A State of Play essay by Ross Mueller

Editor’s note: Ross wrote this article in November 2016. For various internal reasons, its publication was held over until April 2017. As many readers will know, on Saturday March 18th, Senator Mitch Fifield’s office issued a press release to the effect that $61 million dollars in uncommitted funding were to be ‘transferred’ to the Australia Council over the next four years, thus ostensibly ending the arts funding car-crash announced by Senator George Brandis in the 2015/16 federal budget. Many companies, projects and artists went to the wall over this decision and the comparatively muted response from the media and the arts community in the wake of this latest unfolding of events has been somewhat depressing. While I believe most Australian artists will be thrilled to have the Australia Council ratified as our peak body and gratified to see the federal government tacitly acknowledge its mistake, much of the damage this decision caused in the first instance cannot be reversed. Ross and I discussed the publication of this article several times and we reached the conclusion that its fundamental argument remains true in the wake of this reversal; in fact, if anything, the (so far) limp response underlines the need for action. (TH)


It’s all a blur.

But at some time in the last three years we started talking politics again.

I’m not going to bore you with details, dates and times and inaccuracies and there are two reasons for this.

Number one:  We live in a post Prime Minister Abbott world and so facts are irrelevant. This era began with Scott Morrison’s refusal to make comment during his press conferences. He is our Treasurer now and we have a different Prime Minister, but remember when Sco-Mo was our Minister for Prevention of People Seeking Asylum? His press conferences were a collage of new rules and subterfuge. Remember when he refused to comment about ‘on-water matters’.  Mainstream media just accepted his lack of transparency. They didn’t bother to look any deeper than the scab on the skin of our democracy.

I think this is when it began.

The ‘on-water’ theory was that any direct comment about boat turn backs may just encourage more refugees to get into more broken ships and lunge for the northern borders of our island home. It was far safer for Australia to shut up and buy orange lifeboats that we could use to tow ‘illegals’ back to Indonesian waters and then set them adrift until they finally went back to where to they came from.

Theory based on no fact. Pure political opportunism.

Our silent acceptance of their silence amplified their theory into their fact. We believed the boats had stopped. We know now, this wasn’t true.

We know that now because the Turnbull government is trying to legislate to make it illegal for a refugee who tries to come by boat to ever set foot on Australian soil. Ever.

This is a lifetime ban for the ‘crime’ of seeking asylum.

Back in the beginning, the Abbott government refused to talk about the boats and so the mainstream media stopped reporting about them.

Number two: is an ‘on-water’ matter.

Today. The Abbott has gone but the cone of silence remains. We are still committing crimes against humanity and discovering abuse of power and entitlements. We have accidentally elected racists into the Senate and what are we doing about it? Where is our spunk? What happened to activism?


The conversation we used to have in the theatre is now online. It is on a variety of industry websites. It is on Facebook and Twitter.  It is driven by cyber dialogue and not reliant on monologues delivered from the stage.

Today you can sign an online petition or make a comment in a stream or under an article, leave a rant, impart some wisdom and log off.  Your duty can be discharged in seconds with a few fingers. This activism is important. Relevant. Necessary. But it is also symptomatic of a culture of isolation. Just because we can ‘like’ doesn’t mean it is all we have to do.

When I was an emerging writer, Melbourne had this thing called Playbox.

It was a theatre company that produced new contemporary Australian writing. It opened my eyes to Gurr, Rayson, Harrison, Bovell, Murray-Smith and Sewell. Maybe it is memory but when I think about what was happening on those stages, I recall the mission statement of why I wanted to write. ‘Contemporary theatre’. Critiques of our country. The plays may not all have been brilliant, but they were current and almost affordable and they were taking place in a room full of people.  This was the beginning of a discussion and so I started writing plays of my own.

This was back in the day. BW (Before wi-fi).

Agitation was response and reaction. Content was rarely ahead of the curve but it was relevant and immediate. Urgent.

In 2016, we can see the past and reveal the future in an instant. Our industry needs to reflect the immediacy of media that is driving the political agenda. Theatre is lagging behind.

Our development cycles are way too long. There are organisations, managers and institutions that make a living as gatekeepers. There is no facility for fast track and, while development is held hostage to an old-fashioned pyramid hierarchy, our main stages will continue to be populated with imported product and adaptations.

For an indie artist, it can take years to amass a few grand to pay some actors to sit in a room and read out loud. Programming works in years, not months and now, thanks to Brandis the Arts Bandit, there are even fewer companies that can commit to the risk of producing new Australian works.


