Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Holding the Man: The Three Champions of Australia's Greatest Love Story

Last week, before a preview screening in Brisbane of the film version of Holding the Man, I joined writer Tommy Murphy for a public talk about how the story came to be, first as memoir, then as theatre, and now as film.

It was lovely to be with Tommy, such a crucial figure in how this story has reached a wider audience, and to reflect on what is now a 20-year history adorning the 15-year relationship between Timothy Conigrave and the man he called his husband, John Caleo.

Tim was an actor and playwright, but his final form was memoir. Following John’s death on Australia Day 1992, Tim was determined to write a book about his lover. In an interview with James Waites for a National Library oral history project on HIV/AIDS in Australia, Tim says
‘The only thing I have to live for is these two things that I am writing, which I’d like to finish both of. One’s a play that involves stuff about AIDS but it’s not really about AIDS, and the other one is the book that I’d like to write about my lover and I, which I’ve started.’ 
The interview itself is quite extraordinary. Over almost three hours, recorded at his home in Sydney on 13 January 1993, Tim tells stories of his life, his time with John, and his current health. Many of these stories are clearly well rehearsed, probably told at hearty dinner parties, and many are in a form similar to how they’d eventually arrive in the book.

Two weeks before this interview, Tim met the first of several people who have been crucial to how this story came into the world, and to how it has endured. At a New Year’s Eve party in Melbourne’s St Kilda in 1992, Tim met Sophie Cunningham.   

Sophie Cunningham
Tim told Sophie one, or a few, of those long-rehearsed stories. Then, in a fateful moment, he whispered to her that he wanted to write a book.

‘You’re not interested in this’, said Tim with uncharacteristic, but perhaps strategically placed doubt. ‘Tim, I’m a publisher,’ replied Sophie, fascinated. Now a highly regarded novelist, Sophie was then working at McPhee Gribble/Penguin.

Sophie commissioned the book.

In June 1993, Tim faxed her two short stories from the ACON office. One, “The First Boy I Loved”, had already been published in Outrage, a Melbourne-based gay magazine. Then Tim would send new chapters to Sophie. ‘It was in rough shape, but I knew I was onto something special,’ Sophie told Benjamin Law years later.  ‘There was something about the voice, clarity, humour and directness of it. It’s the book I’m most proud of having published.’

In September the following year, Tim delivered the completed draft to Sophie over lunch, then died a few weeks later. ‘It’s like he held himself together through sheer force of will,’ Sophie told Ben. True to his character, the last thing Tim ever said to Sophie was that she looked good blonde, and should keep her hair that way.

There was a person helping Tim as he prepared the book for his publisher – the second crucial figure in this story – Nick Enright

Nick Enright
Nick was Tim’s acting teacher at NIDA. Nick was not only one of our finest teachers, but also a talented writer, principally of plays. He also had a superior talent for supporting talent in others. Nick, only nine years older than Tim and also gay, saw in Tim someone capable of making a difference. How shrewd Nick was.  

Nick helped Tim shape the book. Early on, Tim wanted to write the story as fiction - the story of two boys who fell in love. But all those around him, including Nick, urged him to write the story as memoir. 

I saw some of Nick's shaping first hand. In early 1994, I was living in Nick’s house in Sydney. At that time, Nick often visited Tim in hospital, or at other places, working on drafts of chapters. Nick knew that Tim’s health was failing, and that working on the book was probably keeping Tim alive.

Typed copies of draft chapters sat on top of Nick's piano. I would read these loose A4 pages, struck and intrigued by the things that would later come to mean so much to me and others. I would also be amused at Nick's furious corrections of Tim's punctuation. IT'S = IT IS!, the thick pencil would often scream. It seemed natural that Nick would become Tim’s literary executor.

These notated drafts, along with the galley proofs Nick corrected for McPhee Gribble/Penguin, now sit with the rest of Nick’s papers in the Australian Defence Force Academy Library in Canberra.

