Tag Archives: Theatre

New Writing, New Reading

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Over the last six months a bunch of us have been developing new work as part of a development project kick-started by MTC’s Associate Director Aidan Fennessy.

We’re now at the stage where we are going to be showing our work in a series of public readings at the Lawler Studio.

The pieces are eclectic, original, and unlike anything you will have seen on Melbourne stages this year.  They range from evocative to Pinteresque, magical realist to politically incisive, comedic and absurd to darkly horrific.  There should be, without doubt, something in there for the whole family.

The three readings (all @ 7pm) are:

  • Wed 11 November is Elise Hearst & Sam Strong’s The Sea Project
  • Thu 12 November is Amelia Roper & Naomi Edwards’ Hong Kong Dinosaur
  • Fri 13 November is Declan Greene & myself with Pretty Baby.

Come along, have a glass of wine with us, and tell us what you think of the work.  We’d really love to hear it.

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The Word

words

I was at a fantastic play reading last night: Nicki Bloom’s Tender at the Lawler Studio.

Apparently the play has already done the rounds in Sydney and elsewhere.  But we hadn’t seen it in Melbourne yet.  And, seriously, what a talent.  So young too: she wrote Tender at the tender age of 22, I believe.

Anyway, I was chatting with a mate afterwards about theatre and the like, and it got me thinking.

The essential gist of the conversation went like this:

He said he thinks design is the most important factor in theatre today.  I disagreed and said it is (and always has been) the word. Which, to me, seems to sum up a whole raft of debates that have been going on in theatre (post-theatre, devised theatre etc) for quite some time.

Whether we liked it or not, we both agreed that our present culture is more image than text literate.  For better or worse, there is no going back.  Logos has had its day.

However – and this is where it gets tricky – just because we’re better trained to read images now than text, does that mean that image can (or should) replace the word?

Can image ever be the driving force (or structuring principle) in the theatre?   I think not.  I think – and I am aware this is going to make me sound incredibly conservative and more like a 90 than a 27 year old – that theatre, by definition, is about drama. And drama, in turn, is based on the word.

I can already hear people shouting at their computer screens as they read this.  Surely, they are yelling, theatre has always been a combination of word and image?

Which is true, theatre does include image, movement, and so on.  But a case can be made that these things are non-essential.  By which I mean, theatre can exist without such them.  But theatre cannot exist without drama.  A silent play, for example, must still be dramatic.  (I’m thinking of Beckett’s Act Without Words I & II).  Because no matter how cut-up, fragmented, devised, run backwards, undermined, rough, holy, poor, decaffeinated or otherwise, the audience will still interpret and form the raw material into a narrative pattern, in other words, into a drama.

That’s what I mean by drama; it’s not spoken word, or writing on a page, but the very thing that holds it all together.  It’s a structuring principle that we bring into the theatre with us.  No matter how clever the artist, he or she cannot disarm the audience of this faculty.

Now, I’m not saying we should all immediately stop what we are doing and start making neat, clean, old fashioned drama.  On the contrary, a lot of the best of what I see is pushing at the boundaries of drama, is aware and conscious of these constraints, works within them, subverts them, twists them, turns them upside down, empties them out and puts them back again.  But I do see a lot of shows that seemingly fail to notice the very tradition they are working within, the structure they are standing on, and so are often incredibly yawn-worthy; not because they lack edginess or a great design, or slickness, or prettiness, but because they haven’t yet woken up, are still unconscious.  In other words, it’s not yet theatre.

For me, theatre is closer to poetry than anything else.  It can take on, or borrow from, other forms. But it remains, in essence, an activity that a people do with their ears and mouths.

Design will never replace the word.  A great many people may try (and currently are) but the word will remain central.  Because, to remove the word would mean, by definition, that theatre is no longer theatre.

I welcome interlocutors.

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Put the Creators at the Top

Wonderful to read this today over at Marcus Westbury‘s blog:

I wonder whether Australia’s European cultural history has somehow left us wanting to keep the artefacts and trappings of European culture while skipping the forces that led to it.

We should flip the traditional hierarchies over. Rather than place our culture centres at the top, it makes far more sense to think of them as at the bottom. It is time we placed far more emphasis on creation and development than reproduction, middle management and bureaucracy by thinking about those street-level tasks and challenges.

