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Feeding the habit

For many academics, libraries and laboratories are the main sites of primary research. But to contemporary theatre scholars, theatres and performances are the places for investigation—sites of
incalculable value.

Any scholar in any field is bound to spend long periods in the presence of the unspectacular or unremarkable. But in theatre valuable discoveries often emerge precisely from close-up examinations of trends in the humdrum, workaday activities of one’s field. One has to be across the breadth and minutiae before one can see the big picture, the changes in fashion and style. It’s the notable deviation from the norm—the spectacular exception to the day-to-day routine—that is likely to trigger closer re-examination of the field and, in turn, feed the deep personal satisfaction that comes from knowing one’s theatre.

This is as true for the performing arts critic and scholar as it is for the genuine theatregoer. Night after night in the subsidised and in the fringe theatre we are presented with formulaic essays in naturalistic spoken-word drama, Australian and foreign—the equivalents of television and literature on stage. We also routinely get so-called radical interpretations of the classics alternating with attempts to preserve the cultural authenticity of our heritage repertoire. Then there are postmodern projects conceived to forge ‘a new theatrical vocabulary’ based on the drama of our past (often little more than exercises in reinventing the wheel). More mundanely, the commercial music theatre, which wins our reflex standing ovations, too often oscillates between facsimile versions of the latest overseas revivals of shows from the past and facsimile versions of new overseas shows.

So, unless we are professional theatregoers of one kind or another, why do we keep going back night after night, year in and year out?

Three reasons. Every now and then something genuinely new and exciting comes along or something old comes back and it’s so freshly re-thought that it’s new again, like a startling Hamlet or a Romeo and Juliet done in mime like a Buster Keaton silent movie.

Second, we love a good story (whether from here or abroad, old or new) provided it’s a very good story very well told—and belongs in the theatre rather than in the pages of a library book. Ronnie Burkett’s

Tinka’s New Dress, a one-man marionette play seen at last year’s Melbourne Festival, was a classic example.

Third, what’s undisputably defining about the experience of theatre is that it’s live, in real time and essentially mutable: it’s never exactly the same every night.

Another trio of factors: there have been three hugely important structural changes in Australian theatre since the 1950s and in turn they have influenced our appreciation of it.

First came the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust-dominated years after 1954, which essentially professionalised the so-called ‘little’ or repertory theatres and eventually gave us what is now the State Theatre network and other companies dedicated to the production of mainstream theatre. What appealed to theatre patrons in this first wave of Australian theatre renovation was less its local content (The Doll and The One Day of the Year et al) than the fact that here were Australian artists performing the best plays from the world’s repertoire at high professional standards, albeit under mostly English directors.

Fifty years on, a significant nerve in our national theatre psyche still responds most strongly to the kind of theatre that gives us great stories with high production values and truthful acting.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s came the new wave, which effectively ‘Australianised’ our theatre. However cringe-worthy some of the male-dominated, Anglocentric plays of the 1960s and 1970s about Australia’s and Australians’ growing pains might seem when read today, there is no doubt that the shock of the new voice (of the Australian playwright as much as the newly-ascendant Australian director) had huge appeal for a growing audience of affluent young theatregoers. They relished hearing our stories and our actors on stage and seeing our landscape and our clothes as backdrop and costume for the new drama in the new theatres like Nimrod, La Mama, The Pram Factory and countless others throughout the country. And when the newly formed Australia Council rewarded their efforts with subsidy, the first wave companies had no option but to Australianise their offerings as well.

One indisputable legacy of this second wave is the fact that our repertoire is now dominated by Australian content—about 65 per cent on a sustained national average since the mid-1980s. While the state theatres might be changing their priorities—fewer new works but TV stars in anything in one notable case—it is still clear that there is rock solid audience demand elsewhere for content that is broadly definable as Australian.

But audiences of the 1970s also warmed to another new phenomenon: new wave classics. It must be remembered that Nimrod (as one example) was almost as much interested in giving a new voice to the classic authors (Chekhov and Shakespeare especially) as it was in providing a stage for the new local writing. Thus we got the kinds of larrikin, knockabout ‘Shakespeare is fun’ and historically updated ‘Shakespeare is relevant’ productions for which John Bell still finds strong and committed audiences today with his own company. Rex Cramphorn, Bryan Nason, James McCaughey and Raymond Omodei were other notable second wave directors who found audiences in different parts of the country willing to enjoy the classics in newly thought and newly dressed ways.

