Category Archives: overviews

Shout-outs

Australian Script Centre has kicked off a new series of long-form essays on the state of the Australian theatre (playwrighting, but not just). The inaugural essay has just been published: it is the inimitable Alison Croggon, writing on the state of theatre criticism in Australia. The essay is long, exhaustive, and superb, and I cannot recommend it enough.

Meanwhile, one of the young and promising critics that Alison singles out for praise in the above essay, Jane Howard, has just launched a personal newsletter. (I must say I’m not sure how to link to something that exists via email, so I am linking to her blog announcement thereof, which is perhaps a bit lame.) Jane is in Melbourne to write about about Next Wave, the biennial festival of emerging artists that explicitly nurtures experimental work. From what I’ve read so far of Jane’s newsletter, it is as experimental and interesting as the festival itself. I also highly recommend.

Next Wave has also started, of course. I wish I had the time to engage in either long-form or experimental criticism, or both, of the many, many works that will be showing in the next few weeks. Unfortunately, between the two subjects I am teaching, and the two long commissions I need to finish, I feel like I’ll be lucky if I find time to tweet about them. Many things are going to be published in reputable media, of course – including my review of Next Wave – but with a bit of a delay. Meanwhile, enjoy Jane and Alison’s writings.

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Cultural policy and the arts

Save Live Music in Melbourne - a petition with 22,000 signatures calling for the the delinking of live music and “high risk” licencing conditions, delivered to the Victorian Government, April 7. Photo: www.carbiewarbie.com, with thanks.

IT IS A COMFORTING THOUGHT THAT AUSTRALIANS ARE GREAT AT ENTREPRENEURSHIP AND SMALL-SCALE INNOVATION, BUT LET ME SUGGEST ONE THING WE DO EXTREMELY BADLY: LONG-TERM AND LARGE-SCALE STRATEGIC PLANNING.

IF SUSPICION OF GOVERNMENT INTERVENTION IS RIFE, IT MUST BE BECAUSE WE HAVE VIRTUALLY NO EXAMPLES OF A WELL-THOUGHT-THROUGH, AMBITIOUS AND SUCCESSFUL STRATEGIC INTERVENTION. FOR EVERY INNOVATIVE ECO-BUILDING AND LANEWAY FESTIVAL, WE HAVE A FAILING PUBLIC TRANSPORT NETWORK OR A FORGOTTEN CARBON EMISSIONS SCHEME.

One-person innovation has traditionally been the domain of artists — this is the thinking behind many a ‘creative industries’ policy. The corollary is that artists are perceived as situated outside large systems (ministries, policy frameworks) as subcultural rebels, creating on the geographical, economic and social margins, needing no infrastructural support for their ephemeral creations.

Yet, looking at Australian arts in urban terms, another picture emerges. My research finds almost every arts venue in Melbourne since 1991 clustering in loose clouds around public transport, state art centres and educational facilities, and moving around to avoid the worst of the real estate boom—in music, design and performing arts alike. It is tempting to attribute artistic success solely to individual genius, but there is in fact cultural infrastructure in place, which includes schools, low rents and central locations, on which every artist relies, and this infrastructure is what cultural policy can begin to protect.

the importance of breeding places


It is common in artspeak to talk about defunding artistically irrelevant institutions, as Gavin Findlay does, but it is actually the uncertain funding of institutions that emerges as a bigger problem. For small- and medium-sized companies, flagship buildings to perform in and independent programming venues are a vital link to peers, critics and audiences. Convinced of art’s ephemerality, we forget the importance of ‘breeding places’: spaces and events that yield exposure, attract audiences, house archives, provide education and build social centres for the fleeting world of the arts. They serve their role best when their location and program times are unchanging and predictable—because then they can become meeting points, exchange points, networking points.

