creativity, criticism, Theatre

on the ethics of criticism, hurt and making yourself vulnerable

This first appeared in Dancehouse Diary, Issue 8: Dance and Ethics

Listen. This is the hardest part: we, the artists, spend weeks, months or years creating something, crafting it as carefully as we know how. We offer it to the audience and we are proud. Then a critic comes in. They spend an hour with our work and become the authority.

This never stops being difficult but it is also incredibly beautiful. To me, this transfer of power, this ultimate act of vulnerability and generosity, is what live performance is all about. It says that we are willing to start a conversation rather than end it. It says that we do not make art for ourselves but for those who step into our space for one night only. In that moment, as we offer up our art to strangers, the work becomes live.

THIS CAN'T BE STOPPED, Chunky Moves, 2014, photo by Sarah Walker

Benjamin Hancock’s PRINCESS as part of IT CANNOT BE STOPPED, Chunky Move, 2014, photo by Sarah Walker

The ethics of criticism are complicated by the notoriously fraught relationship between artists and critics. I believe this stems from the mortality of our work. Live art is defined by its demise yet artists continually seek tangible proof of the impact of their work. A visual artist can return to their collection a year after their reviewers and, with time, perspective and a sleep cycle that has returned to normal, be able to form their own objective assessment of both their work and the dialogue that surrounded it. When all that remains is a critic’s condemnation, it can be difficult to hold onto your own understanding of your art. Making art makes us vulnerable and that is fine, we have the right to feel wronged. But do we have the right to demand silence? Do we have the right to request that a critic respond in a particular way?

The ethics of criticism is a two-way exchange between artists and critics that must take into account the rights of the audience to know what they are paying for.

What we expect from our critics depends very much on what we believe the role of the critic to be. If we believe it to be ‘pull quotes in exchange for free tickets’, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment and truncating a potentially valuable cultural exchange. If instead we look to a critic to continue a conversation that the artist began – to provide historical documentation of the work – to meet our art with the same intellectual rigour with which we created it – to provide a point of communication between artists and audience, we will be empowered to engage in a critical dialogue. We will also hold our critics up to a higher standard.

Personally, I want a lack of bias and writing that does not come from a place of anger. I want them to avoid cruelty. I want them to be in touch with the artistic landscape and I want them to love art, specifically the genre they are reviewing. I expect them to think hard and intellectually examine their emotive response at every turn. I do not want them to apologise for their opinions and I do want them to hold me to as high a standard as I hold them. I want us both to acknowledge that no single voice can declare a work a ‘success’ or ‘failure’ for to attempt to categorise performance in such a way undermines the fundamental purpose of art as a nuanced, emotive, response to and provoke for the world it issues from.

MARY POPPINS

MARY POPPINS

Yet writing such a list of requirements makes me feel like the Banks children in Mary Poppins singing what they want in a nanny with all the earnestness and naivety of youth. I write this knowing that I will, throughout my career, have my work critiqued by many, many people who will not live up to these expectations. I have been reviewed by people who consider themselves gatekeepers, surveyors of quality or purveyor of witty, sniping jokes at the artist’s expense. I have also been reviewed by a real estate writer who notoriously (but accurately) wrote of one of my plays that “the actor relies on her face and voice to express emotion.” (The Advertiser, 2013) Of course this is frustrating but I accept these reviews as part of the cultural noise surrounding art. Frequently such reviews can provide a starting point for further dialogue with my audience and the more conversations I can have, the better.

So if the ethical responsibility of the critic is to meet the artwork with all the nuance and self-interrogation that their ability and word count allows, what is the responsibility of the artist? Well, to let it happen. To encourage it and engage with it if we can. To look after ourselves and our collaborators. It can be easy to feel disempowered by the process of criticism but engaging with it as an equal, an an intelligent maker with their own voice outside of the stage, can help restore a balance and bring a sense of humanity back into a process that can feel de-humanising. But this is hard. Always.

In January the artistic director of Opera Australia, Lyndon Terracini, culled dissenting critics from the company’s invite list. This is not a new strategy. Many critics have told me of writing a negative review of a company and then “not being invited back until the leadership changed”. What is newsworthy is not Terracini’s actions but his position as a cultural leader, for as head of the most subsidised performing arts company in the country, he surely bears that title. What does it say about the state of our culture if the message coming down from such a leader is that questioning his artistic decisions is not allowed?

