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?

I have come to believe that festivals are fitter than theatre companies for the complex challenges ahead. At their best, festivals can inspire new ways of thinking about creativity and cultural participation. They can encourage a city to express itself, offering great arts while revealing that we are all artists. They can create a civic passion for the culturally different, putting a city in the mood to take a risk on the arts and to treasure the unusual and the unexpected. Public and private space can be newly shared and time can be evocatively slowed. Festivals can live and prosper at the nexus of arts and community.

Brisbane Festival is the youngest of Australia’s major arts festivals, making it a particularly agile agent. Some older international arts festivals – Edinburgh and Avignon in particular– were created after World War II as a means of building from the experience of global conflict. High art was the order of the day – an expression of the most elevated creative aspiration in the wake of the most horrifying devastation.

Other festivals followed the model.

But 70 years later our idea of ‘arts’ has broadened immeasurably. But more than that, city arts centres such as the Sydney Opera House, the Victorian Arts Centre and QPAC have usurped many of the old functions of the arts festivals, regularly presenting famous orchestras, opera and dance companies. These days, there’s nothing impressive about the Brisbane Festival offering, for example, the Hamburg Opera or the American Ballet Theatre – QPAC hosts them at other times of the year.

Brisbane Festival’s youth means that it should be more able than most arts festivals to chart a course more in tune with the contemporary spirit. Its very DNA means it’s made for the task. Of all the major festivals, it is the one that has most authentically grown from community aspirations. It was created in 1996 out of a waning Warana Festival, which was about ‘entertainment for the people, by the people’. It became an annual festival only in 2009 when it merged with Riverfire, which was created to celebrate the river through community engagement. Brisbane Festival is made for the new world.

I’m enlivened by all of this. It’s useful to think of culture – expressing it and enjoying it – as a human right, the fulfillment of which goes into building a reflective, self-aware, civil society. To go further, inspired by Bill Ivey, the former Chair of the USA’s National Endowment for the Arts, we can imagine a perhaps utopian but nevertheless meaningful Cultural Bill of Rights:

  • The right to our heritage – to explore music, literature, drama, dance and visual arts that reflect both our nation's collective experience and our individual and community traditions.
  • The right to the prominent presence of artists in public life – through their art and the incorporation of their voices and visions into democratic debate.
  • The right to an artistic life – to the knowledge and skills needed to play a musical instrument, draw, dance, compose, design, or otherwise live a life of active creativity.
  • The right to be represented to the rest of the world by art that fairly and honestly communicates our history, values and ideals.
  • The right to know about and explore art of the highest quality from many nations and ages.
  • The right to healthy arts enterprises that can take risks and invest in innovation while serving communities and the public interest.

Rights need to be fought for. With the recent federal budget cutting around $110 million from arts and culture funding over the next four years, I wonder if we’ve fought hard enough. If culture is one of the four pillars – along with political, economic and social institutions – on which a successful society is built and bound together, then it should be worth the effort. If the effort is not made, then we are all diminished.

Festivals can help keep these questions visible and buoyant. They are broad and reach corners of society often out of the reach of single artform companies. When the city itself is the stage it’s hard to ignore the action. I hope, at the Brisbane Festival, that we can find ways to reach out. I hope we can relieve the relationship between artist and audience. I hope, if participation is the bright new currency, that we can spend it well, and up the value. I hope we can help public space work for community like never before. I hope we can announce the start of spring - that time of renewal and aspiration - with genuine and creative joy, for what better time to begin a festival in Brisbane than in the first week of September? I hope we can reveal the arts, and the artist in us all. I hope we can make people proud to live in Brisbane and make others wish they did. 

Sunday, 27 April 2014

The Normal Heart: To win a war you have to start one.

I'm really looking forward to The Normal Heart, the HBO film of Larry Kramer's monumentally important 1985 play. The was the first truly great play to address the HIV AIDS crisis: a passionate play of politics and polemics that reinvented the civil rights movement. Ned Weeks, the play's central character and Kramer's alter ego, railed against and changed a world that had fallen silent in the face of catastrophe. One of the play's chief targets was President Ronald Reagan, who infamously did not utter the word "AIDS" until September 1985, four years into the epidemic and five months after this play.

It came just a year before Timothy Conigrave's Soft Targets at Sydney's Griffin Theatre Company, a play that was Australia's first theatrical response.    