Time to recognise that culture — and, by extension, art — is not large and grand but small, dynamic, co-operative and competitive creation and to nurture it right at that point. Time to flip the system over and put the bureaucrats and administrators on the bottom and put the creators back at the top.

Amen to that, brother, and seven hail mary’s to boot.

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Theatre Wars Reach the UK

It’s not everyday an Australian debate causes a stir overseas.

But our antipodean argument over The Birthday Party has done just that.  The Guardian, a newspaper of some repute, has a feature up on its Theatre Blog about the dispute.

Says the Guardian’s blogger, Chris Wilkinson:

Perhaps the core problem is that director and critics see the role of the production to be fundamentally different.  Meyrick thinks it succeeds because it is aiming to spark a much wider debate about Australian culture; the critics think it fails because, as Croggon puts it, “the possibility of bringing a tough and fresh angle on to Pinter’s work” is missed.

If I had to choose between praising theatre for examining society or praising it for re-examining the theatre, I would certainly opt for the former.

Amen to that, brother,  I couldn’t agree more.

McCann crosses to the table, left, sits, picks up the paper and begins to tear it into strips.

McCann crosses to the table, left, sits, picks up the paper and begins to tear it into strips. But is it the Age, the Australian or the Guardian?

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The Theatre Wars

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First there was the History Wars.  Now we have the Theatre Wars.

The battle lines are drawn, the forces marshaled, the trenches dug, the artillery called in.  And it’s about time, if you ask me.  We need to confront these issues head on.  We need to breach once and for all our great Australian silence.

I know, I know, all of this must sound incredibly hyperbolic for a discussion about theatre. After all, it’s not sheep-stations, right? Or is it?

If our stages are, as Shakespeare tells us, all the world, then surely whatever happens onstage must be a reflection of what happens offstage.  And so, because I know there’s a hidden sting in all this, I’m being quite deliberate in choosing military metaphors.  It’s important, I think; important to emphasise the fact that there is a war of a kind being fought in this country.

And in fighting this war, history and theatre are not as far from each other as we often presume.  If history is what hurts, then perhaps theatre is a looking-glass through which we magnify history: a specific sort of history, however, not history as fact but as representation.  In other words, perhaps theatre is a way of finding out what hurts?

The catalyst for all this was of course Julian Meyrick’s production of The Birthday Party.

The debate around this production has been simmering for some time (as can be seen from the deluge of commentary online) but now it has flared right up.  In fact, it’s become a bonfire.  The difficult thing is trying to work out who’s tied to the stake: Meryrick, the critics, or the whole darned lot of them?

Who wins and who loses out of this?  What is at stake?  And why are so many normally quiet and thoughtful people behaving so viciously towards one another?  Clearly something has happened, some raw nerve has been exposed, and that alone bears close examination.

Before I go any further with this, I think it’s worth saying that any production that causes this much of a stir has to have done something right. Not that the ultimate goal of theatre must be to  cause disagreement.  But there’s a good argument to be made that art, by definition, should get people talking, arguing and fighting for something.

Let me try and briefly summarise the shots fired thus far.

It all started with Cameron Woodhead’s review for The Age (not online) in which he singled out Isaac Drandic and gave him a particularly vicious drubbing (leaden and inert…an actor reciting lines in the earliest phases of rehearsal).  This was followed by Alison Croggon’s review for The Australian and a series of longer reflections on Theatre Notes.

In her review Alison argued, among other things, that:

What is missing…is the uneasy sense of impending terror that underlies the laughter.  The human ugliness and savagely bent eroticism that make the play so disturbing are rendered in soft focus; comic, rather than frightening.

On Theatre Notes she expanded on her comments, discussing more fully the significance Stanley’s character and Drandic’s performance:

On the night I saw it, Drandic was a blank: he responded catatonically, with none of the repressed violence so characteristic of Shaw’s performance in the film. This gives the performance nowhere to go, since in the final scene he really is catatonic; because he has been emotionally blank from the beginning, his inability to speak is much less devastating. And it neutralises many of the exchanges in the play, as Stanley is always a passive victim.

