Where Are We Now?

Searching for the ethical roots of Australian drama.
by Stephen Sewell


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am always wary of titles like the one I have chosen above, wondering who the we in question actually is, much as Tonto does in the joke where he and the Lone Ranger are surrounded by their murderous injun foes, and the Lone Ranger turns to him to say "Looks like we're in trouble, Tonto," to which his loyal indian companion replies, "What do you mean we, white man?"  Far too often the we invoked is simply a sleight of hand aimed at making the rest of us accept something we would rather not on behalf of an assumed commonality with people we don't even like, as when the Treasurer warns gravely, for example, that "We all have to tighten our belts," meaning that you and I have to tighten our belts while the people behind this god-awful mess continue to make gravy at our children's expense.

So let me make clear who the we in question is. I am referring here to we writers, and in particular, to we theatre writers. Where are we now? This question has become more pressing over the past three years as I have had the pleasure and honour to run the Writing for Performance course at NIDA, in Sydney, and so have seen some of the best new writers in the country engage with the rigours of their art and craft, producing, in my opinion, some genuinely wonderful work at considerable personal cost to themselves, both in the emotional demands and hurdles they have had to negotiate, as well as in the sacrifices they have had to make in order to spend their time with us at NIDA, and at the end of the process enter what we sometimes refer to as the Theatre Industry to find it a greatly reduced creature with a narrow audience and repertoire, and opportunities few and far between. I don't intend to turn this essay into a writer's whinge about how hard done by we are, but the truth is, the problem with Australian theatre is that there are so few Australian theatres, and many of our issues would be solved if there were just more places to put on our work. That, however, is just one part of the quandary. Much and all as we love Shakespeare and the classics, having more theatres simply putting on more Shakespeare doesn't really solve Australian writers' problems. What we need is more opportunity for our work, and what that means is that there needs to be an audience who wants it or - to put it in another, perhaps more neo-capitalist, way - what we need is to write stuff that more people want to see. This latter argument could be used to encourage us to spend our time writing pornography - if porn actually needed writing - but if we give it the benefit of a doubt, and accede that, yes, maybe, we could try a bit harder in solving some sort of supply and demand riddle for "entertainment", we might secure ourselves some sort of prosperous - or at least less insecure - future. But the issue then becomes who is the audience we are pursuing?  And while that can be quickly ascertained every time you sit down in an auditorium, I think it's fairly obvious where the punters are going to be if a family of four can see the Grand Final for less than $50 per person, but a ticket to a mainstage theatre company costs $95. During the Seventies and Eighties, the subsidy allowed theatre companies to keep their ticket prices down, but the disastrous economically conservative times that followed have seen ticket prices return to a prohibitive level, with the result that theatre has increasingly become the much reviled elitist activity so lovingly lampooned by the yellow press whenever anyone tries to open it up to a wider and more representative audience by asking for more money with which to do it. But in the apparent chicken-or-egg scenario regarding what causes what, the audience or the repertoire, I have no doubt that ticket price comes first for the simple reason that whenever prices become commensurate with either sport or cinema, people flock to theatre because there is nothing better than watching real human beings act great comedy or drama right before your eyes. The magic quality of presence is what makes any experience memorable, and theatre is nothing if not presence.


"We are living in interesting times, and while this might not make for comfortable living, it does make for great theatre, and Australian writers are no slower than anyone else in recognising that."


So what we lack are theatres accessible to ordinary people and with a repertoire reflecting the wide variety of interests and concerns ordinary people have. What we have instead is a narrowly based, culturally conservative theatre reflecting the narrow, culturally conservative audience which is able to afford it. And culturally conservative enough to disdain Australian writing. For while the charge is often made that there are too few Australian writers prepared to take on the big issues, in a way - say - that even television is now doing, that is certainly not my experience, and what I have found on the contrary is young writers desperate to engage with the world and its problems, and given the state of the world - the endless wars and rise of barbarism, the environmental catastrophe, the political and social upheavals raining merciless death on peoples across the globe - you'd have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to see the overwhelming dramatic possibilities begging for representation today. The proverbial Chinese Curse is upon us, and we are living in interesting times, and while this might not make for comfortable living, it does make for great theatre, and Australian writers are no slower than anyone else in recognising that. So if you're not seeing epic dramas about life and love in the End Times, it's not because the writers aren't writing them, it's because they're not being picked up by theatres that no longer see it as their remit to encourage the production of an Australian cultural canon reflecting the concerns of the Australian nation.

