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obituary: douglas leonard

Douglas Leonard at Cha Cha Douglas Leonard at Cha Cha
photo Jenny Pineapple

Douglas wore his considerable learning lightly and wrote elegantly and generously about live art, contemporary performance, circus and adventurous theatre, whether mainstream or independent, if with a preference for work that was raw and courageous. Finding writers with Doug’s breadth of appreciation of form and ideas is no easy task. A few months ago we asked him to provide material for a writer profile, but he preferred not to, shyly declaring himself “a raver rather than a writer.”
Keith Gallasch

* * * *

“All theatre is about death,” pronounces Douglas Leonard in a filmed interview (Thanatonauts—Navigators of Death, by Igneous) recently screened at his own funeral. “Let’s think about the social value of death. Let’s bring back existential terror to this life which would be perhaps a grace to those who claim to be artists in this world rather than consumers.”

As a Glaswegian migrant growing up in working class Sydney and Mt Gambier, a scholarship placement at St Peters College Adelaide offered Douglas both a nurturing ground for his intellect and a close-up view of social disparity cutting the more deeply when impecunity prevented him taking up an Oxford scholarship. But in 1967 he took a one-way boat trip to London. His first theatre involvement was with agit-prop and political theatre whilst employed as a youth worker in projects such as the Hoxton Cafe and Centreprise. He trained with Cicely Berry, Jerzy Grotowski, Jacques Le Coq and the Netherlands-based International Theatre Research Laboratory known as KISS.

After returning to Australia in 1974, turbulent years were spent preparing for the anticipated revolution. For Doug and his coterie this meant intellectual preparation, deep soul searching and bracing self-criticism, traits he has been known for ever since, in his effort to live ethically in the public realm. The underside to this was an abiding anger both personal and socially inspired that he strove hard to reserve for private catharsis and as a tool for the greater good.

When he moved to develop a community theatre it was, he would later attest, “as an arena for social action” with vanguard inclusive policies toward women’s initiatives, Asian content, ethnic diversity and the homeless—always one or two sleeping under the stage! The invitation of a friend to direct her WEA drama students in their final show at the Sheridan Theatre set in train his infamous four-year run of provocative theatre with the Adelaide Theatre Group. From A Midsummer Nights Dream—“extraordinary theatre [...] flawed all over but outrageous enough to get away with it” (The Advertiser, 1980)—to Wheelchair Willie, Douglas Leonard was pronounced “one of the most ingenious directors working in alternative and community theatre,” making the ATG Adelaide’s “unchallenged centre of exciting, experimental, innovative theatre” (The Advertiser, 1984).

After a prolific output in 1982 (when three of the five shows were named in The Advertiser’s ‘top 10’) Douglas initiated an intensive training laboratory refining his unique approach to voice work and the body in performance. He regularly achieved remarkable results both for stage and for life, from novice and untrained actors, high school students and even young offenders. His effect was transformative, frightening, intoxicating, changing the way people thought about theatre and themselves, opening the door to European performance aesthetics.

When the theatre’s continuity was contested, Douglas struggled on independently with no base or core troupe, nevertheless earning high critical praise for The Kid and Salvador La Libertad in the late 80s. Directing The Contortionists in 1990, he found his life partner in the show’s lighting and production manager, Anna Fairley. They took the opportunity of an invitation from Bill Rough to devise a show in Brisbane to break with Adelaide. Songs from the Hut created ripples in Brisbane theatre circles.

Moving into West End’s complex community of Aborigines, migrants, students, artists and leftists flush with the fervour of new political freedoms post-Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Douglas found he could combine his passion for high art, low life and broad political activism. He engaged in grass roots theatre (including a long association with Street Arts, later Arterial) nurtured fellow artists, initiated community actions and maintained a discourse contextualising local art and politics in a column, Artifacts, in the West End Neighbourhood News (1997-2000) before taking up an invitation to review for RealTime.

Aside from notable main-house works Ionalympus, Shadowboxing, Requiem for a Miner and the massive international collaboration Elektro-Sonic Interference at the Brisbane Powerhouse (RT45, p29, 2001) Doug moved increasingly towards creating a poetic theatre of ideas, experimental moments and performed enquiries (Uncivilised, The Modern Phytotherapist, Shooting the Sun) or festival installations that gave a voice to the marginalised.