What I discern as the third wave in Australian theatre (dating from the beginning of the 1980s) has seen change in many areas but it has also seen some groundwork. One of the most obvious achievements of this period has been to consolidate the strength of the major performing arts organisations since the early 1990s, thanks as much to changing policy patterns within the various government funding agencies as to the Nugent Report’s outcomes over the last two years. The future is certainly secured for first wave-style repertoire companies like the state theatres, the Australian Opera and Ballet companies and the Bell Shakespeare Company, who have no apparent need to do anything startlingly new or even Australian—apart from the occasional bankable show from established artists or from people migrating upwards with strong alternative and fringe circuits.

Outside the subsidised sector, the third wave saw the almost unprecedented prominence of the new English musical (notably the big three—Cats, Les Mis and Phantom) which almost shook revivals of American music theatre (and some new works) off their throne. Sadly though, most of these productions were, as I have already remarked, Australian reproductions of overseas shows. They took our theatre back to the bad old days of the Trust and J.C.Williamson. But there were incidental benefits, notably the development of new Australian performing talent and, to some extent, technology. Here is clearly one industry sector in which audience taste, as far as it is measurable by attendance figures, defied the national trend towards an appreciation of Australian arts on stage.

Elsewhere, the third wave had its impact in practically every area of the performing arts. Puppetry, for example, appeared to reach its peak of innovation and audience capture—of children and adults alike—in the 1980s, as the sexy, youth-appealing and highly skilled theatre form calculated to bridge national boundaries and become one of our major arts exports. Then in the 1990s, physical theatre—contemporary circus particularly—took over as the growth sector. At the same time, orthodox, Anglocentric alternative spoken-word drama of the second wave kind fell away. Filling the void was a vast expansion in DIY professional co-operative theatrical activity on the Fringe, which is where much of our most exciting—but sadly underfunded—work has been seen in the past 20 years.

In the meantime, a number of new alternatives to the mainstream (and to second wave alternative theatres) came to prominence. These included the European voices of companies like Australian Nouveau Theatre in Melbourne, Thalia in Sydney, and the Indigenous presence increasingly asserted by the likes of Kooemba Jdarra in Brisbane and Yirra Yaakin in Perth. A broader kind of multiculturalism has manifested itself in the work of standing companies like Doppio Teatro and Theatro Oneiron in Adelaide, while a vigorous women’s theatre movement has found its voice in Adelaide’s Vitalstatistix and many other smaller scale companies. We’re now getting a bigger picture of Australia on stage.

Audiences for these smaller and more diverse kinds of companies and their work grew prolifically during the course of the third wave and the funding bodies paid attention to them. A valid question, then, is whether audience taste is reflected in arts policy decisions or whether content is increasingly being dictated by changes in government funding policy.

A further phenomenon that has gained particular momentum during the third wave is the multi-arts festival, especially the almost discrete kind of show known as the ‘Festival piece’. This kind of work often embraces several forms of performance; it’s often short and punchy (like the recent Theft of Sita) or an epic blockbuster (like Cloudstreet). More often than not its production values are high and elaborate (as in Nigel Triffitt’s Fall of Singapore and Moby Dick). Every major arts festival has its big sell-out production, which suggests that audiences really go for this kind of special-occasion theatre.

But at the end of the night, it doesn’t matter whether the show be abstract or narrative-based, classic or modern, Australian or foreign. I still think the single most important factor that gets people out of their homes and into the theatre is the performance. Yes, we all know the old expression ‘the play’s the thing’, but the truth is, it’s really the players—whether the great Shakespearean strider or the naturalistic actor, spectacular circus performer, gifted puppeteer or good clown—they are the lure, they’re the artists whose skills I long to see and whose magic will draw me out for the next 100 nights. 

Geoffrey Milne teaches theatre and drama at La Trobe University.



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