“Write what you know.”

The first rule of thumb for anyone interested in writing anything. This applies to birthday cards right through to grand epic fictions or a boutique thesis on an obscure historical peccadillo.

It is rapidly followed by the next question:
“What do you know?”

And then swiftly after that,
“How do you know that?”

And then:
“Who are you to write that anyway?”

It is no secret that artists are like bower birds. Collecting snatches of overheard conversation, headlines from newspapers, facts from journals artists chew through the meat and the gristle of daily life, sifting and grinding found concepts, images, speeches – processing it into art. Sometimes the process is curatorial: Selecting and arranging the real, raw data and daily life materials into order or housing them in a shape or place to draw attention to it. Sometimes they work in collaboration with a specific community to reflect a truth or an opinion for the betterment of society – the participants and the audience. Sometimes they fracture reality stylistically, thematically until the work is an abstraction of an idea. Sometimes they imagine an alternate reality, inspired by but not replicating events. Playwrights collect, notate, process and present realities. Sometimes they do all of these things. The making of art is not an easy nor a cut and dried process – everyone does it differently and for different reasons and for different purposes.

It begs the question: are artists parasites of the lives of non-artists?

Recently, as a part of the Independent season at the Griffin Theatre Company, Jane Bodie’s play Music, asks that very question.

“Two actors researching a theatre project befriend a seemingly quiet and ordinary man named Adam. In reality, Adam’s unexceptional existence is carefully calibrated – a precarious sideways tightrope-walk over his mental illness. Now, Adam’s new friends are at risk of throwing his life dangerously off balance. And there’s every chance they’ll go down with him. Music offers a sharp critique of the way mental illness is perceived today and examines the dangerous consequences of raiding people’s personal lives in the name of art. A surprising and surprisingly funny story of people connecting and colliding, as two actors blunder their way into Adam’s life, causing untold damage to him as a result.”

It’s an issue in contemporary theatre writing. An issue we need to discuss.

Artists, despite best of intentions may hurt those they love – friends, family, their community – in the desire to draw on what they know.

As other forms of “reality” entertainment (Reality TV – weight-loss shows, cooking competitions, house renovation shows) push mainstream audience narrative literacy into hardline “realism” – theatre is forced to prove its authenticity, its “realness” amongst the audience. With a glut of homemade, self-made, online content showing “real” events, acts or distractions, content is freely available and accessible. This combination of audience literacy in/desire to engage with reality content and a prevalence of artist access to primary source materials – results in the opportunity for stories outside of an artist’s direct experience to be told.

What does the writer do? Write what they know.
What do they know? They know their perspective based on their research.
How do you know that? They spend time interrogating the ideas, the story, they carry out research and consultations.
Who are they to write this? They are a writer who dares to add to the ongoing conversation about art and humanity which has been in progress across languages, nations, genders, politics, genres since the beginning of time. And to be one small person contributing to that – in the face of peers who will evaluate your contribution – you have to have an iron constitution and know your stuff pretty well.

So it is hardly surprising when a few weeks after opening, there is controversy surrounding The Griffin Theatre’s current production “Ugly Mugs” by Peta Brady (a co-production with the Malthouse Theatre) about the ethics of the storytelling.
According to a member of the Scarlet Alliance, Australia’s peak sex worker organisation, Ugly Mugs is “Pity porn.”

Read reportage from the Sydney Morning Herald here: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/theatre/sex-worker-union-member-attacks-peta-brady-play-ugly-mugs-20140813-103mty.html#ixzz3AHNyUYFm

A string of alternating responses – praising and damning the production on the Griffin Theatre Company Facebook feed http://www.griffintheatre.com.au/whats-on/ugly-mugs/

It has created a community upheaval amongst sex workers who have articulated their perspective ending with the powerful phrase:

“Sex workers speak for ourselves, our personal stories belong to us and it is our right if, and when to tell them.”


The Griffin Theatre Company responded with a formal response nobly engaging with the issues raised, and open to revealing the consultative process and seeking to continue engagement with the Scarlet Alliance. The objective and the intent of the play was articulated “to provoke conversations in our audience about the steps we need to take as a society to unmake traditions or patterns of violent behaviour.”

I am not specifically interested in engaging with the particulars of due diligence or artistic license in this particular instance. I think the dialogue we have with audience is as important as the conversation we have amongst ourselves.
The broad issue I am interested in here is:
Who has the right to tell a story?
How do we have a conversation about ownership?
How do we work through conflicts of representation?

Raised at the Australian Theatre Forum in 2013, this issue was raised in the idea of representation and appropriation of Aboriginal story – who has the right to tell a story? Can races be cross cast?

Raised again at Playwriting Australia’s National Play Festival 2014 during an industry session focused on Aboriginal Dramaturgy – what is the process of permission/rights to sharing story, sharing language?

When working in a context which is based in and of a community there are sensitivities to what and how information is shared, where permission comes from, how it is granted to whom and when.

For artists, whose source material is their experience of the world – the structures around notions of community engagement and ethnography are blurred, or casual or not existent.

It can leave artists open to attack. It can leave communities open to attack.

Which is not the objective of cultural and artistic pursuits. Not at all.

Artistic and cultural pursuits seek to bring understand, compassion, awareness, inspire activism and social change. It is this intention which elevates art above the idea of base schadenfreude or entertainment.

And we’ve got to talk about this. This is too important not to engage with.

Telling stories can come at a price: the trust and respect of our loved ones and or our community.

As artists and producers we have a moral obligation to our community – both those who are sources of inspiration and those who are our audiences (hopefully these are one and the same) to make sure that the context in which we develop and make a work involves consultation and discussion with community – and that takes time.

It takes generosity, patience. From everyone.

It will take a willingness to speak. A willingness to listen.

I believe our arts community has the capacity to deliver.