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David Williamson’s advice to playwrights – write like a TV writer

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Last night in a private room at the Arts Centre, Melbourne 70 playwrights from across the country gathered for a celebratory dinner. They were the guests of Carrillo Gantner (the co-founder of Playbox Theatre, now known as Malthouse Theatre) and his wife, Ziyan Gantner, to honour their contribution to Australian arts and culture.

The event was attended by the Federal Arts Minister, Mitch Fifield and the former shadow arts minister, Mark Dreyfus. Fifield honoured the contribution of playwrights in an opening address but at its conclusion he was heckled by playwright Patricia Cornelius who leapt from her chair and yelled that his government had “ransacked” the arts in its recent funding cuts.

Williamson also addressed funding issues in his after dinner speech which took aim at a number of his annoyances (News Corp, Fairfax, theatre critics, and the term “theatremaker” – “if you want to be a theatremaker go build a theatre,” he quipped).

He said the biggest challenge for playwrights now was to match the excitement and drama of American cable drama that had millions of people, including him, staying up to 2am to binge on the next episode of a series to find out “What happens next?”.

Williamson argued that fewer “character studies” and more forward momentum drama was what would keep Australia theatre alive in a time when screen drama was far more riveting than watching tiny actors from afar in the “mausoleum”-like theatre venues of state theatre companies and art centres.



I remember a well-known Australian writer being honest enough to say publicly that the truth is that the only thing that keeps a writer sane in this severly ego  buffetting profession of ours, is a secret belief, held with burning conviction, that they are the greatest writer that ever lived, and that before long that self-evident truth will become obvious.

So to address the 70 greatest writers of all time is a tough gig. My first thought was to flatter you relentlessly. to say that in this room – well, you used to be able to say if a bomb went off – but let’s say we were all struck down by a virulent strain of food poisoning – Australia’s cultural landscape would suffer permanent and irreparable damage.

But the older I get the harder I find it is to say things that I don’t believe are true. Our loss would possibly be noted. The Murdoch press would run an editorial to say that ‘never before has botulism delivered such a great service to the nation’. In one hit the voice of carping, anti- business, dark green, inner-city, latte sipping malcontents is mercifully stilled. The Fairfax press would report that the dead hand of aging writers in their mid-30s was gone, and the legions of brilliant under 25s would at last be given a go. Alison Croggon would urgently plead with Simon Stone to return from Iceland, as who needs playwrights, when brilliant young theatre makers can give us kiddie versions of Chekhov and tell us that they wrote it? How I hate that word ‘theatremakers’.

The truth is we would probably not be terribly missed at all. Not for lack of talent. There is an abundance of talent in this room. I’ve seen a lot of your work and talent isn’t the problem.

Julian Meyrick wrote a strong position paper in 2014 entitled ‘The Retreat of our National Drama’, in which he observed that even in the last 25 years the proportion of premieres of Australian plays had decreased, and it wasn’t just supposition. He had a heap of data to support it.

This was promptly answered by – and truly, this is not a bash Alison Croggon night. I’d like it to be as she spent 35 years bashing me, but she has a viewpoint and she argues it well. Alison said she’d looked at the figures Julian presented based on our nine biggest theatres and the proportion of Australian work was still the same.

Julian replied that Alison’s count included adaptations of the classics and adaptations of novels, and, god help us, of Hollywood movies. The proportion of premieres of new and original work by new Australian writers definitely had gone down.

Why then is Australian playwrighting becoming an endangered species? And does it matter?

I think it does matter for the reason that the great ability of our sharpest playwrights is that they have an extraordinary ear for the social and political realities of the moment, and for the direction of the trends into the future. At their best they can articulate, before the rest of us, what is going wrong or right with out society and why.

It’s a hugely important source of information about ourselves and if we kill it off by using stories from other cultures and other times, then we are killing of possibly the most exciting and penetrating truths about ourselves. Truths that we sorely need.

The reason that classics, and books and films are increasingly being utilised by our major companies was articulated by Simon Stone himself. That the stories have been tested and we know they work.

It’s risk aversion but often misplaced risk aversion. Although the tried and true stories tell us truths about general human nature they are not honed in with any sharpness on the questions about ourselves we need addressed right now. Any good play will contain universal truths about humanity in general but it will also contain specifics, and important specifics about us, in the here and now.

Flaubert once said that all great art was provincial. The universal truths are important but it is the specifics of time and place and the accuracy of those specifics that bring a work to life.

