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The dramas of Australian drama: how much is enough?

How many new Australian plays should our theatre companies be staging every year? What proportion of their repertoire should they represent? Is 45% fair? How about 65%?

The debate which raged in theatre circles last year over adaptations and the effect they have on Australian playwrights seemed to boil over before settling to a gentle simmer. For those unfamiliar with the crux of the 2013 debate, it began with two features by journalist Rosemary Neill published in The Australian in May; one on the “fad” of adaptations, rallying against those writers and directors who make adapting the classics for today’s audience their modus operandi; the second arguing that those adaptations were sweeping the work of Australian playwrights off the stage. Tempers flared, op-ed after op-ed was written, characterising the debate as inflammatory, a generational clash and offensive, amongst other things.

A lot of the debate focused on young auter director Simon Stone, who has, for several years been putting his own spin on classics and ruffling the feathers of the old guard. He drew the ire of Australian playwrights when he told Neill in an interview that “more often than not, [Australian playwrights] write bad plays”, a comment he later regretted and clarified: “That interview was a really unfortunate experience. I said it was easier to use a classic play to talk about now, because you have a form already there. Theatre companies want a surface success, and classics are easier to do, even if they are responding to our time and place in a less deep and accurate way than a play. You don’t have to develop the text for four or five years, as you do with a new play. I was actually trying to be self-effacing.”

In August, theatre critics Alison Croggon and Jane Howard published a statistics-based piece on ABC Arts online, comparing the seasons of Australian Major Performing Arts Group (AMPAG) theatre companies (Melbourne Theatre Company, Sydney Theatre Company, Queensland Theatre Company, Black Swan Theatre Company, the State Theatre Company of South Australia, Malthouse Theatre, Belvoir St Theatre and Bell Shakespeare) in 2003 to their seasons in 2013. In 2003, the AMPAG theatre companies staged 68 productions, of which 25 were new Australian works. In 2013, the AMPAG companies staged 93 productions, of which 54 were new Australian works. They concluded that while adaptations had clearly increased, the number of new Australian plays being staged had not dropped.

In Julian Meyrick’s newly released platform paper, The Retreat of Our National Drama, the director and former Literary Advisor and Associate Director for Melbourne Theatre Company argues that new Australian plays, and Australian playwrights are now being sidelined to make way for the classics and director-focused adaptations of the classics. He aims to bring clarity to the notion of adaptation and take a more considered look at the broader issues that were drawn into the debate. But instead of taking some of the heat out, it seems likely to spark another round of debates.

Meyrick has undertaken a statistical analysis of the seasons of the nine of Australia’s major theatre companies (Sydney Theatre Company, Melbourne Theatre  Company, South Australian State Theatre Company, Queensland Theatre Company, Black Swan, Belvoir, Playbox/Malthouse, Brink and La Boite) from 1987 to 2013, similar to the one completed by Croggon and Howard. He came to the same basic conclusion; that the number of new Australian plays produced by AMPAG companies hasn’t been dropping.

The statistics, drawn from the AusStage database, show that Australian drama consistently makes up 45% to 65% of the repertoire of the nine companies. The AusStage database has its fair share of errors, some of which have noticeably snuck into the paper (it suggests, for example, that Belvoir produced no new Australian plays in 2013, when it produced five or six, depending on your definition of “new Australian play”), but it’s a generally accurate guide when viewed over the period Meyrick examines (1987 to 2013). Meyrick acknowledges that Australian drama is currently “core to the business of our theatre sector, a major output and brand identifier”. But he persists with an argument that the national drama is in retreat; that we’ve surrendered the ground won by playwrights of the “New Wave” in the 1970s and ‘80s.

He says that the statistics don’t tell the entire story, pointing to the Sydney Theatre Company which, although it still produces plenty of Australian plays, promotes its international work more actively and generally performs Australian plays in smaller theatres.