Then came the flare from the other side of no-man’s-land.  The director, supposed to sit quietly in the trenches while the critics’ mortar flies overhead, suddenly fired back.  Julian Meyrick”s response was posted on the official MTC website:

I’m sure both critics said what they felt…but in shaping their responses, everything about The Birthday Party that is different, new, challenging and important has been swept aside.

You might get the impression from the reviews that cross-racial casting…went on all the time, instead of the reality, that it almost never happens.  An indigenous cast nailing The Birthday Party is an indication that a new era in casting has arrived.  It’s a shift from why (why cast Aboriginal actors) to why not (why not cast Aboriginal actors).

And the point is a good one.  The Birthday Party, with less pomp and ceremony than one might expect, has ushered in a new era of casting practices (at least, we hope so).

In this day and age, every director worth their salt should be asking themselves, as Lee Lewis says, what the political significance is of having an all white cast, and what that says about our national identity and how it is projected onstage.  This applies not just to Aboriginal actors, but actors of all different racial backgrounds.

But this is simply not the sort of thing that critics think about when they review a show.  And fair enough, that would be to review a show by what it achieves offstage and not what it achieves (taking casting as a given) onstage.

A critic cannot help but compare what they see on the night with what they envisage in their mind’s eye, in a Platonic sense.  They make an aesthetic judgment and inform us whether desire eclipsed reality or vice-versa.  And this is perfectly reasonable; after all, it’s what critics do.

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So how do we steer a course between these two perspectives, both of which are valid and deserve our sympathy?

Julian’s rejoinder may be at times plaintive and overwrought, but it’s sincere, and comes from what I believe is the right place.  Similarly, Alison’s response on Theatre Notes,  makes an irrefutable argument for the necessity of clear headed criticism.

Since the furore broke there has been such an outpouring of words (mainly on Theatre Notes) that I think it’s fair to say that this is no longer an isolated spat but a much larger and more symbolic tussle for supremacy between cultural creators and cultural interpreters.

Unfortunately, a great many of the hand grenades lobbed have been from behind the facade of anonymity, which I find quite difficult to swallow.

There has also been a flurry of commentary in the mainstream press.  Critics Raymond Gill and Peter Craven have both waded into the debate.  Raymond Gill’s article in The Age professed to take no sides but then politely pointed out that:

The unwritten law is that artists should never respond to negative criticism because it only bolsters the critic’s power and ego.

Peter Craven’s longer response, also published in The Age, was more unambiguous about things:

Julian Meyrick should be grateful to critics…who pay him the courtesy of telling him the ways in which a production of his may fail.

Now, I don’t mean to point out the obvious, but critics don’t visit the theatre out of courtesy.  They do it because they get paid to do so.  Whereas a director, like Meyrick, is paid to create the theatre they see.  So, as a simple logic would have it, it is they who should be grateful, for it is his job that prima facie provides them with theirs.

The other lesson we learn from Craven is that, in this debate, we are dealing with a theatre production for heaven’s sake and not with interventions and land rights.

Which takes me back to the start of this mini-essay and my basic premise that history and theatre (or politics & theatre) are not so far apart as we think.  And, if we are willing to concede that, then we must be willing to concede that perhaps critics should be applauding diverse ethnic casting (given that casting is the main vehicle through which we can change conservative theatre pratices).

Perhaps, if I can add my two cents, at the heart of this dispute is not so much a disagreement over whether a particular production (acting, directing, casting etc) is any good, but rather a confusion as to where we think Australian theatre should be headed.

Julian Meyrick thinks one thing, and acts on it, putting his casting where his mouth is.  Alison Croggon and Cameron Woodhead think another, and tell us whenever a production doesn’t match up with what that.

All three are trying to have an impact on the unfolding of our cultural history.  And all three, no doubt, are sadenned by the fact that blood has been spilt over the performance of a wonderful play by Harold Pinter.  Personally, it does saddens me to hear a devoted and talented director at the top of his game publicly ponder whether it’s even worth continuing.

But maybe this is exactly what we need?  A little blood spilt.  And maybe, just maybe, it’s exactly what surly old Harold would have wanted?

This has turned into a huge rant, and if you’ve made it this far, thanks for sticking with me.

There can be no doubt that there have been too few non-white faces on our mainstream stages.  No director in Australia would disagree with that.  And in this, as always, the argument has not been so much about what we want to see, but how to make it happen.