I have so often been bored witless, praying for plays to end, when that old hoary classic is trotted out and tarted up yet again. My inner-self is crying out: ‘Tell us something bold and strong about us in the here and now for god’s sake’.

Risk aversion is one of the huge factors decreasing exciting new Australian work. The proportion of arts subsidy both state and federal the major companies receive is down to roughly eight or nine percent. In the ’70s and ’80s it was up near 40 per cent. Most state companies have retreated in the face of this decrease and program upper-middle class crowd pleasers like Noel Coward, Oscar Wilde, Neil Simon and Shakespeare, and obligatory, if tired cultural icons.

Well I’m sorry. Noel Coward’s legendary wit has paled massively for me. I think the longest night in the theatre I ever spent was watching a recent production of Waiting for Godot.

It might have seemed brilliant for Sam Beckett to dispense with plot and give us dated philosophical chattering for three hours, but even superb acting could not prevent time standing still for me. Beckett thought the greatest problem humanity faced was staving off boredom and he certainly did confront me with that problem in a very acute fashion that night.

But there is another way of attracting audiences for the major companies. It’s to program polished, incisive plays about our here and now and draw patrons by the excitement of what they may see, rather than the cultural kudos of being bored by Beckett.

And to my knowledge there is only one major company pursuing such a policy. And that’s the Melbourne Theatre Company which contains as its engine room Brett Sheehy and Chris Mead. What other state company would have been game enough to program, from a rough draft, a story about slaughtering a beast onstage and have characters slipping and sliding in blood (The Beast)? And it was a huge hit.

There are other factors causing the decrease of new writing. It’s not just the small proportion of funding going to theatre companies, it’s the absurdly small proportion of funding going to first line Australian creativity.

Massive amounts of taxpayers money flow to opera and ballet and state theatre companies to reproduce and reinterpret a dwindling stock of tried and true crowd pleasers. An endless recycling of Mozart and Verdi and Swan Lake and a handful of others. Even Bell Shakespeare finds that only six of the Bard’s plays reliably deliver box office. It’s a huge amount of taxpayers money to prove we can reproduce that valiant handful almost as well as they can at Covent Garden or the Met.

Senator Fifield, could I implore you to seriously look at the dividend you might get in terms of a future exciting national repetoire of pertinent drama, if we were to divert some of that massive expenditure on lavish reproductions of other culture and other times to creating a lasting and vivid picture of our own culture and our own times?

It is a serious travesty that the only remaining theatre company devoted to exploring new Australian work, and doing it brilliantly, the Griffin in Sydney under the wonderful Lee Lewis, operates on a shoe string subsidy.

Any government still not sorely afflicted by the still present and strong Australian cultural cringe would realise what a wonderful cultural dividend we would harvest if we had two competing Griffin Theatre companies in every state, searching for the most exciting new work they can.

And if the private sector could divert just a little of their funding from sport and opera and ballet and state companies, to say, fund auxiliary arms of our state theatre companies to not just find, but develop and hone the skills of our best writers, to enable their scripts to reach the levels of polish which will immediately make audiences recognise that a new voice has arrived.

Too many potentially fine plays bite the dust here because lack of development funding and lack of input from theatre professionals causes them to his the stage born prematurely.

We don’t have the extended try-outs that hone US and UK plays. Here it’s sudden death, sink or swim.

The United States and the US also have a strong culture of leaning to the playwrights of their nations to deliver prescient messages that impact on a nation’s awareness of itself. We have no such thing. There is still at the back of the minds of many of our cultural czars the belief that, in the words of one of my characters in my play Emerald City, that ‘real life happens elsewhere and is spoken in accents other than our own’.

To those cultural gatekeepers it’s time to grow up. We have a culture that’s as interesting and complex as any in the word and the writing talent to explore it.

But it’s unwise to blame all the problems of Australian playwrighting on all but ourselves. The death of theatre in the face of newt echnologies has often been proclaimed and never happened but I do think the form is under greater challenge than ever.

The basic craft of writing, to me is effective storytelling. Whether the form be wild satire or realism. At the heart of great drama there have to be two elements. Accurate and incisive characterisation and dramatic momentum.

Too many of us forget the simple dictum of the American playwright David Mamet that audiences come to plays to see what happens next.

If I have one criticism of some of the drama I’ve seen is that writer often seems entranced by character and dialogue, but a lack of dramatic momentum leads the play towards becoming a character study rather than a gripping piece of drama.