At first, no one wanted to produce The Normal Heart, but it became a triumph for Joe Papp's Public Theater. The film rights were promptly optioned by Barbra Streisand in 1986. It's been a long and troubled journey. At various times John Schlesinger, Kenneth Branagh and Ralph Fiennes have been attached or interested. Finally, after 30 years, the film will premiere on HBO on May 25. 

Martin Sheen in his Royal Court dressing room
The play and its afterlife have affected me greatly. Holding the Man is one result. I was lucky enough to see the London premiere of The Normal Heart at the Royal Court Theatre. This new production starred Martin Sheen as Ned Weeks. It had such impact that I wrote the actor a fan letter. A few days later he invited me to visit him in his dressing room after a performance: here was an actor of articulated social conscience. He was generous, shared much, and assured me forward.

Monday, 21 April 2014

On the Occasion of Shakespeare's 450th Birthday

The remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he is really very good - in spite of all the people who say he is very good.

(Robert Graves)

First encounter

Scratch a theatre director, and you're likely to find Shakespeare just below the skin. And so it is with me. He was the vehicle of one of my very earliest theatre experiences: Derek Jacobi as Hamlet, with the touring Old Vic Company, directed by Toby Robertson. The production played at Her Majesty's Theatre (now apartments) in Sydney for five nights in December 1979.

I remember little, other than I found it 'superlative'. My diary records this response. I must have just learned the word.

Derek Jacobi as Hamlet, 1979.
Later, I realised what a key production, and performance, this was. Earlier that year, the Old Vic (actually, the Prospect Theatre Company resident at the Old Vic) became the first English-speaking company to play in post-revolutionary China. Jacobi also enjoyed the distinction of being the first English actor since Laurence Olivier to play the part at Elsinore. A year later, after two years touring, Jacobi recorded his Hamlet for the fraught BBC Shakespeare series. He tried to start from scratch - the television production had a different director and cast, and played a much fuller version of the text, cutting just a few hundred lines. Looking at it now, this TV version seems incredibly clumsy, quite amateurish in places. Still, you get a sense of what a landmark performance Jacobi's undoubtedly was.   

Jacobi was 41 when he played Hamlet in Sydney - old for the role, even by standards of the time. I can't say I was aware of it. But what he perhaps lacked in youth was made up in genius.

School encounters

In my final year at Maitland Marist Brothers high school, the first part of Henry IV was the compulsory text. The year before it was Othello, I think, and it seemed to us that we were being short-changed: instead of a famous tragedy we were lumped with a play no one had heard of. In fact, we got by far the better deal. Othello is relatively dull, stretching at credibility, compared with the glorious life and variety of I Henry IV.

The Signet Classic edition I devoured
I devoured it. Hal, drinking with his mates but not giving all away, reflected something of my own youth. My school was not one with an interest in the arts, nor one that was academically progressive. It was a school of rugby league and cricket. I was hopeless at league, but serviceable at cricket and enjoyed playing it. I would happily drink with mates after a Saturday club game while also, secretly, looking forward to heading home and drowning in the Boar's Head Tavern. Hal resonated in a way that made me examine my own friendships.

The brilliant construction of the play, always connected to life, held me in awe. The lived rhythms of Act 2 Scene 4, in which Hal and Falstaff move through gut-splitting comedy before landing in heart-tearing pathos is, I think, one of Shakespeare's most astounding sequences. I know nothing like it in English drama.

Hamlet, as is its habit, returned. While at school, I decided to mount a production. Perhaps Jacobi's ghost was lingering. Naturally, I would play Hamlet - and design the show, look after the lights and realise the fight choreography. Like Falstaff gathering buddies, or Hal gathering food for powder, I enlisted much of the cricket team to play the other roles. We rehearsed after school for months. I borrowed foils and costumes from a local amateur theatre company, and I'm sure I engaged sheets for the ghost scenes. There might have been ultraviolet lighting. It was a much truncated text, probably no more than 90 minutes long, but since I was playing Hamlet it retained all the soliloquies. We performed the play for the rest of our class and the year below us, and then threw on a couple of night shows for parents.

