Writing Bad | Australian Plays and the Critical Conversation
I’m not a journalist. I’m not an academic. I’m not a lawyer.
I’m an artist.
I’m an artist who has sat in a very weird place in the Australian theatre landscape somewhere between producer and critic, emerging and established, between fan and assessor, audient and philanthropist, administrator and promoter. It’s not due to a lack of rigor – or ability to commit to one thing. My attention is not diluted nor compromised because of my sprawling embrace of all things art and culture. In fact, it’s intensified. There is little else I could imagine that could exercise my heart, my mind so intensely and so perfectly.
There has been, since 2012 a drop in my ability or willingness to flex my public muscle as what some see as a “critic.” Namely a series of very distinct, personal attacks, a death threat and general occasional social isolation which sometimes has been warranted. However, my passionate engagement has not stopped though it has steadied. I feel less inclined to dig into the finer silt of an argument regarding art… because in my experience it too often dissolves into an ugly personal attack of “who do you think you are anyway?” That line of attack, I felt inclined to respond to with equal vim and vigor stating my claims and justifying my right to an opinion, a voice, a position.
But now I no longer feel inclined to get muddy in this silt.
I’d avidly read and unpick Alison Croggon’s Theatre notes comments with eager attention:
I’d watch the well handled disputes on Jane Howard’s blog:
I’d watch as the Sydney theatre critics became a safe and watery horizon of obvious mainstream platitudes and see the rise in popularity of what I personally refer to the “marketing blogs” containing sweet sentences of praise for any production providing a free ticket – without any hint of an argument or perspective with grunt or muscle. It’s easy to be in the soft safe nest of fawning reportage – much harder to try and move the conversation into broader perspective. Much harder to exclaim the nakedness of the emperor. Much more painful when your truth has you burnt at the stake.
The thing is we all get it wrong.
Artists. Critics. Producers. Audiences. Funding bodies.
Everyone gets something wrong sometimes.
Sometimes we speak too soon. Sometimes we don’t speak soon enough. Sometimes we use the wrong words. Express an idea the wrong way. Sometimes we misjudge, misunderstand, miscommunicate. Sometimes we use the wrong forum or medium. No one gets it right all the time.
What matters most is not how often we get it wrong or get it right – after all art is largely about pushing boundaries – it’s about how we recover, how we resolve differences, how we admit when we’ve gotten it wrong. How we stand up when we know we are right.
Last week Australianplays.org posted an essay by Jana Perković http://australianplays.org/the-australian-bad-play
“Apocalypse stories in which the plot centres around romantic triangles and suburban drug-taking. Four-handers in which none of the characters talk to each other. ‘Issue’ plays in which current political events are lightly fictionalised, their very existence meant to be the heart of the drama. Or: recent creative-writing graduate departs for a year of backpacking and reality; the drama hovers gently between ‘loss of Australian innocence’ and reportage, not quite hitting either note. Working-class people die of abortion, drug use, broken-homeness and living in outer suburbs. Arts worker returns home and spends the entire play in subtext-laden silence at the family table. Four people sit in the evocative Australian landscape and talk about art. Four people in the big city talk about politics. Three or four teenagers talk like teenagers do: no plot.
I’d like to introduce you to Australian bad plays. All of them, however disparate they may seem, have failed in the same way – the Australian way. Plays of this kind appear on dozens of Australian stages every week between Wednesday evening and Sunday afternoon. And at the end of each one, the audience comes out of the theatre saying to each other, politely, but without conviction: “Well, that was interesting, wasn’t it?” And the choice of timid non-commitment instead of passionate rage expressed here, outside of our half-dozen hypothetical theatres, is only another instance of the rhetorical substitution of niceness for truth that had happened inside. The failure of the Australian play is the same as the failure of the Australian dinner conversation, television discussions, and public debates. Not all Australian plays, dinner conversations, and public debates fail in their purpose; but when they do, they fail similarly.”
The most interesting aspect of this essay is the idea of “Australian failure.”
Perkovic is asking a broader question of culture – suggesting a nation propensity for conflict avoidance, or an acceptance of the repressed and a denial of confrontation. Is this true? Could it be true? Is there a cautiousness in Australian playwriting – or is the cautiousness in Australian play production which leads to a series of new works to demonstrate a stylistic or thematic disconnect with conflict, action, confrontation?
Unfortunately the conversation has been derailed by several factors – the ethics of siting an unpublished, unproduced work Perkovic obtained in her role as literary manager is one, another the robust and relentless tone and scale of the essay: it feels personal, not academic.
Since the 29th of May when the essay was launched, it has been edited, sections omitted, has stirred 30 or so comments on the australianplays.org site and countless other threads on personal groups and Facebook pages.
This afternoon Tom Healey issued an apology and response: http://australianplays.org/an-apology-and-a-response
I’m left wondering – will this apology and response be enough? Has there been so much damage done? What is the damage? Reputational? Industrial? Can we ever have a difficult conversation about art if:
1. We always play the man and not the ball?
2. We never allow anyone – artists or critics – to make a mistake?
3. We can’t in a civil and respectful way engage with mistakes and try to lead by example?
What I am coming to the realisation is this: perhaps we as a culture are not ready to have a critical conversation?
Perhaps we are too fragile, too angry about the state of our respective fields (critics often underpaid, under resourced, disrespected and artists often underpaid, under resourced, disrespected) to actually address the issue of art, of culture for the benefit of current and future thinkers and makers.
Perhaps there should be no discussion.
Would we all be happier?