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building capacity, growing culture

keith gallasch: chris mead, playwriting australia


IN 2008, CHRIS MEAD, ARTISTIC DIRECTOR OF PLAYWRITING AUSTRALIA, CONTRIBUTED AN ESSAY (WHAT IS AN AUSTRALIAN PLAY; HAVE WE FAILED OUR ETHNIC WRITERS?) TO CURRENCY HOUSE’S PLATFORM PAPERS CHALLENGING THEATRE COMPANIES TO SEEK AND NURTURE WRITERS FROM DIVERSE CULTURAL BACKGROUNDS, ARGUING NOT ONLY FOR IMPROVED OPPORTUNITY BUT THE ENRICHMENT AND RELEVANCE OF AUSTRALIAN THEATRE. SCHEMES HE’D LOOKED INTO IN NEW ZEALAND AND ESPECIALLY THE UK CONVINCED HIM THAT THESE GOALS WERE FEASIBLE. HE AGITATED FOR ACTION, BUT MORE SIGNIFICANTLY HE DECIDED THAT PLAYWRITING AUSTRALIA ITSELF NEEDED TO ACT.

A common response from theatre companies to his essay, said Mead, was “Our door is always open.” That’s fine, Mead thought, “but people don’t just walk into cultural temples.” He had argued for the importance of finding young writers, so he was surprised to hear that “‘Young people don’t like plays, they want to skateboard, they want to listen to their iPods.’ It struck me as a rather odd argument. If you’re an artist you usually don’t know what you’re going to do when you’re young. You use whatever’s accessible and playwriting seems incredibly inaccessible.”

He also encountered disappointment in the arts community that nothing much had come of “the huge movement in the late 80s and into the 90s of migrants writing about their parents’ experience or their own dislocation or disempowerment or re-awakening, a new kind of distillation of what it was to be Australian.” Then there were people overseas who expect of Australia’s famed multiculturalism a rich mix of plays: “In trying to explain it you sound like a white South African from 20 years ago—’It’s very complicated…. You wouldn’t understand’.”

Mead and I discussed the growing success of Australian Aboriginal film, its careful nurturing over two decades (http://realtimearts.net/feature/Archive_Highlights/9558) and recent, well-received feature films about being young and Lebanese in Western Sydney (Cedar Boys; The Combination). Mead is impressed by the work and amused, “Well the fun part about that is that it’s given us a kickstart. People can read about it, talk about it, wave it at us. Of course, everyone makes a lot of noise about wanting to do it; colleagues in theatre sit around and talk about it. But the exciting part is that Playwriting Australia is rushing off and doing it. We want to build a model that’s relatively flexible and we don’t want to do it everywhere. We want to trial something and then see people pick it up. So we’re working across a number of venues in Western Sydney. We’ve just started training people we’re calling “cultural leaders.” Playwriting Australia has selected a group of eight people including actors to be deployed in different places to start ‘building capacity.’ The model is fairly straightforward.”

Playwriting Australia has determined that its initial focus will largely be on young people through arts and cultural centres in different parts of Australia, “working with infrastructures who know their populations well and kids who’ve self-identified as wanting to be artists. If we start with, say, 150 participants over a series of small half-day sessions, we’ll be happy to get five writers out of that.” Mead see these sessions as “principally looking to interest people in the whole idea of theatre or how to you tell a story. Some might end up as cinematographers or visual artists, we don’t care as long as we can start the conversation.”

Mead elaborated on the structure of the program: “It’s in four parts starting with a half-day ‘taster’ workshop with perhaps two actors, a writer-director and a translator if necessary. Stories are told, scenes acted. If the participants show interest we invite them back for, say, five days or five Saturdays and work deeper and deeper into whatever we make together. Then there’ll be a 10-week course and, beyond that, a six-month mentoring.”

The first trial workshop was held at Fairfield Intensive English Language Centre in Sydney’s west. “The group was half Iraqi and half Cambodian-Chinese. One of the Iraqi kids who’s 19 and with no proper schooling since he was ten, said ‘No-one’s ever asked me to use my imagination before.’ The group was excited and keen for us to come back. At base, we look at what elements make a story and move that into the theatrical realm and show the tools you can use. We want to excite them with the idea of what’s possible—just that infectious thing of being around amazing actors and, especially, having your work taken seriously from the earliest moment. We’re also clear that we have to steer it away from the English Class structure. For a lot of people, drama is something you do in school or something you do because you need to be able to understand grammar, but it’s about voice and expressing that and what tools you can make that work to keep an audience entertained in real time. At the end of the five-day course, we’re hoping they’ll have created a scene.”

The response has been really positive so far, says Mead. “It’s a long-term strategy and it’s quite expensive, so we’ve had to be quite explicit about the model. We’ve just got the thumbs-up from the Australia Council for a project in Broome, a two-year course which will have to continually replenish itself. It was really encouraging talking to Dot West who runs Goolarri Media in Broome. She was very straightforward that people need to understand the industrial conditions, that ultimately they have to deliver on time and to particular criteria. She really wants people to write comedies because audiences coming in from communities are nervous about seeing depressing black stuff, although they’ve turned up in droves to see Samson and Delilah.”

