News & Commentary, Stage

Humphrey Bower: Australian Theatre Forum 3 (Sydney)

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On Thursday January 22 I sleep in (WA body clock still three hours behind) and miss the third morning keynote kddress, by Richard Frankland. I feel guilty, but decide to take my time and do my knee physiotherapy exercises before catching the bus back to the Seymour Centre. I’ve got another big day at the Forum ahead and another Sydney Festival show to see that night.
I head down to the black-box Reginald Theatre for ‘Digital Frontiers’, a “breakout session” with a panel featuring a resident artist in education with a major company, a writer with some experience in multimedia, and the creative producer of a venue that recently hosted a festival of live art and another ‘festival’ that experimented with international digital collaborations.
Someone sitting to my right is busily using a hand-held digital device, and after a few minutes I ask her politely if she’d mind switching it off as I can’t concentrate on what the speakers are saying. She apologies and does so without protest. After a few minutes someone to my left starts doing the same thing, so I repeat the same request, and he looks at me silently for a moment before complying.
The artist in education on the panel talks about a schools project involving digital workshops that didn’t work, and another that did work involving two audiences, one of live participants and a second audience observing the first one ‘live’ onscreen. The multimedia writer then describes a performance in which a ‘fake’ panel discussion with a live audience was ‘hijacked’ halfway through (presumably through digital devices) by virtual characters advocating internet freedom.
I don’t quite understand the details of the event (as at this stage I’m still being distracted by the flickering device of the man on my left), but apparently the audience rose up in protest against the digital hijackers and voted that they be ‘deleted’ so that the live panel discussion could continue.
Our speaker offers this as an example of how multimedia can successfully create a new kind of performance; but I’m not sure that it isn’t rather an example of an audience wanting to return to an unmediated live event. The creative producer then describes how most of the digital collaborations she recently hosted at her venue ended up using comparatively little ‘live’ digital interaction because of the vagaries of Skype connections and time zones, and instead mostly relied on occasionally exchanging emails.
During the discussion I raise my hand and ask the panellists if they’re concerned about the ecological, social, psychological and physical health impacts of digital technology, given the back-up electricity demands required by 24-hour global internet servers; the environmental and social justice infringements involved in extracting raw materials and their manufacture in underdeveloped countries; and the crippling effect of our widespread addiction to hand-held screens. The panel agree but don’t have any answers.
After the discussion, the man to my left introduces himself and tells me that he found my request to switch off his device ‘confronting’. I apologise for confronting him, and we have a polite discussion about the issue. He informs me that there’s a ‘live’ Twitter feed going on throughout the forum across different venues, and that I’ve infringed on his ‘democratic right’ to participate in the virtual conversation.
I ask him what he thinks about my ‘democratic right’ to attend the actual session I’ve chosen as a member of a ‘live’ audience without being distracted, and he suggests that I can always sit somewhere else. I silently reflect on the fact that there’s a double standard here. As with the use of digital technology onstage, its use in the audience creates an ontological hole in the shared experience of live performance, including public discussion forums. We agree it’s a complex issue and part amicably, but I can feel which way the wind is blowing. Perhaps ‘democracy’ and ‘live performance’ are two more terms that need to be articulated and differentiated a little more carefully.
After lunch I head back down to the Reginald for another breakout session, ‘Who Owns The Story?’ The facilitator is a director and former artistic director with a special interest in community and cross-cultural collaboration (and a previous ATF curator); the panel includes two more artistic directors, an Aboriginal actor and director, and a verbatim theatre maker.
My heart sinks as the facilitator spends the first ten minutes of the session inviting people in the audience to come down to the stage and write questions for the panel up on a whiteboard before the discussion has even begun. My spirits lift again when the first artistic director panellist begins to speak about her experience of being invited to direct a show in Mexico with a company most of whose members had direct or indirect experience of being abducted or terrorised. When she questioned her own appropriateness as a director, the leader of the company countered that it was precisely in her capacity as an outsider that they valued her artisic perspective.
The discussion that follows wrestles with questions of cultural appropriation, artistic rights and individual responsibility. The verbatim theatre maker is up-front about her own right and responsibility to edit and stage documentary material, shape the story and create the final performance. The Aboriginal actor and writer is more ambivalent about the question of rights and responsibilities, and the other artistic director on the panel acknowledges that things are ‘messy’ but thinks they’re better for being so. I’m not so sure.
