similarly ruthless, compassionless multimillionaire, Clive Palmer. Rinehart’s own father, Lang Hancock, famously wrote “Allow me to remember you as the neat, trim, capable, attractive young lady of the Wake Up Australia Tour, rather than the slothful, vindictive and devious baby elephant you have become… I am glad your mother cannot see you now.” Barry Humphries on Q&A (May, 2012) described the possibilities for satirical material as “never-ending. It’s just like the hole; Gina’s hole.” Criticism from both the left and the right cannot stop with her actions. Rather, they must comment on her body, her size, her hair and the very fact that she has a vagina. I won’t even get started on Julia Gillard but there is no denying that, in Australia in particular, the body of a woman in power is a thing to be beaten, berated, sexualised and humiliated. Pass comment on her fat arse, make a ‘joke’ menu out of her ‘red box’ and threaten the feminist bloggers with rape to shut them up: it is part of what makes Australia great.

There is so much richness when it comes to discussions of gender and power but did I get any of this from Macbeth?

In repeating the performance twice, the production felt like an experiment rather than a show and I, a subject rather than an independent audience member. I felt dumb in both senses of the word. To me it felt cold and overtly schematic. The actors did not seem to entirely own their performances as both casts were re-creating discoveries made by a completely different group. But the bigger issue is this: in repeating the production with two different gendered ensembles, a play which has always contained themes of gender, sex and power, became strangely sexless. Rather than making a male and a female version, they made two identically gender-neutral versions. To give the most simplistic of examples, the production was set in a prison and I can tell you now that the easiest way to smuggle anything in or out of that prison would be to stow it beside your cock, between your breasts or up your vagina. These parts of the actors’ bodies were invisible to their guards in every search. A strange censorship seems to have descended over the stage: mouths spoke atop pixelated torsos. Pronouns were thrown about without seeming to land on anyone. Did this challenge me to reconsider authority under the lens of gender? Not really. It all but removed gender from a play once full of it.

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Nope, no naughty bits here.

I think this is a reminder to artists that sometime, when you want to make a play about a very particular contemporary issue, perhaps you should turn to contemporary voices. Perhaps your own. Perhaps, for all Shakespeare’s adaptability and universality, sometimes he can’t say it all without a very strong, very aggressive dramaturgical team questioning every step of the process. Perhaps, in superimposing our play on his, we mire and muddy not only his intention but our own.

Again, I do not write this as a critic. If I were a critic I would mention the outstanding sound design by Dan Thorpe and the commitment of the cast and all those other positive things that are worth a mention in a review. But as an artist, I write this: sometimes we are ambitious. Sometimes that ambition is driven by an urgency to convey a particular theme or lesson. At such times we must ensure that our work is not simply a didactic vessel for, if we miss the mark a little, there must still be a heart and a story to be shared with our willing audience.

My thanks go out to my sister Hannah for her proof-reading and to David Lamb and John Kachoyan for their contribution and to Jane Howard for being my theatre date.

Programming note: I don’t usually provide a disclaimer. Writing as a Victorian theatre maker in Victoria I presume you presume that I know people in every production and I feel that I’m quite good at separating analysis from friendship. But, because I’m currently in SA and because I’m writing about two different companies in this post, I will say that I know several members of Essential Theatre and have no connections to Foul Play.

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audiences, conversation, criticism, dance, Theatre

in conversation: on criticism, tangible feedback and a secret language of exclusion

Third and final installment of my conversation with Sayraphim Lothian and Robert Reid. I love this one such a lot. It taps into all my thoughts about criticism and trusting your audience. Thank you once again to these two for their generosity. Thank you also to Sarah Walker who proof read all three episodes. I’d look like an idiot without her. 

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SFB: You are both making work that almost feels like it circumvents the critics or the ‘expert’ commenting on the work.

Sayra: Well the problem for me as a public artist is that public art never gets reviewed. My stuff is tiny, temporary works. It is more towards the street art side than the public art. Nobody every wanders over to Vault to have a chat in The Age about the extraordinary angles or the specific colour of yellow. Nobody reviews that stuff, which is sort of a burden and a freedom. Occasionally internet people talk about my work, not as reviewers but as people who like craft or craftivism or joy or random acts of kindness. I know that critics are problematic at best and it is just an individual’s opinion but I won’t mind being reviewed by someone.

Rob: With Pop Up Playground, there is no language for what we do.

Sayra: Well Anne-Marie came to the first This Is A Door at Theatre Works and loved it and reviewed it. She’s not trying to understand it as theatre. She understands it as ‘this is the awesome thing I did and you should go!’

Rob: Which is just about an ability to read the framework that the experiences is being presented to you in, as opposed to coming with a notion of ‘I am a theatre reviewer. I must review it on these grounds.’ The same people have the language to review a circus performance or a dance work or a cabaret work and all of these things are different and distinct and they have the language. It is because the notion of play as performance is relatively new and under-served here, that they haven’t been forced to make the effort to understand ‘how do I understand this as performance’ that they haven’t developed the language. This is a reflection of how slowly the intellectual process behind analysing of performance happens, not only here in Australia but everywhere.

