It’s a warm summer evening, Sydney Arts Festival 2007. Peak hour at Circular Quay. We’ve been standing here for forty minutes, like a row of prisoners in the sun, fidgety and self-conscious. Commuters glance suspiciously at us as they hurry past. ‘What are they here for?’ someone asks. Once we’ve finally clambered up the wooden rostra and taken a seat on the raised platforms, our purpose becomes obvious to everybody, and we relax. We’re the audience.
It’s fun to be up here together, looking down at the commuters looking up at us. There are headphones on our chairs—big, clumpy, earmuff-type ones. We put them on, smiling at each other. We’re like a team now. The headphones are playing a soundscape: atmospheric sounds and music. We settle in. The people in Circular Quay are stopping, discussing us. Swivelling their necks around to find whatever screen we must be watching. Some of them act out, waving or poking out their tongues. One guy—after a brief conference with his mates—does a cartwheel and, after a smattering of applause, politely bows. It’s been a while now. The guy behind me says, ‘I get it. This is the show.’
The show was Back to Back Theatre’s Small Metal Objects. Ostensibly a scripted show about four characters attempting to do a drug deal in a public place, the story was by no means the most significant element of the production. Despite the fact that nobody had yet spoken a word of the script, the guy behind me was right. He would have been right if he’d declared that the show had started when we were standing in the queue, or when each of us arrived. Small Metal Objects conflated the everyday and the theatrical, depending on its audience’s casual presumptions; shifting our personal perspectives in a very public place. We heard the actors speaking through our headphones before we saw them. It was a desperate feeling, not being able to patch together a definitive profile of the speaker by using our sight and hearing, both senses now totally alert. Also, there was something about the dialogue we were listening to that was difficult to comprehend without a visual. I thought maybe one of the actors had an accent. I checked the volume on my headphones. Was it that not being able to see the speaker rendered me slightly deaf?
I did finally see the actors in the crowd, and then realised that some of the performers in the company had intellectual disabilities. Those opening moments of aural/visual dissonance were intended as a reminder of how dependent we are on sight and hearing to formulate perceptions and make judgements. We watched four actors playing their parts—two friends, each with a disability, bullied and cajoled by a couple of brash businesspeople trying to close a commercial deal whose terms the friends didn’t accept—and we didn’t accept the terms either. Nor did we accept the terms of several other social contracts we witnessed during the play. We were furious, for instance, when an annoyed-looking woman (a passer-by), detecting something unusual in actor Simon Laherty’s behaviour (he was talking, she thought, to himself), pressed her face up next to him, interrupted his performance, and demanded to know what he was doing. When Simon turned back to face the audience, the woman followed his gaze, noticed us watching her, and fled.
Small Metal Objects was, in 2007, entirely surprising theatre. Today, only two years later, many of its features can be identified as central to a strain of theatre currently enjoying a renaissance in Australia and in the rest of the world: lifting the minutiae of everyday existence to the level of spectacle, exploiting theatrical devices to demonstrate the role of the audience in the creation of a narrative, and rising above the mundane political debates of the day to hint at larger social questions about how we live our lives. Situated unselfconsciously in the present moment, shaped but unburdened by the past, these productions regard fictional narratives about social issues as cumbersome, didactic and undemocratic. An extension of ‘postdramatic’ theatre, this new theatre is unlikely to run a neat two hours with an interval. Each production is instead conceived as an ‘event’. Eschewing the idea of a ‘story’, the focus of these productions is the audience: it is their transformation that is the point.
This new strain of theatre in Australia is a defiant break from tradition. It turns its back on the national mythology of Australia’s cultural cringe and the associated assertion of an independent (white) Australian voice in opposition to the traditional British canon. Three years prior to the Sydney season of Small Metal Objects, Melbourne playwright Tom Wright said as much in an interview about his new position as artistic associate and dramaturge at Sydney Theatre Company. At a time when many Australian playwrights were responding to the policies of the Howard government, Wright declared, ‘I’m so bored with well-written plays about issues. If I see another couch on stage, I’ll scream.’ Wright’s complaint was made six years ago and the question now is, will today’s more experimental environment prove flexible enough to remain relevant? Will different voices begin to adopt this broad-brush theatrical model, or does its abstract tendency preclude the articulation of specific cultural perspectives? At this moment, we’re enjoying a high point in theatrical confidence, daring, and imagination, which has the potential to expand and shift, incorporating a broader range of experiences, more varied audiences and bigger ideas. Yet it seems to me that Australian theatre has not yet found a way to shrug off its self-conscious parochialism entirely.
