Monday, 18 May 1998

Australian National Playwrights' Conference 1998 -May 18, 1998

Australian National Playwrights' Conference
 1998 April 12 -26, 1998
 Reviewed on May 8, 1998 by Kate Herbert

It is bitterly disappointing to discover that you have been at the only Australian National Playwrights' Conference that has not had a memorable squabble. 

The April 1998 event in tidy and uninspired Canberra was a very tame affair compared to previous years in which the summing-up sessions, forums and dinners often deteriorated into a bun-fight. One young writer admitted demanding that Stephen Sewell and all the other domineering 'oldies' be pushed off in a boat.

Questions were, however, being raised in corners under cover of darkness and influence of red wine, about the direction the conference is taking. These included queries about a lack of consultation on the plays selected, the appropriateness of programming of incomplete scripts, the wisdom of selections based on regionalism or multiculturalism and the insufficient formal feed-back for the playwrights.

Previous years were more of a showcase for scripts that were in an advanced stage of development show promise or were by major playwrights who were commissioned by main stage companies. Each play is presented at the end of the fortnight as a rehearsed reading having been tweaked and re-written during the process of development with actors, director and a dramaturg to make suggestions for development of text.

Most years, at least one or two plays have subsequently been staged by a major organisation. This year demonstrates a new position that has its own problems.

Nine writers were selected in 1998. This year, several incomplete scripts were to be developed during, rather than before the conference. According to a visiting Australia Council representative, script development is a priority of the Literature Board.

Owen Love, an aboriginal writer (South Australia), came with a pile of research and a good idea about an aboriginal activist in the 60's. 
John Marshall's (Wagga Wagga) The Art of Straying was selected, but he and director Neil Armfield, switched trains on day two to work on a first draft of a wacky little farce.

Jill Shearer, the Brisbane playwright who wrote the very successful Shamada that went to Broadway, brought her prize-winning play Georgia about US painter, Georgia O'Keefe. It was re-worked but only the first act presented. 21 year-old Suneeta Peres da Costa presented a 10-minute radio play and an excerpt from a play in progress. Susan Rogers, a visual artist who, like da Costa, writes in prose-poetic form, arrived with a trilogy and left with a duology.

Sydney-based Australian-Vietnamese writer, Duong Le Quy, was the only writer who came with a completed written script that was rehearsed and presented in full to an audience of peers.

The marvellous and successful exception to the norm was Crying in Public Places, a group of four Melbourne women actor-singers who worked with dramaturg, John Romeril. This was a first for the conference. Group written work has not been part of its brief but so much of our theatre is now developed with ensembles or with an auteur-director, it would be a mistake not to define this as a contemporary play writing method.

Some clandestine queries pertained to the efficiency of play selection. Why have an aboriginal consultant on the board of directors (Noel Tovey) if he is not to be consulted on selection of appropriate indigenous material for development? Why does one need actors for unfinished or unwritten scripts? Would it not be more efficient to provide script development money for a writer to complete a draft before expecting actors to rehearse it? Of course, there will always be changes to text in rehearsal or script workshopping, but actors need to brought in at an advanced stage of writing.

Forums were productive with guests from Australia, Japan, USA and India haggled over writers' issues. But, unlike the Melbourne Playwrights' Conference, no resolution for political action was proposed. There is no formal forum for post-presentation feedback for writers and, although there is a Studio for new writers, there is no provision for experienced writers, other than the core nine, to develop work.

The conference is limited in the number of playwrights it serves. Perhaps more could be made of its national status and activities provided to encourage more middle-upper level writers to attend.

Perhaps playwrights and actors are all too accustomed to bad food and boarding school accommodation. Even this combined with the bland and bureaucratic capital city., were insufficient to stifle the muse. Writers still tapped away till the wee hours and actors kept on performing up until the traditional, last night satirical cabaret. Wish we'd seen a bun-fight though!

By Kate Herbert

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