Tim and Nick were playwrights, men of the theatre, and they gave the memoir a scenic shape and a lean, dramatic thrust with crisp, honest dialogue. They could see the value of the Romeo and Juliet motif, and enjoyed sequences set in theatres and drama school. It is perhaps a natural part of this story that the third crucial figure in its history is also a playwright Tommy Murphy 

Tommy Murphy
In 2005, when I was Artistic Director of Griffin Theatre Company, the very theatre where Tim had been so involved, I asked Tommy to adapt the book for the stage. Tommy and I had enjoyed many theatrical endeavours together, and I was keen to challenge him. To my surprise, he had not read the book. But on reading it, in April of that year, he accepted the mission and began working out how to turn memoir into drama.  

I've written elsewhere about how we shaped this story onto the stage, and Tommy has also written about he has lived with the possibilities of Holding the Man for stage and screen. That is now a remarkable ten year history. 

Tommy has held this story in his hands with love.  

Early on, he was thoroughly systematic in breaking the book down into little story bits. That excel spreadsheet is vast and full of speculation. He contacted pretty much anyone he could find who appeared in the book, and sometimes spoke at length with them, sometimes finding himself counsellor or confessor. Others contacted him, and he was always ready for conversation. He consulted with those who were, in the book’s time, on the frontline of the HIV/AIDS battles.

Later, he would grow close to the Conigrave family, ensuring that they felt comfortable with how he was transforming their son’s story. Over many years, they gave him their trust, and their love.

Through ten years, through many iterations of the play and as the film found definition and then full life, Tommy has been the caretaker of this story. I can’t imagine anyone else possessing better qualities for the task. Tommy has the generational distance  probably a telling factor  but also the right mix of humour, sensitivity and hunger for living. Tommy rejects the sentimental in his life and in his art, and this has been critical for a sure sheparding of this story. All along the way, he has shown an open heart, enormous generosity and a genuine love and respect for his two subjects. Oh, and then there’s the enormous talent. We have much to thank him for.    

Of course, many others have been champions. Tony Ayres, who befriend Tim towards the end of his life, has been a constant and kind advocate. Cameron Huang, who saw the play and immediately had a vision for a film, has been the angel investor without whom a film would have been unlikely. Rosemary Blight and Kylie du Fresne of Goalpost Pictures, who saw early on the role this story could play on film, have driven the enterprise to fruition with heart and clear dedication. Neil Armfield, who directed the fine film, has contributed his trademark eye for human detail. And of course Anna Davison, Tim’s sister and now literary executor, has been the astute and generous gatekeeper ever since Tommy and I first made contact with her.      

All of these people have played full parts. But Sophie, Nick and Tommy are the three who have enabled this story to flow freely into the world. Without them, and their very particular qualities, there would not be a memoir, a play or a film. Without them, this story of two adoring men, held back from holding each other, would not be on our bookshelves or in our hearts. Without them, the world would be a little less informed, a little less empathetic, and a little less loving.    

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Hansel and Gretel in Brisbane

What a fabulous night.

I'm just back from Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel, a student production at the Queensland Conservatorium, directed by Michael Gow and conducted by Johannes Fritzsch. How blessed these students are to be working on this glorious score with two great artists. And the design by recent NIDA grad Charles Davis is worthy of any opera house. Great to see the Con devoting significant resources to what must be a priceless learning experience for the students involved, in the pit and on the stage. 

I love this opera. I've known every note for 25 years, and it's a score that keeps on giving. It's a miraculous synthesis of German folkiness and Wagnerian complexity. Humperdinck was a student of Wagner's - he assisted at the premiere of Parsifal, and even wrote a bar or two for a tricky scene transition. Hansel and Gretel, completed in 1893, with a libretto by his sister who urged on the project, is full of Wagner - the climaxes, leitmotifs, and thick chromaticisms. Richard Strauss conducted the premiere in Weimar, then Mahler conducted the Hamburg premiere in the following year. Not bad. Within a year of its premiere, the opera had been performed in more than 70 theatres.