I bring this up because the competition is now fierce. In particular American cable drama has reached a high point of story telling skill that needs to be matched. I confess I have spend much more time watching all seven series of The West Wing, much of The Sopranos, all of Mad Men, much of The Wire, much of House of Cards and others than I have plays in our theatres.

So brilliantly has quality TV mastered dramatic momentum is that the greatest health hazard I’ve recently faced is staying up until two every morning watching episode after episode because you can’t bear not to know what happens next. And it’s not just entertainment. It’s often profound comment on the contemporary society we live in. And it has huge storytelling advantages over the stage. Now we see the characters up close on huge screens in our own living rooms. The camera takes us effortlessly to new locations stunning in their ability to add atmosphere to the story. The close up on a face in our living room transports us. The sheer distance of stage performers as tiny specks on a distant stage in a huge theatre never used to worry me as much, but now my mind keeps crying out for the close up, the pan of the landscape. Cinema also has offered increasing impactful independent movies as further competition. I sit down near the front of the cinema and am swept away.

The only way we theatre writers can compete with that is to offer polished, contemporary work that is equally exciting because it offers contemporary insight specific to us and our circumstances, with the impact and excitement that can match the might of great TV and film drama.

And unless we are talking huge cast musicals or theatrical extravaganza, smaller more intimate theatres are the way to go.. not thousand seat mausoleums with that deadly, eternal longshot.

And the situation has been made even worse by the high quality productions from the National Theatre of Great Britain projected brilliantly on huge screens featuring the best actors and directors in the world in brilliantly shot close up. In many ways its better than being there watching tiny figures from a great distance in the vast Olivier theatre.

If I was a minister of the arts and I wanted to enrich this society by making sure that the prescient brilliance of our playwrights enriches us all, I’d rip down the mausoleums and replace them with multi-stage multiplexes like the cinema does. I’d fund at least three small energetic companies devoted to the development of new work like the Griffin and let them compete within these spaces for audiences. And I’d give tax incentives to corporate sponsors to fund development wings of theatre companies to bring expert dramaturgical skill to the aid of our most promising playwrights.

Make no mistake. Theatre is under genuine pressure from increasingly sophisticated and expert competition from the large screen in its various forms. But it would be a tragedy if the wonderfully insightful voices in this room were not able to inform us about ourselves.

In order to make this happen my suggestions would be:

To state theatre companies: please realise that more excitement can be generated by our own stories powerfully told that yet another noel coward. More The Beasts, less Restoration comedy.

To governments: please realise that you’re pouring vast sums of money into a repetoire of classics getting increasingly narrower and more boring, instead of helping make us a more insightful and interesting culture by diverting much more money into prime creativity rather than interpretive creativity.

To corporations: stop pouring all your money into sport and polite museum theatre. Make something truly interesting happen in this country by putting money into funding the staging of new work or even more importantly into developing it.

To architects: stop giving us mausoleums fit only for huge and extravagant musicals and give us functioning theatrical multiplexes for drama. Intimacy is the way of the future.

And to playwrights: remember the big screen competition is enormous and growing apace. Demand effective dramaturgical help to make sure your career isn’t cut short by your play hitting the stage too early. Don’t let your work be staged in a vast mausoleum unless it a musical or an epic, and be it satire or realism, don’t get carried away by your love of dialogue or character.

Audiences really do want to be on the edge of their seats wondering ‘What is going to happen next?’.

Main image: David Williamson speaking at the Arts Centre, Melbourne last night. Photo by Jim Lee.

Ray Lawler’s typewriter and some of David Williamson’s script archive on display at the Gantner Playwright’s Dinner in Melbourne. Photo by Jim Lee.

9 responses to “David Williamson’s advice to playwrights – write like a TV writer

  1. The other obvious thing about writing like a TV writer is that you will actually get paid a decent amount writing for TV, while theatre work pays a pittance. Writers like Debora Oswald (theatre – “Dags”, “Mr Bailey’s Minder”, “Stories in the Dark”, TV -“Police Rescue”, “Offspring”), Tony McNamara (theatre: “The John Wayne Principle”, “The Cafe-Latte Kid”, “The Great” – TV – “Secret Life of Us”, “Tangled”, “Puberty Blues”), Brendan Cowell (theatre “Men”, “Reuben Guthrie”, TV “Love My Way”, “The Slap”) and Jonathan Gavin (theatre – “Bang”, “The Business”, TV – “The Beautiful Lie”, “Offspring”) have all had much better odds getting paid on TV than they have in Australian theatres in the last decade or so.

