Ars artis gratia

Several years ago, actor and essayist John Flaus gave a keynote speech at an Actors Equity day of welcome to drama school graduates at Melbourne’s Chapel Off Chapel. He could have told them the brutal facts: the 90 per cent unemployment, the short, dispiriting visits to casting agents, the often shoddy treatment. He told them a better story.

He spoke of the restorers and cleaners who were lifted by cranes into the arched ceilings of Chartres Cathedral only to discover scores of sculptures to match the work which adorns the exterior of the great structure. But why? These thirteenth century craftsmen could hardly have dreamt that their beautiful creations would ever be seen. Why bother with all this work?

‘Ah’, said Flaus, ‘because of the thrill of the creative act; it was a personal celebration of their craft. It could have been nothing else that drove them.

‘So’, he continued, ‘as you study and strive at your craft, there will be times when your work will go unnoticed, when you will play before empty houses, when the road ahead seems unbearably difficult. That is the time to remember the Chartres artisans and exult in your creativity and belief in your work.’
I recalled Flaus’ warm and wise speech as I joined other members of the cast of Silencia for a quiet beer or two, to toast the end of our one week season. It was time to put one’s priorities in order. Silencia had attracted no media interest, no critics attended, and an audience of twenty seems barely adequate, even in the confined spaces of that Melbourne institution, La Mama theatre. Why had we bothered?

The five performers did it because having read the script, they had to. Each recognised a small gem, a play based on interviews with folk who spend most of their lives in boarding houses in the inner suburbs of our major cities; those who inhabit a bubble of isolation and alcohol and substance abuse but who are now being forced onto the streets as the bulldozers of the developers rumble through the streets.

Mic Smith, who wrote and directed Silencia (the title refers to what the characters do not say), made no claims to theatrical experience. He had a vision and that was enough. Here was a man who knew this hidden culture, who knew and understood the characters to the extent that they were prepared to do what is so hard for them; to talk frankly about their lives.

As a voice for those who are seldom heard, Mic Smith is an Antipodean Studs Terkel, the great American oral historian who prefers to record his nation’s story ‘from the bottom up.’ With his own background of hard knocks, easy going character and disdain of materialism, Smith is uniquely positioned to tell the stories of the anonymous.

His play was rough and tough, as it needed to be, with the sweat and breath and smell (in my case, my appalling trackshoes) of the actors falling over the audience. There were no smooth scene changes and no fancy lighting. The characters swore, fornicated, drank, smoked, fought and talked over each other. They were also magnificently human and a thrill to play.
Silencia has come and gone, as other productions come and go. But the performers in those plays must not lose sight of those craftsmen high in Chartres Cathedral. No one may see the fruits of your labour but you know what you have done. And that is reward enough. 

Kevin Summers is an actor, playwright and freelance journalist.Picture of Mic Smith courtesy of La Mama theatre



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