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"Australian audiences love seeing works written for us by us"

Looking at the main stages of Sydney, you could be excused for thinking that this is a golden age for new Australian drama.

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A Big Turnaround or the New Parochialism?

Date: 29 May 2018

Looking at the main stages of Sydney, you could be excused for thinking that this is a golden age for new Australian drama.

Nakkiah Lui’s Blackie Blackie Brown.

The Sugar House by Alana Valentine.

Brooke Robinson’s Good Cook. Friendly. Clean.

Soon comes Tom Wright’s stage adaptation of novelist Peter Carey’s modern classic Bliss (currently showing at the Malthouse and then playing Belvoir) and, arguably, the most ambitious Australian story produced in some years – Kate Mulvany’s two-part adaptation of Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South for the Sydney Theatre Company.

We’ve already seen three Australian premieres at the STC this year: Lethal Indifference by Anna Barnes, Going Down by Michele Lee and Priscilla Jackman’s Still Point Turning.

“It’s a big turnaround from the situation a decade or so ago,” says Griffin Theatre’s Lee Lewis.

“Audiences are really hungry for more Australian stories,” she says. “It has taken time and resources and investment but we are finally seeing the results of that. The plays are coming to the stage, the companies are committed to them and actors are excited by doing them.”

Lewis says our main stage companies are now restructuring with a view to producing 50 per cent new Australian work – adaptations and brand new plays – each year.

“For the big companies, the possibility of adaptation is exciting,” Lewis says. “They are difficult to do but we’ve seen some great successes, like Jasper Jones for example. Audiences enjoy seeing stories they have loved as books turned into a live experience.”

Kip Williams, artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company, has deliberately programmed an Australian-heavy season in his first year in the job.

“I wanted my first season to be a strong declaration for my support of Australian writing,” he says. “I wanted to send a very clear signal from the get-go that I was invested in Australian writing and the establishment of the Emerging Writers Group is also part of the commitment of the STC being a producer of great new Australian plays.”

Tom Wright, resident artist at Belvoir, says the current crop of Australian plays is more than a coincidence but wryly concedes it might not be significant.

“No doubt there will be months in years to come where there seems to be a spate of overseas plays/adaptations of classics and people will cry ‘Where are the Australian plays?’. Like buses, they come in clumps,” he says. “But it feels like, as a broad trend, in the English-speaking world, plays are getting more parochial. UK and American plays are more locally-oriented and less global in outlook.

“The days of just seeing what was on at the Royal Court or Manhattan Theatre Club last year and mounting an Australian production have come to an end,” Wright adds. “The scripts feel less impressive and relevant, and when there is an outstanding work, a producer has often snapped up rights which prevent Australian companies producing it.

Maybe we’re leaving that aspect of the cultural cringe behind,” Wright says.

Our companies both want to, and have to, develop more local work. So it’s partly that companies are getting better at getting Australian work to the stage and partly the times we live in.”

The push into new Australian work is deep in the indie and small to medium sector, too.

Now and in coming weeks you can see Lost Boys by Lachlan Philpott at Merrigong Theatre Company, Air by Joanna Erskine (Old 505 Theatre), a new play by Justin Fleming (Dresden, staged at Kings Cross Theatre), Mary Rachel Brown’s Permission to Spin and a new Steve Rodgers play, King of Pigs (both coming up at the Old Fitzroy Theatre).

“It’s an exciting time because it seems like there are a few large scale plays on,” says Lachlan Philpott. “I haven’t seen Alana’s play yet [The Sugar House] but it seems like it’s telling a big Australian story over a number of years … and certainly with Lost Boys, one of the things that is exciting for me is that it’s a large cast and a story than spans three decades.

“It’s really exciting that we are getting stories of scale. For a while we only had plays that were 60 minutes-long with just two or three actors. I think people are craving bigger things now.”

RIP “Dead White Males”?

The shift from programming “dead white males” (and their living but grey-haired brothers) to all female-led stories has been dramatic.

Wright says this may be the result of internally-applied balance goals that have led to more women writers being commissioned and more female directors given sustained opportunities. Or it could be generational change in theatre company hierarchies or within audiences.

“We are seeing audiences who are genuinely excited by new voices and different perspectives,” says Kip Williams, whose 2018 program is the first season in STC to achieve gender parity in its directors and writers.