Australian theatre has reached a peak in productivity, commercial diversity and international success. When Geoffrey Rush won a Tony award for his role in Exit the King in 2009, the Australian media excitedly reported his utterance of the words ‘Hello Federation Square’ in his acceptance speech. However, theatre produced outside the major theatre companies in Australia also enjoys a great deal of international success, due partly to Australia Council funding models. Small Metal Objects, for instance, produced by Geelong’s Back to Back theatre, toured extensively overseas, including to Paris. Lally Katz, Ross Mueller, Joanna Murray-Smith and Hannie Rayson are among the growing number of Australian playwrights whose work is finding an international audience. In 2009, without leaving Melbourne, Red Stitch theatre took part in an international performance event, a simultaneous reading of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. These days, if you make theatre in Australia, it’s not crazy to think your work could be performed overseas.
On the other hand, if you want to see what’s happening in Berlin, Beijing, or New York, you can get a sense of it at your nearest capital city at festival time. The international productions featured at these festivals have in recent years demonstrated a stimulating experimentation with form. In 2009 in Sydney, Robert Lepage’s Lipsynch blended cinema, opera, sound and light to tell a story that lasted, in real time, for a day. Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz was part book-reading, part play, utilising everything on stage—including the lighting guy—to represent the disintegration of the great Gatsby’s life. In Melbourne, Terminus—a series of monologues—was written entirely in verse, depicting a world between, before, and after life and death. The Smile off Your Face, a Belgian production appearing at the Sydney Festival, kidnapped its own audience from a tiny foyer, selecting individuals one by one, blindfolding them, and taking them away. The kidnapped were—at half-hour intervals—placed in a wheelchair and steered behind a curtain. The power play between audience and performer became suddenly apparent as it was subverted, mocked and exploited. Whirled through space, teased with incongruous sounds (a cigarette lighter, a faint giggle), smells (a faint rose scent, human breath close to your face) and tastes (a soft marshmallow when you’re expecting chocolate), the audience/subject of this experiment lost directional sense and fought the urge to remove the blindfold.
My own experience in the wheelchair was unnerving but exhilarating. My social instincts were in overdrive—I couldn’t get the smile off my face. The opening line of each show is: ‘Step over here, please.’ It’s an order disguised as a request. At no stage is the audience’s permission expressly sought, so there’s a niggling feeling that some social contract (or even a law) is being breached, or would be, if only the victim (me, the audience) felt empowered to bear witness to her lack of consent. At one stage, I was coaxed from my wheelchair onto (oh no!) a bed, where my sweaty palms were caressed by an affectionate woman who seemed to know too much about me and confidently misunderstood my answers to her intimate, probing questions. Moments later, befuddled, dumped back in the wheelchair, I was photographed, still blindfolded, by a noisy Polaroid camera. Somebody sniggered. Smile off Your Face had no plot, except the journey of each audience member through provocative stimuli. In that sense, it was co-written by the audience, about the audience. Afterwards, walking through the streets was revelatory. It was as though everybody else was ill equipped to appreciate the everyday miracle of engaging in social discourse. In the same way as the phrase ‘This is the show’ was true of Small Metal Objects, Smile off Your Face stayed with its audiences as a lens through which the social fabric of the everyday world could be seen more clearly.