When we speak of the ‘independent’ artist, we sometimes forget how much artists depend on each other. Our few remaining theatre archives, the only memory-keepers we have, are tied to institutions with longevity (STC, Dancehouse, arts centres, state libraries); while VCA, Dancehouse or La Mama in Victoria, or Performance Space and TINA in NSW, are actual incubators of ‘scenes’ (social capital, an aesthetic, training), ensuring continuity to the arts. We can myopically boast a long list of important places and events that have ceased operating, from Pram Factory to the Green Mill Dance Project. Our lack of regard for ‘breeding places’ is best exemplified by the treatment of Performance Space, possibly the most important space for contemporary arts in Australia. A living incubator of innovation since the 1980s, having nurtured dozens of our most important performers, it has still not been recognised as a cultural flagship, let alone endowed with a permanent space of its own or operational autonomy within CarriageWorks.

The arts can and do punch back — but only if the issue can be sold in more than artistic terms. As I’m writing this, Victoria’s liquor licensing laws are being tweaked to save The Tote, a ramshackle music venue, from closure. Politicians were more worried about the voting preferences of the 200,000 protesters than the cultural significance of The Tote, granted; but the 200,000 saw The Tote as an indispensable part of Melbourne’s culture, not a den for a handful on society’s margins.

This hasn’t come out of nowhere: at least since Espy, the iconic music pub in St Kilda, was threatened with closure in 1997, live music has been promoted as a key part of Melbourne’s ‘cultural’ specificity. However, there must be a better way to protect cultural incubators than with rallies.

culture as a given

For many arts practitioners, the debate on the national cultural policy may look suspiciously like yet another thing to complicate already-fuzzy KPIs — but it would be unwise to limit the discussion to arts funding, because it is about more than that. To admit to a ‘culture’ is to say that there are things that we do that are important and worth protecting, because they make us who we are, regardless of their economic, health or social outcomes. In a sense it is irrelevant whether ‘culture’ includes media (as in Germany), is defined as “anything that stimulates closeness” (as in Croatia) or is left undefined (as in many European countries that nonetheless have robust cultural policies). It is primarily a principle of protection.

Artists should understand the power of words. At the moment, ‘economy’ is one of the powerful ones. Being good or bad for the economy, vaguely defined, is argument enough to defend or shelve a policy. Agreeing that we have a ‘culture’ would allow a whole new string of arguments to be made and, with due respect to David Throsby, defend the arts not on the grounds of its goodness for the economy, community or health, but simply as important for our culture.

Of course, arts policy in Australia already assumes ‘culture’: our funding of opera is otherwise inexplicable. But let me give you a sense of what else ‘culture’ might protect: in the 1990s Amsterdam initiated Broedplaats (“Breeding Places”), a squat protection policy, recognising them as incubators of creativity. “No Culture Without Subculture” was the mayor’s rallying cry. Formation of ‘alternative cultural centres’ is common throughout Europe, with a kind of light heritage overlay protecting use, rather than the form, of a building. Palach, in Croatia, has been an alternative music venue/gallery/café/performance space since 1968. It has had its dull phases, of course, but a new generation of bright young things inevitably emerged, taking over the same central location and benefiting from access to facilities, a ready-made audience and previous generations of artists. Similarly, the Save the Espy campaign in Melbourne could not rely on existing state laws to protect the beloved music pub: it didn’t qualify in terms of architectural, community or social heritage. After a prolonged fight, Espy was ultimately saved in 2003 because the local council managed to install sufficient protection on the grounds of local ‘cultural’ significance.

Save Live Music in Melbourne (SLAM) poster.

cutting across policy areas

Another intervention that only national cultural policy can achieve is the nurturing of systems, interventions that cut across policy areas and require departmental collaboration on the federal level. Many have been picked up in the submissions to Peter Garrett’s cultural policy discussion website: simplification of artist work visas, greater support for regional and overseas touring (having no national culture, Australia has no sustained cultural diplomacy either). To this I would add improvements to arts education, understanding the importance of subcultures and integration of arts institutions into the urban fabric—giving them centrality, advertising, public transport. What was the point of investing millions in CarriageWorks, if it is still sitting next to an underdeveloped train station, in a dark street, untouched by a single useful bus line? A comparatively cheap intervention into public transport would have quadrupled the returns on the enormous investment. Instead, one of Sydney’s most central performance venues manages to remain hidden to most of its population.