The dramatic construction is immaculate. It flows beautifully, while allowing for some great set pieces. But it's an incredibly difficult sing - the father in this story needs to be pretty much Wotan - and it doesn't give up.

This production delivers. Sure, student singers cannot ever be expected to deliver the full goods with a score like this, but they do a mighty job, singing their hearts out across a big orchestra, and clearly relishing every moment. This story of hunger, kidnapping, cannibalism and witch burning seems right up their alley.

Go see it. You have until Friday.

Friday, 31 July 2015

On the Occasion of La Boite's 90th Birthday

Today is the 90th birthday of La Boite Theatre Company, making it, perhaps, Australia’s oldest continuously running theatre company. I’m really looking forward to tonight’s big birthday bash.


On this day in 1925, the first show was staged: a one-night season of A. A. Milne’s comedy The Dover Road at the Theatre Royal in Elizabeth Street. The following day The Brisbane Courier raved:
“Nothing was left to chance. The cast was admirably chosen, and the large audience was held by the splendid acting for two hours and three-quarters. The players, one and all, rose to the occasion, and satisfied the sceptics that the repertory movement in Brisbane has come to stay; it will grow from strength to strength; it will enlarge the communal mind, and prove a great and joyous power in our cultural life.” 
I love that last stretch: “it will enlarge the communal mind and prove a great and joyous power in our cultural life.”

It’s quite confronting to lead a theatre company, as I did La Boite between the end of 2008 and the middle of 2014. What do I really believe in? What do I think is good theatre? Who will I champion? What changes need to be made? How can I best enlarge the communal mind?

It’s a phrase that sticks.

I’m honoured to be part of the huge La Boite clan, and particularly of its family of artistic directors. I hope I played a useful part, as many have, in enabling the company to enlarge the communal mind.

Long may she continue to be "a great and joyous power in our cultural life”, a theatre that invigorates our minds, stirs our emotions and inspires our better natures, a theatre that enthrals, enlivens and entertains, a theatre of daring, dash, and distinction. 

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Arts, Politics and Brisbane Festival

Politics and the arts are family. Both are concerned with the affairs of the people. Whenever anyone questions an accepted reality, it becomes a political act – and many people do that most days, whether they think of themselves as artists or political or not. Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist and vocal critic of his government, goes further: “Everything is art. Everything is politics."

It’s easiest to see this in the extreme. The success of any revolution depends on a rupture with the past. In February this year, ISIS burned 100,000 books in the central library of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul. UNESCO called it “one of the most devastating acts of destruction of library collections in human history."

Look at any revolution – French, Boshevik, Chinese and so on – and you’ll find a similar pattern. As Orwell reminded us, “he who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

Wars against a people always go hand in hand with a war against culture.

The CIA believed that the arts could win a war. During the Cold War, it financed and assured the success of the American abstract expressionist movement as a weapon against the Soviet Union. Its Congress for Cultural Freedom had offices in 35 countries, published around 30 prestige magazines, and held large exhibitions and international conferences. Its mission was to encourage the intelligentsia of Western Europe away from a lingering fascination with Communism. Artists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell and Mark Rothko were held up as exponents of what Rockefeller called ‘free enterprise painting’.

The Brisbane Festival is not attempting to win a war, but it does have a political energy this year, one that tries to help us make some sense of how the world is – a natural role of art. It’s possible to follow themes of race, colonialism and discrimination through the three weeks of the festival, and to discover things we might not have known.

Macbeth

Thursday, 23 July 2015

On Dealing with Doubt: QUT Graduation Ceremony Commencement Address

Today I gave the Commencement Address at the graduation ceremony for the Creative Industries Faculty of the Queensland University of Technology, held in the Concert Hall of the Queensland Performing Arts Centre. Here is what I said:

I really don’t know why I’m here.

I think you've been fooled into thinking I'd have something interesting to say.

But no. 

I’m a fraud.

