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Scream: August 2007

Would we be better off with no theatres?

What a rhetorical question! No theatres? There'll always be theatres! Even if they are churches or community halls or school gymnasiums! But what the question really addresses is the box and dice of buildings run by committees which appoint sacrificial lambs called Artistic Directors who once did something worthwhile but now are better equipped and more adept at being pleasant to board members and government bureaucracies run by people who are frightened of theatre people and artists generally and who secretly despise the arts and those who practice within the various fields ... unless of coarse such artists are known only from a distance while famous before becoming too familiar thus ready for the picking to be plucked out and dumped on ...

Am I being a little harsh here Roy?

If you think so, then consider this. Could you imagine a funded theatre company with a Board of experts or whatevers presenting something like the Artworks depicting Osama bin Laden in a Christ-like pose ? No way! Like frightened little mice scared to offend even the most junior public servant in the arts bureaucracies and the infamous group called "punters", the theatres present works that once caused a stir a long time ago ... or which might cause a stir in places where it is SAFE to cause a stir. And to make sure nothing "stirring" gets through, writers and artists are bled of any real challenge before their work gets on the stage. And then we see celebrated works that are classed as challenging while the works challenge nothing as they affirm the corrupt ideology of theatre practice in an age of sycophantism! No wonder playwrights are subjected to "workshopping" by lowest common denominator devotees of correctness and bland adherence to the gods of vague notions of  blueprints to successful theatrical creation.

It never occurs to the advocates of constant workshopping a playwright's vision that the writer is being appropriated, belittled and killed in the process of obliterating vision and the sacred "i" of all creative process. And in the process, the regenerative forces of culture are being silenced and nationalized. It is perhaps a testimony to the cowardliness of writers that they would submit to such crap at the behest of philistine experts who never put themselves on the line but who proclaim the higher ground of godliness and cleanliness in artistic endeavour and in the process might secure a Ph. D. or a sainthood in some obscure irrelevant area of pedantic scholarship.

A bit harsh here Roy?

Flies in the face of accepted practice? And any practice that separates its process from the product needs to be flown out. There is ultimately only one way to test and develop a theatre work and that is through practice with audiences. Test it. Work it. But don't accept the in-between bleeding that happens when theatres, with their processed agendas and fear of the very art form they supposedly champion, provide the benign valve to stop the flow of individual vision and energy.

And if you think I'm suggesting some kind of fascist individualistic thing, then I suggest the opposite. Current practices borrow from Stalin and emphasize the primacy of the most cautious who have eyes in the back of their heads to read the currency of who is watching and waiting. The real artistic collaborative process is squashed in favour of imposed and abstracted criteria worked out in advance of what to expect. Real collaboration requires excitement, energy, a shared mission and unselfconscious relationship between collaborators.

Theatre is, by definition, collaborative (even if only between performer and audience). This collaboration should not be confused with simply working with people. It is a very special collaboration that is needed to produce a work of theatre. To craft a work that has integrity and more than being simply a social outing for hobbyists, requires a huge investment of emotion, energy, intellect and physical power. It engages one's very dreams and life journey. Effective collaboration requires a joining together of people who share such an enormous personal drive. And not only in a general sense! This personal drive must be focused on the particular work at hand. Yep! Let me restate this point! Everyone engaged from writing to presentation MUST share the high level of personal focus on the particular project.

Yet how many times have theatres and academic institutions been guilty of bleeding creative processes by shaping a writer's insight into some bland module of a fictitious and supposedly correct theatre form? How many times have people who commit everything to theatre creation been obstructed by well meaning committees who, by definition, are neither emotionally nor artistically attuned to the aims and aspirations of the practitioners engaged with the project? Such committees and individuals who serve on them are there to protect the interests of the institution. While the stated aim is to produce and promote quality theatre (or something akin to such a statement), one doesn't have to dig too deep to discover the main drive for such sentiments. And such a drive has little if anything to do with the actual elevation of personal perception crafted into challenging theatre presentation! In fact such a thought would be sneered at by many people charged with operating state funded theatrical institutions.

The process is basically this (or am I wrong?):

  1. the theatre applies for funding to a state arts facility;

  2. its application details how it will be responsible for the money;

  3. it indicates involvement in the creation of new works;

  4. it sets up a structure to ensure controls and fairness in dealing with artists and writers etc.;

  5. the Board is forever nervous about artists controlling art and so accountants, lawyers, politically aspiring people are invited on to boards to show accountability to the community (as represented by the Government);

  6. experts in the field are drawn together to over-see creative processes;

  7. semantics are put together to suggest a "vision" or "mission statement";

  8. processes become abstracted into projected outcomes;

  9. outcomes are prescribed and used to assess the theatre's success;

  10. Artistic Directors work within these limitations to try and produce quality theatre.

The abstraction of artistic work to fit into a prescribed model becomes such a constraint that it infects the personality and mode of operation of the theatre. It is a kind of "looking over your back" in order to survive the onslaught of some artistic aspirant group who might be a threat to the theatre's survival. All bureaucratic means are then engaged to stop this process. While a strong Artistic Director will, for a while, attempt to alter this bias and balance, she / he is trapped by the systemic forces than create a change or movement from art based decision making to formulative decision making to placate the needs of the institution.

Nothing new in this eh Roy!

So the short answer to the opening question is that Theatre is better off without the semantic abstractions initiated by part time controlling Boards, State strictures on funding and controls over the artistic process to fit into a pre-set module. This kind of structure is not helpful to reinvigorate and energize creative processes. And while most Boards of most theatres probably acknowledge this point, few (if any) act upon it ... and dissolve themselves (legal reasons etc!). Theatres would be better off forgetting about "accountability" and simply focusing on spotting and supporting original and highly skilled artistic products. While much of it will be wasted, the essence of simply cutting to the core of artistic perception will invigorate and challenge the artistic community and the wider society! And sure, the chooks of mediocre agendas and agenderists in general will be clucking about transparency etc. But to be blunt, anyone who is concerned about such tripe while showing little interest in genuine artistic quality shouldn't even be heard to whimper. Let the products speak. And if the system is corrupted then purge it and start again. But don't bleed all the arts and theatre in particular of its creative energy so as to simply cover some collective backside of mediocrity.


Joe Woodward 

Note: Joe Woodward served as a Theatre Coordinator, Artistic Director of a number of companies, Chair of the Performing Arts Committee of the ACT funding body in the late 1980s and works as Head of Creative Arts at Daramalan College. He has written and had produced over 25 plays.

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