Today an artist is an independent, or they are on wage at a Major or they are working for themselves for free. These divisions have reduced the opportunity for activism on stage. Who can afford to program dissent and still hope to sell 17,000 seats?

     Who can afford to program dissent and still hope to sell 17,000 seats?

Making a living as a working artist is a relatively new concept in Australia. The Whitlam government opened up the universities and placed a focus (and commercial value) on the creative industries. Prior to this, the opportunity to become a professional writer, actor or designer was limited to the lucky few and the upper classes.

We now live in a society that, by and large, understands the value of the arts. The figures are there. The research has been done and so it is even more discouraging to know that we have to regularly mount a defence of the arts just because a conservative political party has formed a government.

But this is the way.

Christian Porter’s recent proclamation that many arts courses are “lifestyle choices” merely reinforces the perception that conservative politicians are happy to be seen at the opening night of the opera or next to Cate Blanchett at the Biennale, but they also have no clue how ‘the ideas boom’ can be ignited.

The Australian cultural experience over the last thirty years is a hymn to jobs and growth. Despite this, people like Porter, Brandis and even Turnbull are deaf to the melody of creativity. While funding is reduced, risks are increased and so the chances to work for full wage (or full commission) are disappearing. Even inside the Majors’ seasons, there are productions that are co-ops.

Writers, directors, designers and actors will work for a cut of the door while the ushers, the bar staff and the theatre company management take home salaries and award wages. No other industry would find this an acceptable standard, but we do.

How do we drive activism for change in our wider community when we cannot enforce a sustainable business model for ourselves?

In the meantime, our demands for agitation seem to turn forever inward. We progress regular demands for reform from ourselves. We want quotas and diversity. We expect equality in our workplaces but our work rarely discusses these expectations with the outside world.  Our programmed content shies away from any call for change of the status quo. 

In 2015, we were divided even further by a vicious Attorney General. His vision was Wagnerian. His decision to cut the Australia Council in half was not only economically irresponsible, it was culturally psychotic. An ambush committed with no consultation and, to all appearances, based entirely on revenge.

The creation of the National Excellence Fund (or whatever he called it) was the moment we discovered that we are not all in this together.

There was outrage in our cottage industry. The rest of the country didn’t care. They didn’t see the connections because we have not bothered to make them clear in our work. We have not been programming any work that analyses our contemporary political voices. We have not presented plays on the main stage with an urgent Australian voice. Don’s Party is the only election play that we’ve put on our stage.

And so, to protest the cuts to the Australia Council, we met in the courtyard of the Malthouse. This was way post-Playbox and there was not a lot of experience in the construction of a successful ‘demo’. On the day of the interruption, we didn’t even have a megaphone. There was a social media encouragement to learn a dance in protest of the cuts. 2016 physical theatre activism.

     And so, to protest the cuts to the Australia Council, we met in the courtyard of the Malthouse. This was way post-Playbox and there was not a lot of experience in the construction of a successful ‘demo’. On the day of the interruption, we didn’t even have a megaphone. There was a social media encouragement to learn a dance in protest of the cuts. 2016 physical theatre activism.                         

In reality, we met up and saw people we hadn’t seen in years. Talked about how we would never own a house, have children or superannuation and how interesting it was that nobody from the Majors had come to our protest to make a speech. The silence was deafening. It wasn’t personal, it was professional.

Somehow, the wisdom of the time was that the best course of action was the path of least resistance in order to protect an industry very clearly under threat.  The Abbott era of ‘us and them’ was never more evident in our industry than on that day of drizzle.

Maybe this was when we started to talk about politics.  It was becoming impossible not to.


As a Prime Minister, Tony Abbott made a great Leader of the Opposition. His inability to empathise was draining our national life force.  ‘Team Australia’ filled the news cycle. His pathological love of the Australian flag was on display at every press conference. Hashtags appeared on Twitter, noting that today was a #tenflagday. The worse the news, the more Union Jacks. Comic, manic, deteriorating. Here was a man who had achieved his goal by beating the Labor Party into submission and now that he had climbed atop the pile of rotting bodies, his agenda for our nation was all about retribution.

Within days of taking office, he had instituted two Royal Commissions; one into Pink Batts and one into the Unions. Both were hugely expensive and targeted his political enemies. Both demanded Labor politicians appear as witnesses. This Tory payback was the plasma that kept the Abbott government alive for two short years.