Standing here, I remember my late friend Nick Enright. He was a great Australian theatre artist. As a playwright he gave us a few classics – A Property of the Clan, Blackrock, Good Works and an adaptation of Cloudstreet. As a librettist for musicals he gave us The Boy from Oz and The Venetian Twins. As an acting teacher at NIDA he taught Mel Gibson and Judy Davis and a raft of other big names. He was loved, and a great mentor to many.

He was also nominated for an Academy Award for his screenplay for George Miller’s film Lorenzo’s Oil. Nick and I spent a lot of time together during this period. After his nomination – he lost to Neil Jordan for The Crying Game – Nick was inundated with Hollywood film offers. I remember Nick taking calls from Steven Spielberg. His house in Sydney's Newtown was full of scripts commissioned by American studios. He was being paid a lot of money.   

At the height of this success, Nick turned to me and said, "One day they’re all going to wake up and realise I’m a fraud."

We all have moments like this. We hold our secret doubts and put a confident face to the world. When I was appointed Artistic Director of Brisbane Festival, I secretly thought to myself: "Well, I guess I fooled some more people. One day they’ll realise."

In the darkest of these times, in those moments when doubt gnaws like a sewer rat, I comfort myself by remembering that more talented people than me have these same feelings. 

It was Robert Hughes, perhaps the world’s greatest art critic, who said: “The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is given to the less talented as a consolation prize."

You will feel doubt more and more. There’s really no way around that. Away from the comfort of the finite world in which you’ve lived and created over the last few years, the world will conspire to make you think yourself a fraud. You will say to the world, "I am not yet being recognised for my talent", but secretly you will doubt you have talent at all. 

I do.

But remember this. You're not a fraud; you’re simply human. Doubt is normal, and it is important. It keeps us honest. It makes us question. It makes us strive. It is not something to be avoided. It is something to manage.

How might we deal with doubt?

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

The Great Forgetting - Brisbane Festival and the Congo

The Democratic Republic of Congo sits in the very heart of Africa, in the cradle of all humanity. It is the size of Western Europe with a population of 75 million. It has an astonishing history. But what do we know about it?

Arts festivals are made for illumination. In September this year, Brisbane Festival offers a series of brilliant works from or about the Congo. 

Why shine a light here? Because the Congo has helped form the history of the world. In more ways than you might think…

Congo's Curse

The Congo is blessed with more natural resources than almost any other country on the planet. A Congolese legend has it that God, tired after creating the world, stopped at this part of the earth and dropped all his sacks of riches. And these riches have helped make the world as we know it.

When the world needed rubber for the tyres of the newly invented motorcar, the Congo was there with half the world’s known supplies.

When the world needed copper to feed its need for electricity and industrial expansion, the Congo was there with the world’s largest supply. This same copper formed the bullets that won World War I.

When the world needed tin for the conductors used in almost every electrical circuit, the Congo provided.

When two atomic bombs dropped on Japan to finally end World War II, the uranium came from the Congo. 

That smart phone in your pocket? It couldn’t work without a mineral known as coltan. And yes, you guessed it, 80% of the world's supply is in the Congo.

The world has benefitted hugely from the Congo, but not always honourably. In 1924 Joseph Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness, set in the Congo, called this reaping of resources the ‘vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience’. He didn’t see half of it.

It is Congo’s curse. This nation, home to so many natural treasures, should be one of the richest on the planet. But it is the poorest.

The Congo, in helping to make the world, has been consumed.  

Monday, 18 May 2015

The Principles of Arts Funding and Why It's Unwise to Cut Off Your Arm

One of the driving beliefs of the 2015 Federal Budget is that small businesses are well placed to energise the national economy. They are strong of arm and ready to 'have a go', as the language of the budget has it. 

The budget certainly helps them to get moving. If a small business has an annual turnover of less than $2 million, from now until 30 June 2017 there’s an immediate tax deduction for every item purchased up to $20,000 (the threshold used to be $1000). Cars and vans, kitchens, machinery, computers... anything under $20,000 bought for that business is instantly 100% tax deductible. There is more: the company tax for these businesses is cut from 30% to 28.5% - the lowest small business tax rate in more than 50 years - and there’s a fringe benefits tax discount on mobile electronics. All in all, it’s a $5 billion boost to GDP over two years. Quite an adrenaline hit for the economy.

