26 July 2007

The Desk and the Dreaming Space ...

Pusan, 1999

Today I’m surrounded by skyscrapers. Simultaneously immersed in the Cold War theme park that is North Korea, and in the high art/high tech landscape of South Korea. On my desk are pages of notes on the history of concrete, a polythene-covered Penguin Classic, photos of the port city of Pusan, and my notebook from 1999—in which I wrote about an encounter with Chekhov on a winter evening in one of the city’s waterfront bars.

What am I doing? I’m working on UNREQUITED, a 30-minute Performance Essay for the PowerPoint Age which I’m presenting in Adelaide in September. No idea—yet—how I’m going to combine these various strands into a coherent whole. The piece is still in what I like to call its dreaming space: that exciting, early research stage, when curiosity is paramount, and you find yourself pursuing ideas and lines of thought for no apparent or discernable reason—just to see where they might lead …

So apropos of this meandering, here are my 3 favourite tenets from Bruce Mau’s An Incomplete Manifesto for Growth:

6. Capture accidents. The wrong answer is the right answer in search of a different question. Collect wrong answers as part of the process. Ask different questions.

8. Drift. Allow yourself to wander aimlessly. Explore adjacencies. Lack judgment.

9. Begin anywhere. John Cage tells us that not knowing where to begin is a common form of paralysis. His advice: begin anywhere.

15 July 2007

Factual Theatre—A Few Thoughts

A couple of weeks ago I was sorting through a lot of enigmatically-named Word files in an attempt to free up some more disk space, when I came across the following paragraph. It’s either a quote, or something I’ve paraphrased:

‘A workable specimen of the kind of thin-sliced play that our theatres currently find most feasible, is not so much a text as a pretext. A slim excuse brings together 2 people with conflicting views, and their confrontation gives a handy opportunity for supplying information, exploring issues, and ping-ponging badinage till they both part, changed to varying degrees by their encounter.’

Unfortunately I didn’t note the reference, so apologies to its author. Anyway, I clipped it out because its sentiments struck a chord, and got me thinking about ‘journalism for the stage’. You know the template: On the one hand there’s Character—or Group—A, passionately committed to one point of view, on the other, Character or Group Z shouting the opposite. But what happens to theatricality when you make the stage the domain of rational debate?

Is metaphor suspect in our age of flux and insecurity? Ditto poetic imaginings and wild flights of dramaturgical fancy? What’s behind this hunger for factual theatre? ‘What these plays offer audiences is an open door into a subject whose density might otherwise be difficult to negotiate’, writes UK theatre critic Lyn Gardner in Does Verbatim Theatre Still Talk the Talk? True, but aren’t there other—perhaps more theatrically adventurous—ways of dramatising the material for audiences? Look at what playwrights like Caryl Churchill, Mac Wellman or Martin Crimp do—they take a topic and recompose it into an accumulation of fragments, glimpses, about-turns, and fraught, emotional encounters.

As I’m writing this however, I’m starting to wonder if my concern here isn’t thinness, rather than theatricality … the ‘thin-sliced play’. After all, I’m a huge admirer of David Hare’s Via Dolorosa, and Lawrence Wright’s My Trip to Al-Qaeda—although both of these sophisticated pieces are what I’d term ‘performance essays’ rather than plays.

I remember an article in The Sydney Morning Herald almost a year ago (29 August 2006) about verbatim theatre. One of the interviewed writers identified his problem with the genre: that often the characters don’t change significantly during the course of the play. My response: Does this matter if the audience experiences a journey? Or in the case of a community initiative, if the participants’ involvement is transformative?

Verbatim or not to verbatim … ?

I’m no expert here. My own experiments with verbatim are partial, to say the least. In REDHEADS (2007) I created a 1950s background for a contemporary drama, via the presence of 2 historical figures, General MacArthur and R. G. Menzies, who spoke a collage of their own words, all taken from documents on the public record. While the final scene of MRS PETROV’S SHOE (2006), in which we hear the insights and comments of a parade of fictional witnesses, is written in mock verbatim style.

Tragic, or at least serious, events seem verbatim’s strong inclination. Be they a tribunal, a small-town murder, or the demise and rebirth of a sporting team. (Are there any verbatim theatre scripts that are primarily comic? Or does comedy writing require a manufacturing or refinement of material incompatible with the verbatim ethos?) And in common with most classical tragedy, we usually have a pretty good idea of how the story ends. We know for example, that King Lear’s decision to divide his kingdom will result in disaster. That the incestuous Giovanni and Annabella in ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, will die. Our interest is in seeing how these narratives unfold, and what resonances Shakespeare’s or John Ford’s way of telling arouses in us.

