Happy Birthday Queensland Theatre Company: 40 years on

Queensland Theatre Company today marks the 40th anniversary of its being signed into existence … literally … by an Act of Parliament: the Queensland Theatre Company Act (1970).  It remains unique in Australia in this regard, and is one of a handful of arts Statutory Authorities in the state.  Perhaps this is indicative of the importance that a state government decades ago placed upon the theatre.  The state government through the Minister for the Arts (currently also the Premier Anna Bligh) is the major financial supporter of the state theatre company, contributing 80% of all government funding revenue to the Company’s budget.  The Federal government through the Australia Council provides the remaining 20% from government.

Queensland Theatre Company has had 5 Directors in those 40 years: the late Alan Edwards (MBE AM); Aubrey Mellor (OAM); Chris Johnson; Robyn Nevin (AM), and currently Michael Gow, who will step down in August this year to concentrate on his career as one of Australia’s leading playwrights.

My association with the Company began 2 years after its founding.  I joined for the 1972 Theatre in Education Season; my first job was playing an emu in The Badly Behaved Bunyip by Michael Boddy, alongside Grant Dodwell and Steven Tandy (that’s us in the picture above).  I then worked consistently as an actor, sometime director and writer as well as workshop tutor with Queensland Theatre Company until the end of 1977.  I have been involved with the Company in one way or another for nearly 40 years, and am today the Chairman of the Board.  It’s been an interesting ride!

Happy Birthday Queensland Theatre Company, thanks for the memories, and here’s to many more, robust years to come!

A couple of months ago, I did an interview with Ian Kath for his Your Story podcast.  Here is a brief extract from that interview about my early memories of Queensland Theatre Company.

Magical Performance

Earlier this year I wrote in praise of (Much) Older Women Artists, and did a little podcast just after the Tony Awards in June.

This post adds to my ongoing hommages of women who inspire.

Yesterday afternoon I saw Robyn Nevin‘s performance in The Year of Magical Thinking, directed by Cate Blanchett for Queensland Theatre Company.  Her performance in this play, a monodrama adapted from Joan Didion‘s novel, is as truthful, vulnerable, and as moving as its subject matter. It serves as a portrait of the artist at the height of her powers. Didion, Nevin, and Blanchett are quite a trio. Brava!

Accent or Dialect?

An interesting blog post on OurBrisbane.com today – it’s a performing arts blog run by Brisbane playwright Katherine Lyall-Watson – caught my attention.  It had me reaching for the keyboard; it was about one of my favourite topics, something I’ve been dealing with for years – voice training, specifically dialect and accent work for performance.  I can’t resist when I see the terms dialect and accent used interchangeably, and incorrectly.  Voice coach pedantry, OK?  However, I didn’t have much luck logging in to the site for some reason – there is only so long you can wait for the spinning beach ball to come to rest – so I decided to write a response of my own.

Here’s the response I would have posted if I had been able.  Bear in mind others may use the words differently, but most of the voice and speech coaches I know tend to agree on this usage of the words when working with actors.

First up – the question of  accent,  or should that be dialect of spoken English?

Many voice coaches use this differentiation: accent is what you hear when a non-native speaker uses English – there are echoes (stronger or lighter) of his or her own native language in an accent. Dialect, on the other hand, is a variation on English spoken by a native speaker of English – so, more correctly, we speak of Australian dialects, American dialects, UK dialects of English – and of course, there are varieties in these. Linguists might carp a bit about what might be termed a simplistic differentiation, but this is the one that hits home for most.

Helen (Howard -voice coach) is absolutely right in what she notes about work on dialect or accent for performance – and it applies whether you are working on dialect or accent.  No quibbles at all.  Equally, the audience can pick inconsistencies really quickly, so this is a key requirement – keep your changes few but consistent.

When it comes to the original query from actor Dirk about whether or not an actor should use an ‘accent,’ I’ve come across this one over the years most often when I’ve been directing or voice-coaching a play translated from another language.  A recent example that springs to mind is ‘God of Carnage‘ by Yasmina Reza (recently performed at Queensland Theatre Company) trans. into English by Christopher Hampton from the original French.  If you saw the show you’d know that the Australian actors used their own Australian dialects, and that no attempt was made to use French accents (Dieu merci!), meanwhile the locales referred to were still clearly French.  The current Broadway production was spoken with American dialects, and I can’t be certain, but I think locales may well have been relocated!

I recall being asked once when working on a Chekhov play whether or not Russian accents should be used … and then how to differentiate ‘class divisions’ or regional differences which clearly existed in them.  The answer to the first is ‘no’ (see The God of Carnage example).  However, some of Chekhov’s characters are non-Russian; how does one express their foreign-ness linguistically?  Clearly, in the original, they would speak Russian with a German/French (etc) accent.  The director/voice coach usually decide upon something like this – the ‘locals’ use their own dialect of English (it’s in translation, right?) whilst the foreigner speaks a dialect of English (Australian/American/British/Canadian/NZ etc etc) in a German/French (etc) accent as per the original.