It was about this time that I discovered that John Bell had attended the school. A dusty trophy cabinet revealed that John was Dux in 1956.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

How One Man Changed the Arts Forever


On 31 October 1517, the world changed forever. On that day, the 500th anniversary of which is fast approaching, a Catholic priest named Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Saxony. This church held one of Europe’s largest collections of holy relics, including a twig from Moses’ burning bush, straw from Jesus’ manger, the Virgin Mary's breast milk, and some of the crown of thorns. The church also served as the chapel of the University of Wittenberg, Hamlet’s university of choice. Today, following a 1760 fire that destroyed half the foundations including the wooden door on which Luther posted his protest, the church serves as a place of worship, an archive and museum, and a youth hostel.

I think it’s impossible to overestimate the impact of that day, the day that began the Reformation.

The Reformation had an immeasurable impact on the arts. In essence, Luther believed that an individual’s relationship with God should not be mediated by a bishop or the Pope. This idea unleashed revolutionary artistic expressions. Paintings of butcher stalls, farmers in their fields, and women at their spinning wheels could now reflect the idea that all vocations, not just the priestly ones, were ways of serving God. Since we were all made in God’s image, portraits of ordinary men and women became a means of contemplating the divine. Luther's  idea changed everything. In time, the arts were released from galleries, theatres and opera houses just as the worship of God was released from cathedrals. It exposed the possibility that the arts are for and about everyone. It allowed the secular to become sacred.

Bruegel was the great, early expression. His paintings, even when on religious themes, centred ordinary peasants and the rituals of village life. Later, Van Dyke, Vermeer and Rembrandt kicked the idea along. Architects such as Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren did so too. In music, the Reformation opened the doors to Bach, Handel, Mendelssohn and Haydn, for whom music was a personal expression pleasing to God.

Marcel Duchamp's 'Fountain'
Look to our own times and we see fascinating lines of influence. Bruegel’s paintings of butchers, beasts and the everyday find corollaries in the use of the everyday in (to use random examples) Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ (1917), a porcelain urinal signed ‘R.Mutt’ now regarded a major landmark in 20th-century art, in Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde, and in Jeff Koon’s Puppy, a 13m sculpture made entirely of living flowers, a symbol of ‘love, warmth and happiness’ according to its creator and named ‘Art Work of the Decade’ by New York Magazine.

In music, the everyday finds expression in the industrial rhythms of The Rite of Spring, in the sounds of the audience in John Cage’s 4’33’’, and in the use of a BuzzFeed list in The 9 Cutest Things That Ever Happened from Brisbane vocal ensemble The Australian Voices.

In theatre, we see it in Arthur Miller’s treatment of the common man as tragic hero, in the interest in verbatim theatre, and in the use of spaces outside of the formal theatre building.

In dance theatre we see it in Pina Bausch’s use of everyday gesture and the participation of non-dancers, an idea extended by Meryl Tankard and Kate Champion in Australia, and dozens of others.

In poetry, individual, democratic expression finds home in the Biblically influenced but sexually explicit free verse of Walt Whitman (and then Allen Ginsberg), in the announcement of modernism in T. S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock measuring out a life with coffee spoons, and in the popular suburban satire of Bruce Dawe.   

In the novel, we see Luther's influence in the Protestant spiritual autobiography of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe - a book that also gave birth to realistic fiction - in the centring of the individual as spiritual and psychological hero in the great Bildungsroman and K├╝nstlerroman works, and in the long riffs on the minutiae of Patrick Bateman's world found in Bret Easton Eliss's American Psycho.  

In film, we can trace a Protestant history into the fragmented, quasi documentary and narrative ambiguity of the French New Wave, and into the rejection of the corrupting Gods of Hollywood by the Dogme 95 filmmakers who sought a return to pure filmmaking based on traditional values of story, acting and theme.

In fact, if there’s one overarching muse of the last 100 years of arts practice, it’s the idea that the ordinary and everyday can be inspirational subjects. Or, as John Cage once remarked, 'Beauty is now underfoot wherever we take the trouble to look.' It’s the key Reformation insight. Now, as we travel through a period when the boundaries between artist and audience blur, when consumers become creators building their own playlists, personalising their news sources, blogging their lives and transforming them into the art of instagram and tumblr, we celebrate how the everyday can sit with the glorious.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

A Response to Wesley Enoch

La Boite is one of several established theatre companies around the country housing programs that support ‘independent theatre’, a term commonly held to mean theatre made by groups of artists coming together, often with little infrastructure and few resources, to make work they passionately believe in.

