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.

The West has a big blind spot when it comes to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. When King Leopold II of Belgium made this country his private property between 1885 and 1908, ten million people were killed, perhaps half the population. Largely forgotten. In the recent civil wars, around six million lives have been lost: the deadliest conflict since World War II. Largely ignored.

You know that smart phone in your pocket? It couldn’t work without a mineral called Coltan. 80% of the world's supply is in the Congo. Your phone might have blood on it.

This nation, the size of Western Europe, in the very heart of Africa, in the cradle of all humanity, should be front-page news. 

We’ve gathered four spirited productions – all exclusive to Brisbane – and we hope that they will help open our eyes to the power, politics and, perhaps above all, the vivacious personality of this utterly unique nation.

Do black lives matter? #BlackLivesMatter is all over Twitter in the United States. From Ferguson to Baltimore, police killings of unarmed black men in questionable circumstances have sparked widespread social revolt. The story is not going away. Race is America’s weeping sore.

In such circumstances, sometimes new languages are required. FLEXN unveils a brand new dance form – flex. This show features 15 African American dancers from Brooklyn – the pioneers of flex. It’s a jaw-dropping show, developed late last year just as juries decided not to indict the police officers who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York, and made with the collaboration of perhaps the greatest living American theatre and opera director, Peter Sellars.


It should be clear that the story of FLEXN resonates deeply with the Australian story. Indigenous Australians represent just 3% of the total population, yet make up more than 28% of the prison population. We have our own weeping sore. 

Beautiful One Day takes us to Queensland’s Palm Island where Cameron Doomadgee died in dubious circumstances while in police custody. Riots ensued and the Premier declared a state of emergency. This story is also not going away – a class action is due to be brought by the residents of Palm Island against the State of Queensland in the Federal Court this September. 

Beautiful One Day is a gripping account of what happened, and what didn’t. Three of its performers are Palm Islanders, including Doomadgee’s niece. In the week before it plays at Brisbane Festival it will play for the first time on Palm Island itself. It will arrive to us charged, and will play side by side with FLEXN – a profoundly powerful double.

While the Congo is one of the largest and poorest nations in the world Singapore is one of the smallest and richest. We’ve made a collection of five or six shows that offer snapshots of a neighbour nation which this year marked the death of Lee Kuan Yew and celebrates 50 years of independence.

One of those shows is Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. It’s produced by what Lonely Planet called Singapore’s sexiest theatre company – W!LD RICE. This is an all-male production – though NOT in drag – and through endless laughter it manages to call up questions of identity and sexuality – particularly potent questions in a nation where homosexuality remains illegal. It’s the same law, inherited from the English, under which Wilde was famously gaoled.

The Importance of Being Earnest

I enjoy the way things connect and accumulate in this festival. I think it’s what an international arts festival can do best. If you look closely, you’ll even see shapes in the fun stuff. For me, there’s not much distinction between the meaty and the merry.

At each of the almost 500 performances of almost 80 shows, springing from five continents, I hope that the boundaries between artists and audience will dissolve, and that together we will see that questions can have more than one answer and that neither words nor numbers can exhaust what we can know. I hope that spirits and appetites will be lifted beyond the drum and dust of daily life. I hope that these shows will both brighten and enlighten.

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?

First tip? Just do it.

Doubt can get a footing when we dwell too long on a single project. I see this in playwrights all the time: chipping away, for years, on one play, circling into a dramaturgical hell.  

My advice? Forget it – move on to your next play.

As Sturgeon’s Law has it, 90% of everything is crap. And when you’re deep into something, it’s hard to know if it’s crap. But the chances are good. As Henry Ford, one of history's great entrepreneurs, said: "I know only half of my advertising works. I just don't know which half." He was aware that at least 50% of his marketing was ... well ... crap.

There’s a telling exchange in Voltaire’s Candide that goes like this:

'How many plays have been written in France?' Candide asked the Abbé.

'Five or six thousand.'

'That's a lot,' said Candide. 'How many of them are good?'

'Fifteen or sixteen,' replied the Abbé.

'That's a lot,' said Martin.

I know a young artist named Jake Connor Moss. He just turned 21. I’ve never come across anyone like him. Last month, I helped launch his first exhibition at a gallery in Paddington. What was launched? Three walls of paintings, three walls of photographs, a novel, a memoir, a book of poems and three feature films.

This was a fraction of his output. Jake set himself the task of making a painting a day for something like a year. Through all that - and while studying for a few degrees - he wrote endless poems, took thousands of photographs, wrote a 200-page memoir of his school days and a 200-page novel, made the films and so on and so on.