A cabinet full of white men in blue suits. A Speaker in the House who invoked the expulsion Standing Order 94A like a lollypop lady on the last day of school. Abbott slept in the Federal Police Barracks and created a paramilitary organisation called Border Force. Badges, honours, epaulets.

‘On-water matters’, ‘Stop the Boats’ and ‘Debt and deficit’. This was 2014. I think. (It’s all a blur) To address the apparently enormous problem of our debt crisis-emergency-outbreak, he installed a Treasurer who had nothing but thumbs. Hockey owned a Casio calculator but he had no idea how to budget and then he famously declared, “the Age of Entitlement is over…”

We laughed online but we did not protest.

On the eve of the eve of his first Federal budget, Hockey was snapped with Finance Minister Cormann. Two fat white blokes sitting outside their taxpayer-funded offices, congratulating themselves and sucking down some of Cuba’s finest. This was their reward after they’d put the finishing touches to the most punitive Federal budget in living memory. This was the budget that had not been outlined in the election campaign. It contained hand grenades for all and laid out the rules of engagement for the class war that was about to begin again.

National debt was the Trojan horse for unprecedented spending cuts in education and social welfare, arts and culture, science and research and massive hikes in tertiary fees and a miraculous Medicare co-payment. In addition to the slashing, Abbott included his personal splurge. A paid parental leave allowance that would benefit his mates. Australia was girt by the dirty stain of retaliation.

This is when we started to talk about good government again.

The whole country cringed the day Tony awarded a Knighthood to Prince Philip. Nothing could save the onion eater now.


In the Malthouse Bar.

A playwright, a dramaturg and an Artistic Director try to understand what the fuck has happened to our country.  We are not proud of being ‘Aussies’ any more.  Terrorism is our currency. Racism is acceptable. Abbott has installed black and white statements.

“Daesh is coming to get us.”[1]

This landscape is policed by a college of terminators: Dutton, Morrison and Bishop. The conversation grows more frustrating, but there aren’t many companies programming dangerous political works anymore. Our self-analysis is via the black screen. We may watch Emma Alberici and turn on to Q&A, but we do not search for political discourse on our stages. Not unless it has already won the Pulitzer or come direct from the Royal Court.

So Matt Lutton suggests that he wants to program a political speech, a tonic for the troops, written by me.

I Can’t Even’ will be the political monologue that nobody is giving.

Lutton is excited. This play could be on stage at the Malthouse and several other theatres all over the country at the same time.

Theatre as activism. A hammer blow to the thought police inside our lucky country.

It is an exciting invitation.

I am writing regular op-ed’s for Newscorp. People actually read these and comment in the forums provided. They argue and insult. They defame. This is a robust dialogue and it establishes a connection to the contemporary theatre of politics that I have never able to achieve as a playwright.

I commence my Masters at VCA and the Labor Party National Conference is on the horizon. Immigration Policy and turnbacks. This could be a time for dramatic change. The play gets programmed. The season launches and we begin.

This is the first time I have had a work programmed without it being written. I value the trust from this new AD. He has never worked with me before, but he is prepared to take a chance on the angry old white guy who hasn’t had a show in Melbourne for the last ten years. Is this artistic leadership or lunacy? What’s the difference? I don’t remember.

The development is ongoing. Lutton wants the piece to be current, contemporary – political. 

Nuts, I know.

The first drafts concentrate on Abbott and Hockey. Their myopic national vision and budget mistakes. These two are comedy gold. Hansard is the main source of gags. A Melways for how to get a belly laugh.

The character of Bill Shorten is yet to be developed. (This is long before the eight-week mid-winter campaign). In the final days of Tony Abbott, he is taking cover, watching the implosion and waiting for the moment when Tony and Peta Credlin will career over the cliff into the great Thelma-and-Louise.

I meet with Matt on a regular basis; we discuss the best format and the most theatrical way we can deliver a speech to an audience who already knows the biggest joke in the script. These meetings are buoyant and optimistic. And then… the world as we know it… falls apart.

 Turnbull has the numbers and it looks like now… I have nothing to write about.

Bloody Malcolm Turnbull.

This guy has been the guy that everybody wanted to be Prime Minister. He’s always been on the brink of getting the gig and now – he’s pulled the pin on his second sneak attack!

Terrible news for ‘I Can’t Even’.

I mean – imagine if he could… And then… To my horror I discover… he can.

He demands the spotlight and hits the high notes early.  He declares we are suffering from a terminal lack of ‘economic leadership’.