Next to Smile off Your Face, No Dice, also at the Sydney Festival, was epic in every sense. With elements from Artaud, Brecht, Foreman and the postdramatic, this four-hour show is allegedly an abridged version of an eleven-hour spectacular. Its script is comprised entirely of phone conversations held between the actors and their friends. Throughout the show, the actors are listening to the ‘script’ on an iPod, parroting the words as they’re heard. The conversations are real, full of the pauses and uncertainty of everyday speech, and yet the performance is pantomime, the costumes are grotesque or falling apart, and the ums and ahs are granted dramatic significance. All this is punctuated by jerky dance moves that are choreographed by selecting cards from a deck. The event—the experience of being in the theatre—is exaggerated one moment only to be undermined the next. A woman trussed up in a huge Elizabethan frock with incongruous dark glasses and a beehive hairdo throws open the doors. She commentates her own entrance, describes the impact it has on the audience, announces it has no meaning, and wanders off. As critic and dramaturge Jacob Gallagher-Ross explains, ‘Nature theater excites conventional theatrical expectations to point to their persistent power as a kind of experiential deep structure.’ We recognise the theatrical tricks of No Dice from of our own lives, and we reflect on what makes us behave the way we behave, say the things we say, interrupt ourselves, repeat ourselves, or not speak when we have something to say. Again, it’s after the show—standing in the pub listening to the speech patterns of real people having real conversations—that the cadences of the voices we’ve been listening to for four hours become meaningful. Every exclamation, lilt and pause feels like part of a collaborative, ongoing creative project we’re all engaged in, whether we know it or not.
Gallagher-Ross identifies this creating an ‘afterlife in the mind’ in the work of the Nature Theater of Oklahoma. (The name is a reference to Kafka’s Amerika. The company is based in New York.) He situates No Dice between the influences of Richard Foreman and John Cage. Although acknowledging the Foremanesque practice of ‘making … points about the imprisoning effect of consciousness, the inadequacy of language, and the ultimate foolishness of any artfully constructed narrative’, Gallagher-Ross suggests No Dice departs from the postmodern celebration of formlessness. It recalls instead the kitsch, messy performance art of Jack Smith, and John Cage’s contention that there is no such thing as an empty space or time. ‘Rather than making a post-modern pessimistic statement about prefabricated culture speaking through people,’ he says, ‘the piece [mines] verbal ingenuity from habitual speech.’ Gallagher-Ross concludes, ‘It is the human facility for making artistic shapes, finding meaningful containers for experience, that No Dice ultimately celebrates’.
In the final moments of No Dice, the performers speak in unison directly to an audience member. The speech is focused and touching, and finally we’re listening to words that make sense. Speech can be powerful, political, affecting and capable of promoting an empathetic response in others. It is part of what constitutes us as a functioning society. You leave the theatre empowered. The Director’s Manifesto for Back to Back Theatre suggests a similar moral aesthetic:
We aim to discover the likeness between two things which were thought unlike, to create meaningful data from complex patterns, to discover a new underlying order … We aim to challenge and enrich the audience, to liberate from conditioned response and from the familiar.
In this way, contemporary experimental productions aim to ‘liberate’ their audiences from one world view and suggest, almost as an afterthought, the social means by which one might find access to more democratic ones.
Experimentation with theatrical forms is by no means unprecedented in Australian contemporary theatre. Lally Katz was producing work in 2003 (The Black Swan of Trespass) and 2004 (Eisteddfod) that borrowed from media, history and her own life. The works confused the real and the surreal and collapsed space and time. The Black Swan of Trespass cast the Ern Malley hoaxers as puppets—a cat and a rooster. Eisteddfod, an incestuous adventure story, was set in a suburban bedroom where teenager Abalone was stuck in a co-dependent, abusive, sexually ambiguous entanglement with his sister. His dream is to escape by performing from Macbeth at the local eisteddfod. The incongruity of the banal and the fantastical is simultaneously heartbreaking and hilarious. Writers and directors such as Daniel Keene, Declan Greene, Jenny Kemp and Ariette Taylor have also created psychological worlds in which time, space and logic are distorted. Barrie Kosky, Benedict Andrews and Tom Wright shun the wordy three-act play in favour of grand theatrical visions borne of the rich and varied traditions of theatrical history. War of the Roses at the Sydney Festival was a visual feast that ran for eight hours and comprised stories from eight of Shakespeare’s plays performed by some of Australia’s best actors. Increasingly, state theatre companies are making way for the less ‘mainstream’ works and creating new spaces and residencies for ‘alternative’ theatre.