But what I would like to see most is some meaningful form of social security for artists. In most countries with ‘culture’, artists benefit from tax exemptions and reductions, access to free health insurance and pension funds, and different forms of income support that usually don’t require active job seeking. It is a measure that gives artists some modest existential certainties, but it’s also an intervention that the Australia Council for the Arts cannot initiate on its own.

art without culture…?

Judging from the way we mangle our strategic policies across the board, there is no reason to assume Garrett’s national cultural policy will get everything right. But defining ‘culture’ as an intangible, but protectable and nurturable good is the first step towards building systems, structures and strategies that ensure longevity for what we’ve got. We need culture if we want to remember, and be remembered ourselves; if we want our art to matter. Without ‘culture’, we’d have no culture wars, true, but also no values, meaning, sense. Without culture, nothing differentiates the arts from any other unprofitable industry. And without culture, there is literally no subculture.

Jana Perkovic is working at the University of Melbourne on an ARC-funded research project titled “Planning the Creative City”, studying the geographical clustering of independent arts in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, and the relationship between arts policy, demographics and urban planning. She writes for RealTime on contemporary dance and performance in Melbourne and Europe.

First published in RealTime, issue #97, June-July 2010, pg. 10.

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Malthouse season 2

Michael Kantor’s last season (just announced) looks strangely like a Best Of Malthouse 2005-2010 (subtitle: The Kantor Years), or a Tribute To… CD (Melbourne indie theatre does Malthouse OR Malthouse does Melbourne indie… you choose). And not just that, but a Christmas edition with two bonus tracks (Great International Name + the understudy makes an appearance).

All the people that Kantor’s Malthouse has been supporting are gathered again: here are the local darlings Hayloft, again working with Black Lung on Thyestes; there is Ranters with Intimacy (a sequel to Affection?), there is Lucy Guerin’s new pop-cultural dance (with set design by Gideon Obarzanek of Chunky Move, another friend of the Malthouse); there is 1927, again after Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea; Barrie Kosky’s most restrained and elegant The Tell-tale Heart returns after a sold-out season back in 2007; and Meredith Penman, a recent VCA graduate, frequently seen in Hayloft projects, and an absolutely exquisite actress (see her in Richard III currently playing at the MTC) brings her 2009 Sydney show, A Woman in Berlin, back to Melbourne. Is almost makes you feel outraged that she would have been allowed to open it there, and not here.

Then there is the new bright boy, Matthew Lutton, casting the new bright star Ewen Leslie in another dramatization of Kafka: The Trial, both for the Malthouse and the STC. Boy heroes make me yawn, but I am as curious to see Mr Lutton’s famed direction as anyone else, so good on the Malthouse for bringing him over. Meg Stuart is being brought over in the first international guest performance really worth its salt: Maybe Forever is only 3 years old, Meg Stuart is acclaimed, but has not quite finished saying what she has to say, and I am quite marvelled that the Malthouse would be so ambitious as to invite her over. It is also the only performance of the season I will miss (by being in Croatia), alas. The final bonus track is the pre-introduction of Marion Potts with Sappho… in 9 fragments (as ‘stager’, not director), before she takes on the artistic direction of the Malthouse in 2011.

I’d also point out that Things on Sunday, Malthouse’s talk program, looks particularly good this year, with a performance/interview with Heiner Mueller, rest in peace, and the Rex Cramphorn Memorial Lecture delivered by said Marion Potts on the turnover in artistic directors that is sweeping the country. And why not?

All in all, it’s a bit of a last ball, where we want to see all our friends perform something little. And it’s good like that. One characteristic of Kantor’s Malthouse has been a strong sense of community: there was a house way of doing things, there were friends of the Malthouse, a number of people got a lot of space to do work. It has bred some bitterness around town, by those who felt left out of the inner circle, but it has been not altogether unsuccessful. At the end of the Kantor era, Malthouse is not a lukewarm and/or beige place claiming to represent everyone while being nondescript and of no interest to anyone in particular. It is a distinct theatre, full of character, with a programming tradition that has an audience, a palette, strengths and weaknesses. And vision, which is very unusual for an institution its size in this country.

