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Why "regional" sometimes feels synonymous with "invisible"

"I'm Female, middle-aged and based regionally," says Mary Anne Butler. "Is there a trifecta less appealing in Australian theatre today?"

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The Happiest Accident

Date: 16 Jan 2018

Working as a playwright from Darwin, a regional city which lacks a funded professional theatre company and associated infrastructure, has no theatre training institutions and suffers from a dearth of networking opportunities – is a challenge, says Mary Anne Butler.

Here, in her State of Play paper published this week on AustralianPlays.org and reprinted here with permission, Butler sets out some of the obstacles faced by regional artists.

For the first 40 years of my life I was a Big City girl; my childhood spent in Sri Lanka, Hamburg, Tokyo and Bahrain. As an adult, I’ve lived in every capital city bar Hobart. My move to Darwin was an accident – the happiest accident as it turns out – but as a theatre practitioner, I felt like I’d dropped off the planet. Or rather; been dropped off the planet.

Prior to my Darwin move, I was based in Brisbane [1994-2002]. During those eight years my early plays gathered momentum: Col got a reading at QTC, The Button Game got a mini season at Metro Arts, The Upright and Waiting both got readings at La Boite.

I wrote a YA fiction novel [Zoe’s Choice] that got a whisper away from being published, and a feature screenplay which got funded for further script development. I wrote and directed two short films [one premiered at the St Kilda Film Festival] and co-devised an anti-bullying Theatre in Education program which toured across Queensland for five years. I completed a Masters in Arts Education [Theatre in Education] and the bulk of a Masters in Philosophy [Creative Writing].

It was a prolific time, on the surface. My first draft plays seemed to have something – an energy, a premise, a voice – which got them to the next stage: the attention of an artistic director, a shortlisting, some funding. But I lacked the craft, the courage, the self-belief and the resilience to see my plays through to their umpteenth draft – the ‘…hon[ing] and hon[ing], until it is as sharp as a bullfighter’s sword’ [Ernest Hemingway].

I’d forgo the incredibly hard yards of re-writing to embark on a new, and ‘more exciting’ project. Consequently, my early work failed to obtain the sharp edge I was after, and my response was to keep berating myself for my work not being good enough. The hyper-critical voice inside me wouldn’t shut up. It was exhausting.

After a panic attack which saw me hospitalised, I figured something had to give – and I didn’t particularly want it to be me. My husband got a job offer in Darwin and the timing was perfect. I moved ‘up north’ in 2002, hung up the keyboard for a bit, and got a job as Executive Officer of the NT Writers’ Centre – focusing on creating opportunities for other writers.

After years of being a ‘big city’ dweller, I suddenly found myself living in a designated ‘outer regional’ town.

Darwin surprised me from the start. I wasn’t expecting such a creative community. I had visions of ‘the final frontier’, quite possibly overflowing with toothless cowboys and fishermen. The place is, in fact, riddled with artists of all genres: theatre, visual art, music, dance, cabaret, comedy. There was even a professional mime artist at that time who got a Churchill Fellowship to France, to study with the Masters.

It was also the most supportive environment I’d ever experienced in my life: an open, warm, relaxed community laced with boundless optimism and a rugged resilience.

It still is. There’s a kindness amongst folk in the NT; a genuine will for others to succeed, and a rallying behind them if they don’t.

Failure is seen to be part of taking risks – and the end of the world doesn’t appear to be nigh if you screw up. People up here ‘have your back’, as it were.

Over my first few years I revelled in what Darwin does best: friends, time, community, warmth in every sense, the capacity to let go of the small stuff. Creatively, this place is buzzing. Darwin has what Lindy Hume described in her essay Restless Giant: Changing cultural values in regional Australia: “…space to think clearly and creatively…” with time “the most precious resource of all” in abundance.

It’s Kyle Page’s “amazingly creative, uninfluenced and uninterrupted space in which and with which you can create really unique and exciting, adventurous and dynamic work.” [The New Cultural Cringe, Artshub]

It’s Julian Louis’ “bountiful and complex source of inspiration [with] stories that are beautiful and tough, surprising and dark, mysterious and dangerous…” [Stick This In Your Capital And Smoke It, Artshub].