This year’s 3xSisters by the Hayloft Project took a classic fictional narrative and subjected it to three discordant interpretations. A reimagining of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, it incorporated artists from the anarchic Black Lung Theatre, responsible for Avast and Avast II: The Welshman Cometh, and from Stuck Pigs Squealing (Eisteddfod, The Black Swan of Trespass and others). The original Chekhov play was sliced into three sections, each of which was adapted by a different director after names were drawn from a hat. None of the directors was privy to what the other two were doing. This resulted in three distinct styles. There was a Waiting for Godot–style comedic tableau, in which the sisters loitered—bored and snappy—in what appeared to be an airport lounge, surrounded by clocks. Occasionally, leaning conspiratorially into a central microphone, characters spoke of their desires, doubts and fears directly to the audience. Shadowing cabaret, pantomime and even stand-up comedy, these asides were delivered with a variety of emotions: horror, relish, or the bored monotone normally reserved for checkout-chicks asking for a price check. Next was a play reading by a drama group wearing ‘I Heart Chekhov’ T-shirts. Alternating actors, reading from various translations, tossed the drama around like a tennis ball, sucking the tension from the script into the awkwardly charged rehearsal room.
The other third of 3xSisters was a relentless, Scorsese-inspired gore-fest, featuring the murder of the sisters by that famously maladjusted Chekhovian creep Solyony. The sisters are beaten to death by suited men who stand over buckets of blood, punching the blood with their fists, while Solyony, mad and silent, fires a shotgun repeatedly. The loathing, lust and impotent rage that are so repressed in the parlour rooms of Three Sisters are projected across the stage in an exaggerated mash-up of blockbuster moments, theatrical clichés, disturbing soundscapes and filmic images. At times reminiscent of Tarkovsky, characters lurked in sharp shadows. Shirt-sleeved wise guys handling dead bodies resembled The Wire or Kill Bill. It also hinted at misogynous media fantasies like pornography, snuff films or even the hysterical tone of the late-night news reporting a grisly crime. All of this was overkill—as someone quipped during the interval. It was too much, deliberately, with ideas borrowed from too many places, many of which we were familiar with and had at some stage been seduced by.
The production was slammed in the Age by Cameron Woodhead, who claimed to be disgusted as well as bored. During the debate the production roused, 3xSisters was accused of every crime from shock tactics to plagiarism to self-indulgent auteurism. . Several audience members left during the murder scene on the night I saw 3xSisters. I too almost left. The frenzy of visceral elements brought together successfully to horrify me became so relentless as to engender a feeling of sympathy, even complicity with the performers. In responding to these cinematic and theatrical cues, I was taking part in a grotesque fantasy written by men trying to titillate my most base instincts. It was misanthropic and accusatory. Returning after interval, we were greeted again by those grinning actors in their ‘I Heart Chekhov’ T-shirts, desperately seeking to appease us.
3xSisters differs from Small Metal Objects, No Dice and The Smile off Your Face in one key way. As I walked away from the show I didn’t feel equipped with an optimistic mental map with which to navigate the world, I felt shaken from my perch. I used to think avant-garde techniques like the ones used in 3xSisters sounded academic and were interesting only to people who were in on the joke. The production was certainly accused of this. As Gallagher-Ross says, the avant-garde tradition is characterised by ‘a kind of practical theorizing’. Generally, however, 3xSisters adhered to a fictional narrative form that was established by Chekhov and made famous by every previous performance of Three Sisters. In fact, it was the rigidity and familiarity of the narrative structure that 3xSisters exaggerated, thereby subverting the theatrical gear shifts of the original text. The disparate visions evident in each director’s section of the play drew attention to the original theatrical form, to demonstrate that a single story can veer dramatically from one extreme to another and that at some point, you may decide to leave. Afterwards, as the hysteria, the horror and the humour of the piece resonated, everyday life felt suspiciously subdued. This ‘afterlife in the mind’ nudged at our own horrifying capabilities. Like standing at the top of a cliff, testing what it might feel like to fall, it seemed to suggest we’d never know unless we tried.
