16 April 2010

All lit and no play

Lot of heat in the blogosphere about the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards judges’ decision that no plays this year are worthy of nomination. Currency Press have issued a media release (which seems to have disappeared from their website, but you can read it here on James Waites' blog), but I think the best discussion is—perhaps not surprisingly—at Theatre Notes. Let’s use the NSW judges’ omission to have a real discussion about performance writing—what it is, and what it might be.

I’ve left a few comments around the traps, including on the Australian Literary Review blog. Unfortunately the responses there (those that aren’t in-crowd chit-chat about the event where the short-list was announced) dump on Australian performance writing. Sigh.

BTW I didn’t enter a play, so have no personal axe to grind.

11 April 2010

The most exciting book I've read in ages

Was going to post on Why I hate the word pretentious and love the word abstract, but have decided to leave that for another time—or maybe something else. Because I’m reading David Shields book Reality Hunger, and what a thrilling manifesto it is. Rousing, affirming, audacious, genuinely un-put-downable. The book has received some harsh reviews from critics who accuse Shields of being anti the novel. But I don’t think he is; I think he’s asking important questions about literary fiction and narrative; about cohesion and fragmentation, about composition and reality; I think he’s putting forward the idea that the novel—that writing—can be many things. Nor do I think he is, as some of his detractors have suggested, anti metaphor and the imaginary.

Here’s one of my favourite sections:

‘For me, anyway, the fictional construct rarely takes you deeper into the material that you want to explore. Instead, it takes you deeper into the fictional construct, into the technology of narrative, of plot, of place, of scene, of characters. In most novels I read, the narrative completely overwhelms whatever it was the writer supposedly set out to explore in the first place.’

Not only novels. How many plays have I seen where exactly that has happened? Where an interesting idea or sensibility has been squashed flat under a ton of plot points, character arcs and narrative crapola.

Reality Hunger is one of the most exciting books I’ve come across since I read Therapy’s Delusions (years ago) and Ethan Watters’s and Richard Ofshe’s contentious argument that Freud’s notion of an active unconscious that affects our everyday lives is nothing more than a culturally supported myth. But that’s another story.

08 April 2010


Screens and projections have become commonplace in theatre. Sometimes the footage is well shot and/or designed, sometimes not. Sometimes they’re imaginatively and deftly used, sometimes not. Sometimes they add, sometimes they diminish.

This recent article in The New York Times discusses the rise and rise of screens and projections in live theatre.

Combining recorded images and on-stage action is a complex and intricate business. As is fusing deferred and live performance. I’ve seen productions with lavish and costly projections that have been pretty ho-hum, and incredibly simple set-ups that worked brilliantly. Success is obviously down to more than technology and resources (although they help).

You’re probably sensing a ‘but’ here …

Screens, both individual and public, are a feature of contemporary life. As theatre-makers of course we want to reference and make use of them. But this ubiquity also prompts reservations. When many of us spend so much of our time gazing at screens on computers, iPhones, tablets, TVs, etc. do we—do I—want to go to the theatre for more of the same?

I have mixed feelings about this, and certainly nothing per se against the use of screens on stage … but there is something unique and compelling about the live, unmediated exchange. I love the directness of stand-up, of spoken word and poetry. Of readings. Of the guided tours you bump into. Of the everyday, happenstance performances you come across in supermarkets and department stores (such as cooking demonstrations) and in malls (spruikers and the like). Although perhaps my preference for these bare-bones, solo forms reflects nothing so much as my current disenchantment with theatre, much of which I’m finding limited, over-reliant on a handful of easy, predictable tropes, even—dare I say it?—intellectually banal.

But let’s end on a more up-beat note. One of the most stunning theatrical combinations of live performance and projections I’ve seen was Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea from UK company 1927. Catch them on YouTube.

And the good news is: they’re returning to Sydney with a new show later this year.