In the trees across from where I live and write, giant black cockatoos squawk and squabble over Casuarina pods. A lone owl hunts at night, sitting on my fence with its head cocked at me to see if I might be edible. A giant monitor lizard has made my back deck its home; moseying across each morning to drink from the shallow plate of water I keep out for it.

From my back deck I can see the azure sea; flat, and shiny, and warm as soup. Living here has taught me a lot more about what this country used to be before skyscrapers and cement cities took hold. Being in such close proximity to nature is strangely humbling. There is so much we can’t control.

The NT also keeps a treasure chest of stories stowed amongst its vast tracts of unspoiled land: ancient culture, oddball characters, deadly critters and extremes of climate. In fact, extreme stakes, full stop.

A crocodile rumoured to be lurking in the very creek your dog swims in to stay cool.

Looming cyclones and their associated cyclone parties. Six months without a drop of rain, and then an overnight deluge which sees major roads cut off by flood – forcing strangers to hunker down together and share their resources on a scabby patch of road which serves as an island.

Daily life is energizing; exciting. Here, I lost my urban habit and routine – ‘The cancer of time’ [Beckett] – and found in its place impulse, spontaneity, constant surprise. I quickly found myself settling into my own skin, and my critical inner voice let up a tad; enough to let me start dreaming in stories again.

In 2007 my husband and I went separate ways, he back ‘down south’, and me remaining in Darwin to face who I was now, sans a 16-year relationship.

It was a tough year, but what ultimately resonated in me too loudly to ignore was that I needed to write again. In 2008 I committed to a professional writing practice, and the ideas bubbling up inside me were clearly stage plays. Turns out I made this decision at the precise moment that Darwin Theatre Company – our sole funded producing company – was unsuccessful in its bid for renewed funding from either state or federal bodies. There ensued several years of theatrical hiatus, followed by several years of assorted and unsuccessful initiatives, leading to the model we have today:

The NT doesn’t have a producing body as such. What we do have [in the Top End only] is Brown’s Mart Theatre; a presenting body which handsomely enables the plethora of strong local independent playwright/producers to create new work: Knock-em-Down Theatre [Gail Evans, Stephen Carleton and Mary Anne Butler], Sanity Productions [Kate Wyvill], Sandra Thibodeax, Business Unusual [Nicola Fearn], Salt Theatre [Sarah Hope] all working on a project-to-project basis. Playwrights Lynette Lewis-Hubbard, Tessa Rose and Levin Diatschenko also create new work, and Brown’s Mart presents around three to four new works per annum.

Most of us who can raise our own funds get a new play on every second year or so. For a population of only 100,000 Darwin punches well above its weight.

However, we have massive gaps in our industry. Playwrights don’t get commissioned locally due to the lack of a producing body, and the Brown’s Mart Theatre capacity is 100 if you sardine them in, so box office is small.

Many of our talented practitioners – writers, actors, directors, designers, technicians – can’t obtain even semi-regular income in this environment, and it’s almost impossible to up-skill locally due to the lack of training infrastructure.

So people head ‘down south’ to pursue training and work opportunities. Others simply give up, looking outside the theatre industry to more stable work prospects. We lose some highly skilled practitioners that way.

As a playwright, I feel very lucky.

My professional development comes largely via reading pretty much every play I can get my hands on. If one doesn’t hold me, I won’t finish it. If it does, I’ll re-read it; breaking it down for form, structure, plot, stakes to analyse the techniques used, then apply those lessons to my own work.

But I also need to see live theatre in order to grow my own craft, and we don’t get a lot of live theatre in Darwin. Our local Entertainment Centre buys in a Bell Shakespeare once a year, and perhaps one or two other travelling extant works from bigger companies.

So in 2008, when I first committed to a professional playwriting practice, I made it my business to scan the interstate theatre programs as they rolled out, picking two or three blocks of 10-14 days I could spend ‘down south’ across the year to cram in as much theatre as I could. If I could manage to see 15 to 20 plays annually, I was happy.

It was on one of these trips in 2011 that I saw Mark O’Rowe’s Terminus at the Sydney Opera House, and I was smitten. I loved everything about his dark, lyrical Irish voice and brutal, vivid imagery.

I ordered O’Rowe’s body of work online and swallowed it whole, re-reading it several times over. He led me to Conor McPherson, who led me to Abbie Spallen, Marina Carr, Enda Walsh.