I do not believe that we have the right to silence our critics but, more importantly, I do not know why we would want to have such a right. ‘Culture’ is not art; it is an artistically engaged community and arts writing, dissent and argument are crucial components in this. A critic is a part of your audience and attempting to silence them is symptomatic of disengagement with and disinterest in your audience’s voice. I fear the long-term impact that such disengagement would have on Australia’s cultural landscape.

DOKU RAI, Black Lung Theatre and Whaling Firm, Galaxy and Liurai Fo’er, Arts House, 2012, Photo by Sarah Walker

DOKU RAI, Black Lung Theatre and Whaling Firm, Galaxy and Liurai Fo’er, Arts House, 2012, Photo by Sarah Walker

Note: I have a secret, slowly growing collection of unsent letters written to critics by various, often prominent Australian artists. These remind me that experience does not make it hurt less. If anyone has one of these letters tucked away on their computer, I am always grateful for the opportunity to read them and always incredibly careful to keep them secret. It helps me think about what people most want and are most hurt by in criticism. As someone who writes and speaks on criticism regularly I truly appreciate the privilege of being let into those moments and emotions. If anyone wishes to send me such letters or tell me what their criticism wish list, my email is fleurskilpatrick @ gmail.com.

Thank you to Angela Conquet for requesting I write this for Dancehouse Dairy. It brought me much delight. Thank you also to Sarah Walker for her beautiful photos.

Advertisements
Standard
criticism, My own plays, Politics, Theatre

on arts funding, ‘idlers in art’, anger, survival and free tickets for media

I want to do something a bit different today. I want to respond to two things about money in the arts previously raised here and in the wider arts community.

Thing One: What arts funding looks like

This thought came out of Dave Lamb’s amazing letter to Mitchell Browne, which was posted on this blog back in September. The letter received a massive amount of interest and the comment section was fascinating (and include one very impressive conspiracy theorist). I am not going to re-hash why we need arts funding or what a tiny contribution taxpayers are required to make because Dave covered this beautifully. What I want to address is something that really intrigued me: in the comments I saw a lack of understanding about what arts funding actually consists of. It was expressed best by an American woman called Marie:

  • “Funding for the arts creates a false divide between “artists” and “everybody else”. He (Mitchell Browne) points out — correctly — that many, many people with ordinary day jobs are profoundly creative and artistic, but are unable to pursue those passions/interests/talents because the bulk of their time and energy goes to keeping food on the table. Then, compounding that frustration, a portion of their wages are confiscated to help support others who are fortunate enough to make their living doing what they love…. For a select group to set themselves apart as “artists”, and suggest that everyone else should limit their participation to the role of audience members, is highly offensive to the millions of gifted musicians, sculptors, playwrights, dancers, etc. whose circumstances require them to spend 50+ hours a week laying cement or staffing the local daycare centers.”

Marie responded very graciously when Dave and I wrote to her and much of what she talks about is discussed in the original letter but what comments like this one say to me is that there is a profound misconception about arts funding.

Promo image for HOSE and TINKERTOWN, MKA. Photos by Sarah Walker

Promo image for HOSE and TINKERTOWN, MKA. Photos by Sarah Walker

Here in Australia there are a tiny handful of fellowships (very hard fought for and incredibly well deserved by those who get them) that will fund an individual in their work. This is what the Australia Council website has to say about them:

  • “These Fellowships are a major initiative to support the professional development of outstanding artists working across the sector and across Australia. Over five years between 2011/12 to 2015/16, the Australia Council will award 10 fellowships for emerging artists (each valued at $100,000) and 13 fellowships for early career artists (each valued at $60,000).  These Australia Council Creative Australia Fellowships will provide financial support for artists across all artforms to undertake a program of creative or professional development.” – Australia Council 

So we are talking only 23 people in the country across all artforms getting such support between 2011 and 2016. Their money is paid out over a two year period so emerging artists are on $30 000 a year and established artists are on $50 000. By comparison, the average Australian full-time wage is $74 724 a year before tax.

But this isn’t where the vast majority of funding goes. It goes either into companies or individual projects.

To use the Melbourne Theatre Company as an example of a funded arts organisation, last year 9.3% of their income came from government funding (both State and Federal). 71.5% came from ticket sales. The rest is philanthropic, hires and corporate. (This information can be found here and I also exchanged emails with someone from the company in person.)

So less than 10 percent of their income is from funding and more than 70 is derived from tickets. This means the company has to work incredibly hard to keep their subscriber base subscribing. They are constantly being held accountable for their programming decisions. They do not have a safety net of a substantial income separate from their sales. If people don’t buy, they don’t exist. This, of course can means that it is very difficult for them to take artistic risks. So a state theatre that had, say 20% funding, would be able to make twice as many risks and would be able to lower their ticket prices further. Both of which would be bloody good things.