And that, I think, is close to the core of the entire problem, at least from the writers' point of view. The times when Australian theatre was seen as saying something about Australia are long gone, except as a motherhood statement draped across grant applications, and what has been left behind is a vision of theatre sloshing awkwardly about somewhere between harmless entertainment on the one hand and keeping the locals abreast of international trends on the other. The idea that we might be doing something serious, and of importance to our national life now looks like the misplaced pretensions of a dying race - of which I and most writers are unfortunately a part. For the fact is the only reason we can continue to write is that we do believe it matters, and that what we have to say needs to be said. Not because we are such bright sparks that we need to be listened to, but because we have the skills and the determination to say things[1] without it being a paid political advertisement for any one of the numerous vested interests vying to control our destiny[2] and keep people like us unmanageable writers firmly in our place. This small sliver of freedom of expression that we writers so desperately cling to is our one chance to give an account of our lives that isn't dominated by the commercial and political interests of the rich and powerful, and an empowering act of faith in our audience that they, too, matter, and that the political life of free people is the real life of dignity and honour promised by that once powerful word, citizen, but now sadly eclipsed by its nemesis, the grunting, pig-like consumer. We are no longer citizens engaged with our lives, but have become something else, mere consumers of the offal slopped into our troughs, and what we are consuming is our death.


"This small sliver of freedom of expression that we writers so desperately cling to is our one chance to give an account of our lives that isn't dominated by the commercial and political interests of the rich and powerful."


And that is something the ancient Greeks understood. For the Greeks of Athenian democracy, the Greeks who revered and feared Euripides, Sophocles and Aeschylus, theatre was definitely not an entertainment; it was a duty of citizenship to engage with the moral complexities presented by their world and their playwrights, with the actors being paid by the State in recognition of their civic function and importance to the polis[3]. Theatre was where the people met to consider the important questions of their time, and theatre thrived as long as Athens was a democracy. And as soon as its democracy foundered, its theatre was lost. When we talk about the Golden Age of Athenian democracy, we also talk about the Golden Age of Greek drama, and while no-one would say theatre can only flourish in a democracy[4], few would deny that tyrants pay closer attention to theatre than practically any other artform. Theatre is where the unspeakable can be spoken, and any society that says it's so free nothing can shock it and that there's nothing left to be said is already a prison.

Are we a prison? Change comes from the margins, from the shadows and the shadow people, and after our short time in the sunshine, we writers have re-joined them, but in truth they have always been our natural allies, our brothers and sisters, our fellow sufferers, and so I would like to finish on a note of hope. Theatre is not a vocation, I tell the NIDA writers, it is a disease. We are diseased, and feel our times like a torment in our souls, and from that torment comes our work; we have no choice, it oozes and seeps from us, spurts from us uncontrollably and we can but give voice to it like the prophetess of Delphi ranting in the depths. We are that voice that cannot be stilled, that laugh, that fury, that madness shaking at the roots of this country, and from what I now know of the young writers rising around me, a new theatre is already forming, a theatre that they will make, come what may. A theatre that is brave and ambitious and impatient; a theatre full of anguish and horror at the anguish and horror of this life; a theatre quenched in blood.

And that theatre already has a precedent. In 2013 the National Theatre of Scotland thrilled Australia with its production of The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, after its previous success here, dealing with the British Army's deployment in Afghanistan, Black Watch. What struck many people at the time was how such magnificent work, dealing consciously and determinedly as it uniquely does with the problem of Scottish nationalism (and in Prudencia, whether Scotland even exists) can arise from a company that doesn't even own a physical building. The recognition that theatre is an activity and not a piece of architecture, and that theatre that has anything to say about a country must be rooted in the life of that country, in its pubs and workers' clubs and public halls, was profoundly inspiring to all the writers who saw it, and since then the debate has been bubbling, especially amongst the younger writers currently excluded from the main stage, that it might be time to strike out and lay claim to a new initiative, a new attempt to confront this reality we are, and to declare themselves The National Theatre of Australia. A theatre not dedicated to preserving itself through marketing and marketers' ideas about what sells, but a theatre seriously involved with the problems of our times, and giving voice to the concerns of people in their ordinary lives. A theatre, in other words, that returns to the ethical roots of drama laid out by the ancients. And that owes the audience nothing except the truth.

