At last night’s opening of Melbourne Theatre Company’s Cybec Electric — a series of five semi-staged, public readings of new Australian plays — literary director Chris Mead proudly declared there were “no stars and no songs — yes!”. It might seem like a dig at the company’s sparkling, star and song-filled production of Private Lives, playing in the theatre next door, but it’s probably just Mead’s enthusiasm that MTC has managed to find space amongst its various activities to look seriously at new writing.
The first in the series is The Visitors by Jane Harrison. Harrison, who had a major hit in 1992 with Stolen, tackles the moment indigenous people saw the First Fleet arriving in Sydney Cove. The play follows a meeting of seven elders from different groups, holding a meeting deciding whether to let these strange, new visitors land or not. The meeting is portrayed as being very business-like, in a Western sense, and has comedic moments that almost hint at council meetings from The Vicar of Dibley. It’s an imaginative clash of cultures that explores how we react to outsiders. It’s a potentially brilliant idea, but it’s clearly artistically ambitious and fraught with danger.
Mead, a former artistic director of PlayWriting Australia, took up his role as literary director at MTC at the beginning of last year. His greatest passion is new Australian writing, and Cybec Electric, his pet project, is central to MTC’s exploration of new work. MTC has, like all major theatre companies, held readings of new works and plays in development, but Cybec Electric is more open than what the company has done in the past.
“What we want to see is how an audience responds to a new play,” he told Daily Review. “Because you can get as many eggheads as you want, like me, in a room and talk about what we think is going to work, but you need to hear how an audience is going to respond.”
Of course, the greatest challenge for large state theatre companies like MTC is not in holding readings, but in making sure the work progresses from the rehersal room to the stage. Many works that get public readings never move forward. Mead acknowledges the risk of producing new work on an MTC stage is always significant, especially when it’s by a new playwright.
“I’m very aware that we don’t want this to be a dead end,” he said. “We’re already putting our money where our mouth is by taking these steps. That’s why these are happening in February, so we can look at what we can put up next year. It’s unlikely, sadly, that we’ll do all five of them in 2015. Maybe one, maybe two, maybe none until 2016. What’s hard is that playwrights just don’t get that experience here.”
Mead says things have improved drastically for playwrights in Australia over the past two decades. While we once seemed to be at the end of the world, a number of forces have combined to get the word out there about the work being done by local writers.
“A play is a document you can transfer anywhere in the world,” he said. “A playtext can go anywhere. It’s not something that has all this paraphernalia with it. It’s just a PDF. You can email it. Gradually, the knowledge is growing that Australia isn’t just about plays about sheep. In Sweden, they’re now very interested in a number of Australian playwrights.”
The major problem writers are facing, according to Mead, is not about our international reputation, but that we haven’t developed a cultural thirst in the same way as other nations.
“In Stockholm, the national theatre, Dramaten, has a dramaturgiat. Who’s ever heard of that? Twelve people like me. And they have seven stages and a resident company of 80 or 90 actors. Down the road is the City Theatre of Stockholm. They have 60 actors, five stages and lunchtime theatre, which books out months in advance because you get soup with your 10 euro ticket. But culture is a massive thing to them, and the idea of promoting that and getting it out in the world is huge.
“When I first started working professionally, the idea of writing a play was seen as pretty daggy. Theatre was seen as something you did when you couldn’t do something else. Most people were going into film or TV. Now, it’s completely flipped on its head. A lot of really young, funky people want to get involved in theatre because films take so long, they’re so expensive and they’re run by producers.
“In theatre, you can do anything. You can be as outrageous as you want, and people love that.”