Hold the slings and arrows: stocktaking Queensland theatre (Act 2)

My last post here investigated the first 10 seasons of Queensland Theatre Company between 1970 and 1979.  This post looks at the plays from the past 10 seasons.  I’ve used the same breakdown in assessing the repertoire, i.e., organised my siftings using assigned historical and geographical categories: UK/Ireland; Australian; US; Other.  Plays can find themselves assigned to these eras: Classical (pre-Shakespeare); Early-Modern (Shakespeare through Chekhov); Modern (rest of the 20th century), and Contemporary (plays written during or within 5 years of the start of the period under consideration).  I realise they are arbitrary, but they work in general terms; you have to start somewhere.  So …

Between 2000 and 2009, Queensland Theatre Company produced the work of 72 playwrights in its mainstage seasons, for a total of 91 plays.  Who were the most produced writers?  Another drum roll …

At 3 each: William Shakespeare, Alan Ayckbourn (who gets in because in addition to his own plays, he also translated The Forest by Ostrovsky), David Williamson, and Michael Gow – the current Artistic Director – so, two Australians and two Englishmen.  Surprised?  The two who remain in the top of the pops from the 1970-1979 listing are Shakespeare and Williamson.

When I sorted through the plays, categorising them into the eras I mentioned above, this is what I found: of the 72 playwrights 5 are classical writers (pre-Shakespeare) and 3 are early-moderns (Shakespeare to Chekhov).  The remaining 64 wrote their works during the 20th century and some – in fact many – during the 21st.

And for those who are interested in the ongoing affirmative action/gender equity issue, of the 72 playwrights, 12 are women.  At the end of the first 10 seasons only 2 women writers had their work produced by the Company.

What did surprise me were the number of contemporary works that received a mainstage guernsey during the past 10 seasons.  Approximately 64% of all productions of plays produced during this time can thus be categorised as contemporary.  At the end of the 1970s the figure was 56%.

Whilst the dead white guys are not propping up the work of Queensland Theatre Company to the same extent they were during the first 10 years of its history, the Greeks and Romans did finally made an appearance – albeit a brief one.  Works by the early-moderns halved from the 1970s figures whilst the moderns (20th century pre-1995) dropped by only 5% from the 1970s.  Who are the mainstays then?

Whilst 33 of the 91 plays or 36% of all plays produced between 2000-2009 are Australian, the bulk of the work still comes from elsewhere – new or newish, usually distinguished work that’s had a previous production somewhere overseas.  At the end of the first 10 years of the Company, 30% of all plays produced were Australian, so there’s been a small upward creep.

As to which of these Australian plays received their first production for the Company, I don’t have final figures, but after ticking off the Aussie list those plays which I know to have been new works, I’d be willing to punt on around 50% – that’s 16 or so – perhaps (still for some) too small a slice of the big pie of 91 plays.  Compared with the decade of the 1970s, where 2 new (out of a total of 24) Australian plays had their premiere with the Company, it’s a considerable increase.

What this limited  investigation does show is that one Queensland company, albeit the largest and most influential in the state, and one of Australia’s major performing arts companies, is now producing far more contemporary work by Australian playwrights than it has ever done, and contributing to the development and production of more new works than ever before.

The reasons are varied and include a commitment to the development of new work and the funding resources to assist.    It may also reflect the influence of the tenure during the past 10 years of the current Artistic Director, Michael Gow, himself one of Australia’s most distinguished playwrights.

The repertoire profile for Queensland Theatre Company reflects some of the findings in Teachout’s own stocktake of the broader, non-profit American theatre during the past 10 years, i.e., ‘that American theatres have a pronounced bias in favor of new and newish plays by American authors, especially ones that have high public profiles.’  Whilst I would not, perhaps use the word ‘pronounced bias’ in my summation, it comes close to Teachout’s.  This is not, of course, the complete picture for our own local theatre or, I dare say, for the American.

For a start it does not take into account other Company production work such as the education program where writers like Brecht and Beckett appear side by side with Australian playwrights, or any of the ‘research and development’ of new work that goes on behind the mainstage, itself an important indicator of the vitality and direction of any arts organisation anywhere.  To the best of my knowledge, Teachout didn’t consider this aspect of the work of American theatre companies when he was compiling the results of his own survey.  In any case it’s a side topic for more investigation – but I digress.

The stocktake I referred to at the beginning of these posts is based on a much wider sampling of most-produced plays and playwrights, and so to return to that track …  if we want to get a fuller picture of the past 10 years – a sense of the kind of theatre we’re producing in the state and beyond – then other companies’ seasons need to be scrutinised.  The commitment for the past 10 years or so to the production of new Australian work by Brisbane’s other professional company La Boite would create a very different profile, but when you add in the work of the part-time, independent theatre sector, there emerges a clear picture of Queensland theatre, one where you are more likely to see a contemporary Australian play than any other kind.

Whether or not this is a good thing, and how well Queensland theatre does new work  – some think not very – is another matter altogether.

Author: Kate Wilson

Actor, director, teacher, dabbler with paint, serial traveller.

5 thoughts on “Hold the slings and arrows: stocktaking Queensland theatre (Act 2)”

  1. Hi Kate,
    very interesting stats. I’d love to know more about the breakdown of women playwrights in the last decade. You say 12 out of 72 playwrights, but is it also 12 plays out of the total 91 plays , or did some women (like Joanna Murray-Smith) have more than one play produced?
    Hope you can clarify.
    Thanks for the thought provoking reading.
    Katherine
    .-= Katherine Lyall-Watson´s last blog ..Musica Viva’s 2010 season =-.

  2. Hi Katherine. Joanna Murray-Smith (Female of the Species and Ninety) and Angela Betzien (The Orphanage Project and Playboy of the Working Class [Dirt]) both had two plays produced between 2000-2009.

  3. Thanks Kate – great to see Angela on the two play list. I’m looking forward to seeing her work at the National Play Festival – hope to see you there.

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