His best arguments in support of this proposition lie in the failure of our theatre companies to provide consistently strong dramaturgical support, and the career difficulties faced by Australian playwrights. Meyrick says that relatively few Australian playwrights are consistently produced, restricting the career opportunities available. He notes that five Australian playwrights (David Williamson, Joanna Murray-Smith, Louis Nowra, Michael Gow and Nick Enright) make up 24% of the Australian drama produced between 1987 and 2013.

On the other hand, he points to Patricia Cornelius and her 2010 play Do Not Go Gentle which, despite winning the NSW Premier’s Literary Award for drama and receiving a strong season at Melbourne’s fortyfivedownstairs with a high-profile cast, failed to be picked up by any AMPAG company.

Meyrick contends that this is conspiring, along with other factors, to create a situation where Australian drama is undervalued and rarely produced.

He says: “When a country turns its back on a major source of dramatic imagination it is not acceding to some inevitable cultural upgrade. It is letting part of its mind die, withdrawing support, interest and love in a way that becomes self-fulfilling. Fewer plays are written because fewer plays are produced. Fewer playwrights are attracted to the theatre so fewer plays are written.”

But despite the problem he identifies, none of that has eventuated; there are no fewer Australian plays being produced. The evidence Meyrick presents isn’t enough to convince that the situation is as dire as he presents it, even if the momentum does seem to have plateaued over the last decade.

But as things have been sailing along for a while now in a fairly consistent way, and those threats do exist, maybe the question we need to be asking is: what’s the next step?

It seems clear that a rethink of the way we support and develop our playwrights and the way we program and promote Australian drama could see Australian plays move closer towards the centre of our cultural landscape. In the current economic and political environment, it seems fanciful that any major new infrastructure is going to come into place, but there is scope for the creation of a body that draws upon and mobilises the resources of AMPAG companies to further the national drama.

Meyrick suggests the establishment of a National Theatre of Australia, following the basic model of the National Theatre of Scotland, a company without a theatre building of its own, devoted to touring Scottish work. He says that a National Theatre of Australia should have three arms; a dramaturgical and script development arm, a production arm and a touring arm. I’d suggest that Meyrick’s model has merit, but such an organisation with a production arm would raise more problems than it would solve.

At this point in time, it would be difficult to establish a production company of its own devoted to Australian drama with any prominence, and it could potentially diminish the locally-focused work already done by AMPAG companies. In any case, AMPAG companies are clearly producing quality Australian drama, even if those productions aren’t given the prominence that they might be.

There are two major failings of our theatre companies that could be addressed by the establishment of a similar body to the one suggested by Meyrick; firstly, the culture of dramaturgy and development for our playwrights is clearly not as strong as it should be. Secondly, our state theatre companies are failing to connect with each other and ensure that the best Australian works are being seen by broad audiences. It seems extraordinary that The Secret River still hasn’t made it to cities beyond Sydney, Canberra and Perth, even with the costs involved. And AMPAG companies aren’t just failing when there are massive costs involved; one of the finest plays I’ve seen in years, Tom Holloway’s critically-acclaimed gem Forget Me Not has only been seen in Sydney.

A National Theatre could fulfil both of these roles without a production arm. It could sit above AMPAG companies, but would be more than a symbolic organisation and help to form the connections between the companies and their productions that too often feel strained. The AMPAG companies would continue to do the heavy-lifting, in terms of production, but there’d be an organisation to focus those efforts and ensure that they’re consistently reaching their objectives when it comes to Australian work.

It’s encouraging to see that these discussions are continuing to play out and broader issues are being properly considered, even once the fire of the adaptation debate has largely fizzled out. But it’s essential to have some perspective here and celebrate the fine work that’s already being done. For a nation with a relatively young theatre, our national drama fares surprisingly well. But, as Meyrick points out, the major question isn’t one of talent, but of commitment. The commitment does seem to be there, but we can’t afford to take it for granted or slip into complacency.

