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Melbourne theatre: in search of surprise

Anke Schaefer

Anke Schaefer is a radio journalist specialising in the arts. She recently spent 2 months in Melbourne doing research for a report on the Melbourne Theatre Scene commissioned by German public radio station, ARD

Rapture Rapture
photo Jeff Busby
Melbourne is built on a grid. Once you trust this system of rectangles it is very hard to get lost. When you want to find your way in the city that is fine but when it comes to the arts, it becomes kind of strange. The Victorian Arts Centre (VAC), however, seems to fit very well into this grid. It’s a highly organized, neat and shiny venue, in which it is hard to get lost. Not in terms of finding your way to your seat, of course, there are signs, don’t worry. I mean in terms of getting lost in another world, the world of the imagination, of surprise.

“(Designer) John Truscott wanted the audience to enter a new world,” says the VAC tour guide. “He wanted us to leave our everyday life behind and—coming from a world full of concrete and steel—to enter the world of fantasy and illusion.” That’s why he chose crimson carpets, black glass ceilings and used brass wherever he could. “The brass is to commemorate the Gold Rush”, the tour guide goes on in an attempt to give deeper meaning to this “elegance.” Even the Aboriginal paintings have been chosen to match the walls. No chance of entering a new world here.

So how about getting lost in the VAC theatres, deep underground in the Yarra River bed? Both operas playing at the time had incredibly old-fashioned settings. Every expectation of a German audience of 100 years ago would have been well served by these productions. “Why on earth would you present such an old fashioned interpretation to an audience in a large cosmopolitan city in the year 2002?” I asked Stuart Maunder, the Artistic Director of Opera Australia. “Old fashioned? Oh, traditional would probably be a better word for it.” Old fashioned, traditional—take your pick. “The company isn’t subsidised to the extent that German theatres are. So when we do avant garde work, like we did last season with our Freischütz, the audience reacts very badly. They just do not want something that they think is denigrating the piece or (privileging) a director’s vision on top of the piece. They want to see what Strauss and Hofmannsthal actually intended when they wrote Der Rosenkavalier.” In my opinion, the nature of art is that it stays up-to-date over time and can be (I think even should be) interpreted according to the present. And Maunder agrees. “The pieces that people know more we tend to play around with a little more.” So why didn’t this apply to the Figaro directed by Neil Armfield? People must know Figaro! But Maunder just comes back to that “very traditional part of the audience” which he thinks the company must not disappoint because, as he explains, “we are dependent on box office for about 70 percent of our income.”

I felt the same reviewer loneliness in my heart when I saw Neil Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor produced by the Melbourne Theatre Company at the VAC. “That was a good laugh!” giggled the woman in the row in front of me when we got up to leave the theatre. Talking to other members of the audience I detected they were just happy to see Garry McDonald on stage who (in my eyes) tried hard to act like Max Price (a TV-host struggling for more audience) but didn’t get very far. There was not one single moment when I felt for him or believed in him. Jeremy Vincent, Marketing Director of the VAC says: “These stars have brought a television and film audience to the theatre, and also a younger audience.” Light entertainment and stars—is that what theatre should provide? “No,” says Julian Meyrick, the recently appointed Associate Director of the MTC (also director of 2 productions for The Melbourne Workers Theatre and author of See How It Runs, Nimrod & the New Wave, see page 34), “Theatre can make use of the high status it has by introducing quite sophisticated ideas to a very educated audience. And this status makes it possible for companies like MTC to do work that is quite testing and quite confronting some of the time.” Confronting? Does Laughter... fit this definition? “No,” he says, “but Laughter... was a Christmas show.” I just wished German politicians had been sitting with me hearing Meyrick talk. There is currently a debate in Germany about reducing subsidies and getting state theatres to rely more on box office. Here you see what happens—no sophisticated ideas at Christmas time!

With quite some joy I discovered Playbox Theatre in the CUB Malthouse. Finally, a much less settled atmosphere and an audience that seemed to me younger, not necessarily only in age but also in state of mind. I saw Rapture, a play by Joanna Murray-Smith, directed by Jenny Kemp, about the emptiness and loneliness that hide behind style, elegance and success. Even though her text told us exactly what to draw from the piece, I enjoyed the fact that the playwright tried to make us (members of the middle class) think about ourselves.

Most of the plays that Playbox present are surprises because they are world premieres. But one thing you can be sure of is that all these surprises will be purely Australian which is sad in a way. It would be interesting, I assume, for Australian work to dialogue with plays from around the world.

From Playbox I found my way out of the establishment. Picking up postcards here and talking to people there, I’m suddenly in the world of “cutting edge”, of “fringe” where somehow the grid doesn’t apply any more. You won’t find your way there if you don’t look for it. There is nothing in little tourist brochures like Melbourne Events. The cutting edge is only for people in the know.