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Robert Reid working on a magical kangaroo for Nylon Zoo’s ‘i see magical creatures’

Sayra: We’re still having that argument with people. When we present the ideas behind Pop Up Playground and they ask ‘yes, but how is that art?’ or ‘How is that theatre?’

Rob: Less and less. Partially because we’re moving away from trying to establish ourselves within the arts community. Not that we want to move out of the arts community but the question is starting to become ‘why are you doing this?’ which is fundamentally the same conversation just with a different value set.

Though the games and play as performance can absolutely be reviewed and critiqued by critics, the best feedback is through the play-testing process or getting Emilie Collier (our writer in residence) to respond. She writes fictional responses to the games, which is wonderful. I think the reason that we have, to an extent, circumvented the critical process with Pop Up Playground is because the critical process here in Australia and probably around the world is broken.

We as artists get so focused on what Cameron and Anne-Marie and Alison and those guys think because it is the only tangible feedback we actually get. I would guess that a lot of the artists who are really focused on that stuff would often have difficulty sitting in a room where their work is being performed and being able to pick up the cues from an audience to be get feedback. Or maybe they won’t even sit there. Or they do it on opening night – which is again a skewed kind of feedback anyway – and then maybe go back on closing night and miss all the feedback from an audience as to whether or not a thing is funny, whether it is working, what the impact is.

Sayra: I think people feel the critics are super educated in their own art form so if the critics get it you get some kind of certificate saying ‘I am actually a Theatre Maker. I am actually an Artist.’ For me in public art and Pop Up Playground, it is really important that the general public can instantly get it.

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Sayraphim Lothian creating a creature for Nylon Zoo’s ‘i see magical creatures’

I don’t come from a theatre background and so when I first met Rob and started going to theatre, a lot of it confused the hell out of me because it is a learned language. It took me years to understand what it was I that I was seeing. For public it was really important that we circumvent that. People can instantly get it. It’s a fake cupcake and it is here purely to make your day or make you smile.

When I was studying art in Year 11 or Year 12, my art teacher presented us with a blank canvas and explained the whole story and all the meaning behind it. Once you understand the huge amount of literature behind it you can go ‘oh my God, that’s awesome’ but still, when you stand in front of it, it is just a blank canvas.

I don’t read the program before I go into a theatre work because if it has to be explained to me before, I feel that it is a failed piece of theatre because I want to sit there and understand it from purely the piece of art that is being presented. So I think it is more important that the general public can get the stuff I’m doing than the well-educated art critic.

SFB: Makes me think about one of the essays you gave us (in the Masters of Writing course at VCA), Rob, which said that in art-like art, your experience is deepened by having this whole backlog of knowledge. You walk into an art gallery and you know what happens in art galleries, whereas in life-like art, you don’t need to know art, you just need to know life. Just live some life and you’ll get it.

Sayra: I went to the ballet once when I was all young and Gothic. It was Dracula and I knew the story but I remember two specific things: One is that they were very bendy – they were boneless – which worked really well for vampires. The other thing was that there were all these certain move that I knew were really meaningful but because I’d never been to the ballet before I had no idea what they were. I had three friends there and we all came out going ‘nope. No idea.’ And we could sort of see the story in it because we knew the story but it was very difficult to find because of all the Meaningfulness that was happening and we weren’t a part of it.

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Tulsa Ballet’s ‘Dracula’, photographed by Sharen Bradford

Rob: We forget that. Not only do we forget that but we don’t like it being pointed out to us that not everybody has had the conversations about Chekhov and Ibsen and Strindberg. Not everybody has had the conversations about post-dramatic theatre and adaptations and, for the most part, they don’t give a fuck either.

Sayra: Although everybody might not understand theatre or ballet or something, everybody knows how to play.

Rob: And everybody can be told a story. Everybody can tell a story. These are the basics of the art form that we all share, that we have spent a lot of time as artists rarefying and saying ‘no, no, no, you can’t do that the way we can do that. That makes us special.’ That tells 80% of the country that they are not involved and that they shouldn’t come because this is only for Special People who understand. It takes a basic human need away from humanity in the service of our ego.

Sayra: Alright, last story! Last story I promise! In our first public performance for Pop Up Playground was at the NGV studio and it was on Grand Final weekend. As artists we were going ‘we’re going to get beaten up! All of the football fans are coming in to the CBD and we’re going to get beaten up!’ Which we didn’t. But not only that –

Rob: These things are exaggerations for colour.

Sayra: Shhh! We had a family in football jerseys come in and play games. And we’ve never had anybody in football paraphernalia come to any of the theatre shows we’ve ever been to, let alone anything we’ve ever done.

Now we promise we’ll stop.

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education, Theatre, thoughts

on expectations, assumptions and empowering your audience

A few weeks ago, I was talking to Suzanne Chaundy for my conversation series when I made a statement that was blatantly untrue. I was talking about the difficulty of working with and exceeding the audience’s expectations of opera: “More so than in theatre, audiences arrive with an image – an expected aesthetic – an idea of What Opera Is. How do you cope with that?” I am paraphrasing. It didn’t make the final cut for the blog and I am writing this on a borrowed laptop so I can’t go back and check the extended transcript. The point is I said this wasn’t an issue for theatre and as the words left my mouth I realised this was a lie.