Unfortunately, we haven’t proven up to the task, and have fallen far behind other parts of the world.  And so, we can no longer nod our heads with Shakespeare and say that all the worlds a stage. Because, the truth is, our stages reflect only a small part of it.

Whatever we think The Birthday Party good, bad or otherwise, we cannot deny that it is an important production.  I myself argued that it was well worth seeing.  And I know plenty of people who saw it and loved it.  And plenty more who blatantly disliked it.  I don’t have a problem with any of that; as I said, I think it’s a mark of artistic integrity if a production is divisive.

I guess where I find this whole debate a little confused is that, what is worthy about the production (in terms of process) has not been the major focus, whereas its critical reception and flaws have been.  And this has pulled focus from what could have been more of a celebration.

I only hope that this debate helps us to better understand each other and that, when the last shot is fired, we can reach a truce that involves a true reassessment of what, why, and how we do what we do in Australian theatre.

Let’s not make the Theatre Wars a lasting part of our culture like the History Wars.  Let’s make them a step in the right direction.

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Melbourne Dramatists’ SMACKDOWN

The Melbourne Dramatists’ are BACK!

That’s right.

With another one of their famous SMACKDOWNS (Bare-Knuckle Playwright Wrestling).

Come and check it out:

smackdown 3

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HOT PRESS! EXTRA SEATS FOR FINAL SHOWS!

White Whale has cunningly installed an extra  20 seats for the final three sold-out shows of Melburnalia No. 2.

That’s 60 seats that have now flooded the seat-deprived theatre-crazed market.

Get in quick as they will be snapped up fast!

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August: Osage County

A warning: it’s a trap.

I am going to write a big rant about this, so press “do not want” now if  you wish to eject.

AUGUST  Hero

I really enjoyed this play.  The writing was excellent: sharp, witty dialogue; cleverly constructed narrative; and excellent use of classic three-act structure.  The ensemble were fantastic: especially Robyn Nevin’s titanic performance as the bitter, maddened old matriarch.   The design was spectacular: it was as though the family’s sprawling mansion had been ripped open with a can-opener and every inch, every nook and cranny and secret hiding place exposed to the audience’s gaze.  From up in the circle the viewer has such panoptic vision that it sometimes feels like you are a giant peering giddily into a doll’s house.

And, with all this technical mastery and imagistic accomplishment, the production left me feeling strangely cold.

I’ve been trying to work this out.  I liked the play on first impression.  There was so much that impressed me.  But then when I went away and reflected on it I liked it less and less… what follows is an attempt to try and work out why at the heart of it this production felt hollow.

Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.  These towering dramatists have cast long shadows over American playwriting.  August: Osage County is particularly indebted: as a sprawling family drama set in the Confederate South of the USA (in Oklahoma(!) no less…) it traverses the exact terrain that has been so thoroughly explored by Miller and Williams.  It’s the sort of terrain that instantly brings to mind the Biblical prose of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and the dust-caked strains of Woodie Guthries’ The Ghost of Old Tom Joad.

From the opening monologue I could feel the gravitational pull of classics like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and All My Sons sucking the writing inwards like two dramaturgical black holes.  As Arthur Miller famously said “the structure of a play is always the story of how the birds came home to roost.” And this is exactly what happens in August: Osage County.  After the disappearance of the old patriarch (and the subsequent discovery of his death) the rest of the family spirals out of control and a whole walk-in cupboard full of skeletons are exposed.  You name it: incest; paedophilia; adultery; racism; madness; addiction…there’s a whole panorama of dramatic horrors that are brought to light over three and a half hours.

And to me this was the first thing that started to really grate.  A good piece should have one thing at its heart; one dirty dark secret driving it.  I am thinking of All My Sons for example.  But August: Osage County has no single theme at its centre.  Instead it has a roll-call of them, one after the other, making the tragic content of the piece deeply suspicious.  The overall effect, at least for me, was  alienation.  I found the characters removed from me, blocked by an overload of irony.  I felt at times like the piece was wavering on the edge of sitcom (a disfigured Golden Girls say).  So, in this regard, it’s a criticism of the writing.  It’s postmodernism swallowing it’s tail again and again and again and again.  It’s the triumph of style over substance.  As I toddled around on a quiet Sunday morning I kept thinking to myself, “What was that play actually about?”  And the only answer I could come up with was, “Nothing”.