Across the next two years I immersed myself in contemporary Irish plays; inspired by their action-driven plots, high stakes, inventive and rhythmic language, brittle and brutal voices. There was an urgency about these narratives which resonated deeply in me, empowering me to push the boundaries of my own emerging voice.

As I started to get some playwriting runs on the board, I also used my interstate theatre trips to try and maintain existing – and establish new – relationships with artistic directors and companies.

This proved incredibly difficult. More often than not emails weren’t replied to, phone messages not returned. The longer I stayed in Darwin, the more I sensed a divide between me and the national theatre community. It felt odd, because I hadn’t sensed that when living in Brisbane. But from Darwin, I felt like I’d been dropped off the planet.

I kept writing and producing my own plays through Knock-em-Down Theatre. Half Way There [directed by Iain Sinclair] premiered in Cairns in 2009 and was then picked up by the Darwin Festival.

Highway of Lost Hearts [directed by Lee Lewis] had a 2012 Darwin season which sold out, a return season by demand in 2013, and a 2014 three-month national tour.

In 2014 I finished my new play, Broken, and sent it to the artistic director of an interstate federally funded theatre company – someone I had a connection with.

They agreed to meet me to discuss it, but wanted a face-to-face. I flew myself from Darwin at my expense, and – within two minutes of our meeting – it became apparent that they hadn’t taken the time to read the play. They scanned through it in front of me, advised me to try writing my play with a different layout, and that was the end of the meeting.

Broken premiered at Brown’s Mart Theatre in 2015 [directed by Gail Evans] and I met with another artistic director of an interstate federally funded theatre company – again, someone I had a connection with – to discuss the possibility of them taking it ‘down south’.

During that meeting, they rejected it outright, saying: “Do you really think Mary Anne Butler could sell out a season in [insert name of capital city here].”

Early in 2016, after Broken won the Victorian Prize for Literature and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Drama, I met with yet another theatre company to discuss potential programming. This time, it was the company that called me in to the meeting. And this time, the comment to my face was: It’s a great play, and we thought about it, but no one thinks Mary Anne Butler can sell out a season in [insert name of capital city here].

The play to them was immaterial. I was the unsellable product, rather than my work. I’m female. I’m middle-aged. I’m based regionally. Is there a trifecta less appealing in Australian theatre today?

In both cases, these people referred to me in the third person, even though I was present. And their phrasing was almost identical. Maybe that’s a stock reason given to unappealing playwrights these days; but it seemed uncanny.

Richard Watts refers to the emergence of “a new cultural cringe … one in which the work of regionally- based artists and arts organisations is perceived to be of lesser quality than that of their metropolitan peers.”

It’s a succinct summation; the ‘perceived’ being hard to nail down, hence difficult to call out, hence almost impossible to address. Add to this a lack of willingness to ‘cast the net’ wider than immediate networks, and it’s easy to see how regional work is largely omitted from the Australian mainstream canon.

Brooke Bolan’s Tips to Succeed in the Arts can be summed up thus: “Trust your instincts, build relationships, and make data driven decisions”. But it’s hard to build relationships when the door gets slammed in your face by the data-driven decisions of major companies. And in terms of trusting my instincts, what the above experiences taught me were that regionalism was alive and well in the capital cities.

On a company level across these years, Knock-em-Down Theatre was regularly inviting artistic directors to come and see our work at our expense. Often these emails weren’t replied to, and phone calls not returned. Regional sometimes feels synonymous with invisible.

Certainly it seems to imply second best; yet the work Knock-em-Down continues to produce is more than equal to the work I have seen on my regular interstate theatre trips – indeed, on my international theatre trips. All my plays have been developed and premiered by them; and their process is rigorous, to say the least.

In a Sydney Morning Herald article, Lyn Wallis cites distance, time and cost as factors creating difficulties for regional companies. “Getting colleagues into the regions to see the work is really difficult. During funding rounds, the chances of assessing peers having seen the work of a remote company is pretty low.”

It’s a pivotal point. Even with the more recent inclusion of NT-based OZCO peers, our theatre pool is so small that many of these peers face immediate conflicts of interest. Add to our case a local lack of reviewers [we have a solitary Top End newspaper which claims to not publish reviews], and throw in the lack of ready access to things such as the Helpmann Awards – which rely on the generosity of judges to travel for three-plus days away from home and family, incurring out of pocket expenses [while fares and accommodation are covered, per diems are not], and its easy to see how regional work is easily rendered invisible in assessment and judging forums; artists, companies and projects often buried under the higher profile, more ‘known’ parties.