I am looking forward to a change of direction with Marion Potts, but I suspect the second half of the 2010 season will be very successful as a nostalgia-inducer. We will sit around the pit and reminisce about Paul Capsis, gollywog puppets, and the missed opportunity to turn the Gallipoli story into a musical.

All the details of the Malthouse season 2 can be gleaned here.

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2008

Despite all my intentions to retire early, the dance season procrastinated, and it's only today that I am closing my year. It was an eventful one, and I am vaguely looking forward to a month of being a gentleman farmer: cooking, reading, watching films, and undertaking urban expeditions. Or something like that.

2008 was mostly a miserable year here, so beyond bearable that I refused to announce it, preferring to live in a never-ending 2007, until the clouds started dispersing – by which time the 2009 diaries were already on sale. This is one of the reasons why my theatre year is not entirely representative of Melbourne, Australia. Combined with a three-month return to Europe, I only got back to regularly attending local theatre events properly in September. Inevitably, I missed many unusually good-sounding productions, among which, in no particular order: Back to Back's Food Court, Schlusser's Life is a Dream, BalletLab's Axeman Lullaby, MTC(!)'s Blackbird and Simon Stone's direction of pool (no water) for Red Stitch. In Sydney, there were: Stoning Mary at Griffin Stablemates, Wharf2LOUD's Frankenstein, Hayloft Project's remount of their 2007 Melbourne show Spring Awakening at Belvoir Downstairs, The Rabble's Salome in Cogito Volume III and The Fondue Set's No Success Like Failure (which also had a short run in Melbourne).

Another reason is that the highlights of my year were uniformly European theatre products, and many of them on film. Purists will say aaaah!, but I have discovered that dance on film is the most beautiful thing in the world. Among my discoveries were the gorgeous films of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. I urge you to have a look at Rosas danst Rosas and Achterland, at least. The shows I loved were covered, laconically, for Real Time, and included: in Zagreb, The Wooster Group's Poor Theatre, Nature Theater of Oklahoma's NO DICE, and some mind-blowing student work. In Vienna, Mathilde Monnier and La Ribot's gustavia, Dalija Aćin's Handle with great care, and Hans Van den Broeck's Settlement. In London, Anthony Neilson's Relocated. In Venice, Random Dance/Wayne McGregor's Entity. While some of this was mainstage glitz, the amount of experimentation, passion, and sheer intelligence I found back home was a good reminder that, most of the time, unchallenged we just don't try hard enough.

Nonetheless, there was some exquisite local theatre, mostly clustered in the last few weeks (despite my dire need for rest). My personal, local Best Of would include: UHT's Attempts on Her Life; OpticNerve's YES; Elbow Room's There; Liminal's Oedipus – A Poetic Requiem; Black Lung's diptych of Avast I & II, and Phillip Adams's two shorts for VCA's Transmutations season. In Sydney, I saw the extraordinary Triptych, by De Quincey Co, and Hans Van den Broeck's Nomads, both at Performance Space. I also remember reacting very strongly to STC's The Season at Sarsaparilla and Hayloft's Chekhov Re-Cut: Platonov, but I wouldn't vouch for those reactions anymore. Things were unusual, back then. It was a strange year for MIAF too, in which the best productions were a poetry recital, a film and a piece of formally near-hermetic dance.

Of the things to look forward to in the next year, there will be a full season of Hayloft, the Malthouse program looks unusually strong, I may finally catch a Schlusser production, and I'll be keeping an eye on Black Lung and Phillip Adams, solo or with BalletLab.

Altogether, I have seen staggering 145 shows, a huge leap from 65 last year. Even discounting the occasional gallery visit from this number, I have spent almost half (three-sevenths, more precisely) of my nights this year in theatre. I have written on 31 of them, although some of my notes are still around, scattered in notebooks, diaries, on the margins of program notes, and should be revisited and pulled together.