  2. As a lapsed subscriber to mainstream Sydney theatre I couldn’t agree more with David Williamson’s comments and his great idealism. But he knows full well that the edifice complex is well ingrained with politicians and benefactors. Just look at the edifice at NIDA in Sydney helped with a generous donation from Mel Gibson or the Ros Packer Theatre (more appropriately called the Barangaroo Crown Casino Apology Theatre). Dispersing money across a number of small theatres with sophisticated writer development programs, in the short term just doesn’t cut the political mustard or help the egos of many benefactors. Perhaps it is about time to review Federal funding for not only theatre but also for film & television with an emphasis as to how Australia can create writing excellence. The two are intertwined and I can’t but help wonder when I see 3 or 4 million dollars of Federal subsidy spent on a clueless and ill conceived Australian film or TV series whether the money would be better spent at the rock face with writers, developing a plan for them and elevating standards. In a competitive global world of streamed TV drama for example, our shortcomings are now well exposed. There are remedies. It is about money but as David Williamson suggests it is also about defining a strategy and then matching it with rigour.

  3. I’m sorry that David wishes that he could “bash” me, and thinks that criticism is all about “bashing”. It’s an unfortunate metaphor.

    I disagree with almost everything written here. But David Williamson is welcome to his opinions.

    I do wish however to post a couple of corrections, for the record. Williamson claims that the article I wrote for the ABC was in answer to a Currency House Platform Paper by Julian Meyrick. Meyrick’s paper in fact appeared after that article, and was in part an answer to what I wrote. Moreover, far from our statistics being questionable, Meyrick was forced to issue a retraction, as some of his were, in fact, completely wrong.

    What I wrote, about the status of playwriting in 2013, has vanished with the rest of what was once ABC Arts Online. But it’s fair to say that it’s egregiously misrepresented here. If anyone cares to see what was actually said, I’ve uploaded it here.

    I do find it strange that for an keynote address in front of his colleagues, after three years of the worst arts funding cuts since the Australia Council was founded, Williamson should choose to ignore this crisis, and instead revive an old and stale argument from 2013.

  4. Mr Williamson also said last nighgt in an apparent aside from his script that he’d like to “bash Alison Crogon as she’s bashed him” – an intemperate and offensive phrase from one of our most senior playwrights. One assumes it was deliberate given his awareness of the power of language. Or is he just another aging out of touch baby boomer who doesn’t realise how much the world and its language has changed? That might explain ‘Don Parties On’…

  5. Alison my comment about you was obviously metaphorical not literal. When I said you had been bashing me for over thirty years no one who heard it inferred you had been chasing me with an axe handle and meting out punishment over that time, but critically attacking me. My talk did mention the Julian Meyrick paper of mid 2014 (not 2013) and included you because you had previously commented in an exchange with Rosemary Neill the following. “If we count all work authored by playwrights, including adaptations, the proportion of local playwrights on our main stages remains pretty stable over the last decade …. it seems to me that reports of the death of original Australian plays are greatly exaggerated.” The point I was making to the playwrights was that in my opinion, and thank you for saying I have a right to it, I place a higher value on original and new work than adaptations for the the greater insight into our own times and concerns that such writing gives us. When you look at the number of premiere’s of new and original plays, by your own observation above, Meyrick is right in thinking that new and original Australian plays are declining on our stages. In my opinion again, this isn’t a healthy trend. The funding issue I was addressing was not to do with with gross overall levels of funding but with proportions. A huge proportion of the Arts budgets for performance, State and Federal go to Opera, Ballet, and State Theatres and a miniscule amount to the support and development of Australian Playwrighting. I cited Lee Lewis’s marvellous work at the Griffin Theatre in Sydney in discovering new playwrighting talent as a lone effort and receiving very little funding State or Federal. I suggested that many more Griffin like theatres in all states, properly funded, could bring a large dividend in the self awareness and insight about ourselves that our best playwrights deliver. It’s only an opinion and I would have thought you might have supported it. Judging from the reaction of my audience they found it much more pertinent that you did. I did remark that you held strong opinions and argued them well. David Williamson

    1. As the article you mention said very clearly, we counted original plays as a separate category from adaptations in our assessment. I think that any argument should use accurate information. Of course, this article is now out of date, and the crisis that has unfolded in our arts culture since 2013 especially affects writers of all kinds, including playwrights.