Today, a neighbour bemoaned the lack of arts funding in comparison to sports. She was doing this in solidarity with me and I appreciated it but I found myself saying this in response:

I sort of understand it. We inside theatre know what theatre can be and know the value of it but so many people never see live performance. The image they have in their head is probably Laurence Olivier, declaiming Shakespeare to a model skull fifty years and a globe away. They don’t see how that could ever be relevant let alone entertaining. They don’t see how something that archaic and elitist could ever justify funding. I think the arts needs a re-branding campaign to explain to the general public why we are worth investing both time and money in; that we are not just making work for a select group, educated in decrypting the mysterious noises we make, but that we have something to offer to Australia as a whole.

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I have touched on this before: who makes up an audience? What a rare find a First Time Theatre Goer is. Roderick Poole (playwright, composer, performer and founder of street theatre company, Strange Fruit) summed it up beautifully in an email exchange:

“I left working in the theatre about 20 years ago when I looked around and saw what a huge proportion of the audience was made up of my friends, colleagues and family. I decided to take up street theatre – taking the mountain to Muhammad.

The GP is scared stiff of the theatre. A lot is to do with etiquette. How to dress? How to behave?”

This is a problem. A massive one. But right now it doesn’t feel insurmountable. A few weeks ago I had a beautiful conversation with Robert Reid and Sayraphim Lothian (which I’ll be transcribing and posting in the next few days) about why they make art that is joyous and accessible; art that you don’t need to study before experiencing; art that sometimes has no purpose but to make the day brighter for the single person who experiences the work. Listening to them helped solidify many thoughts that had been bubbling away in my head for some time.

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Pop up playground promo image by Sarah Walker

I think that in the arts community we can be quick to dismiss things that are meek in their intellectual aspirations. Music theatre is a wonderful example of this. How many of us have rolled our eyes at the thought of yet another Gilbert and Sullivan operetta being staged? A Cameron Mackintosh? Who needs another Les Mis? Well, clearly the audience does because they keep buying tickets enough to justify another remount. This is art that is relatable, not isolating; art that asks you to experience on a purely emotional level rather than an academic one.

Now this is a tangent but it is an interesting one so I’m going to run with it: I read a paper this year by Caroline Heim (and again, I’m not in my own home so I can’t chase down my notes) which stated that the traditional post-show forum dis-empowers the audience because it sets up the artist as expert and the audience as pupils. It practically invites the time honoured ‘how do you learn all those lines?’ questions. ‘What’s it like working with So-and-so?’ It exaggerates rather than narrows the divide between audience and artist. We become the ones with the answers and they, the note takers. The paper suggests that a forum should be replaced by a conversation in which the theatre company seeks to learn from their audience. They might kick off the session by asking something as simple as ‘what did you say to your friend when the lights came up?’ and go from there. Allowing themselves to be led by the group and elevating them in that moment from spectator to collaborator.

These are all wonderful thoughts for big, established companies (and it got me ridiculously excited when I read it) but the majority of the conversations that happen, happen in foyers and at bars. This is where we as individual theatre makers can really make a difference to a newcomer’s experience of a night.

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The La Mama Courtyard, Melbourne

I think it is important to be confident talking about negative responses to shows and talking about them in such a way that the other person does not feel that the night was a failure because they didn’t enjoy the art they spent money on.

‘What did you think? … Oh it wasn’t your thing? … Yes I did enjoy it. Quite a lot! … Don’t be sorry! I want to hear about your response. What didn’t work for you?’ And then ‘what was the last thing you enjoyed in a theatre?

I think this last question, or something like it, might be the crucial one. Once you’ve talked about what didn’t work, ask about the last thing that did work for that person and then suggest a show, an artist or a company that they should check out. It is hard to convey tone here and I am fully aware of how patronising and formulaic this could sound but this is the thing: we need to become advocates for our industry. No one will do it for us. We are our spokespeople. Seek to pair a hesitant theatre-goer with a work that they will enjoy. Something that will make them want to return for more. To spread the word. To start taking some risks. To become part of our community.

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The Malthouse’s ‘Shadow King’ (photographed by Jeff Busby), was one of the many works this year that blew my mind with its humanity and its beautiful complexity.

I am not advocating an intellectual dampening of our industry. I fucking love the work that I am seeing at the moment because it is sophisticated, demanding and requires interrogation. I am not writing this to tell you to drop your current project and stage Mama Mia instead. Rather, what I want to suggest is this:

Make 2014 the year that you look around you in the audience. Make it the year in which you critically ask yourself ‘how many people do I know here?’ Make it the year that you seek out strangers in the crowd, turn to them at interval, catch them at the bar or in the line for the toilet and ask what they thought. Make it the year in which you genuinely want to know someone else’s opinion, not so that you can correct or educate them, but so that you can both share in each other’s experiencing of the work. Make it a year in which you empower your audience.

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