Theatre is an individual taste; and it was across the release of the 2013–2014 Australian seasons that the national theatre programs failed to excite me to the same degree they had previously. While there were one or two gems I was keen to see, for the first time in four years I wasn’t sufficiently inspired to outlay the cost and time to fly interstate and soak up the mainstream theatre offerings.

Perhaps my lack of excitement was in part a response to my immersion in the NT’s community and landscape, which were opening up broader narrative possibilities – incorporating vast landscapes and less urban stories and characters than those being programmed ‘down south’. Perhaps it was also due in part to my immersion in Irish theatre; being drawn to voices which felt more pertinent to me – rhythmic and driving – epic in form and content, which I also didn’t get the same sense of in those particular Australian seasons. Perhaps this time also coincided with my own frustration at feeling I wasn’t part of a national community; a weariness from knocking on doors which too rarely opened.

But I still needed – and wanted – to see theatre: to keep my own skills up, to benchmark, to be inspired, to be excited. I love theatre; I truly do. I wanted to keep loving it, and I wasn’t feeling the love at that time in my own country. So the logical thing was for me to look towards Ireland – whose contemporary playwrights had been my mainstay of inspiration for the last few years.

In 2015 a combined Churchill Fellowship and Australia Council Skills Development grant bought me three months of a Dublin-based writing residency, timed to soak up the Fringe and Theatre Festivals. During those three months I saw 25 shows, including the innovative six and a half hour Druid Shakespeare adapted by Mark O’Rowe, the riveting It Folds by Brokentalkers/junk ensemble, Conor McPherson’s The Night Alive, Enda Walsh’s opera The Last Hotel, Dead Centre’s Chekhov’s First Play, the mad genius of Kim Noble’s You’re Not Alone, and the UK’s travelling behemoth The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time [Simon Stephens from Mark Haddon’s novel].

I met with 31 arts organisations and practicing individuals including literary managers from Druid and The Abbey, the legendary producer Jen Coppinger, theatre companies Rough Magic, Fishamble, Pan Pan and the Project Arts Centre.

And here’s the thing: every single artistic director, literary manager, independent director, producer, writer and actor I approached, agreed to meet with me.

Some were orchestrated introductions from other locals or organisations I had already met with [all of whom were very generous in instigating further e-mail intros for me]; some were ‘blind’ emails I sent to people or bodies, asking for a meeting.

The generosity of people’s time and energy was astounding. Often I would turn up to find that they had my work in front of them. Where they’d sourced it from I’m still not sure, but the effort people made here – compared to the almost universal lack of engagement I had experienced from my own country – was humbling. And this was well before any of my plays had won anything.

Mark O’Rowe [who agreed to meet me after I sent a ‘blind’ email to his agent] asked to read my plays before we met, and then spoke about them to me in depth, having read them several times. He treated me as an equal, and it blew my mind.

And I don’t think it’s a case of being the curious foreigner.

Of all the local playwrights I met, each spoke in terms of being part of this communication ‘loop’. There is a genuine respect for – and curiosity about – the work itself, in that country. The play is the thing, rather than the playwright. Being middle-aged, female, regionally based doesn’t matter. It’s a case of: show me the work, and I’ll take it on its own merits.

In his Sydney Morning Herald article, Andrew Taylor observed that, in Australia, “Regional theatre makers are victims of a cultural cringe that assumes their work is parochial and less sophisticated than works made in the cities.”

While I agree with the sentiment, I have to say I don’t feel like a victim. In fact, the antithesis. I feel incredibly lucky to be living in Darwin – living ‘outer regionally’; immersed in this community and these stories which eke difference and energy and the dynamics of ‘otherness’. ‘Victim’ suggests that those in ‘the regions’ are just fanging for a chance to be let in to the sophisticated worlds of city based theatre.

I don’t think that’s the case. Like Julian Louis says: “If I were based in the city, I would not be creating the work I am making now … The work I am able to build as a regional theatre maker comes from a specific place and emerges from a diverse community that reflects the complexity of contemporary Australia.”

I’m proud of the work we do up here.