      Here, again for the record, are the relevant quotes:

      “Adelaide critic Jane Howard and I logged the 2013 [and 2003] seasons of all the Australian Major Performing Arts Group (AMPAG) theatre companies, which represent the main stages of Australia. These companies are the 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. For the sake of this argument, we used a hardline definition of adaptation, labelling as adaptation many works, such as Andrew Bovell’s lauded version of Kate Grenville’s novel The Secret River, which might more properly be considered new plays.

      Contrary to popular perception, new plays are still the most popular means of producing new Australian theatre. Of the 19 adaptations, 13 — or 68 per cent — are actually written by career playwrights, with Tom Holloway leading the charge with two different works. (To avoid controversy we didn’t, perhaps a little unfairly, count Simon Stone as a playwright.) This gives the lie to Mellor’s claim that playwrights are starving because of the flood of adaptations: it might be truer to say that some playwrights are supplementing their living through adapting prior works. The number of adaptations of classic plays by auteur directors — both by Simon Stone — stands at precisely two, or all of 2.15 per cent.

      I then looked at the seasons of the same companies in 2003, applying the same criteria. What emerges is a fascinating snapshot of how Australian main stage culture has changed in the past decade.

      Two things are immediately striking. The first is that we are making more theatre, with the number of productions growing from 68 in 2003 to 93 this year, an increase of 36 per cent. The second is that the number of original Australian plays on main stages hasn’t changed at all…in 2013, our main stages produced no fewer new Australian plays than they did in 2003….

      Of a total of 93 productions mounted in 2013, we found that a healthy 54 were new Australian works — that is, almost 60 per cent. Two further productions were of Australian classics. International work (classics, adaptations and new plays) totalled 37 productions. Of the new Australian works, 25 were new plays, 19 were new adaptations of prior work and 13 were collaboratively devised. (The figures don’t add up because there is some cross-over in the categories). Six are collaborations between two writers, five of them a writer/director team. AMPAG companies produced work by a total of 34 Australian playwrights in 2013…..

      For writers, the picture is complex but encouraging. The number of new Australian plays might be unchanged, but as a percentage it has decreased as the number of productions has grown, from 37 per cent to 27 per cent. However, if we count all work authored by playwrights, including adaptations, the proportion of local playwrights on our main stages remains pretty stable over the past decade: 40 per cent in 2003, 41 per cent in 2013. If we discount the 2003 works that could be considered devised, the number of playwrights being produced has actually increased from 21 to 34, a growth of 62 per cent.”

  6. Thanks Alison for the clarification. And I do appreciate the hard work you guys put in to get it. The figure I was really after and should have quoted and credited to you was that percentage decrease of new original works from 37 percent to 27 percent over those years. That was the figure of concern to me. I did in my talk put a higher value on new and original works over adaptations for the reasons I’ve already outlined. It’s just that new work for me is more exciting and offers more culturally specific insight than adaptations. It’s just an opinion but it seemed to be fairly widely shared in the room that night. And I do take your point that I could have taken my blame further, as I agree with you that with the savage funding cuts to the smaller companies by the irrational and politically motivated moves of Brandis have made it even harder for new plays since your work was published. But Mitch Fifield was there, and he at least partially reversed those changes, and he’d already been well and truly harangued by Patricia Cornelius from the floor half an hour before on the issue, and I did want to include the whole State and Federal funding issues of huge favourtism to the Opera, Ballet and large Theatre Companies and the almost total lack of support for new writing. I was guilty of satirical jabs at the Murdoch Press and the Fairfax press and your good self, but with an audience of playwrights it seemed in the spirit of the night. And with you I at least said you argued your strong points of view well but offered no redeeming points for my other targets. This is not a great time for new work and glad you agree. I would hate to see new writing decrease any further. Very best David Williamson

  7. Dear David, thanks for giving us a chance to read your wise words. Reminded me of a chat you had with Robyn Nevin a few years back at the Playwrights Conference that I was lucky enough to over-hear.

    Daily Review … any chance of getting a list of the 70 writers who were there …? Be fascinating to see.

    Also did Mr Lawler say anthing? His thoughts would also be greatly received.

    Great to see playwrights being honoured … Hope it becomes an annual event!

    All the best, AB

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