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

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Personal reflections on Alan Seymour, 1927-2015

Alan Seymour loved life like no one I have ever known, so I was particularly saddened to learn of his passing, aged 87.

I directed Sydney Theatre Company’s 2003 revival of Alan’s groundbreaking play The One Day of the Year. The play, written in 1958 when Alan was 31, was famously rejected in 1960 by the very first Adelaide Festival as being too controversial. An amateur company produced the work in that city in the same year, and in Sydney the following year the first professional production earned Alan death threats.

It is now one of the great cornerstones of the Australian theatre. Its nominal subject is ANZAC Day and the limits of Australian mateship and masculinity, but it’s a play, I think, that ranks with the best family dramas the world has. The war in Iraq was intensifying as we rehearsed, lending fresh frisson, but finally it was the human drama of father and son that affected people the most. To see Max Cullen as Alf and Nathaniel Dean as son Hughie, with Kris McQuade as the mother in between and Ron Haddrick (Alf in the 1961 Sydney production) and Eloise Oxer intervening from the sides, was to witness ruptures known to families everywhere. It was a privilege to be with Alan during that revival.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Thoughts After the Queensland Election

I hope that the results of this weekend’s Queensland election herald a return to a more civil and communicative society.

The astonishing dismissal of the Newman approach perhaps should not have surprised. We saw what happened in Victoria. We can see it happening in the federal sphere. It is now surely clear that the public will no longer tolerate the inauthentic and will not hesitate to deliver swift and savage judgement. There are no longer any second chances. A decade ago the public was still tribal in its allegiances, but those days are now indisputably gone. It is now time for our political parties to abandon the tribal approach too.

We want to listen to our political leaders, but they do not wish to speak. We long to be persuaded by cogent argument, but are fed nothing but empty slogans. We desire a direct relationship with our politicians, but these relationships are mediated out of all humanity.

I like watching television election night coverages because for a short time politicians sometimes reveal the authentic. Last night, for example, Peter Beattie and John-Paul Langbroek were able to engage in genuine dialogue, unfettered by tribal allegiances. Why can’t governing be like this? By contrast, on the ABC’s Insiders program this morning Bill Shorten, even on such a morning, could speak in nothing but robotic mantras. Why couldn’t he speak from his undoubted good heart? What is it that he fears?

The Queensland ALP, should it form government, will find itself in a fascinating position. Presumably, it was not expecting to govern. In some areas it will need to find policy direction from a fresh start. It will bring with it many new members of parliament who have not emerged from political machinery and who will have much to learn. I hope they will learn from what is palpably present: that the people want to listen to the authentic.

Good government is the outcome of personal virtue. Let’s hope that such virtue is released in whoever governs and is spent in the service of good policy persuasively argued. It was Jefferson who reminded us that “all tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.” Now is the time for those of personal virtue and good conscience to speak and to govern with authenticity.   

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Thoughts on 'The Imitation Game'

A gutless and immoral movie has been nominated for eight Oscars including Best Film, Best Director and, perhaps most offensively, Best Adapted Screenplay.

That film is The Imitation Game.

Alan Turing
It's gutless because it cannot bring itself to look directly at Alan Turing's sexuality. Yet as the end credits roll, and emotive music kicks in, the film tries to position itself as a plea for equality. This is disingenuous. Even though Turing is surrounded in the film by good looking men, not once is he seen to give them even a sideways glance. Worse, Turing's relationship with Joan Clarke, important in real life, but a sidelight, is here moved to the centre of the story and decorated with the familiar tropes of a cinematic heterosexual love story: romantic picnics, furtive glances, close shots, and so on. In feeling a need to anchor the film with a love story - a need it's easy to dispute - the filmmakers have chosen to play it straight. Gutless.

The film is immoral because it represents Turing as a traitor when he was no such thing. It has him working with John Cairncross, the Soviet spy thought to be the 'fifth man' of the 'Cambridge Five' that included Philby, Burgess, Maclean and Blunt. When Turing confronts Cairncross on his activities, the spy replies that he knows that Turing is homosexual and that he will reveal this should Turing spill the beans. Turing keeps Cairncross's secret to protect himself. It is a traitorous action.

In real life, Turing never met Cairncross. In trying to juice up the narrative - an often necessary thing, but really not so here - the filmmakers have done Turing a profound injustice.  

