News & Commentary, Stage, Theatre

Australia Council’s demotion of plays and playwrights

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What is it about our funding bodies and media that they ignore the role of theatre and playwrights? Every other culturally expressive country in the world recognises the power of writing for live performance. From the amphitheatre at Epidaurus to upstairs at the Royal Court in London. Playwrights are at the coal face. We take big ideas, social commentary, changing mores, historical narratives and predictions and we chisel them down until they have a directly personal punch for strangers connecting with one another in a shared space. 

Those ideas aren’t worth anything if they don’t reach into the hearts of the receiver – they remain interesting facts, easy to lose sight of. The human narrative, the visceral emotional tug – this is what brings ideas into the realm of psychological change and even action. It’s rarely the academic or the opinion writer, the proslytiser or politican who makes this happen. It’s the playwright, when they’re on their game.

They set alight the fuse of collaborators across artistic platforms – actors, designers, directors – and ultimately the audience. And whether or not their few representative organisations like Australian Plays or Playwriting Australia – are funded or not, playwrights will continue to affect, define and record what and who we are as Australians.

You can deny it – in favour of big ticket major events or overly bureaucratised arts administrations – or you can celebrate it. And you will be assessed on the basis of your wisdom. And you will be judged for it. We are very, very watchful as to whether or not you are doing your job. Whether your are saboutaging or enabling the glorious and undervalued chorus of Australian writers reaching into communities across the country with the story of us. Us. You. Australia.

In the last few weeks, Playwriting Australia – which runs the most significant new writing festival and development programs in the country—  has had its funding withdrawn. Australian Plays, which represents Australian playwrights when rights to their plays are sought by organisations around Australia and sometimes beyond — has been denied continued organisational funding from the Australia Council.

If Playwriting Australia and Australian Plays are effectively demolished – what is the Australia Council saying about the future of theatre in Australia?

These tiny operations, with a few full time staff havelong punched above their weight. When you walk into these offices, you cannot believe the faith these people have in our voices, their willingness to promote the cause of theatre-writers, story-tellers, against the huge, huge odds of a form that is persistently under-funded —  and under-appreciated by all but the audiences. They fight on for us, despite what must be daily crippling threats to their morale.

Australian Plays has over 1,400 subscribers and the demand is growing, not shrinking. On its digital platform are 2,474 plays by 1,005 playwrights. Nearly every week I get an email along the lines of “How do you feel about the Rowdy Ranchers doing a production of The Female of the Species in Zeehan for 40 people at $15 a head?”  

This administration is too small fry for most agents. Australian Plays support the earnings of playwrights and the dreams of small theatre makers to invigorate our towns and cities with the Australian imagination. Often they are bringing our work to towns overlooked by the mainstage companies or too small for the touring companies.

Australia Council, please take note. If these operations, able to run on a dime compared to the huge mainstream arts companies, who have a huge impact on the dissemination of writers’ voices across the land and ultimately on our cultural national identity – if these operations are effectively demolished – what are you saying about the future of theatre in Australia? 

You should be tripling their income, celebrating the remarkable work they do for peanuts and the frankly moving dedication with which a few passionate, poorly paid individuals struggle to keep the world of play-making afloat. Make a real difference. Correct a wrong. Mine the wealth of the Australia’s playwrights – one of the great, unrecognised, cultural wealth-bulding exports of this country.

Playwrights are the interface between the intellectual and the emotional, the ivory tower and the shared space, the world of reality and the world of dreams.

Go to England and see what they do with and for their writers for the stage and the frequency with which the media turn to playwrights for comments on social and cultural issues. Go to the U.S and see the festivals, the workshop programs, the awards and scholarships available. 

Here, nothing says “cultural backwater” more than the lack of joy and exhilaration from the funding bodies towards theatre. Our work is as good or better than that of the theatre hubs of the world. But the vision of our funding bodies is not. It’s you who hold us back.

Playwrights ARE the interface between the intellectual and the emotional, the ivory tower and the shared space, the world of reality and the world of dreams, the past and the future. We’re right there. Support us.