Despite the daring and innovation of this new strain of contemporary theatre in Australia, it is important to understand that adapting the linear, naturalistic, British canonical play structure to incorporate a local vernacular and tell Australian stories survives as a proud and hard-won tradition. Extending as far back as Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, the era of witty, dramatic theatre about obviously Australian characters and contemporary issues saw its heyday during the 1970s. David Williamson describes that time as a battleground for Australian theatre:
at last we were going to get our own stories on stage spoken in our own accents, reflecting our own life, because up to that stage Australian plays had been few and far between. And so there was an anger about that, but also an excitement and a determination to get the Australian way of life on stage.
‘Getting the Australian way of life on stage’ was, at that time, a political act of self-determination: allowing characters to speak in an Australian vernacular and deal with issues facing so-called ordinary Australians was a radical statement. Many of the most famous Australian plays since the 1970s, from Ray Lawler to Raimondo Cortese, have been characterised by a directness in language, tone and political perspective. This was particularly so during the Howard years when, as Robyn Archer argued, dialectic was dismissed as ‘unAustralian’. At this time playwrights politicised the ‘Australian way of life’ model unapologetically and objected to the lack of a national debate on social issues.
This type of theatre, concerned with ‘our own stories … spoken in our own accents’, can still be seen in any given week in most state theatre companies. There is no data collected in Australia that analyses the tastes and preferences of audiences across the theatrical spectrum, although the Australia Council is releasing the results of a cross-disciplinary audience participation survey early in 2010. What is clear is that the works of David Williamson, Hannie Rayson, Michael Gurr, Andrew Bovell, Louis Nowra and Joanna Murray-Smith – works that address personal, social and political tensions and depict characters struggling with real-life issues recognisable to Australian audiences – remain popular in theatre programs across the country.
It was Rayson’s play Inheritance that bore the brunt of Wright’s ‘one more couch and I’ll scream’ statement denouncing ‘well-written plays about issues’. Rayson’s interest in ‘the national conversation’ permeates her work, and Inheritance is an overtly political play about how the Hansonite politics of the time demonstrated the racist rural mythologies that have shaped white Australia’s identity. Plays such as Inheritance, Joanna Murray-Smith’s The Female of the Species (critiquing an unreconstructed 1970s style feminist reminiscent of Germaine Greer) and David Williamson’s Influence (depicting a right-wing radio shock-jock) unpack contemporary issues and play them out on stage, usually through well-formed arguments between characters. In 2005, responding to criticism of Two Brothers, a play depicting a Peter Costello–like central figure engaged in a moral struggle with his own brother on the issue of asylum seekers, Rayson defended herself from accusations of melodramatic politicisation: ‘In this climate, what is called for is bold provocation. Now is not the time for timidity in our drama.’
The contention that theatre has a role in provoking public debate or reflection on issues of the day is one with which the current generation of Australian theatre-makers is uncomfortable. Particularly, it is the ‘bold’ manner in which the provocation occurs—explicit political discussions and clever arguments between fictional opponents in urban living rooms—that today’s more abstract theatrical style rejects. It is a mode often regarded, by critics at least, as didactic, smug and preachy.
A powerful example of Howard-era political theatre that avoided the risks of being sanctimonious or didactic was Through the Wire, devised by Ros Horin from material gathered from interviews with asylum seekers who had been living in Australian detention centres. The piece accommodated the stories of four asylum seekers and three Australian women—including a prison guard and a counsellor—who tried to help them. This was no white, middle-class contrivance of a fictional narrative. It was an opportunity for a mostly white Australian audience to hear, for the first time, the voices of the asylum seekers we were so used to reading and talking about.
This was a chronological narrative set in a specific place at a specific time using a series of monologues lifted from interview transcripts. In that sense, it fitted comfortably into the ‘Australian way of life’ model, although its documentary feel and the political potency of the moment located it outside fictional form. It felt more like a series of quiet testimonials. We got to know the people on stage, who stood and spoke directly to us, unfettered by theatrical tricks. There were no couches, no breaking down of the fourth wall to expose the theatrical superstructure. The audience’s role did not need to be pointed out to us. We knew we were implicated in the stories, and we understood the role of theatre in bringing the words ‘asylum seeker’ out of the chatty genre of current affairs programs and opinion pages and into this raw, immediate environment.