When question-time comes, the topics on the whiteboard are quickly left behind. I put up my hand and suggest there’s a difference between the form of storytelling (which is the work of the artist) and the content of the story (which can come from anywhere and perhaps doesn’t ultimately belong to anyone). I suggest that as artists we’re responsible for our own acts of storytelling and should be prepared to wear that responsibility, rather than censoring ourselves. I want to hear a response from the panellists, but the discussion is shut down by the facilitator: we need to move on, we’re running out of time, we know the answers already, or think we do.
Up until now I’ve always thought ‘political correctness’ was a straw-man invented by the reactionary right, but right now I feel like I’m up to my neck in it; and it’s not coming from the indigenous or multicultural delegates but from the dominant ‘white’ cultural gatekeepers, custodians and ‘facilitators’. Perhaps I’m just an inveterate contrarian (over dinner that night a friend affectionately refers to my ‘sheer bloody-mindedness’) but right now I feel like the politics of identity and ‘group’ rights leads to a ‘group-think’ that doesn’t tolerate difference or shades of opinion.
After lunch I attend a third breakout session on ‘ “Independence” Within An “Industry” ’ (double inverted commas intentional). It’s hosted by a thoughtful and emotionally generous independent artist from Melbourne who opens with a confession of his own financial and career compromises over the last year. The room is crammed with indies, young and old (whoever we are), and he encourages us all to break off into twos and threes and ‘confess’ our own stories of shame and stress. I’m sitting with two writers (one also a critic), and our confessions are all about money (mine is about asking for free tickets). Then he invites us all to call out practical offers and suggestions about how to share resources and lighten the load.
The session is both encouraging and strangely depressing. By the end, I feel like I’ve been at an encounter group or AA meeting. I look around the room and wonder what, if anything, we all have in common; what, if anything, ‘independent’ or ‘industry’ mean in this context and whether they’re even helpful terms.
We all seem pretty dependent to me: on each other, on significant others, on audiences, venues, funding bodies and other organisations, big and small. And is ‘industry’ the right word for a sphere of activity that’s clearly not driven by profit, and people who do what they do out of passion (or compulsion) rather than for money? Perhaps co-dependency and collective folly would be more appropriate terms.
More specifically, what’s the difference between being an ‘independent’ and simply being a freelance artist (like most jobbing actors or freelance writers for example)? The fact that as ‘independent artists’ we’re self-employed or initiate and make our own work? Perhaps (as an arts accountant in the room suggests) we’re a socio-economic category, like entrepreneurs or small-business-people. What’s the difference then between being ‘independent’ and simply being an artist? And is it a badge of pride or a ghetto? I’m not sure.
The day ends with a plenary session entitled ‘Smashing the Silos’. It’s back in the larger Everest Theatre, and I guess it’s described as ‘plenary’ because it’s intended for everyone: major and small-to-medium organisations, independents, freelancers (though I don’t see many freelance actors or stage-crew here).
The title refers to ‘collaborations between big and small companies and independent artists’: the ‘silos’ in question presumably being the funding and resources of the major organisations. These have been sheltered from massive cuts to the Australia Council by the current federal government, which have mostly impacted on small-to-medium and project-based companies. The facilitator is an executive producer with a small-to-medium organisation, and the panel consists of two independent artists who’ve done co-productions with larger funded companies, a producer with a major organisation, and the artistic director of another major organisation that started small.
I’m dreading another Q&A, but in the event it’s a refreshingly honest kiss-and-tell. The facilitator is very much part of the conversation and successfully mediates between the panellists; the discussion progresses; and I sense a genuine desire on the part of organisations and artists to make compromises and share power and resources.
During question-time, a colleague from Daily Review calls on the major organisations to show solidarity with small-to-medium and project-based companies in the face of funding cuts that disadvantage the latter while leaving the former untouched, and the artistic director on the panel is disarmingly outspoken in his attack on the government.
An independent company artist stands up and asks for access to programming and the artistic director tells him to ‘come and see him’. The producer of the other major organisation addresses the thorny question of hosting independent seasons without paying the artists; she acknowledges that it’s a transitional step, and she hopes they’ll be paying them in another five years. So do I.
All in all, I feel that this session is the most productive I’ve attended so far, and I leave the ATF at the end of the day feeling a little more sanguine about being an ‘independent’ and perhaps even part of an ‘industry’.
That night I have dinner with an old friend at a restaurant behind the Wharf Theatre on Walsh Bay. After dinner we cross Hickson Road and see another festival show: French master-clown-mime-designer-director-theatremaking genius James Thierry’s Tabac Rouge at the Sydney Theatre. I saw Raoul — his last touring show to visit Australia —  at the Perth Festival two years ago and was blown away.