This is the opposite of ‘trickle-down economics’ – the idea that economic benefits provided to big businesses and upper income levels will indirectly benefit poorer members of society when the resources ‘trickle down’ and so benefit all. It’s an idea that is now widely discredited in international economic circles.

The Treasurer expressed his rationale very clearly in his budget speech:
Our future growth will come from growing small business into big business.

Every big company in the world started small.

Every big idea in the world came from just one person, or a handful of people working together.

That is why tonight, I am announcing a package of measures that will make a genuine and permanent difference to small business in Australia. 
It’s a good rationale, and it’s clear that it will have a genuinely positive impact.

So I wonder why this same rationale is not part of the government’s approach to stimulating the arts. The distribution of resources seems to be away from the ‘small businesses’ of the arts and more towards the top end. In fact, its approach to the arts is closer to the debunked ‘trickle-down’ approach.

Details are still emerging, but we know these things for sure: 
  • There will be no reduction in the Australia Council’s funding to the 29 major performing arts companies – these are the ‘big businesses’ of the arts. In 2013-14, the Australia Council gave $102 million of its $199 million grant budget to these organisations. 
  • The Australia Council must find $7.3m worth of ‘efficiencies’ over four years. The budget papers say explicitly that ‘these savings will be met through reduced funding to the ArtStart, Capacity Building and Artists in Residence programmes’ - programs very much about emerging artists and the ‘small business’ end of things. 
  • A new, Minister-led National Programme for Excellence in the Arts will be established, taking three core programs from the Australia Council - Visions of Australia, Festivals Australia and the Major Festivals Initiative. $110m will be redirected over four years from the Australia Council to this new body.  

So, some questions arise.  

Monday, 4 May 2015

Principles matter

When two Australians were put to death in Indonesia last week, the idea that the death penalty is simply wrong was at the heart of protest. In this sense, it did not matter whether these two men had been rehabilitated or not. Capital punishment is not right, anytime, anywhere.

We do not accept that race, gender or religion should be the basis of discrimination. Tanya Plibersek makes the point that support for marriage equality should be seen in these terms. She reminds us that her political party, as a matter of principle, does not believe in discrimination before the law and so should, as a body, support the equal right of people to marry irrespective of gender. It is not, she argues, a matter of 'conscience', but one of principle.

It's difficult to argue with the logic.

Whether it's good politics or not is a different question. It might well inhibit the passage of any relevant legislation through the parliament. But maybe principles should come first.

Our evolutionary imperative is towards a more equal and pluralistic society. That grand sweep of human history is unstoppable, despite hiccups and short detours. It's clear that marriage equality is on a powerful wave traveling in that direction. Look at the world, especially those nations we like to compare ourselves with. The UK, Canada and NZ are now on the right side of history, Canada for a decade now. The USA is at a Supreme Court legislative tipping point, having already mostly made its choice to be on the side of equality.

How long is Australia willing to be out in the cold?

Monday, 13 April 2015

Günter Grass - 1927-2015

RIP Günter Grass, author of The Tin Drum, Nobel Prize winner, speechwriter to Willy Brandt, environmentalist, jazz musician, and moral voice of the great German trauma, aged 87. A life of triumph and turmoil.

When the Swedish Academy awarded him the Nobel Prize in 1999, it praised him for embracing “the enormous task of reviewing contemporary history by recalling the disavowed and the forgotten: the victims, losers and lies that people wanted to forget because they had once believed in them.”

He was a complex figure. He was part of a German artistic movement known as Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which translates roughly as “coming to terms with the past.” Yet he left it until 2006, in his memoir 'Peeling the Onion', to reveal his conscription into the notorious Waffen-SS in 1944 at the age of 16.

“The job of a citizen is to keep his mouth open.”
― Günter Grass