Despite its documentary feel, Through the Wire used the conventions of theatre to tell its stories. Underscored by live Iranian music and accompanied by video footage projected on a screen, the show’s minimalist sensibility enhanced the text. The fact that one of the performers (Shahin Shafaei) was an asylum seeker, retelling his own story, meant that the ‘theatreness’ of the production felt light, unobtrusive and less manufactured. Perhaps the traditional form and structure of theatre only becomes oppressive when the text is assuming an objective, omniscient voice.
At the centre of the current resistance to traditional plays is the question of authenticity. The current crop of theatre-makers reject as crass the idea that the actors on stage are pretending, that sets and costumes and accents are being used to represent an aspirational reality. Experimental theatre that fossicks through the experience of the everyday to expose the fake authenticity of ‘realistic’ theatre suggests that the job of locating genuine authenticity and arbitrating its ethical dilemmas lies with us. Whether other, newer, non-Anglo voices, or stories that depend on narrative specificity can speak authentically within either of these remains uncertain. The recent explosion of indigenous content in the Australian film industry has enabled a variety of indigenous perspectives and styles to reach appreciative international audiences. In Australian theatre, the historical dominance of white storytellers continues and professional theatre companies have been accused lately of sexism at the highest levels. Put simply, if Australian theatre is to remain relevant and interesting, these tendencies have to be eliminated.
The emergence of companies such as Ibijerri Theatre, Urban Theatre Projects, directors such as Wesley Enoch, and works devised for festivals such as the Darwin Arts Festival, might, however, nudge the malleable definition of ‘Australian theatre’ in a new direction. Already, Bangarra Dance Theatre has occupied a prominent position as Australia’s major Aboriginal performing arts organisation by adopting an anti-didactic experimental ethic. Bangarra choreographer Frances Rings describes the Bangarra experience as follows:
I love that the dance is not shoving things down your throat saying, ‘Yeah, you white people have done this and that.’ Instead it’s saying we’ve got this amazing, beautiful culture here … When you sit down and see a Bangarra show, you don’t realise you’ve just been given a 50-minute history lesson, you just feel like you’ve been taken on a journey and it comes back to you in waves.
Rings describes the impact of Bangarra dance as ‘like this little spirit that wafts’ and lingers for days. ‘You remember things from the show when you’re making a cup of tea the next day,’ she says.
Thanks to the influence of the neo-avant-garde on Australian theatre, shows such as Small Metal Objects, 3xSisters, Eisteddfod and an increasing collection of others have loosened the confines of the conventional theatre model and introduced a theatrical aesthetic whose most valued response is the ‘cup of tea the next day’ moment. Hopefully, these cup-of-tea moments, imbued with surprising ideas and new cultural perspectives, will continue to occur. The politics of the Howard era may no longer be shaping language, myth and representation in this country, but so long as asylum seekers are being sent to detention centres, Aboriginal populations battle third world health problems, and new communities are being formed in Australia, there will surely be new and important stories to tell and the continuing, exciting search for the right way to tell them.
2. Organisations receiving triennial funding between 1998 and 2002 were the biggest international exporters of Australian theatre at the time. An Analysis of the Triennially Funded Theatre Organisations of the Theatre Board of the Australia Council (2003) (commissioned by the Theatre Board and researched and written by Ian Roberts with associates Sandra Robertson, Michael Perry and Alison Richards, to examine the strengths and vulnerabilities of these companies and their contribution to Australian culture). Funding for small to medium emerging organisations and for travel to certain international festivals is part of the Australia Council’s current grants program. Back to article
7. Melbourne Theatre Company, Belvoir Street Theatre, the Malthouse and Sydney Festival have all created space—figuratively and literally—for more ‘alternative’ theatre in their seasons and some residencies have been established.Back to article
11. Gallagher-Ross, ‘Dancing to the Cosmic Murmur’, p. 92.
12. Interview, George Negus and David Williamson, George Negus Tonight, 2004, viewed at <http://www.abc.net.au/gnt/profiles/Transcripts>. Back to article
14. Gathering data on ‘what audiences want’ was the topic of a presentation organised by the Australia Council in September this year, at which Alan Brown, author of the WolfBrown report, Assessing the Intrinsic Impacts of Live Performance, encouraged further investigations into this area. Back to article