He is the only character in the cast who can rejuvenate the narrative and so he resigns as Minister for Communications (remember that?) and he is standing for the Prime Minister’s job.

At the end of that night, five votes get him over the line.

He holds an ecstatic press conference with his co-conspirator, Julie Bishop. This Foreign Minister is no stranger to organisational restructure in the Liberal Party leadership. This is the fourth leader for whom she has played second fiddle. Being Deputy is a lifestyle choice for the Queen of Canberra Survivor.

On that first smarmy night, they smile and talk with the press about collaboration, innovation and agility. He closes the first conference by stating that the hour is late and it is time for everybody to “go to bed”.  And we do. The nation falls into slumber.

 I have an urgent meeting with Lutton.

“This guy, this fucking guy… This guy has fucked our play! Everybody loves Malcolm! Who’s going to buy a ticket to see the nicest man in the smoothest suit?”

     This guy has fucked our play! Everybody loves Malcolm! Who’s going to buy a ticket to see the nicest man in the smoothest suit?                         

Lutton tells me to calm the fuck down. Thank god. In his opinion, the drama is just beginning.

With hindsight, he was sooooo right.

The Leadership coup was nothing but the inciting incident. The Villain was despatched to the back bench and the whole country was rolling around in the wet dream that Prince Malcolm could make everything new again.

He used to be a Republican, we think he likes the arts and suspect he has dinner parties – so his popularity is overwhelming.

The first Leigh Sales interview is a disaster for my drafting.

How flirtatious and charming can this barrister be?

He is adored. He makes witty asides. Totally electable.

Former Trade Minister Andrew Robb (he works for the Chinese now) counsels a snap election. Seize the moment and win a Mandate and Fight the Long Game. But Turnbull refuses. “Everything is on the table”. This is his first mistake.

He likes to swan into Question Time and play with his Opposition.

Shorten and Plibersek stick fat. They accept the slings and arrows delivered from the Cayman Island tax haven resident. The ALP National Conference had been a difficult discussion but they walked away united. The blood is ankle deep on the floor in the Liberal Party and Turnbull is relying on the continued support of Wyatt Roy and a handful of ‘bedwetters’[2].

The sitting days slip into weeks and the Faustian price appears to make it into the headlines.

Turnbull is not the leader he hoped to pretend to be and it is now that ‘I Can’t Even’ begins to write itself. The only way Turnbull can prove his worth is an election. Until he does this, destabilisation is a daily occurrence. In the meantime, he is not doing anything and so his popularity is falling. Our new hero is not reversing the Brandis cuts to the Australia Council. He is not revising climate change goals. He is not even showing ‘economic leadership’.  He proposes thought bubbles instead of policy.

‘What if the States collect their own income taxes and pay for education?’

‘I Can’t Even’ makes sense. This is Tony Abbott in a GQ suit.

Bernardi and Christensen emerge as powerbrokers for a scattered clutch of Australian Conservatives. Turnbull agrees to their demands for an investigation into the Safe Schools program. Thus confirming that this man is a not a Prime Minister, he is a puppet. A moral hostage. His leadership is not a ceasefire in the Culture Wars; it is a signal that hand-to-hand combat has just begun.

‘I Can’t Even’ becomes a crazy investigation into smashing the veneer off the character of a political vandal. Who is this Prime Minister we see before us and why did we ever believe he could be our saviour from the right wing nut jobs who have been running our country into the ground?

I work with Lutton and I love it.

This play is not a speech, it is a poem. It is a song. The actors are amazing and the collaboration brings joy. It presents hurdles and it develops companionship. It is risky and political and funny.

I Cant’ Even’ was drawn from speeches and press conferences, memes and Rhodes Scholar reports. We had cast two actors to play Malcolm Turnbull – Rhys Muldoon and Louise Siversen. They performed on alternating nights. Their performances were vastly different and this summed up the way Turnbull was running the country. One night he was the perfect dinner party companion, the next he was a ruthless Richard the Third.

We had decided on the format of a ‘tech rehearsal for a campaign speech’. This meant the set was a bare stage. The script was on teleprompter. The actors were able to rehearse in less than a week and read their lines like politicians off the prompter. This kept the text fresh, dangerous and exciting. Urgent.

The kind of theatre that made me want to write in Australian accents, for Australian actors.


On a rainy weekend afternoon, Turnbull crawls into the backseat of the white BMW Comcar and presents himself at Government House.

This one time leader of the Republican Movement asks permission from the Queen’s Representative to have an election.

Surely this is ironic, even for him. Isn’t it?

