A report or sorts (and my thoughts) on the very tame discussion about “The Changing Face of Australian Playwriting.”

“A discussion on what it means to be an Australian playwright.
Whether it is “traditional” playwriting, adapting classics to suit our
national psyche, poetry or multimedia – what works? Where are we
headed? … Are we headed anywhere? With Tommy Murphy, Vanessa
Bates, Andrea James, Ian Meadows, Lachlan Philpott. Chaired by
Chris Mead.”

In a two pronged approach to the title – Dr Chris Mead (Artistic Director of PlayWriting Australia) introduces the idea of “The Changing Face of Australian Theatre.” In being the change of form/genre/style and the other being that of the content. The preamble was loaded with information about the recent PWA Play Festival (note the term “play festival” as opposed to a “playwright’s festival” – quite different) – and hosted a panel of very diverse playwrights – Tommy Murphy, Vanessa Bates, Andrea James, Ian Meadows, Lachlan Philpott.

To really plumb the depths of the idea of “the changing face” we must settle on what that face is. And for a nation such as Australia – whose identity crisis is FAR from over – that’s not an easy topic.

There was not much that was said – or could be said – by the panelists given they were afforded about 10 minutes of air time (if introductions and questions were kept short and succcinct – which is rare in such a buzzy festival context.) For me what was quite illuminating was the response by Andrea James (perhaps the playwright who I’m least familiar with – as a person and her work) who when asked what is her starting point she responded – “I start with where I’m from, who I am and where I am.” And it sounds simple enough – but for so many Australians having a clear sense of identity and place is not simple. When often playwrights in Australia are made anxious by their lack of stage credits – by their lack of being acknowledged as a vital and integral part of Australian arts and culture – it is little wonder.

When so much of the messaging from companies and festivals – and playwriting conferences is what is happening in the UK or in the US -is there any wonder that playwrights suffer a feeling of unsturdiness – hence why i believe the title of John McCallum’s book on Australian Playwrights (my personal dictionary/encyclopedia/map of Australian theatre writing) chimes so loudly. Australian playwrights struggle to belong. In their own country, in their own theatre, in their own culture.

There are a few things that i think about:
If Australia is (and of course we are) a mulitcultural society, why is the predominent language of our theatre English?
Where are our Chinese, French, Polish, Russian, Japanese, Malaysian, Korean language playwrights?

To my knowledge Andrea James is was the only playwright on that panel who involved and included a language other than English in her work – a means, she said to keep her language alive.

Perhaps this mono-cultural, mono-lingustic writing culture is why we look to the anglo-speaking powers of the UK and US? And in the presence of two northern hemispherical nations with SUCH an overwhelming history/personality/population, it is little wonder that Australian playwrights might feel a tad dwarfed, a little obsolete or like running away to join them – as so many do.

I was also thinking about what is being presented – as Lachlan Philpott raised the question of mainstage companies NOT reading plays and not investing in playwrights. Contentious when the AD of PWA is there (and that’s his job to help companies program Australian plays). And then the question of the canon – and an observation that Bevloir was happy for an autuer director to re-invent a Greek classic – and yet our own classic plays – eg Summer of the Seventeenth Doll are treated with the same reverance afforded a museum. Philpott asked – why don’t Belvoir ask a contemporary playwright to re-imagine or respond to our own plays? Tommy Murphy gave a reply which was along the lines of defending Belvoir (as their resident playwright would) and saying that it has to look across the season for the responses and ressonances. But lachlan responded with a questioning “who wants to see everything at Belvoir – and where did this subscriber culture come from?” Ooh contentious! But no nibbles – no hot discussion. and the converstaion moved on.

What the panel discussion became was a history lesson on Australian theatre writing, an advertisement for two invested companies and an introdcution to five playwrights.

I couldn’t help but feel like this was a missed opportunity for real engagement and discussion about culture and identity. Too little time, too many vested interest, too many polite playwrights.

So of course I piped up at the end – to mention a few things – one being the focus on young and emerging writers – that we have little support or interest in the mid career/older writers. Two that there is a change occuring outside mainstage companies and I site Urban Theatre Projects http://www.urbantheatre.com.au/ and the True West Season at the Riverside theatres in Parramatta http://www.riversideparramatta.com.au/performancelist.asp?cID=139

I said that the revolution has rarely ever happened within conservative institutions, eg mainstage companies – and has never been government funded. That change happens in independent companies and productions and we shouldn’t only take our cues about “what is Australian theatre” from the mainstage or commercial theatres.

I also mentioned three Currency House publications essential for developing our thinking about this topic:
Cross-racial Casting: Changing the Face of Australian Theatre by Lee Lewis

What Is an Australian Play? Have we Failed Our Ethnic Writers? by Chris Mead

INDIG-CURIOUS Who can play Aboriginal roles? by Jane Harrison