Promo image for NIGHTMINDS, The Electric Company, photo by Sarah Walker

Promo image for NIGHTMINDS, The Electric Company, photo by Sarah Walker

It is also worth mentioning that having company funding means that you are unable to apply for project funding. Which isn’t such a big deal for companies like MTC but for little companies, such as MKA, which is staffed almost entirely by volunteers and now receives tri-annual funding, this is the difference between being able to pay the creatives vs. everyone fitting shows around their part-time catering jobs. This is the current situation for any company receiving Organisation Infrastructure Funding from VicArts. Most grants come with a clause that you cannot apply for them if you receive multi-year government funding. This means that small companies have to chose between getting funding which covers their insurance, flights and taxes or money they can put directly into their productions and artists. Still not looking much like the fantasy of artists living comfortably off the taxpayers.

As Dave said, to get individual project funding, artists must clearly establish why they need funding in order to make the project happen, demonstrate their capability to bring such a work to fruition, explain exactly how every dollar will be spent and, crucially, justify how this project will contribute to the artistic landscape and the Australian community.

This year I spent a few months in regional Queensland, working on a funded project through La Boite. My role was to teach more than 80 fifteen-year-olds how to write plays. With these students as my collaborators, I wrote four plays in eight weeks, which the students then performed for their community. Among the participants were students who struggled with basic literacy levels, students with behavioural issues including verbal aggression and students who were completely disengaged from school. We created an opportunity for them to express themselves creatively and tell their own stories. They guided the process and were so proud of themselves. When people rail against taxpayer funded arts, this is the kind of work they are attacking.

And being part of a project like this doesn’t mean that I’m not working other jobs. Like almost every other artist I know, I am living below the poverty line and am constantly in search for that illusive flexible workplace that will permit me to run off to regional Queensland for eight weeks of theatre creation when the opportunity arises. Last year I worked for one of the most established and respected theatre companies in Australia, Bell Shakespeare and then, when that show had ended, I cleaned a bakery for $15 an hour cash in hand. This is about what I was getting paid thirteen years ago as a fifteen-year-old working in Pizza Hut when I lived rent-free in my parents’ house. Now I am an established artist and arts commenter with a Masters degree and rent to pay.

The perception of a community of artists comfortably living year in, year out on taxpayer money is very far from the truth. It is individual projects. It is horrible length gaps between commissions – too short for other employers to hire you and too long to live off what little savings you managed to acquire on the last show. It is working during the day and performing at night. It is immensely hard and the dilemma of how to balance of paid work and passion does not go away once you make art your main career and focus.

And we love it. Of course we do. On those days when we write plays with 80 teenagers or have people tearfully clutch our hands at the end of a performance to tell us how we changed something they thought unchangeable in their hearts we feel incredibly fortunate. But on other days, it can be difficult to feel fortunate. Those moments of pay off – both financial and emotional – are few and far between. Playwright Joanna Murray-Smith told my class last year that being a writer is a constant battle between your ego and your self-doubt. You have to make sure that your ego just comes out on top or you’ll never pick up the pen. When this self-doubt is coupled with crippling poverty, the battle can feel pretty uneven. Not David and Goliath, for that is the story of a little guy who only needed to throw one stone; artists must build and throw that stone again and again in-between waitressing jobs.

Promo image for CHOIRGIRL, Attic Erratic, photo by Sarah Walker

Promo image for CHOIRGIRL, Attic Erratic, photo by Sarah Walker

Thing Two: The Tickets

I want to give one other example of project funding, which will then lead into the other Thing I’ve want to re-examine.

The City They Burned received $10 000 from the city council. In practical terms, this knocked $10 off of the price of every ticket. In the Pre-Fringe season, this meant $24 a ticket compared to $34. That’s a big difference. It was also the little bit of financial cushioning we needed in order to be able to run a ‘pay as you feel’ night to ensure that no one was missing out on the work due to financial hardship.

Audience members saw the show without paying and, at the end, were asked to contribute what they could afford or what they thought the show was worth. The average ticket price that night was $19. Of course, some people paid much less than this, which was fine, but the interesting part of the experiment was that the people who would otherwise have received industry or media comps that night, decided to pay because the option was presented to them.

This leads me to the next point I want to re-examine. This was raised at a forum I hosted at Theatre Works, the ridiculously named Why Can’t We All Get Along Like We Did In Middle School: should critics get free tickets and, if they receive a comp, does that mean they are entering into a deal which states that a comp equals a review?