There were other things that started to swim up into my vision that irked me.  Foremost among these (and this is something I never tire of banging the drum about) was the fact that the piece was so thoroughly American. I couldn’t relate to it culturally.  It wasn’t my world, my values, the sorts of people I encounter.  Now, that’s not a good reason to not like a piece of theatre, but if you happen to see play after play on the mainstage that has been imported from America or the UK then it does start to take a collective toll.

I just don’t understand why Australian audiences should care about another set of characters that speak in pinched American accents.  It’s a incredibly frustrating thing to know that Melbourne is bubbling over with talented writers and yet none of them (or a pathetic fraction of them) are being supported or produced by mainstage companies.  This is a whole other rant though – for which I will direct you to my brothers and sisters at Melbourne Dramatists.

And the fact that the play was three and half hours long.  I don’t mind long plays or long movies.  Some of my favourites are three hour sagas.  But with every extra minute that passes it raises the bar for how riveting the story or commanding the writing has to be.  I mean, seriously, how many people have actually made it through Ulysses? In the case of August: Osage County I didn’t find that the dramatic propulsion was sustained after the closure of Act 2.

My other major quibble would have to be the token role played by the Native American girl.  At the apex of the house, literally, she sits and does nothing.  She has zero agency.  She is a convenient piece of bourgeoisie imagining for a well-off theatre going audience.  I detest that sort of thing.

August: Osage County is a remarkable piece of theatre in terms of what it tries to achieve.  But, in trying to do so many things at once, it becomes thin and exposes itself.  It’s Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams with the heart ripped out.

It’s exactly what the MTC says it will be: a rewrite of the grand American family drama “for our cynical and confused age.”

Our cynical and confused age.  I wish it were another.

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Melburnalia No.2

Melburnalia #2 Cast

The talented ensemble who will perform 25 roles over the 5 plays: (from left) Margot Fenley, Grant Foulkes, Shane Lee, Brian Andy, Shireen Morris and Fanny Hanusin.

Melburnalia No. 2, the much anticipated companion piece to Melburnalia (2007), opens for a three-week season on 22 May at fortyfivedownstairs. The show, directed by David Mence (Macbeth Re-Arisen, Melburnalia, AD on MTC’s Blackbird and BSC’s Othello), is comprised of five 20-minute pieces specially commissioned and dramaturged by the company with the interlinking theme of ‘tramways’. The result is a fascinating journey that will take audiences through the decades, over the fences, under the awnings and into the collective psyche of our city. 

Come on board (remember to validate!) for a rattling, screeching, ding-ding-dinging ride through history to the mythical suburb of ‘Birrarung’ (river of mists) at the heart of the town, where ancient warriors and lost icons dance in the dusty ballroom of Flinders Street Station. Stay on through Maribyrnong, where exiles wait anxiously on both sides of high walls. Zip through Caulfield, where the pressures of parenthood create  New Year’s Eve strife for some childish Gen Xers. Charge up to Preston where muddy piggeries abounded before the smug gentry moved in, then disembark at Mentone, home to a superb symphony of suburban sounds.  

Written by: columnist Danny Katz (beloved writer for The Age, author of Spit the Dummy, Dork Geek Jew); playwright Kit Lazaroo (Wal Cherry Award winner for Asylum, Letters from Animals); Koori writer/director Andrea James (Yanagai Yanagai); author Hoa Pham (Vixen, 49 Ghosts, Silence) and writer/director Aidan Fennessey (Chilling and Killing My Annabel Lee, Big Noise). 

Produced by Kelly Farrow, dramaturged by Melanie Beddie. 

Showing at:
fortyfivedownstairs      
45 Flinders Lane              

Bookings: 9662 9966 or www.fortyfivedownstairs.com 
$26 (full) $20 (concession) $15 (preview 20-21 May) 

Dates:
8pm: 20-23, 27-30 May, 3-6 June
5.30pm: 24, 31 May, 7 June    

For further information, contact kelly [@ no spam ] whitewhaletheatre [ . no spam ] com or drop us a comment or a Tweet (we’re catching up with the times).

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