Stories which reach in, grab my heart and wrench it sideways. Regional stories are different. That’s the whole point. That city based audiences don’t often get to see them renders their experience poorer, in my opinion.

It also renders the national canon poorer. Patricia Cornelius observes that the bigger main-stage companies “get nervous and don’t think people will accept more challenging work”. This conservatism seems heavily linked into assumptions about subscribers.

When my play Highway of Lost Hearts toured around Australia for three months – a play which features fellatio and sex work, grief and loss – we hit a large and conservative country town and an octogenarian approached me post-show to say, “Well that was refreshing! They usually bring us war songs and musicals, and we’re all a bit sick of them.” The small band of elderly women around him nodded in agreement.

And while I understand the link between subscriber commitment and economic imperatives, I also concur with Kim Williams who, during a Q&A program referred to: “… one of the most dangerous things in modern life – where we treat money as the measure of all things, rather than one of many measures.”

Diversity isn’t just about who is acting, writing or directing.

The term also encompasses diversity of subject matter and genre: voices, narratives, settings. Regional and remote communities are a diverse part of Australia’s demographic, and by not exploring these landscapes and characters on our main stages, ultimately the city based audiences and programmers miss out on this diversity.

It’s Bernard Salt’s observation that “Older and more powerful cultures have no problem with country life; Australians had no problem with country life until late in the 20th century when we shook off the shackles of the cultural cringe and forged a New Australian identity. It’s just that our New Australian identity happens to be city focused. And not just city focused but inner-city focused. To the extent that I think that the cultural tension once played out between labour and capital is being expressed as a battle between inner-city sophisticates and suburban bogans.”

There are simple enough ways to cast the net wider, if the will is there. Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s seasons are curated via an Open Submission process, with on average 80-odd applications being received each year. A panel then curates the following season on the strength of the work submitted, ensuring gender equity across key creative roles as well as diversity across voices. It’s an egalitarian process which opens their program up to unexpected possibilities [including those from regional Australia], while acting as a simple and effective way of levelling the playing field.

As an organisation with a national focus, ATYP have invested in the NT for over a decade – bringing in their Fresh Ink mentoring program to develop local emerging voices, and forging strong relationships right across the NT. Their investment is genuine, long term, and collaborative – resulting in works such as the recent award-winning Sugarland.

I went back to Dublin twice in 2017; once for the reading of my play Broken at The Abbey Theatre, and then again for the 2017 Fringe and Theatre Festivals.  All up, I saw 27 plays in Ireland in 2017. At an opening night for a local Theatre Festival play, a man crossed the room to speak to me. ‘Hi,’ he said. ‘I’m Neil Murray, one of the new Artistic Directors at The Abbey. I’d love to read your work. Can you come in for a cup of tea and a chat?’

HE crossed the room to speak to ME. I was blown away. During our meeting, I got the chance to talk up the work of two other Australian playwrights at the top of their game, as well as speak to my own practice in some detail. I alerted him to the Australian Plays Online website, so that – during Neil’s initiated one hour meeting – he became exposed specifically to three new playwrights, and generally to a whole new body of work which he now has direct access to.

A small act of openness on his part went an incredibly long way. I don’t see that happening much in my country, and I’d love to see more of it: more acts of genuine openness. More efforts towards a genuinely open and equitable national industry: an opening up of story and voice possibilities, right across the board.

Every play I write is about Resilience. With all that life throws at us; how do we as homo sapiens get up onto our feet again, and again, and again? That’s the theme I drill into repeatedly, and Darwin fuels my theme admirably.

It’s this place which has taught me this resilience. It’s taught me about hard yards, about getting back on the horse, about writing and re-writing and re-writing again – ‘…hon[ing] and hon[ing], until it is as sharp as a bullfighter’s sword’.

Darwin gave me my own professional working mantra: Courage, Resilience, Persistence and Craft. And I love her for it.

Living ‘outer regionally’ as a professional playwright is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life.

It’s also the happiest accident I’ve ever had.

 

This State of Play paper was first published on AustralianPlays.org on January 15, 2018.

Many thanks to Mary Anne Butler, and the Australian Script Centre/AustralianPlays.Org who commissioned this latest instalment in their State of Play series. For more in this series, visit AustralianPlays.org/state-of-play

Mary Anne’s new play, The Sound of Waiting, plays at Darlinghurst Theatre in 2018.

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