In his Philip Parsons Memorial Lecture delivered on Sunday, the Artistic Director of Queensland Theatre Company, Wesley Enoch, called such programs ‘immoral’. In essence, he claimed that established theatre companies use independent theatre companies as sources of unpaid labour. He quoted figures for a recent La Boite Indie show that were incorrect.

Wesley's reprimand drew responses from Melbourne Theatre Company here, and Griffin Theatre Company here. Wesley spoke about La Boite specifically, though disappointingly he misled his audience on the facts. As it applies to La Boite, I think his view is misjudged.

It’s very easy to create agitation when you suggest that ‘all artists should get paid award rates’. Of course they should. Who could reasonably argue otherwise? Why isn’t it happening everywhere?? I really wish it were that simple.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Reflections on the Occasion of World AIDS Day

John’s groans had become almost whispers. Every time he stopped breathing we all sat upright holding our breath. ‘John, you’re tricking us,’ Lois said.

This went on for some time, his breathing becoming shallower, quieter. He began blowing saliva bubbles. His mouth filled with saliva which started to run down his chin. Bob grabbed a tissue and started to wipe it. There was the sweet smell of faeces in the air. Not a lot of dignity in death, eh?

John stopped breathing.

He was dead.

I walked out along the colonnade. The sun was shining. Such a beautiful day.

Then I was hit by grief. The tears came and kept coming. Snot ran out of my nose as though it was being wrung out of me. I wish you were here to help get me through this. I’m not going to see you again, am I?

A pigeon was startled by me and took flight. Was that John? I wish you were here. I shut my eyes and felt him put his arms around me from behind. I wanted to lean back and put my head on his chest but he wasn’t there. The feeling had been so strong that I wasn’t sure it hadn’t happened. I put my arms around myself and started crying again.

A family walked past me. A little girl asked her mother, ‘Has someone died?’

‘I think so.’

That’s from the book Holding the Man, and it’s Timothy Conigrave describing the death of his lover of 15 years, John Caleo, on Australia Day 1993, over 20 years ago.

It’s now 30 years since the first AIDS-related death was reported in Australia.

That’s a generation ago. Australia can be proud that our response was swift, thorough and honest, perhaps the most effective in the world, emerging from bold and decisive bipartisan leadership rarely seen these days. For many, the Grim Reaper TV ad is forever seared in the mind. Many lives were saved. And many have been lost, including, of course, those of Tim and John.

Deaths from AIDS-related illnesses in Australia will reach 7,000 over the next few years. That’s a small portion of the 25 million who have lost their lives to the disease worldwide, but it's still a figure that causes ache and reflection. There are around 35,000 people living with HIV in Australia at the moment. That's a small portion of the 35 million worldwide, but it remains a cause of concern.

There is still no vaccine or cure for HIV or AIDS. Without treatment, HIV infection remains a death sentence. With treatment - just one tablet a day - people can lead normal, active, healthy lives, with a life expectancy similar to those don't have HIV.

We face new challenges. There were 1,253 new HIV diagnoses in Australia in 2012, an increase of 10% over 2011, and the highest number of new infections for 20 years. For some men in their 40s, decades of safe sex practices can lead to fatigue-driven complacency. However, most of those new diagnoses were young men in their teens and 20s.

I guess that ignorance is more powerful than fatigue.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

On Louis Nowra winning Patrick White

When Louis Nowra's Inside the Island received a savage review in the Sydney Morning Herald, Patrick White hand-delivered an outraged letter to the editor in support of the play and its author. When it was not published, White paid for it to run as an advertisement in the newspaper for two weeks. White later cooled to Nowra, as he did with so many others, and would sometimes refer to the playwright as 'Louis Kiama'.   

White was probably unaware that Nowra left his degree at La Trobe University over a dispute with his professor concerning his dislike of White's novel The Tree of Man.  

Louis Nowra in Kings Cross with his very clever chihuahua, Coco
Louis Nowra was yesterday presented with the Patrick White Literary Award, this year worth $23,000, for his ‘prolific, passionate, principled contribution to Australian literature across many fields’. The annual Award was established by White who used the money from his 1973 Nobel Prize in Literature to establish a trust. It’s given to a writer who has been highly creative over a long period. Nowra is only the third playwright to win in 40 years, after Alma de Groen in 1998 and John Romeril in 2008.