Mead is well aware that much of the significant performance that has developed in Sydney’s west, in works by Urban Theatre Projects and various youth companies, has often been image-based and not conventionally narrative, despite the strong storytelling traditions of the many cultures in the region. Perhaps this kind of work has been especially attractive because its language demands are not always onerous. However, Claudia Chidiac of Powerhouse Youth Theatre told Mead of young people she works with who are keen to write plays, as is Samoan performer Leo Tanoi, one of the performers Mead worked with on The Riot Act at Campbelltown Arts Centre (RT92, p38). Tanoi and Latai Tauoepeau, also in Riot Act, have become ‘cultural leaders’ for Playwriting Australia’s workshops. “It’s really exciting, this groundswell of interest, rather than us saying, ‘Write a play. It’s important. It’s culturally worthy!’” Some of the more able emerging writers, Mead says,”are ready to jump into the Professional Playwrights’ Course, which is the 10-week component working with a professional writer.” But overall, he sees the project as comprising trialling and “tiny steps”, seeking out partners and finding participants.

This exciting Playwriting Australia initiative sits side by side with the organisation’s ‘core business’, inherited from the Australian National Playwrights Centre (and its annual conference) and Playworks (National Centre for Women Performance Writers). “We’ve just passed our one-thousandth submission. We’ve got to 1,016 over three years: that’s 454 writers who have submitted their plays to us. We decided to break the conference into two segments, one to allow creative people development time, the National Script Workshop, and the other to showcase work. The National Play Festival is held at the beginning of each year. Of the eight plays we featured in 2008, six will have gone into production by the end of this year. And a number of other plays we’ve supported have also got up.”

At a time when theatre companies read fewer and fewer submitted plays, Playwriting Australia has developed Post Script. Mead explains that “people send plays to us and we send them to colleagues who actually program in theatre companies. We’ve got about 40 signatories to it from big to little companies. They write a very brief report which is then available on a database. At the very least, people’s plays get read.”

At the marketplace end of the spectrum, as well as the National Play Festival there are a number of strategies in place to further the careers of Australian playwrights. Susanna Dowling is the organisation’s International and Community Development Officer. “She’s Irish”, says Mead, “and grew up in theatre but has been working in advertising and marketing. Half of Susanna’s work is to go overseas and talk to companies about Australian work. We now work from before the play is written through to international promotion. Last year she visited a number of theatre companies in the States with a CD-ROM list of plays and we pitch very clearly what we think they might be interested in. Susanna created a list of works that have sold well in Australia, that have had good reviews.”

Of the 1500 entries to the 2009 Summer Play Festival in New York, seven were selected, controverisally two of them Australian—Nicki Bloom’s Tender and Rick Viede’s Whore. Meade reports that Dowling has “been able to get a couple of commissions up in Ireland for Lally Katz and Angela Betzien. This international approach came out of a devolved initiative of the Australia Council which we’ve delivered and now we’re making it part of what we do.”

Playwriting Australia has also initiated a Graduate Program “supported by the Potter Foundation and in partnership with as many universities as we can, looking for graduates with potential as dramaturgs, directors and writers.”

Playwriting Australia has also been negotiating relationships between theatre companies and commissioned playwrights; offering financial support for people to travel so they can work together; supporting cross-artform collaborations (for example Tasmanian playwright Finnegan Kruckemeyer working with Sydney choreographer Rowan Marchingo) and plays already with creative teams; and is always aware, Mead asserts, that “we need to sell plays and playwrights need to get produced and we’re about income generation for writers. So the work needs to get on.” Co-commissioning with theatre companies is also under consideration. Looking further into the future, Mead would like to encourage the development of a playwrights-in-residence program in schools given that the English and Drama courses have great potential to yield new writers.

Playwriting Australia is clearly a busy organistation working from a very practical market base, the developing and selling of Australian plays here and overseas, but with an expansive vision of who the writers might be—in secondary schools, just out of universities and training institutions and, not least from the diverse cultural mix that is Australia.

As to how the organisation copes, Mead is cheerful and, as ever, has his eye on the future: “There are three of us—we’ll be fine! We’ve just finished our first triennium and looking to expand a bit next year. We’re an enabler. But we want to look at our relationship with the industry and what it means. We’ve emerged from an old-fashioned framework where the ANPC and Playworks largely gave their work away for free. We’ve also made a commitment to make it free for writers at entry level because we don’t want to tax people who are just starting out. But when they make money, we might want to recoup some of that investment we’ve made, but not from the writers. We’ve started talking to film people about how they structure that but also to film funding bodies because it seems so strange to me, in such a small artworld, that we don’t talk more often. Their core business is new work. Surely we have skills to share.”


Chris Mead, What is an Australian Play; Have we failed our ethnic writers?, Platform Papers No 17, July 2008,Currency House, Sydney; Playwriting Australia, www.pwa.org.au

RealTime issue #93 Oct-Nov 2009 pg. 18

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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