He completed a degree majoring in theatre and philosophy late in life but never stopped studying, researching, reading widely, deeply and methodically and always discussing. A “bold critic and peculiarly astute commentator, his turn of phrase and critical capacity lay in his acute ability to interlock, cross-connect and disassemble within almost one thought or sentence,” observes media artist Keith Armstrong, who collaborated with Doug on Elektro-Sonic.

But “like many great but humble artists, he worked in the ‘shade’ even while contributing richly to the fabric of his community” points out curator and performance artist Rebecca Clunn. He hated smug certainty, loathed self-promotion and was never interested in the artifice of the arts industries—only in the work and the people doing it. And for their part it was a courageous few who were not afraid he might take them over a political edge that they didn’t want to cross. For those that were willing “He brought us back to the origins of what was important... the ‘why’ of the work, to enunciate those ideas clearly” (intermedia artist Suzon Fuks).

“A man of beginnings, openings and ideas, already in foment as they became released...he thrived on any chance to experiment with the limits—both physically and mentally” (Armstrong). “Let go” he would say. “Take yourself beyond safety. Just do it!” recalls long-time friend, Dave Erskine. He had always taken risks himself. He was once awarded “minus 4 stars” for a dark post-modern cabaret. Another morphed into a ‘whoosh’ exercise with fragments of text. But Doug was always prepared to ravage surface form in search of an authentic impulse. And mostly this was done with a shattering brilliance of dramatic judgement.

He took seriously the forum RealTime provided to generate a constructive feedback loop that might as deeply inform theatre makers about their own work as open a window on the work of others. “As a performance maker in Brisbane,” notes performer and creator Lisa O’Neill, “there have been very few people who have followed one’s arts practice so sincerely and thoroughly as Doug has with his writing and support. When we heard of Doug’s passing…it felt like we had lost an integral part of our practice...Typically he came each night, taking it all in; talking to the artists before, after and between acts in a continued effort to understand, document and discuss one’s work year after year.”

“In his writing as in life Doug was inclusive and without pretension” writes poet and artist Dusan Bojic, his consideration and clarity quietly obliging us to question and examine, to recognise his “unending recoil against any appearance of creative apoliticality and [to understand] his consistent railing against the monotheisms of a bland, brokered status quo” (Armstrong). Hugh Watson described him as “a one man Prague Spring, a gentle ongoing seminar reminding us of the importance of art in life and politics in theatre, whose major intellectual interest was seeking a praxis between post-modernist insights and a left social activism—a project that was unfinishable and was interrupted by his death.”

“Many treated him as a genius, a confronter, a rebel, a man with a huge plan in the innovation of theatre. But Doug Leonard was a man with a dark side that doubted himself. And the closest friend you could ever wish for” (Glenn Rafferty who assisted Douglas throughout the 1980s). While others flung themselves at the world, Douglas progressively cultivated a certain timelessness.

Up at 5am, tai chi on the deck, a book or two devoured before breakfast, a game with the cat, a meeting or call to old friends or young artists—for he cherished the rich exchange of ideas they afforded. And thence to the coalface—be it agonising over the right tone for a review or helping out in community gardens.

For, in Anna’s words, this “man of bright warmth, sharp humour and a sublime and restless intelligence loved, above all, spaces. Spaces between people, created by gatherings, words, images and as a place (aka the theatre) into which he could pour his mind and soul, just to see where the edges were. He also knew in a profound way that the real work of creativity in any field of endeavour was done both in the still of the heart and the night, and equally in the company of friends.”
Indija Mahjoeddin

“The end is sort of finis without titles...but existential terror, fear, trembling, anguish, despair, a pint of vodka in the morning is the wonderful life of death!” Douglas Leonard, born Glasgow July 21,1945, died Brisbane December 9, 2011.

Indija Mahjoeddin thanks Anna Fairley, Keith Armstrong, Hugh Watson, Dusan Bojic, Suzon Fuks, Rebecca Clunn, Lisa O’Neill, David Erskine, Glenn Rafferty and many others for the information and reflections they provided. See Douglas Leonard talk about death:

RealTime issue #107 Feb-March 2012 pg. 18

© Indija Mahjoeddin; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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