The verbatim approach, together with its close relative, storytellers’ theatre, both spring from oral history and community arts. I wonder if some of the criticisms now circulating about verbatim are a consequence of taking these works out of context and putting them onto mainstages at $40+ a pop? The productions I’ve seen have been heartfelt, hardworking, and deftly staged. They have revealed the triumphs of theatre that aspires to documentary status—and its key dilemma.

Do recent events, recent history, digitally translated for endless replay, restrict the possibilities for theatrical intervention? Limit metaphorical strategies, comic innovation, or poetic reworking? Maybe. Or at least they present a different challenge. We know the facts, can pull up images, sound-bytes, court transcripts, first-hand accounts, with the click of a mouse. So the task then for playwrights is: What can we add to, or do with, the facts to make the theatrical experience bigger and more meaningful than a montage of news clips or a magazine article?

12 July 2007

Have We Created a 'Prize' Model of Arts Funding?

We’re all familiar with Australian Idol, and in Britain, reality TV has done the same for playwrights and wannabe opera singers as well. Scanning the newspapers last weekend, I read about the State Library of NSW’s contest for poets and aspiring poets. Enter their 2007 Poetry Slam and you could win $10,000. ABC Radio was also advertising last week for entries in its short story competition for regional writers. (10 first prizes of $700 + broadcast.) And that got me thinking about competitions for new writing in general, and the implications of this recent proliferation: Have we developed a prize-based model of arts funding? Has a ‘hit-and-run’ culture in which one winner is rewarded for weeks or months of endeavour, while any number of others are not, crept in to replace the steady development of new work across various fronts?

The Sydney Theatre Company, when asked what it does to support new and local writing, invariably cites its Patrick White Playwrights’ Award—by far the largest cash reward for an unproduced play in Australia, but by no means the only contest for such scripts. Under the heading of ‘Fellowships’ Arts NSW runs an annual competition for historians, translators and writers. Glance at the ‘opportunities’ section of any writers’ organisation e-newsletter, and what you’ll see is essentially a list of competitions.

The accepted wisdom is that contests bring talented unknowns out of the woodwork. That’s the positive spin. The negative is that companies, broadcasters, producers and publishers get to tick the ‘new work’ box without having to pledge commitment. So my question is: Do these prize-orientated models serve the artists and artforms, or are they a way of managing scarcity? And I’m talking here about money to creators and interpreters to make new work, not dollars channelled into arts marketing and management. Take NSW, for example. Unlike most other states, NSW has no funding program for individual writers to generate new work. Instead they offer one—yes, that’s right, one—annual ‘Writer’s Fellowship’ open to playwrights, poets, essayists and novelists. When I’ve raised this with the relevant project officers, their explanation is that they put their literature dollars into writers’ centres and organisations, because that is the way to benefit the maximum number of writers. Hmm … not convinced. Aren’t you then supporting administrators, infrastructure, and promotional activities, rather than the actual writing?

Look, I imagine that initially these competitions were considered a bonus or supplement; one possible door into an overcrowded industry for newcomers. But I wonder if now these awards and ‘Fellowships’ with their attendant fanfare and publicity, aren’t in fact smokescreens? Helping disguise what seems like an ever-diminishing amount of arts funding (to creators and interpreters) in real and relative terms. I worry that when we replace ongoing support with one-off rewards, we are privileging the short-term over the longer term, fashion over longevity, a quick career-boost over genuine commitment. Ongoing funding allows theatre companies and individual writers to experiment, forge new processes, take risks, and develop projects whose scope and ambition may require many months, even years, of dedicated work.

I also wonder if the prize model doesn’t—subtly—encourage the view that writing is not real work which deserves to be remunerated, but a kind of lifestyle choice? A hobby to pursue in your spare time, when you get home from your ‘real’ job.

Then there’s the whole question of what kinds of work do prizes favour? Playwright Timothy Daley once said—can’t remember where, sorry—that comedies never win awards, and he’s pretty much on the money. You’re far more likely to make those shortlists if you tackle a topical social issue, preferably one which has been in the news headlines, and tackle it in a fairly straightforward form. Does this produce journalism for the stage? Hmm, this is a bit of a pet topic of mine, and I’ve got a lot of ideas about this whole vexed theatre/current affairs relationship, but I think I’ll leave that subject for the next post ...