I’ve known Louis for over 25 years. We first met in the rehearsal room of Rex Cramphorn’s premiere production of Louis' The Golden Age for Playbox in 1985. Patrick White greatly admired Rex, one of Australia’s great directing talents, and of course also championed Louis.

Later, in 1995, I directed the premiere production of The Jungle for Sydney Theatre Company, with a fabulous Kate Fitzpatrick, whom Patrick White adored. He wrote his 1977 play Big Toys for her. I soon learned why both Patrick and Louis, and indeed Rex, had been so fond of Kate.

During rehearsals of The Jungle, she was in the throws of an infamous case in the NSW Supreme Court: Kate Fitzpatrick v Charles Waterstreet. She was suing her former lover, the famed barrister who would later become the model for the central character in the TV series Rake. She was claiming about half the value of an Elizabeth Bay flat. There was more: ‘I'll have the Brett Whiteleys, you can have the Tupperware and the Brescia beanbag’, she offered in court. One of the Whiteleys was the portrait of Patrick White that served as the cover of David Marr’s great biography of White. It was Kate, incidentally, who had organised a lunch so that Whiteley and White could meet. On her return from court, our rehearsal room was fabulously full of Kate’s regaling – sensational stories of her many former lovers including Sam Neill, Jeremy Irons, Timothy Dalton, Eric Clapton, Tom Hughes QC and several famous cricketers, and of her close friendships with Kerry Packer, Sam Shepard, a smitten Jack Nicholson, several High Court judges and, of course, Patrick White.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

India, our mother

What is the state of what Mark Twain called the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, and the mother of history?

More than half of India’s population is under the age of 25, with 65 percent under 35. The challenges and opportunities that presents are enormous. It could drive India's flagging economy for a century, overtaking China which is now past its peak. But if the world's largest democracy can't educate, train and feed this burgeoning population, then there is peril. India is home to a third of the world's poor and to half of the world's 30 million slaves. A third of the population lives under the poverty line of US $1.25 a day. I find this frightening. How will India face the consequences of a marginalised youth population existing on a scale unprecedented in modern history?

Meanwhile, on Tuesday India launched a mission to Mars. The Mars Orbiter Mission, known as "Mangalyaan" in India, successfully began its 400 million-km long journey, making it the first Asian country and the fourth in the world after the US, Eurpore and Russia, to undertake a mission to the red planet. The mission was announced only 15 months ago, shortly after an attempt by China flopped.

India, in many ways, is our mother. Will Durant, author of the eleven-volume The Story of Civilisation, summarised:
India was the mother of our race and Sanskrit the mother of Europe’s languages. She was the mother of our philosophy, mother through the Arabs of much of our mathematics, mother through Buddha of the ideals embodied in Christianity, mother through village communities of self-government and democracy. Mother India is in many ways the mother of us all.
And again
It is true that even across the Himalayan barrier India has sent to us such unquestionable gifts as grammar and logic, philosophy and fables, hypnotism and chess, and above all our numerals and our decimal system. But these are not the essence of her spirit; they are trifles compared to what we may learn from her in the future.
Let's hope she survives.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

A Visit to Verdi's Otello

Last night I went to Opera Queensland's production of Otello, directed by Simon Phillips and conducted by Queensland Symphony Orchestra Chief Conductor Johannes Fritzsch. It's an opera I've been fond of for many years, so it gave me great pleasure to freshly admire Verdi's great achievement.

There are around 300 operas made from Shakespeare's plays. Only three are of the first rank: Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and two of Verdi's - Otello and Falstaff. Verdi, who celebrates his 200th anniversary this year, adored Shakespeare, even though he could not read English. He devoured new translations. Famously, he sat with King Lear beside his bed for years, but could not find an operatic solution. I suspect that the failure of almost all Shakespearean opera often has to do with an unwillingness to dispense with the poetry. The plays are already brilliantly full and require no further music - a reason why non-poetic texts often make the best operatic source material. In Arrigo Boito, Verdi had a fine librettist who knew how to strip, distill and rearrange a text in a way that allowed Verdi's music to flourish. With Otello, they made an opera that is better than the play.