Tabac Rouge has been talked down by some people, perhaps because of its lack of overt narrative; but I find it even more thrilling than Raoul, and more profound. The physical and visual storytelling is clear to me: Thierry himself embodies an isolated Prospero-like figure surrounded by servants and offspring who are also fragments of himself. It’s about power and letting go, and I’m weeping by the end. This is theatre that doesn’t need to prove itself by speaking its message out loud or presenting identification papers. It’s justified by its artistry, has its own truth-content and makes its own rules. In other words: it’s art.
My final day at ATF on January 23. I miss the morning’s opening keynote address (again) and attend a ‘Writing Room’ session (the third and last one) on ‘Writing Time’. The room is full of playwrights: it’s an oddly intense, introverted atmosphere. The facilitator is from a playwriting organisation, and the panel consists of a dramaturg and three writers.
I enjoy the focus on craft, but have the feeling no-one really knows how to talk about it — they just know how to do it (or not, as the case may be). I enjoy hearing about plays I haven’t read or seen though (past, present or to come) and imagining them in the flesh. I have a strong sense of the transience of the artform, and the amnesia that afflicts us as a culture.
The next session I go to is even more focussed on craft, and remembering things: the final ‘Respect Your Elders’ session is a conversation with Peter Wilson, puppet-guru and erstwhile artistic director of Handspan, the company that virtually invented visual theatre in Australia in the ’80s.
Seeing some of his productions back then — especially Secrets and Cho-Cho-San — transformed my sense of what puppetry and visual storytelling could be. He’s a wise, witty, vulnerable and generous conversationalist, and I’m enchanted all over again, as I was by the work all those years ago. It’s good to be reminded of the path others have walked —  and in a sense the path that’s led us here. It helps me to understand where we are –and perhaps what’s missing.
After lunch, we’re all transported on buses to the Opera House for a final keynote address by Flemish festival director Frie Leysen: ‘About Embracing the Elusive: Or, The Necessity of the Superfluous.’ It’s a feisty manifesto for autonomous art, and a timely intervention at the end of a forum which I feel has dealt too much in terms of content and too little in terms of form; too much in terms of ‘the industry’ and too little in terms of the artform itself. I
I’m encouraged by her provocation that ‘art, culture and entertainment’ are ‘completely different’; and that art shouldn’t be asked to solve the problems of society or politics. She champions artists rather than single works; and arts organisations, venues, festivals, funding bodies, markets and even audiences are firmly put in their place — that is, defined in relation to art and artists, rather than the other way around. The pleasure-principle of consumerism and the reality-principle of commercialisation are both attacked in the name of disturbance, difficulty, imagination and intuition.
Afterwards, a motion of no-confidence in the Federal government is passed around. I’m sympathetic, but I can’t help feeling that it’s a feeble gesture which completely misses the point of her speech.
That night I reunite with my Sydney friend who met me on the opening night of the forum, and another friend and colleague from Perth who’s moving to Sydney, and we head out on the train to my final Sydney Festival show, Bankstown: Live. It’s a community event by Urban Theatre Projects occupying a residential avenue in Bankstown.
Under a brooding Sydney sky, there’s a welcome to country by an Aboriginal elder, a Philippines-inspired spirit-house street procession, and an outdoor ballroom dancing event by couples from the local Vietnamese and other communities, followed by a program of formally and culturally diverse works and performances staged in front and back yards.
My friends and I stay for a storytelling theatre piece, The Tribe, based on a novel about growing up in a Lebanese-Australian family. It’s beautifully performed in a backyard by a Palestinian-Australian actor and friend who trained in Perth, and accompanied by a cellist, gusts of wind and flocks of parrots in the impressive eucalypts that stand sentinel over the old delapidated timber house.
The work, like the whole event, is slightly sentimental; but I feel that I’m participating in a genuine community theatre project, which has its own standards and indeed arguably constitutes its own artform. In this sense, it’s every bit as autonomous as puppetry or contemporary dance.
We eat street-food at interval and then decide to head home. I’m weary, and my flight leaves early tomorrow morning. On the train back, I realise I’ll miss my friends, and the vibrant, teeming, multicultural metropolis of Sydney. But I also miss my community back home: my partner, my kids, my own suburban street, and my theatre colleagues and friends back in that remote city on the other side of the continent, on the edge of a different ocean, with the desert behind it.
Read Humphrey Bowers’ ATF reports  One and Two
[box]Humph attended the Australian Theatre Forum in Sydney with the support of the WA Department of Culture and the Arts. His next Postcard from Perth on Fringe World will be posted later this week. Main image: a scene from Bankstown Live at the Sydney Festival.[box]

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