Class is trickier.  I remember for years in the UK hearing servants or members of the ‘lower orders’ using Cockney – as the dialect of choice!  Times have changed, and we’ve got a little more flexible about all of this.  RP doesn’t rule any more for the upper classes either.  Linguistic diversity, like colour-blind casting, is part of the contemporary stage.

One thing that doesn’t change however, and as Helen rightly points out, is that actors must work at whatever choices have been made regarding this key part of characterisation.

Young artists at work and play

And so to Brisbane again the other night for a playreading of the three writers in this year’s YPP (Young Playwrights’ Program) run by Queensland Theatre Company. The Bille Brown studio on the edges of Brisbane’s South Bank Cultural Precinct was heaving with young’uns plus a few oldies who’d come to cheer on the writers and the actors who’d rehearsed for a day or so. The place was also full of teens currently attending the annual TRW (Theatre Residency Week) … all these acronyms are apparently very cool. This year’s lot had devised and performed the entire novel of Candide the night before! Now there’s cheek (and stamina) for you. It was a night of energy, high spirits, and no small amount of talent on display.

Queensland Theatre Company’s quiet claim to fame is its youth and education programs that run year-long and which cater for young artists, creatives and theatre-lovers. From their artist in schools programs and workshops to state and national tours, work experience opportunities, a season of plays specially devised to appeal to the almighty schools’ curriculum, plus the aforesaid TRW and YPP, there is now and always has been a determination by the state theatre company to work for and with Queensland’s young artists and creatives and their teachers. Well done, say I.

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Words, words, words …

Spent an afternoon on Brisbane’s delightful South Bank cultural precinct yesterday. It’s site until today of the annual Brisbane Writers’ Festival. The joint was jumping. Author talks, panels, coffee drinking, book browsing (and buying) and readings have been the stuff of the past 4 days. And if you think that’s boring, think again. And it was all very Brisbane … shorts and t-shirts, sandals and the kind of laid back atmosphere that is Queensland.

I was there principally to see Queensland Theatre Company second reading of Richard Jordan’s 25 Down due for production next June as winner of the 2008-09 Premier’s Drama Award. It was designed to give the writer an opportunity to hear and see a different cast of actors read his work, now in a 9 month development stage. A 15 minute Q&A afterwards gave the writer, and the Director Jon Halpin and his actors a chance to talk about the process of taking a work from page to stage.

How exciting to have so many people who still care about words.

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On musicals as social barometers and a publicity call

Bertolt Brecht „The victory of the reason can only win the sensiblesImage via Wikipedia

I did a radio interview this morning, part of the groundswell of publicity for Cabaret as we count down to the season’s opening next week. It was quite a relaxed 10 minutes or so in the late morning and on the national broadcaster ABC, but pitched to a more local, regional audience. These would be people with the time or inclination to listen to radio. Probably those not at work, but I wouldn’t begin to imagine the demographic! Hopefully they were also interested in theatre.

Anyhow, it was about musicals … how thrilling the experience is, how many I’d been in, and my favourite (Godspell for Queensland Theatre Company many moons ago). I was asked what would be different, and without really meaning to, I launched into my take on the power of musicals not only to entertain and to get the emotional juices flowing, but also to stir up the mud over various social issues. I hope I wasn’t lecturing!

Because of course, Showboat, generally considered the first modern musical stopped Broadway in its tracks in 1927 when it dealt with miscegenation. Many more in the same vein have followed, like South Pacific (racism) and Chicago (crime and the corruption of the legal system). Perhaps not as politically and socially conscious as others, there have been been musicals about the dark as well as the light side of the human condition: A Chorus Line and the agony for an artist of an anonymous line backing the star … Rent and AIDS … and yes, you can deal with these matters head-on vigorously and joyously … that’s the licence and the power of music theatre. Bertolt Brecht, the genius 20th century man of the theatre knew how to do it; spass (fun) first and then go for the jugular.

Cabaret has always (but especially in this production) focussed on responsibility … personal and societal. It’s set in Berlin over several months in 1930; the tide is turning and the Nazis are on the flood. The big question for the audience in this production is ‘What would you do?’ It’s a big question with no easy answer; I’ve had to step into the shoes of a character who is faced with a moral dilemma. Go with the flow, be swept along with the inevitable and survive, or risk being destroyed. It’s an old and a hard reminder: The only thing that allows evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing. And oh, the cost whichever you choose! Life really … it’s a Cabaret.