The unintended benefit of all the above-mentioned misery is that I have become something rather unusual: a person that doesn't worry anymore. I've started working full-time in research, at Melbourne University, won a scholarship to fund the rest of my interrupted studies, next year, and have been writing at a pace unseen since I was a glorious multi-tasking teenager. I have discovered to possess, among other strange loves, a passion for dance in all forms, visual dramaturgy, and deconstructive theatre. I have remembered wanderlust. I have given myself time until the end of 2008 to decide about the rest of my life, and I'm now extending that period. It's a transitional time. Now that the dust has settled, all is peaceful and quiet for the first time… ever. I can't remember the last year I had where I didn't have any worrying to look forward to. Not the past five, at least, and I don't remember those immediately preceding as rosy either. It's good. Needed.

Malthouse Season One 09

The Malthouse Theatre launched its first season of 2009 last night, with some bagpipes and smoke, but overall less frill than I am normally accustomed to, fewer musical numbers, shorter speeches, all much more business and much more enjoyable than usual. Perhaps they just wanted to hurry up and present their baby? I would understand. For Season One 09 looks incredibly exciting. And not they-gave-us-free-booze exciting. No no. It must be one of the most interesting-looking launch seasons I've seen in a while, by any theatre in any country. I am taking precious time off my other three hundred thousand duties to rave about it.

The flagship show, the blockbuster opening the Merlyn in January, is Bűchner's Woyzeck, with an all-exciting cast of people like Hamish Michael and Bojana Novaković, and music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (performed by Tim Rogers, also in the cast; hm), after which the Merlyn will host Dance Massive, a tiny little (not massive) dance festival for those who live outside the dance ghetto. Obvious choices: Chunky's Mortal Engine and a mini-program of Rogue (who are, in a radical departure from the usual Melbourne dance business, fundamentally those same dancers that evenly spread themselves between Chunky and Guerin Inc.), but also Lawn, by Splintergroup, which looks great and comes with a raving recommendation by the polemicist. Finally, Tom Wright rewriting Voltaire's Candide into an Aussie battler, the whole called Optimism, to be all picket fence and lawn. But, unlike Kantor's previous, more suspiciously overwrought concoctions of high and low, this looks like a sound, smart idea, particularly apt for our times of market crashes in front of incredulous witnesses. And will be possibly the last instance of Anna Tregloan's design for the Malthouse, as she heads up to the S-city (in the only sad news of the evening). Weep, Melbourne. Weep.

Beckett opens with a new commission by Lally Katz (dubbed our theatre princess) and Chris Kohn, Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd, which explores the pre-war vaudeville scene in the city and will have people like Julia Zemiro on stage. Oh how beautiful to look at a dubious concept and feel you trust your people to shape it into something wonderful. Lally could write on dishwashing and it would make riveting theatre.

Next, Kafka's Monkey, a Young Vic production with Kathryn Hunter playing a monkey playing a man – getting to the Malthouse via Sydney and looking all scrumptious. Finally, a new Peter Houghton piece, “driven by wit, cynicism and tight-slapping humour”. Unlike anything Houghton has ever done.

The Tower, apart from the abovementioned Rogue, will host Adam Cass's I Love You, Bro, which opened and closed at Fringe 07 with clamour and confusion, as we briefly agitated, trying not to miss yet another recommended show in the Fringe mania that takes over in September, and subsequently failing. The Malthouse program-makers, to illustrate the difficulties of sifting through Fringe, saw I Love You, Bro in the UK. Although I'm not sure that the one independent production of 2007 that needs to be rescued from oblivion is this one precisely, I've heard a lot of good about it, and what sort of argument am I making here, really? A confused one of a person who goes to bed late, gets up early, and misses beginnings of conference networkings in order to write blogs.

Within the genre restrictions of medium-scale theatre programming, with all the concerns about long-term financial sustainability that running a viable institution of this kind entails, this looks like a very, very promising program. Perhaps even quite brave. Nothing, except the Houghton piece, strikes me as same old, same old. While things have been looking vaguely down for the local theatre, with Brett Sheehy looming on the horizon and everything being a little bit disappointing, all of a sudden I feel quite hopeful that the next year may be the best one yet. Or something like that anyway.

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