Sunday, 24 June 2012

Theatre and the Culture of Participation

We don’t just sit and watch TV anymore. There’s hardly a TV program that doesn’t ask us to comment or get involved – whether it’s SMS voting on talent shows, or by giving twitter commentary on morning television, or the ABC’s Q & A, which centres the audience – there, we are constantly reminded, we ask the questions and tweet a witty commentary from home. We are our own producers.

We don’t just read the news as it’s given to us anymore. If you read a news story online, you can very often comment about it and provide one of 25 or 68 or hundreds of comments that will sometimes give you a much better picture of what’s really going on than the story itself. And we have a huge range of news sources available to us. We are our own editors.

We don’t just read facts from scholar-authored and vetted encyclopedias anymore. At the very heart of Wikipedia is a democratisation of the definition of knowledge. We – any of us, from anywhere – help determine how knowledge is defined and understood. We are the writers of the most used encyclopedia the world has ever known. We are our own authors.

This new public expectation has huge repercussions for all organisations and institutions – whether they are political, media, educational, artistic, or whatever. Polls, for better or worse, mostly worse, drive politicians. Media institutions are forced into radical transformation. People can no longer be kept silently at the gate.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Olivier and the Paradox

I stumbled across a recording of Laurence Oliver as King Lear on YouTube recently and was shocked by it.

I have some memories of when Olivier recorded this King Lear. It was in 1983, and made especially for television. He was 75 or 76. His final Shakespeare role on film. It was well known that he had suffered decades of serious illness, including prostrate cancer. In 1975, he had nearly died of dermatomyositis, a degenerative muscle disorder, but struggled on for another decade or so, during which time he filmed this performance. It was clearly out of the question to perform the role on stage - his final performance on stage in a full role had been in 1974. Olivier was to die five years after this Lear.

I had admired Olivier when I was a teenager. I was a bit of a Shakespeare nut. In high school, I directed a 90 minute version of Hamlet in which I made the costumes, choreographed the fights, compiled the music and played the central role. Scenes not involving Hamlet were casually dispensed with, but naturally all the soliloquies remained intact. Later, at 19, I directed my first 'full' production, Macbeth. I admit here that I have in my illegal possession a fragment of Olivier's costume from his famous 1955 RSC Macbeth with Vivien Leigh.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

I've been thinking more, lately, of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who passed away on 18 May, just shy of his 87th birthday. He was a giant among classical baritones and simply the best singer of lieder, especially Schubert, ever. The statistics are hard to nail, but he may be the most recorded artist in classical music history - around twice as many recordings as Placido Domingo, to give you an idea. He is the sound of many private moments in my life, a source of solace and of inspiration.

During some periods of his career he was criticised for being 'mannered'. But this was because he sang like an actor. Sometimes he would inflect individual syllables in the most surprising, but revelatory, way. He could change both the shape of the syllable and the texture of the musical note so that there was a unity of meaning mostly unknown until then. This was not the lieder singing of a Richard Tauber, and some didn't like it. This was singing full of sharp insight and endless dramatic nuance. He could make a mediocre lyric carry cosmic resonance. His was a rich and complex baritone, but he still sang as if he were speaking. His communication was direct. The French critic Roland Barthes wrote a famous essay called “The Grain of the Voice” (1972) in which he deplored “the perfection of his cultured expressiveness”. I adored the nature of this expressiveness. This was singing that made you think. 

Monday, 11 June 2012

Women in Theatre

On 24 April, the Women in Theatre report was released. It is a report commissioned in July 2011 by the Australia Council for the Arts ‘to bring the research on the issue of women in creative leadership in Australia up to the present day, and provide a basis for the sector to discuss these issues and to reach agreement on some strategies to address the situation.’

This fresh wave of interest in this most complex matter was stimulated by the announcement of Neil Armfield’s final season at the then Company B in September 2009. The sight of a stage full of bright young men, and just one woman, got people thinking and talking.

One response was to have the annual Philip Parsons Memorial Lecture, usually delivered by one person, given over to a panel discussion, Where are the Women? Is there a lack of women in key creative roles in theatre? On Sunday 6 December, the panellists lined up: Rachel Healy, Alison Croggon, Shannon Murphy, Marion Potts and Gil Appleton, moderated by Monica Attard.

Even that sparked controversy. The Philip Parsons Young Playwrights Award is usually made directly after the lecture. Its prize is a Company B commission, worth $10,000. One of that year’s shortlist, Caleb Lewis, withdrew his entry. While speaking of his concerns about gender equity, he claimed that this lecture and award afternoon was the wrong context for a forum on this topic. In an open letter to Company B he wrote: 'I feel that recent events have now overshadowed the award, politicising the announcement of a winner to such a degree that I no longer have faith in the panel’s ability to award the prize without bias.'

The Award was given jointly to Tahli Corin and Caleb Lewis. The decision was reached by the selection panel prior to Caleb’s decision to withdraw his entry. He had been out of reach, on Palm Island, since announcing his withdrawal. He later declined the award.

And so it began. Again.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Tribute to Jill Shearer (1936-2012)

Jill Shearer, who passed away on 6 May, was an important Australian playwright, living in Brisbane. 

Jill's plays were produced all over the world, and on Broadway (Shimada, 1992, directed by Simon Phillips and starring Ben Gazzara, Estelle Parsons, Ellen Burstyn and Mako). She was, I think, the first Australian woman to have a play on Broadway.  

She had a long relationship with La Boite Theatre Company - over the years the company has produced, I think, four or five of her plays. La Boite hosted a fond memorial tribute to Jill last Sunday. 

There was no one like Jill Shearer. I didn’t know her well, but I do know how important she was to the community of artists in Brisbane, and well beyond. She was a genuine inspiration.

I first met her when I was working for Queensland Theatre Company in the early 1990s. The company had just produced Shimada, and we were then developing her new play The Family. She was already something of a legend by then, of course. I was a young director at the time, and learned much from wrestling with Jill’s fierce mind and absolute sense of integrity. Jill had guts.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Theatre as Threat

George Hunka reminds us that in some parts of the world theatre provides a genuine political threat. Two nights ago, Israeli armed forces raided the home of Nabil Al Raee, the artistic director of The Freedom Theatre in Jenin, arresting him and terrifying his three year old daughter Mina. The Freedom Theatre is a theatre and cultural centre in the Jenin Refugee Camp, 60km from Ramallah and home to 10,000 people (40% of whom are under 15), that "offers space in which children and youth can act, create and express themselves freely, imagining new realities and challenging existing social and cultural barriers." Its productions have toured internationally, giving these young people a voice. Drama is often used as therapy for trauma, as this short video shows.

I'm told by those who have visited the theatre that this is a place in which Palestinian, international and even Israeli artists and activists come together despite (or maybe because of) differences in nationhood, religion, gender, class, and even race in order to make a difference in lives.

The company has been raided many times. A year ago, its charismatic founding Artistic Director, Juliano Mer-Khamis, was shot in the head five times with his baby son in his lap by a masked gunman outside the theatre. The identity of the assassin remains a mystery.