Some might say that this is drama, not documentary, and exists for entertainment, not enlightenment. Some might say that we expect films to be loose with the facts. All this is true. But let's remember that screen and stage are powerful storytelling media that affect people's opinions and values. Sometimes they need to be held accountable. There are many in the world who now believe that Turing's sexuality was not important to him and that he was a traitor. Neither is true and both lies malign one of the great figures of the twentieth century.

This is a shallow, formulaic film and one that insults Turing, his sexuality, and the public's ability to cope with anything other than the familiar.

It is not deserving of an Oscar.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Metaphor in New York

A few days ago, before embarking on a week of fresh frontier works as part of several festivals now playing in New York - Coil, Under the Radar, Prototype and others - I visited two classics of the American theatre: A Delicate Balance and Into the Woods.

Edward Albee's 1966 Pulitzer winning play about an unnamed terror is running at the Golden Theater with a starry cast including Glenn Close, John Lithgow and Lindsay Duncan. It's a curious experience. It's the type of production you would never see on an Australian professional stage - a perfectly realised WASP living room with a curtain rising and falling on tableaux at beginning and ends of acts and scenes. 

The performances are mostly disappointing. Few of the cast seem to be living in the play's situation and instead rely on presenting its ideas. Lithgow's extraordinary speech about a pet cat he had put down for avoiding his company and refusing to purr is an exception. So too are performances by Bob Balaban and Clare Higgins as visiting friends Harry and Edna. When they enter that living room, fleeing from and gripped by a sudden undefined existential eruption, they bring with them something visceral and alerting. These characters often seem the least authentic, and the most authorial, in productions of this play, but here they tremor with truth and make us fear the terror that lurks.

Finally, the play wins out and we feel the tug of Albee's mysterious drama.

Sondheim's 1986 musical is in previews for the Roundabout Theater at the Laura Pels. It's a Fiasco Theater production in from Princeton, made up mostly of graduates of the Brown University/Trinity Rep M.F.A. acting program. So, no stars here. Nor does the production have an orchestra, but is rather served by a central piano and an assortment of unconventional instruments scratched, pounded or played by the cast. It's fair to say that a couple of this cast can barely hold a tune, but nevertheless they manage to bring such life to the lyrics and situation that most musical faltering is forgiven. In some ways this production is a revelation - the naked show with an authentic pulse. I wish there was more of this in the Albee.

In seeing these two shows back-to-back it was difficult not to conflate the terror of Albee's unnamed plague with the terror of Sondheim's giant. In doing so on the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, it was easy to feel both as an expression of the contemporary situation. At both theatres, Paris was on the stage.

Great theatre must exist as metaphor. Both these works do. There is comfort, too: dawn breaks on some kind of delicate balance and the thudding giant is killed.

May life reflect the theatre.

Friday, 23 May 2014

On Moving to an Arts Festival

Like most Artistic Directors, I’ve always tried to balance the needs of artists and audiences. In history, of course, these needs have never perfectly aligned, and nor should they ever. But the gap between what artists want to make and what audiences want to see is now wider than I’ve ever known it.

Part of this tension arrives because we live in an era of participation. The audience, or the general public, is no longer just the consumer; they are now co-creators. We don’t buy albums anymore; we create our own playlists. We don’t watch TV passively anymore; we tweet our responses and vote. Anyone can make a film; you don’t even need film, just your phone. Anyone can compose music; just download an app or upload your song to YouTube. Anyone can write a novel and distribute it on the net, bypassing the traditional publisher.

This blurring of the border between consumer and creator unsettles many, for it signifies the destruction of the comfortable distinctions between professional and amateur. The very idea of ‘community’ is undergoing a seismic shift.

It’s difficult for theatre companies, in their present form, to effectively address this cultural trauma. At La Boite Theatre Company, over five years, I made some attempts, with modest success. The audience for our work were very young  – around 45% under the age of 30, a genuinely startling statistic in an age of the so-called ‘aging audience’ – and they came not on subscription but because something caught their interest. They were also boisterous, enlivened by a democratised space and metatheatrical productions that gave the audience almost as much agency as the actors. Still, we only scratched the surface.

This new era of cultural democracy requires a new kind of cultural leadership. Our major cultural institutions are mightily challenged: they struggle to connect using older models and resist the radical reshaping that might lead to genuine engagement. Who will take the plunge? Who will be brave enough to start again?