Featured image: Simon Stone takes Gogol’s The Government Inspector for a spin.

Photo by Lisa Tomasetti

Julian Meyrick’s Platform Paper The Retreat of Our National Drama is available now through Currency House. It can be downloaded and ordered in hard copy at

4 responses to “The dramas of Australian drama: how much is enough?

  1. I can’t imagine anything worse for Australian theatre than a centralised playwriting bureaucracy based in Canberra, Meyrick’s major suggestion. But anyway. It’s good that this is up for debate, as I agree with Meyrick that playwrights are not supported enough in the mainstream theatre culture. The major oversight in his paper is the sidelining of independent theatre as one of the major engines for plays: it’s as if all “Australian theatre” is only comprehended by AMPAG. It’s odd, for example, that he never mentions Griffin Theatre, one of the major venues for new Australian writing, although he tots up the stats for other companies (Brink, say) which are comparable. On developing playwrights – it’s notable that the major new names powering into the mainstream – Lally Katz, Declan Greene say – all learned their art collaborating in small independent companies – Stuck Pigs Squealing, Sisters Grimm. Any spare money (assuming there is some) might be better spent by supporting independent ventures to commission and produce their writers, rather than creating yet another layer of gatekeeping.

  2. there are already foundations for a National Theatre of Australia should we have the will to procure it. Although I think we can come up with a better name…

    An organisation such as MKA in Melbourne has such a mission and reputation and would only need to make itself official – merely an exercise in branding to NTA (or similar). They have a very similar operational approach to the resurgence of writing in the 70’s and 80’s we’re all so nostalgic for…

    And I can think of half a dozen similar companies both emerging and established with a persuasive dedication to Australian Theatre Writing.

    the only thing lacking are the funds. As I stated before the focus is generally on getting the show produced but this is only a small part in the life of a play, a small increase in funding dedicated to both development (pre-show) and serious critical engagement (post-show) would do wonders for our industry…

    it’s really just a matter of a Federal Arts Minister to step up and do something constructive…

  3. The idea of an integrated plan for emerging writers led by an umbrella organisation to try to achieve this is a good one. But the issue of training and supporting new writers goes beyond theatre and should look at the Australian film and television industry as well. There are numerous universities teaching creative writing and specialist institutions such as NIDA and AFTRS with one year writing courses. However dare I say none of them bring the rigour and level of excellence required to really harness the creative potential there. Wouldn’t it be a better idea to create a National Writing School for the elite of emerging talent to develop their skills across a range of media including theatre, film, television, novels etc with a minimum two year course working with elite teachers and also fill the funding void for new production with areas such as theatre. We seem to be happy to create acting schools and film schools but writing is seen as merely a subset of what these schools do. Yet writing sits at the core of these disciplines. Unfortunately there are lots of Australian plays, film scripts and TV dramas let down by their writing yet the writers themselves are not without talent. What they have often lacked is a really rigorous grounding and continuing development and intellectual support. Australia needs a few core centres of excellence across the arts not the diffuse spread it currently has which of course means taking funds from many and giving them to a few. An umbrella organisation for theatre may at least be a start to get the whole conversation happening.

  4. there is very little actual concrete support for Australian playwrights outside of the major organisations. PWA can fund the professional development of something like 4 plays per year – about 5% of those submitted.

    Major companies will run commissions and such but these are quite often driven by commercial imperatives and with a limited timeline (weeks or months, not years).

    it takes years to write a good play and there is simply not the degree of support required to nurture our writers. Even the established writers will struggle to find anywhere near the degree of infrastructure required to create work of the quality we have come to expect from the “classics” – Chekhov, Ibsen, Shakespeare, Moliere, Anouillh all worked over many years within established companies. we simply do not offer that luxury here and the work suffers.

    support for new writing occurs throughout the life of a play, in development, rehearsal, production and critical discussion beyond it’s initial performances. Australian “culture offers very little support outside of rehearsal and performance.

    Brass Tax


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