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Humphrey Bower: Australian Theatre Forum 2 (Sydney)

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For the third session of day two at last month’s Australian Theatre Forum in Sydney I headed upstairs to the foyer of the Everest Theatre for a ‘Respect Your Elders’ panel conversation about ‘Remembering Playworks’.I’ve always been interested in Playworks, which was an important national women’s playwriting organisation with a strong contemporary performance edge that ran out of Sydney from the ’80s through to the early 2000s.
There are 11 ‘nostalgia’ sessions like this one programmed throughout ATF. Later in the week a friend comments that too many events (including some of the keynote addresses) have spent too much time looking back at the past, but I reckon what Foucault called ‘the history of the present’ is critically important, especially in an evanescent artform and an amnesiac national culture. This is the case, above all when we’re dealing with minority communities, cultures and artforms including women, children, Aboriginal people, regional and community theatre, children’s theatre and puppetry (I’m using ‘minority’ here in terms of power and status, not necessarily numbers).
The audience for this particular event is however relatively small, and mostly female. I also can’t help noting that it’s been relegated to the foyer rather than inside one of the theatres, and that there’s continual background noise from hordes of children who are being taken to a kids’ show in one of the main theatres downstairs. In short: it feels very much like we’ve been put in a typical ‘woman’s place’.
That said, it’s probably the most informative and thought-provoking session I’ve attended so far. A panel of speakers who were involved in running Playworks throughout its history reflect on the organisation’s achievements, challenges and vicissitudes, especially navigating the political and cultural changes (in theatre and feminism) that occurred during the ’90s.
Once again I’m struck by the tension between artistic freedom and the politics of identity — and within the latter, between collective and individual rights. This tension is marked by a historical and theoretical shift from the more ‘separatist’ feminism of an organisation that was intended exclusively for women to a more inclusive one that also served playwrights from other marginalised groups (e.g. working-class writers in Newcastle) regardless of their gender, and the debates about the identity of the organisation itself that ensued. Alongside this I sense a parallel tension between a more concrete, practical and prosaic definition of ‘women writers’ and a more abstract, theoretical and poetic notion of ‘women’s writing’ (the former perhaps more in the tradition of Anglo-Saxon feminism, the latter more influenced by French feminist theory of the ’70s).
An elder playwright in the audience stands up and says she benefited from Playworks back in the early days, but didn’t have time to follow through professionally once she became a mother. She wishes the organisation still existed to support her now that her children have grown up and left home, and she has time to write again.
It strikes me that this story is emblematic of the particular disadvantages women face collectively (as differentiated from other minority groups). Once again it also reflects a historical shift from more collective to more individual notions of politics and theatremaking from the ’70s through to the ’90s and beyond. Despite progress in terms of language and consciousness, this shift has allowed structural inequities to continue beneath the surface. If you see yourself purely as an individual rather than as a member of a group, you’re less likely to recognise yourself as subject to these inequities, or to do something about it.
A colleague observes that playwrights feel particularly victimised by this shift because (unlike actors or directors) they’re often introverts, used to working alone and dependent on others to put on their plays for them or advocate on their behalf. Of course, this doesn’t apply to writers who are used to collaborating with directors and ensembles and having a voice in the rehearsal room.
Perhaps it’s time to rethink these notions again (of the individual and the collective), along with the division of labour between the sexes and the balance for both between work and family life. As the era of neoliberalism (on the right and left) begins to show signs of coming to an end, it’s a good opportunity for all of us (women and men, playwrights and others) to look back to the lessons of the previous era before plunging on into the unknown.
After lunch, I head back downstairs to the Reginald Theatre for ‘Pathways to Diversity’. The panel includes one artistic director (white, middle-class, male, gay), two young, culturally diverse,  independent artists (at last!) and the artistic director of the Australian Theatre for the Deaf (white, female, deaf).
The testimony of the independent artists is especially refreshing. Unlike the others, their tone is upbeat, streetwise and unguarded. For example one of them gives short shrift to a suggestion from the audience that ‘positive discrimination’ is the way forward. I sense a more flexible, inclusive and post-colonial notion of identity here. Diversity emerges as something real, existing and potentially desirable for everyone. Conversely, the artistic director ties himself in knots trying to be an advocate for diversity, while acknowledging this needs to be a ‘personal’ rather than merely a theoretical commitment, but struggling to articulate what this means for him.
Meanwhile the deaf panellist (communicating in sign via an interpreter) is more sceptical about the blanket term ‘diversity’ itself. In the case of disabled people (as with geographically and economically disadvantaged communities) the burning issue is a practical one of access and participation, whereas for multicultural and queer artists the more specifically aesthetic question of representation seems to be paramount.
I’m reminded of the issue of childcare for women playwrights that was briefly raised in the Playworks session. Plainly, diversity is not a harmonious rainbow but a differentiated and non-synchronous site of potentially conflicting and conflicted interests and desires.
Someone from the audience protests that there’s been no discussion or representation of sexuality by the panel. Someone else points out that there’s been no mention of class either (as distinct from culture, gender, sexuality or disability). I silently reflect on the fact that both categories are generally absent (or rather unspoken) as terms of debate during the forum (though the artistic director on the panel responds to the protest by declaring his own sexuality).