Sitting with me in a fancy hotel bar next to the abandoned Preston and Northcote Community Hospital (the bar is where the mortuary used to be), actor Bruce Kerr says, “We aren’t necessarily after a tourist audience. But you can get all the information you need reading our newspapers.” And indeed, The Age quite loyally covers fringe theatre events. They had a very interesting article about the play I had just seen, The Teratology Project (review page 36), in which Kerr played a 168 year old man who wasn’t permitted to die. It was all about genetic science, birth, life and death, performed in the abandoned corridors of the hospital. A voice from the speakers invited us to “follow the white arrows to the open door.” We arrived in front of a counter where we had to give something of ourselves—a hair, a nail, some spit or earwax. The sample was put into a plastic bag and then carefully examined by a very scientific looking doctor. We were then split into 3 groups according to our samples (which wasn’t true but still made us shiver) and led through the operating theatres.

It took director Susie Dee 4 years to put this performance on the hospital-stage. “It is really hard for independent companies to get ongoing funding, it is a real struggle,” she says. The Teratology Project is the second show from a collective of artists calling themselves The Institute of Complex Entertainment (ICE) whose goal lies in “creating theatre outside the traditional venues, that challenges our audience both in form and content.” Their commitment is to work that is “framed by the strong but simple premise that an audience is not a ‘passive mass’ sitting in the dark of an auditorium, but a dynamic collection of individuals.” I appreciate this approach. This work just wouldn’t happen if Melbourne artists didn’t keep the faith and if they weren’t ready to put not only all their creative energy, but also their own money, into their productions.

I also saw Double Entendre at La Mama Theatre and found great actors performing 2 pieces by the Australian playwright Raimondo Cortese. In these stories, people meet for the first time, get into deep conversation, but don’t find what they’re looking for. There is no remedy for their loneliness and no end to their struggle for love. This time we are not given answers (whereas The Teratology Project was very explicit, just like Rapture). For once we weren’t handed morality with the ticket.

Then I had what I’d call “a good laugh” at Chapel off Chapel, seeing Molière’s Love is the Best Doctor directed by Allison Wall. What fun it can be when nothing meets your expectations and the poor daughter for example, who is to be cured, is for once not a sweet, pretty, silently weeping girl, but a stocky young woman wearing yellow plaits and big black boots under her skirt, sobbing angrily and screaming around.

At the Storeroom in North Fitzroy to see Kaidan I enter a completely designed space with candles and banners throughout. “Kaidan” is Japanese for “haunted tales” and the producer and artistic director of the show, 25-year old Anniene Stockton, wanted the space to be decorated accordingly. “I changed the theatre”, she says, “because I feel theatre is not about sitting down in a room and being shown something. It is much more about having an experience, being able to communicate with another human being. Technology has allowed us to come closer, yet as human beings we are so much further apart.” It works. People don’t run off to their cars when the show is over. They stay and talk. Anniene has worked with a creative team of 35 people and they all get profit share from the box office. Nobody here seems to be doing anything for the money.

In Germany there are many independent theatre groups struggling for funding just as they do here. The difference is that audiences don’t have to go to the fringe if they want “cutting edge.” The big theatres are quite proud when they have an artistic director who in Melbourne would surely be considered a “risk taker.” That is true for Thomas Ostermeier, for example, who became known for cutting edge work at the Baracke, the smaller, experimental theatre attached to the Schaubühne, one of Berlin’s most prestigious theatres. Ostermeier is now Artistic Director of the Schaubühne and The Baracke has disappeared for financial reasons. But other German cities still subsidize not only their state theatres but also these smaller, experimental stages.

Talking to lots of people, I am still not convinced that Australian audiences are really such mainstream lovers. I think if the big theatre and opera companies took some new approaches and presented work that is more than the expected light entertainment, they could be successful. It is just a matter of time and any transition process involves risk. Theatre should be interesting and innovative. It should make us think. It shouldn’t degenerate into just another turn-on-turn-off event. It should creep under our skins.

PS: Melbournian’s hunger for light entertainment may be stronger than I imagined—I’ve just read that 40 million dollars is to be spent on a giant ferris wheel based on the London Eye to become an internationally recognisable landmark for Melbourne. Maybe it is time to accept the inevitable.

Note: Germany has over 150 subsidised state and city theatres mostly subsidised by cities. German households spend 0.3% of their budgets on culture, 20% of which goes to theatre. How it’s spent varies city to city. In Munich the Munchner Kammerspiel are subsidised with 20m Euros (40m AUD) per annum and rely on only 7.5% of their income from box office. The Thalia Theatre in Hamburg gets 15.5m Euro per annum, but makes 30% income from ticket sales. Because of the state of the German economy most public funding bodies have not increased funding for a decade, meanwhile costs continue to rise and theatre companies spend 80% of their budgets on wages and related costs, which means that there is less and less money for new productions. There have also been funding cuts. Ulrich Khuons, Artistic Director of the Thalia Theatre argues that “in a time of globalisation arts help maintain the profile of a city. Pure economic thinking aside, we need places of excitement and of disturbance and to create these places is what theatre is about.”

Anke Schaefer is a radio journalist specialising in the arts. She recently spent 2 months in Melbourne doing research for a report on the Melbourne Theatre Scene commissioned by German public radio station, ARD

RealTime issue #53 Feb-March 2003 pg. 11

© Anke Schaefer; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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