Brisbane: Wanted – a cultural reality check

I heard a great interview this morning on ABC612 Brisbane with Sam Strong, the ‘newish’ (since last November) Artistic Director of Queensland Theatre Company. Among other things, Sam sketched out some of his ideas to make QTC a national theatre leader. Anyway, it was exciting and refreshing to hear Sam hint at his plans and talk up his ambition for Queensland theatre.

The perception that Queensland theatre is ‘less good’ than that produced elsewhere raised its head again in the interview … the damned cultural cringe beast never goes away, does it? Nothing riles me up faster than the appearance of this nonsense whether at state or national level. I hunted down an angry post I dashed off nearly 6 years ago.

Here it is – from March 20, 2010.

#killthecringe

Anyone working in the arts industry in Brisbane this week would have been aware of an article published in the Courier Mail newspaper titled ‘Brizvegas or cultural desert?’  The online version pursued the notion that the state’s capital was an arts wasteland, and it had attracted over 100 comments last time I looked.  It’s testament, I suppose, to the heat which the post engendered, and to the opportunity provided the axe-grinders by such a madly provocative, divisive premise – one based on a false dichotomy: Brisbane’s either fab or foul – and there’s nothing in between.  The article also prodded awake the cultural cringe beast, something we keep telling ourselves is dead, but which is really just dozing.

I’m convinced that we’re still suffering from the wretched cultural cringe, and I’ve been mulling over its many manifestations to try to put the article and commentary into some sort of context for myself.  AA Phillips invented the term cultural cringe in the early 1950s to explain Australia’s anxiety about its cultural status and of its perception by the wider world; 60 years on, and Brisbane appears to suffer from a localised version of the malaise.

The cringe focusses on the constant comparison of a particular place’s own culture with that of others.  It’s something of a function of wider post-colonial culture – but that’s enough of that.  The cringe rampant – you’ll recognise it in the derision of a place’s local culture as being ‘parochial’ and second-rate compared with ‘the other’ – is counterbalanced by the cringe reversed which you’ll also hear hard at work around town.  This is what critic John McCallum (I think it was) calls the ‘strut.’  This version of the cringe goes something like this: we’re great, we’re the smart state, we’re just as good as – no wait – better than the rest of Australia (meaning usually Sydney and Melbourne).  You’ve probably heard variations on the ‘our production was better than Broadway’s’ (and sometimes, you know, it just might have been) – and so it goes.  It’s about comparisons, you see.

What is troubling in this obsessive navel-gazing anxiety over ourselves is that it can really easily escalate into lack of confidence and hyper-critical devaluation of our work. There’s loss of confidence at one end of the scale and, at the other and, just as toxic, an excess of self-importance. Shame and anger are often in tow, along with apologetics and arrogance. We focus on the wrong stuff, lose balance, and the resulting dis-ease leads into the blame game.

I should have known better than to read past that particular article’s headline question because I knew where it was going.  Still, I was fascinated by it, and especially since it had come from a politician.  Here was the cultural desert metaphor being put to work, but not this time by the city’s arts workers and audiences, by the Leader of the Queensland Opposition and Shadow Minister for the Arts, John-Paul Langbroek.   By the way, I felt pretty sure he hadn’t meant to infer the entire cultural landscape of Brisbane by his question, but ‘culture’ in the city tends to mean ‘the arts’ and, sure enough, he had the performing arts in mind when he let rip.

The cringe beast stirred when JPL siezed upon the fact that Brisbane would miss out on the current London production of Waiting for Godot which is due to tour Australia later this year.  Four other Australian capitals will get to see Samuel Beckett’s modern classic, but not Brisbane.  Apparently, and by the time confirmation of a booking could be made by the producers of the touring production, QPAC had booked out the Playhouse to Mama Mia. With no large enough alternative venue to accommodate the production, no Godot.  So, two world famous actors (Ian (Wizard) McKellen and Patrick (Make it So) Stewart), great play, no venue, Brisbane misses out – outrage.  You can’t blame a pollie for lobbing a sure-fire incendiary bomb like this into the electorate – well, you can of course, but what’s the point?  He’s got his eye on the next election and is apparently siezing any chance that comes up to bash the current government led by Premier and Minister for the Arts, Anna Bligh.  Start talking about culture and the arts in this town and you’ll get some pretty strong, if not always well-informed opinions, and so it was this week.