He goes for a Double Dissolution.

He is described as a political genius by the sycophantic press.

Little did they know how little he did know about how to run a campaign.

It is a disaster.

Malcolm is not loved at all. The battle bleeds the Party dry. He pours his own money into the last few weeks and the once golden boy limps to the line. He hated the hustings and our show is over. His election was an eight-week run. It toured it all over the country.

‘I Can’t Even’ was on for four nights in the Beckett.

There had been plenty of interest in extending our show for a tour around the country. This was the ideal touring show. It conformed to everything that any producer had ever told me. No rehearsal, TV actors, one set, successful Melbourne season, comedy and contemporary issues. But for some reason we were not able to respond in an agile fashion and a tour was… “Nah. Too hard.”

I loved working with Lutton and Siversen and Muldoon and am still amazed that Malthouse took the political risk. They even allowed me to run their Twitter feed and pretend to be Malcolm Turnbull. That was amazing and enlightening. Great marketing and I can honestly say that ‘I Can’t Even’ was the most exciting theatre I have been involved in for a long time.

It reminded me of how we used to make stuff at Trades Hall. It showed that contemporary issues still have an audience. It suggested that we still want to talk about politics. We just have to start programming it again.

On the night of July 2, Malcolm Turnbull was elected with massive losses. His victory speech featured a demand for a federal police investigation into his political opponents. His true character has been revealed.

He has no mandate, a one-seat majority and his leadership is in more peril. The revolving door of leadership and priorities is swinging again. We must not let politicians determine the destiny of our industry.

Today, agitation is essential. But it needs to be more than speeches after curtain calls. It can be more than angry Facebook posts about the plebiscite. It may be more than yelling, it could be in our work.

     Today, agitation is essential. But it needs to be more than speeches after curtain calls. It can be more than angry Facebook posts about the plebiscite. It may be more than yelling, it could be in our work.                         

Wesley Enoch is hope.

His programming of his first Sydney Festival is inspired. In the announcement of his choices, he spoke specifically about the cultural destruction that has been allowed to go unchecked. He talked about his compulsion to program Australian work, because Australian artists are under attack. He spoke about the undermining of the small to mediums. He recognised the need for Australian taxpayers money to be supporting Australian taxpaying artists.

In January 2017, Sydney will host an exciting international festival that features Australian artists. Diverse, exciting and urgent. A logical response to the politics of revenge.

In the future, new Australian plays must be programmed quickly. Not held in development hell. If we are to keep pace with a 24-hour news cycle and instant messaging, we must make more work and program it faster.

It is time for the artists to seize control of the means of production. We must be agile and innovative – and get some politics on our stages.


[1] ‘Daesh’ was the name chosen by Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop to refer to ISIS. They believe it is more insulting and so they use it when they are talking about ISIS. Malcolm Turnbull uses it too, but it doesn’t sound so convincing coming from him. The hatred just doesn’t come so naturally. Or maybe it does? We’re finding out as we go.

[2] In the wake of the 2016 federal election, former Abbott Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin who was then working as a paid political commentator for Sky News launched a vicious attack on the “hapless set of bedwetters” she says plotted to oust her former boss Tony Abbott as prime minister and squander the “wonderful victory of 2013” by giving Malcolm Turnbull poor advice.

Ross Mueller

Ross Mueller is an Australian playwright. He is the 2009 winner of the New York New Dramatists Playwright exchange for his play Concussion. In March 2009 Concussion was premiered at Sydney Theatre Company. In April 2009 his play Hard Core was shortlisted for the Patrick White Award and was premiered by Perth Theatre Company.

He is the winner of the Wal Cherry Play of the Year in 2006 for The Glory. In 2008 he was twice nominated for Best Play in the Green Room Awards for two separate works and in March 2007 his play The Ghost Writer was premiered at Melbourne Theatre Company.

In May 2007 No Mans Island had its US premiere with a production at Here in New York City. Construction of The Human Heart was short-listed for the 2007 AWGIE Award for Best New Play and nominated for five Green Room Awards. In 2002 he was the Australian playwright at the International Residency of the Royal Court Theatre in London.

Ross has been shortlisted for the Patrick White Award on three separate occasions. He has been commissioned by Melbourne Theatre Company, Playbox, Canberra Youth Theatre, Hothouse and ABC Radio National. He has been an affiliate of the Melbourne Theatre Company and a founding member of Melbourne Dramatists. His plays are published by Currency Press, Full Dress Publications and Playlab.

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