19 responses to “Australia Council’s demotion of plays and playwrights

  1. It is hard to fathom the decision to drop funding for ‘Playwriting Australia’ and ‘Australian Plays’ when these organisations provide such huge creative value. They are a repository of a cauldron of creative potential past and future and provide a critical outlet for discovery. They keep alive the prospect of theatrical production of a work when all formal production funding or grants have been exhausted, because they maintain an access to works by the world at large. Without these central organisations, without being able to say “I have no agent but you can find my work on ‘Australian Plays’ it closes the doors on the yet to be discovered stories and voices of Australian theatre and places too much burden on the mainstream to keep finding and discovering relevant stories for the nuance of our times. Without these organisations, exposure is more difficult and limited to the existing theatres. It stifles independent challengers in form, process and funding, a crazy outcome it you are trying to get more bang for your funding dollar. These decisions need to be looked at in terms of the public mission of arts funding. While established theatre needs to be served their genesis was to better challenge and reflect our society not to become the only voices without challenge. Mainstream arts without the work done in the fringes cannot sustain an edge or vitality. There are many many more arguments to be made to maintain and extend there funding. This is not a welcome decision for anyone and should be immediately rethought.

  2. I am dismayed by the idea of The Australia Council demoting Plays and playwriting. Modern Australia found its voice and direction from Australian plays and playwrights.
    I remember, as a student seeing, ‘The Legend of King O’Malley’ by Bob Ellis and Michael Boddy in 1970 and the revelation of hearing our voices and our history on stage, rather than the imported stories of a different culture which was the general fare of that time. Then the innovative work of The Pram Factory and La Mama. Both launching new Australian playwrights who have given us decades of our own stories and culture: theatre that defined us and which gave us a place on the world stage. It transformed us. New plays and playwrights coming onto the market continue that transformation.
    Theatre performances of many kinds generate an income of several million dollars and employment for many thousands of practitioners. That is looking at in in purely economic terms, which seems to take precedence over all other concerns; but those other concerns are to do with society: it values and education: examples of the people we are and wish to be: our humanity and world view. How we present ourselves. A well educated, curious, explorative, healthy thinking and engaged populace help develop an overall healthier economy and plays and playwrights are a vital part of that healthier economy.
    To undervalue them and reduce funding to the sector is so very detrimental. Please reconsider.
    Alan Andrews.
    A proud MEAA/Equity member for 47 years.

  3. Thank you Joanna for your excellent article. As a playwright, I say this: Australia Council, you have rejected us. Your responsibility is to ensure you make the right decisions to enable contemporary Australian stories to be told on our stages, not to obstruct them from being introduced to theatre makers, heard and shared. I believe the decision of the Australia Council to stop funding and Playwriting Australia is totally inappropriate and an abrogation of their duties to our culture. It demonstrates no understanding of the dynamics about how Australian theatre is made, and points to a complete lack of competency in the decision-makers.

  4. Nothing said it better than those two words, “cultural backwater”, in showing what is clear to those who have ever ventured beyond the borders of Australia to countries who actually support their artists and the arts. Government funds should not shore up large institutions at the expense of small and medium arts organisations. All levels of the arts are the key to maintaining a storytelling culture beyond re-hashing tired and often Eurocentric ideas favoured by governments of the time. Arms-length funding such as that in Canada is a better model than the present one.

  5. It’s a very sad day that this very important arm of the arts is being censored and stifled.
    Where is our arts minister?
    Where is the celebration of our culture
    It will be a sad day if left to die
    Wake up Australia
    This is important

  6. Great article, Joanna. Plays and playwrights need nurturing. Nurturing = time + dramaturgy + performers + spaces = $. For all writers, whether emerging, mid career or established.

  7. Terrific piece Joanna. I hope someone who counts takes notice. For far too long the huge bulk of arts funding has gone to Opera, Ballet and overseas heritage theatre, and a pittance to the theatre that really counts – our own writing- which if nurtured will leave us with our own legacy down through the centuries.

  8. Yet another attempt to silence the cultural and observational voice of dedicated arts producers! Australia obviously still
    suffers the cultural cringe and a lack of appreciation for what theatre brings to our community. We must fund the arts, because what else are we living for? Reality television perhaps …

  9. This great article can bring you to tears. As does JMS’ playwriting.
    How do we take this country back to when it made sense……no one involved in a Council body is remembered but the words of playwrights are the best truth tellers of the moments in time.
    Somebody needs to change this issue for the better.

  10. Yes, agree with you Joanna Murray-Smith… yet another short sighted and backward looking step by the Australia Council which chooses to overlook the extraordinary work that the Australia Script Centre has already done and continues to do…

  11. Thank you for saying this, Joanna. Culturally, we are not planting any trees at the moment, and those who come after us will only be able to hide in one another’s shadows for shade

  12. Thanks Joanna, great article. It’s beginning to feel as if we are caught in some sort of extinction process here in Oz. How many fires must we try to fight at once?

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