Plenty of artists have opinions on this, which is absolutely fair enough. As I’ve already stated in this article, making art is costly and hard. But. But. But I’ve seen over 80 shows this year and paid for perhaps 20 of them. (My running tally in my phone says I’ve paid for 14 but I expect that I forgot to record a few.)

Now, before you presume this makes me an arts writer who isn’t holding up my end of the bargain, let me assure you that any time I was given a ticket as an arts writer, I wrote something. This week I also emailed the artistic director of a theatre to ask about getting a media comp and, when I found out that the show was struggling a bit, instantly retracted my request and paid. The vast majority of my comps come from being someone’s plus one – someone working on or writing about the show/festival – or they come from the fact that I work three festivals a year, which gets me into most shows at Adelaide Fringe, Melbourne Comedy and Melbourne Fringe for free provided, I’m not taking the place of a paying audience member. You know how it works. You have received such comps too.

I am not writing this to end this discussion. I hope we continue to think about and discuss how we value and pay for our art and what the intellectual transaction is. But I think we all forget about our own free tickets when it comes to talking about critics.

Promo image KIDS KILLING KIDS, MKA and Too Many Weapons, photo by Sarah Walker

Promo image KIDS KILLING KIDS, MKA and Too Many Weapons, photo by Sarah Walker

Now, to state the obvious, I could never afford to pay for 80 shows a year. I am acutely aware that I am very, very fortunate to be the recipient of these tickets. Having access to this amount and variety of art helps broaden my awareness of what is happening in my industry, my understanding of what art is capable of and illuminates in a very immediate and practical way what does/does not work on stage. It benefits my art and my arts writing. Every time we put ‘artists passes free’ on a festival show or send someone we respect a comp, we aren’t only boosting our audience numbers or promoting ourselves, we are making an investment in the intellectual complexity and artistic wealth of our fellow makers.

And we are too generous. I’m all for artists at the very least asking for a donation from their fellow makers at festival time. I also think it is acceptable to offer reviewers only the one ticket, rather than two. But I do wonder, when we give so many of our tickets away to each other, why do we bitch about giving them to the people who may spend hours writing about it? And even if they don’t write about this show, they may write about the next one with an enhanced awareness of our artistic journey.

The City They Burned generated over 10 000 words of critical response (not including my own conversation with Cameron Woodhead) and the majority of these came from unpaid reviewers. I’ll always champion these people. I’ll always support “so-and-so with their blog that barely anyone reads anyway” because most of our best arts writers started as that so-and-so. And because I believe we need them. We want our arts writers to benefit like we do from seeing as much art as possible. We want their responses to deepen and complexify (not a word but I’m into it). I’m willing to invest in their artistic understanding, just as my fellow artists invest in mine.

Sarah’s photography can be found here. 

On a personal note: I’m heading to South Australia for a few months to save money whilst writing a new play. If you are reading this from Adelaide, yell out! I’d love to build more of a network in my home town and I am also planning on running a series of forums on criticism, gender and new writing there before Fringe takes over the city. 

Standard
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

 

Standard
conversation, criticism, interview, Theatre

in conversation: louis nowra

Louis Nowra is an iconic Australian playwright, librettist, screenwriter, novelist, non-fiction writer and a regular contributor to The Monthly and the Australian Literary Review. His best-known plays include Cosi, Radiance,The Golden Age and Summer of the Aliens. His novel, Ice, was short-listed for the Miles Franklin Award in 2009 and his most recent book, Kings Cross: A Biography, was published in 2013.

We spoke in Adelaide during Writers’ Week. I was so surprised that he agreed to an interview that I forgot to write down the name of the hotel he was staying in and had to do some detective googling to figure it out. Very professional. 

Louis Nowra: Well, I don’t read reviews. I did a play called The Golden Age and it was universally reviled by critics. It went on a lot, but the reviews were so bad that a guy did an MA thesis on it. He wanted me to read it and I said “I can’t read it. I’ve read enough bad reviews.”

After The Golden Age, I stopped writing plays for three years because I assumed that they were right, that I was wrong. I only got back to writing plays because Neil Armfield wanted me to adapt the Xavier Herbert novel, Capricornia. I collected all the newspapers and after the show had opened, I read all the reviews and what I realised was that I was right and they were wrong: it was universally admired but I knew what the flaws were. The critics couldn’t tell the difference between the production and the play. The production was brilliant but I knew there were lots of things wrong with the play.