Jake thinks almost of all of what he makes is crap. He barely thinks of himself as an artist. He has no expectation of making a living from his creativity. For him, making things is simply a way of living, a way of being in the world. Making things, in whatever art form, is, for him, simply something he has to do.

Do you know what? Amongst the crap Jake churns out, there’s good stuff. One of the photographs I saw on the gallery wall was breathtakingly beautiful. A handful of his poems are cut-glass gems. One of his paintings was so good I wanted to buy it, but I was beaten to it. I don’t know if Jake will ever be a great artist, but I do know that his creative muscles are match fit. I know that he has vastly increased his chances of making something that isn’t crap and might just be gold.

And I know that Jake has no time for doubt. He’s too busy doing. 

A second tip?  Develop a hinterland.

The most interesting people in the world have a rich hinterland. What’s a hinterland? It’s that place on the outskirts of your life where the intellectual pursuits outside of your career thrive. The back paddock of ideas and influences that make us fuller.

I know a surgeon who reads old Italian poetry – it reminds him that his patients are people with deep histories.

I know an urban planner who reads Stephen Jay Gould – he finds that it opens his mind to new ways of thinking.    

When he was Prime Minister Paul Keating used to listen to Mahler or Bartok symphonies when he was reading cabinet papers at the Lodge. He said it made him think bigger. 

It’s too easy to get trapped in the small circle of our work, caught in a cycle of tasks and deadlines and conferences. Our work might be interesting and important, but the world is always bigger, and it is ready to give up its gifts. A rich hinterland makes our doctors more empathetic, our teachers more exciting, our politicians more human and our scientists more creative.

And it will make you better at what you do. 

So be curious, for curiosity is doubt's principal enemy. Cultivate a hinterland. Plant it lovingly, and don’t let it go to seed. 

Without it, your spirit might starve and you will be, well, just a bit boring.  

But if you have a rich hinterland, you’ll always have somewhere nurturing to go when doubt wants to imprison you.

A third tip? Look outward to your audience.

It’s likely you’ve been looking inward these past few years. Focused on your subject and on impressing your teachers and peers. Now it’s time to look to your audience. To the public.

Now, I don’t mean that you should just give people what they want, that you should simply be driven by market demand. That’s deadening. 

I mean that art is a dialogue, not a monologue. I mean that people will look to your creative gifts for their own nourishment and that there is a kind of human obligation to provide it. How often have you visited a theatre or gallery and been frustrated or (worse) bored because the artists have not been clear and have been only interested, you suspect, in talking to themselves?

Creating a dialogue means sharing a story. What is your story? How clearly are you telling it?

I think this is really important, because I think people are now craving story. I sense that the world can now feel so fragmented, so uncertain, so breathtakingly full of a million unconnected things all available with the touch of a screen, that we need stories even more. We need their structure and form to help us make sense of things.

Think about it. We spend a phenomenal amount of our daily lives with stories – telling them, listening to them, reading them, watching them being acted out on Netflix or on TV, or sharing them on Facebook or Twitter. The news is presented in the form of stories. “Today, a man was caught…” Much of our conversation is taken up recounting the events of everyday life in the form of stories. "How was your day?" "Well, let me tell you…" As small children, we have no sooner learned to speak than we begin demanding to be told stories.

The need for story is part of our DNA. We're hard-wired that way. Neurological studies tell us that the same part of the human brain that recognises the self is also responsible for inventing narrative.

What is your story? If your story is rich and clearly told to your audience, if there is dialogue and not monologue, then that audience will be your support when doubt wants you lonely.

I envy you. You are going out into the world, as creators, at a time when anything seems possible. The internet is still a baby. Sharing is a new currency. We share every day on social media, and more and more we live in a share economy. This is a world ready for a conversation. A conversation with you.

I’m reminded that at the beginning of the Vietnam peace talks in Paris in the ‘70s, they spent the first two years arguing over the shape of the table. What shape would permit all parties to sit down so that everyone could feel they were being heard? 

In this wondrous new age, with New Horizons past Pluto and the world shifting from west to east and from north to south, your generation will determine the shape of the table. You will create the space that will help bring the wildly disparate elements of our society together. Your story, and how you share it, will help people feel included. Your careers, and the hinterlands that nourish them, will help us all understand more about what it is to live in this world at this time.

You have in your hands something the world needs.

So now is the time to deal with doubt, the time to be brave, the time to share your story and to release the power, beauty, grandeur, courage and danger that is present in the creative act. This is the time to go forth and to create a more substantive, more sharing world. A world not of doubt, but of hope; not of terror, but of beauty; not of apathy, but of empathy.

Your world. Go forth. Make it. 

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.