Sunday, 29 March 1998

"State of Play" Victorian Playwrights' Conference, March 28-29, 1998

"State of Play" Victorian Playwrights' Conference
Malthouse March 28-29, 1998

 Article by Kate Herbert

The thud of 30 feet pounding the floor of the Hoopla Room above, interrupted the forum: "A variety of writing approaches" downstairs at the Malthouse.

Why would 15 writers wag this animated discussion? Simple. They wanted to do Jenny Kemp's "Generative Writing" workshop. Why were they jumping? To free the mind and body for inspiration after a morning of analysis.

Playwrights live a schizophrenic existence. The split between the creative act and producing and selling one's work is mind-bending; no wonder that Glen Perry's 7 point plan for playwrights includes "Give up writing" - twice.

We've all given up before - and twice on Sundays. Almost every discussion involved despair at the government's elimination of the middle-sized theatre companies and venues that provided a balance between the cheap and cheesy fringe and the ritzy mainstage. A healthy industry, and a government truly committed to culture in the community, supports all three layers.

"How many times a day are you touched by an artist?" quotes Graham Pitts. "Hundreds," replies John Romeril. Writers weave the fabric of our culture, tell our stories, create images and resonances that enrich our lives. They struggle to survive in an economic and social environment that cares more for profit than cultural enrichment.

This insidious decline in support places artists in competition instead of collaboration. A country relies on its culture for its identity. If we stifle their creativity, promote spectacle over creativity, buildings over art, uniformity over diversity, what are we showing the world? - American musicals and a failing Casino?

Says Andrew Bovell, ' Stop telling us we can't afford it and start counting the cultural cost." The government insists that the private sector will take up the slack, which is not viable. Said Bovell, "It is the government's responsibility to sustain the organisations and institutions which nurture our culture."

Even the language which theatre workers are now forced to use is derived from commerce. "Purchaser-provider models", "tendering", "pro-active", and the unnerving, "Outsourcing". The last takes creative control and responsibility from theatre companies and plumps it into one central body that decides who to support, what is a good play, and what an audience sees. So much for autonomy and creativity.

Writers are jaded. We are accustomed to having no 'career path", says Liz Jones, which makes us better prepared for new government work practices "But", quipped one delegate, "were turning into desiccated dried-up old work nodules."

Opportunities are shrinking with the disappearance of companies such as Anthill and Whistling in the Theatre, venues such as The Church and Napier Street, and funding cuts to innovative middle-sized companies: Theatreworks, Kickhouse, IRAA.

The great joy of the conference is feeling part of a peer group in a job which is chronically solitary. The importance of positive working relationships between artists, particularly writers and directors, was exemplified by Nick Enright and Neil Armfield in the creation of their hugely successful  stage production of Tim Winton's Cloudstreet.

Script development attracted much discussion. Aubrey Mellor (Playbox) dreams of an ensemble of actors to develop scripts yearround. Chris Corbett proposed 'active' models from the US that purposefully cultivate writers for the future rather than our 'passive' models which wait for scripts to arrive.

Roger Hodgman and Janis Balodis suggest schmoozing a director with a company that can mount your work. Unsolicited scripts, we heard, never get produced, even though Playbox  and MTC receive 300 scripts each a year.

At least Geoffrey Milne's statistics demonstrated a marked increase in Australian plays produced nationwide since 1968. Plays by women leapt from 15% in 1973 to 25% in 1993. Melbourne's achievements top other states with 36% of plays being by women in 1996, which was over 40% of the Australian content.

However, these are often smaller productions at La Mama or in the Fringe or Comedy festivals. It’s funny that the conference was about 50% women but the writing workshop had only one man present.

Are the men more interested in product than process?

Two of the final conference motions call for "State and Federal governments and both parties to accept and actively pursue their responsibilities for the development of a diverse, vital and economically viable Australian theatre" Here's hoping.

Janis Balodis suggested, "Hugging a critic". as a way to disarm them, eliminate their sense of power and make them give up. Perhaps "hug a politician” would be more effective. As a critic, I'd quite like to be hugged by writers..



Motions (passed unanimously)
1 That this conference call on state and federal governments and both parties to accept and actively pursue their responsibilities for the development of a diverse, vital and economically viable Australian theatre.

2 That this conference call on institutions which represent us : companies, guilds, unions, membership organisations and training institutions to take a pro-active position and collaborate in the development of policy and a theatre industry plan.

3. That this conference recommend peer assessment of writing grants, diversity of opportunities for funding development and the production of new Australian works of theatre be established on primary principles in government theatre and arts policy.

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