Add to the mix the ongoing ‘Save the Regent’ campaign.  The Regent Theatre is an iconic and much-loved cinema slated for demolition to make way for an inner-city office block.  So now the argument (and the emotions) ratchet up: not only is there no alternative theatre venue for big shows, but there’s also wanton destruction of an existing, potentially serviceable one – ergo the current Queensland government is incompetent and to blame for the capital’s being a cultural desert, confirmation, if we needed it, that our city is indeed, a laughing stock – cue for further outrage.

You can see the reasoning here, can’t you?  It’s simplistic stuff, but it plays right into cringe anxiety territory and of course we fall for it again.  It’s an old tune and we sing it very well.  At least it guaranteed a heady back and forth commentary to the post over 48 hours or so.  Whilst the commentary was respectful, unlike some of the vitriol splashed around in other passionate online discussions, it got absolutely nowhere.  No, let me rephrase that, it’s given both sides of politics an indication that feelings do run and passionately on these matters.  I wonder will that mean anything at all when it comes to arts policy creation down the track?

So we got predictable cringe-related affirmations in the commentary, but what has emerged clearly and importantly out of all of the feather ruffling is the need for more performance spaces for the city.  Whilst the preferred option of a new, purpose-built, and undoubtedly hugely expensive 1500 seater could avoid the loss of other productions – and they’re the highly successful, also hugely expensive, commercial blockbuster musicals that are cited as the most likely hirers of the space – apparently a refurbished Regent could just fit the bill with change left over.  And really, another large commercially-run venue would not only be great in the short term, but also smart thinking for the future as the population of Queensland’s south-east corner continues to grow so quickly.  But let’s not forget that we also need smaller, affordable-hire venues for the independent theatre sector if we’re talking about developing the broader arts culture in Brisbane.  We really do need more than just another big, hard-top venue for visiting mega musicals.

And so the argument goes on its decidedly un-merry way, and it’s all pretty much one-sided.  There have been one or two, but I wish there were more positive affirmations in the conversation about what we’re getting right in the city.  Where are the compelling and well-informed counter-arguments to the (mostly) sincere comments made by real people who cared enough to sign their names?  Let’s criticise by all means – call it like it is – but let’s also encourage and acknowledge the good as we knock the bad, but without the mad hyperbole and irrationality of the cringe.

There is a Native American saying, “It takes a thousand voices to tell a single story.” Walter Cronkite noted, “In seeking truth, you have to get both sides of the story. Here we’re more likely to say, “Fair go!”

My concern as someone engaged in the arts in Queensland is that the initial post and the comments slide over or choose to ignore the reality of recent successful international and national touring shows and exhibitions, the quality productions emerging from the Queensland home companies, and the employment of local artists and creatives – our arts cultural workers.  Reference to population statistics, demographics, and commercial facts and figures relating to the business of the arts hardly appear in the discussion – at least so far.  Excluding them does not make for a useful or meaningful discussion about our culture, and that in itself is a big conversation, or perhaps a series of many smaller ones that need to be continued here and all over the place.

Bash the cringe beast! John Wood did a week or so after this post. He was in town for Queensland Theatre Company’s production of Let the Sunshine by David Williamson.

PS You have to feel good about so many people coming out in favour of theatre.  When the proposal to restore the abandoned Empire Theatre  in Toowoomba was mooted and championed during the 1990s by the then-Mayor Ross Miller, he found himself out of a job at the following election.  The subsequent superb restoration of the theatre, now the city’s performing arts hub and successful arts business is testament to Miller’s vision.

Disclaimer: I am Chairman of the Board, Queensland Theatre Company and a Director, Empire Theatres Toowoomba. My comments in this post are made in my own right, and should be understood as distinct from my association with both organisations.

Author: Kate Wilson

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