If you are a playwright, you’re not going to learn much from your reviews. Reviewers are probably better on the idea of what the production is. Most have a better idea of directors than they do of writers.

Image

Louis and Coco in Kings Cross. Photo: Edwina Pickle Source: SMH

It is a very astringent form, plays. It’s a blueprint. Theatre is a communal activity. It cannot exist unless actors are acting it out in front of an audience. That always attracts me: how astringent you have to be in your writing, knowing that it’s going to be fleshed out by the actors. That’s why novelists can’t write plays. From Flaubert onwards they’ve attempted it. They think it is easy. They think it is dialogue. It isn’t: it’s what you leave out that’s crucial in plays. Novelists do not understand that at all.

People occasionally send me plays – not very much anymore – and I realise that they don’t see theatre. The first thing you notice in a bad play is that the dialogue is saggy. It has no life. The thing about theatre dialogue is that it has to be tough. Every line has to mean something or contain a rhythm to the whole scene that will keep you interested. Naturalistic dialogue is not rhythmic. It’s not tough enough. To me the great playwrights like Shakespeare, Congreve, or Orton, and even Tennessee Williams, call attention to the language. Naturalism is basically saying ”pay no attention to the language; pay attention to the characters.” I think language really crucial in plays.

I can’t understand naturalism. I don’t know what’s at stake. I can’t watch House Husbands or Offspring or Packed to the Rafters. Life and death I can understand, but the very idea that somebody’s pregnant and she’s going to give birth is not interesting to me unless it is placed in a much larger context. Naturalism is basically saying that’s the most important thing that’s happening: that she’s giving birth when it is the circumstances that are really crucial. Naturalism is really limited on that level. I just can’t figure out what’s so interesting about these boring lives.

And you have to understand that naturalism is the Australian idiom. Australians love being portrayed on stage because it is confirmation of their lives. That’s naturalism: naturalism confirms their way of life where Shakespeare’s plays say “things are much larger: I’m going to shock you into seeing the world a different way.” Naturalism is always confirming the way you see the world. I go to plays or read literature in order to be told “there is another way of looking at the world.” At the moment, theatre isn’t doing that. It seems to be treading water because the talented people go “it’s a ghetto and I want to be where the action is: film, television.”

Image

‘Summer of the Aliens’, 1993 Sydney Theatre Company

And the great disease in theatre has been people going off to become arts administrators. You go into Sydney Theatre Company and there are so many more office workers than there are actors on stage. That’s been a huge turn around. When I was here in the early 80s, we had a brilliant administrator – Mary Valentine – hardly any office staff and the whole thing was to put all the money on stage. Now the economics has changed immensely.

Back then, we had a company of twelve people. Actors like Geoffrey Rush and John Wood. That cost a lot of money but you could always have twelve people on stage. If you have twelve people on stage, it is an epic canvas. It is a greater slice of society. Once the money goes to the arts administrators and the office workers, less and less actors can go onstage: you can’t afford them, the world shrinks. Nowadays, most arts administrators would love it if Australians wrote monologues: it is cheap.

I was allowed to fail time and time again.  I was allowed to get no audience. There is one young playwright who wrote a play a couple of years ago that I felt was really good. It didn’t get good houses and now he can’t get any work on. It’s because he has that stigma of failure. That was never there before. There is much greater pressure on the playwrights to have a hit rather than building up a career. It is a very different world. I’d hate to be a young playwright starting out now.

Image

Barry Otto, Toni Collette and Paul Chubb in the 1996 film adaptation of ‘Cosi’

There is that constant thing of trying to get audiences because, quite simply, it has become so damn expensive. Unions have rightly demanded that actors are paid much better. Cleaners are paid much better. But what you’ve got is this terrible thing of everyone looking over their shoulder saying “Will this make money? Will this break even?” A sense of adventure is gone. Financially you can’t be adventurous unless you’re bravely stupid and happy to go out with a bang.

You need young people to go to theatre. That means that there is something vital happening that they want to be a part of. You don’t get that any more. You’ve got to understand what Jim Sharman did at Lighthouse in the early 80s: that first year we had older subscribers and he said ”I don’t want them.” So we got rid of them. They were very easy to get rid of: we put on the shows that they hated. The next year we got the younger audience. Even this week I’ve had people come up to me and say “I remember when I was young and I saw that second year of Lighthouse and it was brilliant.” That was Jim saying “You can get rid of the older subscribers and survive but it requires an immense amount of bravery.”

Image

b current’s 2010 production of ‘Radiance’

Standard