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Australian Theatre Forum 2013 Wrap Up

Jun 12, 2013

Two years ago Australia’s theatre-makers concluded their second national theatre forum in Brisbane with a Top Ten Priorities for Action. Lots of tangible things here, like building more cultural and gender diversity onstage and off, growing touring and taking up digital and NBN opportunities.

By contrast, the recent 2013 forum  in Canberra opened with two futurist/scientists speculating on what the world and its concerns would be like for theatre-makers in thirty years’ time. For curator Alicia Talbot and the Theatre Network Victoria , the forum over the next three days was not to be confined by a fixed agenda of standard industry concerns. She welcomed a ‘wilful and measured naivety. There are always critical issues we are compelled to talk about – but what else can happen if we knowingly put these to one side?’

The first challenge, with this talk instead of the future, was how to get audiences to embrace the world’s growing concerns without drowning in hopeless talk of apocalypse. Here an early theme of the forum emerged – the need for citizens to take responsibility for how we will live, and for artists to take a lead in that advocacy and (more optimistic) social debate.

For David Pledger, artistic director of the intermedia group Not Yet It’s Difficult  and one of the forum’s few fearless voices, the problem is that society and the arts industry itself has robbed the individual artist of economic and cultural power. Speaking to his new Currency House Platform Paper , Re-Valuing the Artist in the New World Order, Pledger canvassed how some countries have created a living wage for its artists. He is critical of major arts companies – and the Australia Council – which invest in infrastructure, marketing and other ‘managerialist’ concerns, rather than the work of artists. Just as his own practice crosses art-forms and involves non-artists, Pledger called for artists to educate themselves widely about current affairs, to step up as arts advocates and work to create truly participatory arts experiences.

Participation was a much discussed benchmark at the forum, with the majority of the 360 theatre-makers attending working in community and cultural development. Pauline Peel and Lockie McDonald were there gathering research for a new Council program to grow cultural leadership in communities. What, they asked, are the skills needed by people using theatre to build stronger communities? Again, the call was for artists, especially in regional areas, who can advocate their art and are equipped to understand and communicate the concerns of their host community.

Here and throughout the forum was the thought-limiting assumption by many that all theatre-makers – and worse, their audiences and communities – sign up with equal zeal to all the issues of a leftist agenda. Race, sexuality, the environment and refugees are seemingly all top stories for this sector.

American theatre maker and radio provocateur Pavol LIska suggested that theatre people, with their elevated human contact, were perhaps just too nice.

With so much niceness, he asked, what social change has really been provoked by theatre? Indeed, are theatre-makers now the best conduit to reflect and empower community practice? LIska noted that in his native Czechoslavakia a velvet revolution had been led by theatre-makers. Now he says the marginalisation of artists and the struggle for audiences is an existential crisis for artists around the world.

Alicia Talbot’s choice of speakers and her seemingly random program did create some good lateral debate. The Vietnamese-born founder of the Miss Chu tuckshops , Nahji Chu, may not know her theatre but she does know how to get an audience – and blend her restaurant businesses with artful branding and a refugee activism. Chu was an entrepreneurial inspiration and, as she said, ‘if they don’t go to the theatre, put it in a cookbook.’ She’s also been working on a new range of T-shirts: Dumplings not Detention.

Ria Papermoon, on a DFAT  cultural exchange from Jogjakarta, also brought an Indonesian perspective to the making of participatory and socially charged theatre. Her Papermoon Puppetry Theatre seeks audience participation through site specific performances, including with a recent confronting work about the 1965 genocide.

The Australia Council’s new CEO Tony Grybowski addressed the forum about the additional $60 million over four years to be distributed according to the National Cultural Policy to artists in all artform areas – excluding the major companies. He noted the work still to be done on increasing sustainable support for long-term careers in the sector across the full life cycle of an artist and the resolve of Council to now step up its arts advocacy.

This 2013 forum included the highest attendance of those from the major companies. A large panel of that leadership skipped through many issues.  Only QTC artistic director Wesley Enoch articulated the place his company fills in the wider ecology of his state’s theatre-making, supplementing, sometimes platforming, other endeavours, but never replacing them. He called for a clearer definition across the now busy offerings from state companies, festivals and arts centres.

A forum of festival directors also noted this recent increase in productions and programs now mounted by the large arts centres. As Robyn Archer noted, in the name of collaboration not competition, a rebalancing in needed between the timing and content of the centres and the role now of festivals.

From Darwin to Tasmania, the investment in local work varies greatly depending on the size of each festival but, as Archer remembers; Australian content has been a part of all of them since the 1970’s.

The vexed issue of how to give Australian playwrights and their works greater access to the resources of the major companies was also discussed in the major panel, but without resolution. Recent media stories on the fashion of updating or Australianising ancient or overseas classics, instead of recruiting new Australian writing, adds new heat to the subject.

As for Indigenous theatre, David Milroy, first director of Yirra Yaakin Aboriginal Theatre in WA, created the most heated discussion with his assertion that non-Indigenous theatre-makers should take more care on the creation and ownership of Aboriginal stories and characters. This artistic political debate has been going since the 1980s but the lessons aren’t learnt, even with this ‘nice’ audience.

As Milroy says, if Aboriginal people were 97.5% of the population would we be telling the others’ stories?  Elsewhere, veteran theatre presenter Wendy Blacklock shared her thirty years of experience touring Aboriginal theatre – without it seems stepping on the landmines. Rachael Maza returned at the end of the forum and graciously sought endorsement for a proposal that the Council support the urgent need for a best practice model for Indigenous theatre-making. It was passed, as the only formal resolve of this very wide ranging 2013 forum.

Martin is a former Director of Marketing and Communication at the Australia Council.