Theatre from the cracks in the psyche of culture










Scream: June 2010

Someone's going to hate it
a consideration of critical dramaturgies and theatre presentation
and why you need colleagues to hate you

      is the goddess dead?



The blanding out of potentially edgy and complex subjects into cartoon simplicity and sentimentality seems to be the new art of popular entertainment. Have you noticed how James Cameron (Avatar, Terminator)has over the years become more Disneyfied? But no matter how hard one tries to dumb any subject down for a bland marketplace, there will always be people who will find something about the work offensive or who will simply hate it. The same applies to all our theatre presentation. This thought should be a lesson for all writers, directors, actors and presenters. But while it is probably a truism, it challenges conventional wisdom re the developing of playwrights and their work.

That two knowledgable people can see the same production and have vastly different views on it's value is a lesson we need to consider in the way new works are facilitated. Each person who views a work of art and particularly theatre weighs different aspects of it in very personalized ways; and often in ways that are not obvious or within the consciousness of the viewer.

The same applies to collaborators on a project. While someone's opinion may be of value, it is the writer and whoever is the architect of the production who must have final discretion on what eventuates.

With all the attention given to structure, form and technique in the development of play writing skills we need to come back to serious consideration of content. While content consists of a limited number of plots, content is also context, weighting of action, cultural significance, complexity of motivation, ethics, confusion, belief and the list can be extended. Perhaps a forgotten part of content is the inescapable aspect of the writer's own dramaturgy which plays in prime position for the creation of an authentic voice.

Funny how much creation of theatre just happens to coincide with the belief system and viewpoints of colleagues! Is this coincidence or a sign of betrayal?
Or a sign of suspicion against anyone who actually has something to say!

Original vision can be tarnished, hampered and contaminated by the interference of familiar and influential others in the process. So what happens when a benevolent committee is given power to influence the way a writer sees the world and manifests that vision in a script? The only result is a blanding out to lowest common denominator values and a divorce from the "i" of personal creation.

Making something easier on the cultural palate does not necessarily make it better. But you can be sure that if you say something original or heart felt, you'll attract hate mail or, at the least, cause a separation from your congenial companions whom you most likely have been affirming in their smug assurances for years!

Acceptance of ideas and recognition of your execution of the craft is mostly due to a marketing ploy rather than the adequacy or artistic value of your work. If you want acceptance then, sure be competant; but also get your work marketed cleverly to have it positioned in the right sectors that are going to be of benefit.

But this article isn't about marketing. It's about self-censoring looking-over-the-shoulder artists and arts practice being engendered by the arts funding bodies (including The Australia Council) and by organizations and individuals that control the "cool factor". The mantra of seeking out "partnerships" could also be called the mantra of "dumbing down" or "repressing individual thought" or "the camels of creativity"!

One doesn't have to look far to see art presentations (ie. theatre, visual art, installations, music) that have been so constructed as to say nothing. NOTHING! At least nothing other than interpretations from the semantic double talk of post modern cool! Talk that challenges nothing and puts nothing at stake! And sure, no government or big time gangsters are going to remove one's fingers or tongue or heart for producing such work! Sure, no family members are likely to shun the artist for perpetrating such meaningless double-speak! Maybe a condescending pat on the head might be in order as if to signify that one day the artist will grow up! And as for theatres and theatre companies, they can hide behind the facade of only presenting what the bottoms on seats will attend; mind you, that doesn't stop them requesting hundreds of thousands of dollars in public funds for such bland and non-challenging offings!

The truth is no one knows! Most funding bodies are occupied by the equivalent of Bob Dylan's Mr Jones; the kind of person who knows that something is happening but doesn't know what it is. They are frightened people who know how to play the games of polite social intercourse and how to cover their political backs. The cool artists have their ears; but only for a short time. At some point the ears will be held by some other expert ear bender and the cool artist will only be a tepid artist or wet fish.

So what choices do artists have to get their work on and seen?

For a start, they shouldn't give a hoot what those assessment panels suggest they SHOULD do. They are only trying to sound intelligent and save their jobs. Instead, know what you are about and not necessarily the finer points of what you want to explore. Then create a buzz. Bipass the bureucratic process initially. Find ways to utilize the media (even if they hate you) and then invoke the political process.

If your colleagues like what you do, chances are you aren't doing anything! Make them jealous of you. Their spite towards you will add energy to what you are doing. Work on the political reasons why a Minister or powerful business type should support you. In a short time, the funding bodies will find reasons to see why they are COMPELLED to fund you. The true reason being that they fear for their jobs if they displease the Minister or whatever power that controls them.

So, in brief, I suggest artists and theatre practitioners and companies need to consider their own dramaturgies. Assume others will hate you; assume those who work with you will accept you to a point and then negate you; accept your own life and hunch as to what must be done. Essentially, as an artist, you need to seek out like people who trust you and who you can trust. But don't be sentimental. Trust is earned over a long period. Essentially, others will eventually come to you only if you are unwavering in your own surety of what you are and where you are going. The problem for most theatre arts today is that people don't know and try to fake it by seeking out what they think is expected!

And if you think I'm full of it, I suggest you do some research.

That's it. Are YOU REALLY JUST MR JONES? and if you have no idea who or what I am talking about, then check out Highway 61 Revisited.

Joe Woodward
June 2010



by Joe Woodward
On Directing And Dramaturgy; Burning the House
by Eugenio Barba (Routledge, 2010)


Not since Peter Brook's The Empty Space has a book on theatre produced such originality, clarity of thought and practicality in suggested approaches. Eugenio Barba links the personal dramaturgy of the individual practitioner with the process of creation. This draws from the very heart of approaches at his theatre, Odin Teatret founded in 1966.

While outlining the thinking behind his work in retrospect, Barba also produces an outstanding device of having cast members make, at times contradictory statements, about the processes he has outlined from his perspective. Rather than detract from the thrust of Barba's arguments, it adds weight to the "subscore" of the individuals who actually make the performance. 

By clearly showing that the writer and director in theatre is not omnipotent, he outlines approaches and thinking that release the potential for a theatre of freedom and expansion. Yet at no point is the theatre portrayed as something soft or marginal. Rather he shows it to be central for cultural understanding and challenge.

Buy it. And read for yourself. It should be available in any decent shop displaying performing arts books.

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