The language of class in particular has largely disappeared from public discourse, despite valiant recent efforts from the likes of writers like Tim Winton and Christos Tsolkas. Again, this reflects a historical shift in post-war (and more particularly post-Cold-War) politics and culture, at least in the developed world. However, things may be undergoing a tidal shift in the wake of the global financial collapse and more recent political developments in Greece and elsewhere. Expect to hear a lot more about ‘class’ in the coming decade, and perhaps even at the next ATF.
The fact is that working class people by definition have even less of a voice than other disadvantaged groups because lack of education, income or other means of access to positions of power defines class inequality. To put it another way: as soon as these deficiences are remedied, you cease to be a member of the working class; whereas if you identify as disabled, gay, female, Aboriginal or from another cultural background, that remains the case whatever these signifiers mean for you. That’s why the issue of class continually slips through the net of identity politics.
Following afternoon tea I wander back up to the Everest theatre for a plenary discussion called ‘What’s the Risk?’. The panel features a festival director, a freelance director, a literary manager and an indigenous ‘engagement co-ordinator’ and is facilitated by the general manager of a major organisation.
As with the opening keynote session in the same venue on ‘Art and Democracy’, the topic is vague and undefined, the discussion drifts, the panel fails to gel, the panellists have little in common and appear to be making it up as they go along. After a few minutes, I’m bored, and leave. There’s no ‘risk’ onstage here.
Once again I wonder if there’s something about the TV chat-show panel format that lends itself to idle chatter, especially framed by the architecture of a large proscenium arch theatre. To be honest, I’m not sure I’d enjoy watching theatre here either. The intimacy of the Reginald downstairs is a little more focussed; but in general the whole centre strikes me as suffering from the typical flaws of most purpose-built multi-functional arts ‘centres’. It’s no wonder theatre companies and audiences shun them.
I hobble down the road to Carriageworks in Redfern to have an early dinner before seeing a Sydney Festival show: Nothing to Lose. It’s a new dance theatre work by outgoing artistic director Kate Champion for the company she founded, Force Majeure.
There’s a Sydney Festival artwork in the cavernous industrial-chic foyer of the venue: contemporary Chinese artist Zhang Huan’s Sydney Buddha. Two gigantic Buddhas face off: one entirely constructed ofincense ash, the other an aluminum mold (from which the former is cast). The ash Buddha is slowly disintegrating: he’s already lost a hand, and some of the folds of his robe. The aluminium head of the mould lies on the floor beside it.
I find the work sad and strangely vacuous, at least in this context. It seems displaced, decapitated, desecrated, emptied of spiritual meaning, and eroded of any critical or political edge.
The boutique café at the venue is closed, so I head back down the road to the nearest pub for a $10 steak and a schooner. The ambience is refreshingly working class and free of ATF delegates. Then I head back to Carriageworks to meet a couple of friends and see the show.
I find Nothing To Lose a striking but ultimately confused and confusing work. Created by Champion in collaboration with artist, performer and ‘fat activist’ Kelli Jean Drinkwater, it hovers between contemporary dance and community theatre but doesn’t wholly satisfy me in either capacity.
It opens with an arresting image: the bodies of seven ‘fat’ performers reclining motionless onstage, piled up or leaning against each other in apparently easy intimacy. I find the image strangely confronting, beautiful and even erotic. It’s also stunningly lit by Geoff Cobham. I’m vaguely reminded of the languorous beach photos of Max Dupain or Albert Tucker’s disturbing painting of sunbathers as geometric chunks of flesh.
I feel disappointed though as the show continues. There’s no further physical contact between the performers, although at one point audience-members are invited to come onstage and prod them as if they were inert objets d’art. Otherwise the show consists of a series of unison dance routines and solos which I find surprisingly uninteresting choreographically except as demonstrations of what ‘fat’ bodies can and can’t do. Voiceover and spoken text intervene and further reduce image and movement to illustrations of ‘fatness’ as a social issue, stripped of its problematic and ambiguous carnality.
In short: community theatre supervenes; nothing wrong with that; but even in that capacity, I can’t help feeling that the performers are ironically disempowered by being deprived of names, characters or stories (real or imagined) beyond being ‘fat’ –and presented en masse rather than as individuals whose physical difference might otherwise go unremarked (as in a dance theatre or contemporary performance work by the likes of Castelluci or Ballets C de la B). As such, for me they become little more than identical objects or signs of wonder, pity or amusement.
I hasten to add that a ‘big’ theatre colleague sitting beside me in the audience feels very differently about the show, and its use of text; for her, it’s a much more positive and empowering experience. The same is true for a friend who unexpectedly appears onstage as one of twelve ‘extra’ performers in the closing unison war-dance. It’s a great community theatre finale, and the audience responds with similarly uniform enthusiasm.How can we not give them a  standing ovation?
Afterwards I catch up with my unexpected friend, who’s not normally a performer (and isn’t particularly large either). She moved to Sydney from Perth a few years ago, and it seems like she’s finding her place here now, personally and professionally (she’s working in arts administration as a programming assistant at the Opera House). She walks me back through the park to Glebe Point Road, and we part ways.
I catch the bus back to my guesthouse, and ponder the complexities of identity and diversity. Art, artforms, politics, places, cultures, communities: all spheres that interlock but I still feel need to be differentiated between each other and within themselves.
[box]Humph’s third and final Postcard from Sydney on the Australian Theatre Forum and the Sydney Festival will be posted next week. His second Postcard on Perth Fringe World will be posted on Friday. Main image: a performer in Nothing to Lose[/box]

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