[1] In her memoirs, Anna Akhmatova describes what happened to her when, at the height of the Stalinist purges, she was waiting in the long queue in front of the Leningrad prison to learn about her arrested son Lev: “One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind was a young woman, with lips blue from the cold, who had of course never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there), ‘Can you describe this?’ And I said, ‘I can.’ Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.” Slavoj Zkizek, Violence

[2] And who are more than happy, apparently, to dish out the money for dramas of which they approve, at least on the evidence of self described "propaganda merchant", Trudi-Ann Tierney, recently commissioned by the Federal Government to produce a telemovie intended to dissuade boat people from making the perilous journey across the seas to seek refuge in Australia - "Australian government spends $4 million on 'stop-the-boats' telemovie" Sydney Morning Herald, April 10, 2015

[3] A point frequently lost on proponents of making theatre pay its own way. Theatre has rarely been a commercial enterprise, and even Shakespeare's company was called The Queen's Men for the very good reason that Queen Elizabeth was its - paying - patron; replaced, upon her death, by her successor, James with a due rebadging letting them be known as The King's Men.

[4] Elizabethan England, with its spies and torture chambers, was, after all, no bastion of freedom.



Stephen Sewell

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Stephen Sewell is one of the most celebrated writers in Australia today. Well known for both film and theatre work, Stephen’s work includes his AFI award- winning script The Boys and plays such as The Blind Giant is Dancing, The Secret Death of Salvador Dali and Myth, Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America.

Three Furies which Stephen wrote for director Jim Sharman premiered to enormous acclaim at the 2005 Sydney Festival, before transferring in 2006 to successful seasons for the Adelaide, Perth and Auckland Arts Festivals. Myth, Propaganda and Disaster has garnered more awards than any play in Australian theatrical history including the 2004 Green Room Award, both the New South Wales and Victoria Premier’s Literary Awards 2004 and the 2004 AWGIE for stage play. Internationally Myth received its London premiere at the Orange Tree Theatre in 2004 to rave reviews, has had a sell-out production in Germany in 2005 and a production for Scandinavia in 2005-6.

Stephen’s play It Just Stopped a comedy set at the end of the world and directed by Neil Armfield, premiered to sell out houses at Company B Belvoir in Sydney and Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne in 2006.In 2007 Stephen’s play The Gates of Egypt was another box office success for Company B Belvoir. Stephen has a number of feature film projects in development including a cinema version of It Just Stopped. Stephen was appointed Head of Writing for Performance at NIDA in January 2013.



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Megan Upton
An Australian theatre
Reply #3 on : Tue May 12, 2015, 23:54:09
Thanks Stephen for this provocative essay. Theatre that addresses contemporary issues, cultural diversity and the big ideas of our times has been part of the national conversation for some time now, but such theatre seems too difficult for many main stage companies. I feel especially sad that young audiences are continually neglected, and that our stages are bereft of a diversity of stories and diversity of performers.
Sheila Duncan
Reply #2 on : Tue May 12, 2015, 18:15:26
Thank you Stephen for this glorious upsurge of passion and optimism. A rallying call to those of us so starved, that death seems a kinder option than writing another unproduced play! There IS a way -the Royal Court is a living example - as well as the NTS as you mention. Your suggestion of a venue free - writers theatre is an excellent on. Bravo. Let's do it!
Lyndy McDonald
'ethical roots of drama'
Reply #1 on : Tue May 12, 2015, 13:51:06
Thank you Stephen Sewell for this brilliant long overdue piece!
As a writer, I can only speak for myself.
A play of mine called "Waken" has taken years to develop and many fellow artists and theatre people keep pushing me to get it produced.
It's politically incorrect, but not in a mimicking, 'cause' oriented way. It's protagonist confronts all stereotypes, debunks the New Age movement, feminism and matriarchy, redefines fascism, identity and culture, especially Aboriginal.
It deals with core human and ethical issues..and yes..it needs some 'dramaturg' to bring it out, but it just languishes on an artistic directors desk because of the superficial and entirely safe, conventional theatre tradition we've got now.
This article hits the bulls-eye..We've lost the ethos!


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