I read Wesley Enoch’s Nick Enright Keynote Address with absolute fascination.
If you haven’t read it yet, do so now. It’s a powerful argument for the importance of storytellers in theatre – with the curious point that, perhaps, comedy (specifically: ironic comedy) has the effect of robbing power from stories of real cultural and societal importance.
As a writer of comedy for theatre, I’d be lying if I said this didn’t stick in my craw a little. And I’d also be lying if said I didn’t swallow my tongue when it came to the article’s point of ‘digression’ halfway through:
“Is it just me or are we seeing more homophobia, racism, sexism on our stages? And more often than not written by homosexuals, blackfellas and women.” The two playwrights whose body of work Wesley offers as examples of this recent trend in of playwriting are myself, a queer white male, and Nakkiah Lui, a queer Gamilaroi/Torres Strait Islander woman.
I’m not really on-board with the idea that my work is homophobic, racist, or sexist. I don’t think Nakkiah’s is either. And the idea that comedy is robbing our theatre of its potential power also doesn’t quite wash with me.
So I thought I’d offer a response to Wesley’s speech – containing what I see as the value of irony in theatre …
I can imagine why Wesley might hold this view of both our work. My recent play, The Homosexuals, or ‘Faggots’, adopted the form of a classic farce, and was populated with gay, trans, and non-binary people constantly lobbing offensive one-liners at one another. Nakkiah’s play Blaque Showgirls featured bitchy, conniving Aboriginal characters fighting for top-dog status in a soft-core-porn burlesque of their own culture. And her romantic-comedy-refit Black Is The New White featured a bourgeois Aboriginal family who volley hilariously sharp-tongued jokes about race, sex, age, money, class and all the things you’re not meant to talk about whilst at a Christmas time war with their White counterparts.
If you’ve seen any of these works, you’ll know these are pretty reductive descriptions. The Homosexuals is a critique of white gay cis male supremacy. Both Blaque Showgirls and Black Is The New White make their predominantly-white audience painfully aware of their simplistic expectations of what Aboriginal culture should look like.
This is to say: neither Nakkiah nor I just ‘deploy’ the offensive representations we work with, but are highly critical of them.
I would also argue that both Nakkiah and I (who have worked as dramaturgs on each others’ plays) go to great pains to ensure this criticism is highly visible in our work.
Wesley clearly recognises this, and this is – I presume – why he professes to enjoy our writing: from the point of view of a highly-theatre-literate individual. His concern, however, is with the audience members who might not be highly theatre-literate – who sit around him at our shows engaging with our comedy in a manner he is concerned may be non-critical. He asks: ‘Can an audience read the difference between the ironic use of racist jokes, stereotypes or rhetoric and flat out racist slurs?’ ‘Sarcasm and irony,’ he says, ‘are very dull tools to sharpen a political message.’
In contrast to the sarcastic, ironic work created by artists such as myself and Nakkiah, Wesley offers ‘powerful stories of importance to our country’, which are written by another generation of playwrights: Patricia Cornelius, Alana Valentine and Stephen Sewell. These are writers who pull no punches in their work: who directly represent stories of social oppression onstage, and often (in the case of Sewell, in particular) place their arguments directly in the mouths of their characters.
I love this type of theatre. I find it galvanising and exciting. I agree with Wesley that Artistic Directors should be creating more space for these stories. I do not, however, think this means of political questioning is head-and-shoulders above what Nakkiah and I do, in terms of engaging an audience and delivering a political argument.
The ‘important’ stories Wesley talks about play to a particular type of audience member, who Wesley speaks about elsewhere in his speech. They want their theatre to “help explain their world” – and desire characters who are “unambiguous” in their expression of big ideas. They embrace what Wesley describes as the power of art to “change the hearts and minds of a congregation”.
I see this type of “forgotten” audience member romanticised in conversations with theatre practitioners frequently. It’s the dream of an audience bursting full of hard-bitten rusted-on centrists, who are shocked into political submission by the power of the playwright’s direct, unambiguous argument. They leave the theatre shamed, humbled, transformed.
(I’m being a shithead. But you get my point.)
The problem is, I think the numbers of this type of unconsciously receptive audience member are not exactly on the rise. And I don’t think the desire to play exclusively to them considers the myriad of complex ways in which the people consume culture in 2018 – and the impact this has on theatrical spectatorship.
We live in the age of Netflix, Spotify, Amazon. Online bubbles of ‘Your daily radio!’, ‘Top picks for you!’, ‘People who bought this also bought …’ These technologies create a space where our cultural consumption is highly customised to our existing tastes. We see this echoed in the political sphere, as our Facebook and Twitter feeds become our primary sources of news, our iPhones amalgamate newspaper articles based on our ‘interests’, and with each refresh we dig deeper and deeper into our own partisan ideologies.
More than any other time in history, we are highly, highly individualised creatures. And this isn’t to say we never step outside our bubble. We absolutely do! Every now and then we’ll go wild.
