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?

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 a bit of Shakespeare just below the skin. And so it is with me.

One of of my very earliest theatre experiences was of Shakespeare: 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 lacked in youth was made up for 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 used 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 the show 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.