First published in Feb 2007

Arriving back in Australia is an amazing thing. Firstly, there’s the realisation with how much your accent sounds like a cartoon bushman with a mouth full of flies and how much the Australian lingo is a vernacular of similes (i.e. dry as a dead dingo’s etc.) Secondly there’s a hyper sensitivity to all things from the country you have just experienced. For me there is nothing as bright as a red maple leaf emblazoned on a backpack and nothing inflates my R’s like hanging out with North Americans. (Yes sirrrr!) And then there’s the curse of comparison.

When I returned I was expecting a lot of myself and of the Australia I had left behind. The Sydney Festival was about to start. “Great! I am ready to see what everyone has been up to!” I soon remembered why I hadn’t really attended much in the way of the festival before… It isn’t a celebration of Sydney artists… its an international festival of international artists which happens to be in Sydney. Where are the Sydney artists? Oh, they’re the ones serving coffee or the people staffing the box office. Australian content: what is that anyway? Should we, as our Prime Minister suggested in his Australia Day speech of 2006, be closing the door on questions pertaining to Australian identity?

The comparison starts: Why is this an issue here and not in Canada? Australia and Canada are both British colonies. Both artistically and culturally affected by the United States. Both are fairly new countries. Both have a multicultural base. But Canadians are fiercely proud of their arts, their music, their theatre; their identity. Canadians are so committed to the arts that they fight through snow and blizzards to get to the local theatre. The tiniest towns of southern Ontario have a theatre that is supported by the local community. Road signs along the highways not only indicate the next gas station and rest spot, but the next theatre! Why is there an audience for me there… but not an audience here?

Sitting with my favourite university lecturer overlooking the grounds of the timeless sandstone of Sydney University I asked, “What has happened to theatre in Sydney?” I was asking the man who had carefully explained to all of the bright-eyed Performance Studies students the constant “crisis” of Australian Theatre… the man who explained the nature of the “theatre beast” only to be greeted with my whimpers of “but why?” The man who encouraged me to attend as much as I could whilst explaining the fickle tendencies of audiences. He listed the successes of my peers who were overseas, who occasionally sent news of “Aussie does good in (Insert country here)” on the waves to our shores.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved and needed my time away. It’s wonderful and very important that we have artists on exchange having adventures and developing their craft. But what if you want to come home? Australians need stories too! There is evidence of audiences out there: audiences that are average Australians looking for a wonderful experience. Audiences that don’t just exist in acedemic circles, or just within the theatre community. The glimmers of this include Sidetrack Theatre’s “The Promised Woman”(2000) and Black Swan/Company B’s “Cloudstreet”(1998) and more recently the success of the Mead/Cowell initiative of Wharf 2 Loud. Australians love a good yarn! Surely this is proof that you can dispel the “you can’t be a prophet in your own home town” syndrome.

Recently in a playwright’s master class with the powerfully and impressively articulate Van Badham, she explained a few home truths of why she’s not living in Australia. She illuminated the imbalance of the funding for the arts and the funding for sports, she told of the speed and ease with which scripts are up and onto stages in the UK, she explained the importance of the arts in the cultural landscape and in attracting tourism to British towns that have lost their primary industries. She offered bright impassioned words of advice echoed by the wise and solid tim Daly, “just find some friends and put it on!”

As my garden-gnome-esq vice principal in high school said, “Ten little words can change your life: If its meant to be, it is up to me.” Aristophanes, Strindberg and Ibsen made theatre happen. (Not that I liken myself or my style of theatre, level of success or style of facial hair to these dead men in anyway except to say: they made it.) They took a risk. They confronted the tastemakers and the stylists of the time, the conventions, the institutions and did it anyway because they thought they could and someone should. And why shouldn’t we? Doesn’t the Australian Audience deserve it?

All of these questions and thoughts lead me to where I am right now:

Somehow, through a friend of a friend, I was approached to direct a short play for Sydney’s Short and Sweet play festival. After chopping and reshaping and re-modelling the script, we had a sweet romantic comedy performed by two lovely actors. No props. No set. No costumes. No special technical demands and functional lighting. Despite a few misadventures (including a fractured heel of the leading man) the show went on as it always does. To my delight, there was thunderous applause, hooting and hollering and show stopping laughter! Somehow we won judges choice for week 4 at the Newtown Theatre and somehow achieved a whopping 36% of the audience vote! That’s bigger than the ratings of a popular Channel 9 TV show!! Even with my friends and colleagues voting… that would only account of 6% of the audience vote! So what does this mean? Well it meant our show was in the Gala Final of Short and Sweet at the Seymour Centre in Sydney and received “The People’s Choice Award” for the festival… and I have restored faith in myself, in theatre: the ancient art of storytelling and most importantly the Australian audience.

There are already pots on the boil… a night of new One Act plays in June/July perhaps? A world premiere of a new script from Canada in August/Sept… What are your plans?