We’ll listen to the entire back catalogue of John Cage.
We’ll read some conservative commentary or some radical-queer theory with an openness to be challenged.
But in 2018 we do these things on our terms, when we want to – not when someone interrupts us to push them in our face. And we certainly don’t pay money for this tourism outside our existing tastes (Oh, hi there, $100 theatre tickets …).
So, as artists, we’re increasingly dealing with a subset of audiences who exist in iron-plated bubbles. And if we want to reach those people, and present them with a political question that is truly current, the fact is: pre-existing frames of reference are genuinely useful and effective. Irony, parody, sarcasm, genre … We deploy spiky, difficult political argument within a framework that is inviting and, often, familiar. We use the hierarchies implicit in comedy to critique existing power structures – who are you laughing at and why?
Of course, none of this means anything if your audiences aren’t savvy to what you’re doing.
Wesley is concerned about audience members who “have emerged from under the leaf and can only see what is front of them and think this is the whole world?”
I saw this argument recently echoed in Eddie Perfect’s musical Vivid White at Melbourne Theatre Company: a satire of satire itself, where the characters turned frequently to the audience to suggest the show’s own (extremely interesting) arguments about property ownership and classism were pointless – because no-one would get them.
I found this almost unbearably cynical. I don’t want to consider audiences as unthinking. And I don’t really know how to respond to this unqualified supposition with anything beyond my own unqualified supposition. All I can say is this: as a theatre-maker, over the last decade I have been mentored and supported by a succession of artists who have been unanimous in telling me one thing over and over and over again: don’t underestimate your audience.
When I create work, I imagine I am making it for a room full of people who are present in our contemporary moment: who read the news, who read the commentary on the news, who have opinions about what’s going on in the world. The arguments in my play The Homosexuals about white gay male privilege, division within the queer community, and ‘political correctness’, are all in conversation with editorials in The Guardian, The Australian, and a hundred high-profile Twitter-beefs.
The same can be said for Nakkiah, and more – who not only writes in response to contemporary political argument in Australia media, but participates in it, with regular appearances on Q&A, The Drum, and more. Our politics do not exist in a self-contained bubble limited to the stage – nor do their means of deployment: Mad As Hell, Black Comedy, Get Out, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, Lady Dynamite, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Black Panther, are all cultural juggernauts that use genre, irony, and parody to speak to the contemporary political moment.
I also imagine there are a small number of people in every audience who are disconnected from the contemporary moment. Who have never seen any of these pop-cultural touchstones. Whose experience of the work will be, as Wesley says, “only [what] is in front of them”. Who might engage earnestly with stereotypes that are being critiqued onstage in front of them.
This is a hard reality. But do we really imagine that their experience with our work begins and ends with what happens in the theatre? If we’re doing our job right: there are foyer conversations, there are disagreements in the car ride home, there are wildly diverging reviews available, there are heated online arguments. A theatre is not a hermetic space. We have to trust that our audiences carry their experience outside its walls, and a connection between the work and the culture at large can occur well after the moment of spectatorship.
I’m going to make one final point in defence of irony, about its sister-concept: ‘Camp’.
Historically, Camp has been understood as an ironic means of validating the stuff mainstream culture tells you is garbage. Tacky costume jewellery, out-dated fashion, crumbling divas… But I think across Australia – and the rest of the world, too – there’s a new kind of Camp evolving – which shares the ‘old’ Camp’s obsession with the refuse of history, but applies it to people who’ve been told by white cis-hetero Western culture for decades – sometimes centuries – that they’re garbage.
Nakkiah and I are currently working together on her newest play: Blackie Blackie Brown for the Sydney Theatre Company. It’s the story of an Aboriginal archaeologist who discovers her ancestors were killed in a massacre by four white convicts. ‘Blackie’ then engages in a blood-soaked quest for revenge against the descendants of these men – paying homage to trashy vigilante B-films like Lady Snowblood and Cleopatra Jones.
In writing this play, Nakkiah is engaging deeply with Australia’s shameful history of colonial violence and genocide. But she doesn’t simply stage this trauma. She inverts it. She pisses on it. She robs it of its power, and its power to define her story in contemporary Australia. It’s funny, harrowing, and deeply, deeply Camp.
Nakkiah is not isolated in this approach. In Australia there is a veritable movement of artists engaging with histories of trauma in this manner. Hot Brown Honey, The Cope St Collective, Bhenji Ra, Betty Grumble, Candy Bowers, Hannah Gadsby, Jean Tong, and so many others.
Wesley expresses concern that satire lacks power in ‘deconstructing the status quo’. I would argue that by deconstructing their histories live before an audience; by breaking established, cliched modes of representation; by engaging with and exploding stereotypes… This is exactly what these artists are doing, while also taking on the essential, difficult work of revitalising arts spaces with new audiences – who ‘get’ this work in no uncertain terms, because it’s made in part for them.
These artists are creating brilliant, essential political work. It just also happens to be funny as hell.