“We’ve actually exceeded gender parity with the stories we are telling,” he says. “You can look at it from a philosophical or political standpoint or the result of targets we set ourselves, but actually it’s because I believe these are the voices and the stories audience wants to hear. That’s why we programmed them.”

Wright says the dead white male canon has lost much of its “oomph”, and “it’s hard to see that as a bad thing”.

“Whether we’re in a moment of radically reassessing our canon, or temporarily having a holiday from it, or permanently abandoning the very idea, is up for debate,” he says.

“Classics get programmed when there are directors and teams who can make them sing again. Perhaps our best interpreters of those texts are overseas now, or are keeping their powder dry. We’re not exactly deluged with capable directors wanting to have another look at Prometheus Bound, Bartholomew Fair or She Stoops To Conquer,” Wright says.

“But I don’t want to suggest that it’s an either/or. All works are in conversation with each other. Recent Belvoir productions such as Faith Healer, Ivanov, The Glass Menagerie or A Christmas Carol have felt like they articulate the company’s core aspirations.”

What about box office? Are Australian plays riskier?

“Every play is a risk,” says Lewis. “You can go see the biggest classic and still be disappointed. But the idea that all Australian plays are a box office risk is simply not true. All of the companies in the last five years have done the numbers at the box office and they can see audiences are coming to Australian plays … There is nothing to say they don’t.”

New work done badly can lose you a lot of money, Lewis adds. “But when you put the resources into the development and into the production, Australian audiences love seeing works written for us by us.”

Wright says Australian plays are still a risk. “What’s changed is that now everything’s a box office risk. But in recent seasons it’s true that at Belvoir, the big box-office hits have been local work: Barbara and the Camp Dogs, Single Asian Female, Jasper Jones, The Drover’s Wife, Mark Colvin’s Kidney and The Dog/The Cat. But the productions that have failed to fire at the box office also tend to be new Australian work, too.”

The way ahead.

Williams says it will be harder for him to present smaller new Australian plays in the next two years, once the STC has moved out of the Wharf – which has two small theatres – and into the larger spaces of the Roslyn Packer Theatre and the Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House.

Does this mean we can’t have new Australian plays in the bigger theatres? Are our stories too small?

“No, not at all,” Williams says. “I will continue to program Australian stories in those spaces. We have The Harp in the South in the Roslyn Packer, and there will be a couple of shows next year in both those spaces that are new Australian plays.

“But there is something about the intimacy of the Wharf spaces that allows us to invest in really bold and radical new writing. For example, it feels natural to grow a work like Blackie Blackie Brown in one of our smaller spaces. But look at Nakkiah’s Black is the New White. It started in Wharf 1 and then returned in the Ros Packer. There will very likely be more examples of that happening.”

Has Belvoir made a decision to program more Australian plays?

“No,” is the short answer from Wright. “We tend to look for overseas plays if they feel like they’re adding something to a conversation that’s already our own (e.g. Mr Burns, Hir, The Events, Title & Deed). It’s not necessarily strategic. You program according to the projects that feel most pertinent, that ‘argue their case’.

“But in another sense, the step-in-step maturing of a theatre-making community and developing an audience for Australian work has been taking place over decades. It’s possible the balance isn’t quite right. Sometimes we look at our prospective season and it’s all new Australian work, and wonder if we’re navel-gazing or not presenting a broad-enough vision. But we respond to the energy of our artists and audience.”

Lewis, who calls Griffin the “home of new Australian writing” says: “Our job is to make sure the show is damn good so audiences have a great night and come back again. I believe people are brave and curious and out for a bit of an adventure in their theatre going life. They want new work.”

It is the next generation of writers who are pulling audiences in, Lewis says. “There is an excitement of the new,” she says. “But it’s still very hard to get a second production. I was talking to another playwright about the possibility of programming one of her plays that was only done in Sydney in 2012. She said, ‘You’re kidding? That never happens.’

“It made me realise we are burning through a lot of new work and we are not looking at our own bookshelves saying, ‘I can do that play from 2010, it was a good play, let’s do it again. Not enough people saw it.’ That is a radical idea.”

Lewis concludes the main stage companies are listening to the audiences. “We can push audiences as well,” she says. “But we need to listen. Right now, I think audiences are enjoying seeing themselves on stage in complex plays and we are listening and responding.”

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