Is there anything right with the theatre?

When you spend as much time on Twitter and Facebook, and subscribe to as many theatre focussed blogs as I do, then you take notice of themes that won’t lie down.

There’s been a bit of a stir in the social networking streams over the past couple of weeks, and it’s been about the current state of theatre – and not just here in Queensland or further afield in Australia.  Updates from theatre sites from round the world arrive daily in my feed reader. I wish I could say that I get to read them all; I don’t. Some don’t interest me or are irrelevant but, as I read, I make it a habit to grab quotes or bookmark a post for later. These get stored away in my Tumblr scrapbook for later reference – a hangover from my academic days I suppose.  Lately, a lot of these theatre snippets have had a common thread.  With very few exceptions the tone is downbeat, the tune is repetitive: the theatre system – the model for institutionalised theatre – is broken.

Rather like the nightly news on television, it’s not the good news but the bad that gets the airplay,  not the feel-good stuff but rather the gloom-inducing. What’s going on?

Are theatre pundits and practitioners truly despairing of a system that’s so broken as to be unfixable – as some of the latest posts seem to indicate? Are they embittered idealists, out of touch with reality – or both – or just a pack of dramatic whingers?

Is nothing right in the current state of play?  Is part of the malaise the way the problems are being dealt with?  I think it might be.

In Australia the issues of diversity, quality, and new work creation have been bandied around, while the question ‘Where are all the women in Australian theatre?‘ has been on the boil for at least a few decades a few months now.

Closer to home in Brisbane another ongoing topic revolves around the infrastructure of the theatre sector and the shape of things to come.  Funding – who gets what and why – is a perennial favourite online and off, and it relates closely to another hot issue – how to fund opportunities for creating new work.  It’s something of particular interest amongst the playwrights and independent theatre makers in the populous south-east corner of the state where two full-time, funded professional theatre companies operate, and where the labour market is saturated.

In the past couple of weeks, one NY-based director and influential theatre blogger Isaac Butler declared his parting of the ways with the prevalent model of US institutionalised theatre, the only place – he claims – that one can make a living as an artist.  Butler plans to earn a living elsewhere in order to create the theatre he wants.  The links in his post out to others who feel the same, and the comments that follow his blog post are salutary.  My response to the article via Twitter was ‘I don’t know whether to weep or cheer.’  And I still don’t – though perhaps there is an upside. You have to say good on him for seeing a solution and being prepared to jump the wrong ship, one he believes to be going nowhere in order to follow his own route  – and for speaking up.

Anyhow, there’s no doubt that more of the current commentary is focussing on what’s wrong with the state of the theatre as an industry than on what’s right. Moreover, the criticism rarely comes with suggestions on how to change matters for the better.  Perhaps this is inevitable; it’s easier to complain than to try to fix something yourself.  It’s so, so easy to whinge or to hurl rocks.  Not all of it is as considered as Butler’s for example but, over the past year or so, I’ve much read much uninformed, borderline-abusive commentary that actually does no good at all to whatever cause is being promoted.   Voices that ought to be part of the conversation are often turned off by the ranters and combative comment.

It’s time for a moratorium on abusive or anonymous commentary, however much pain, anger, or fear is felt.  Opinionated and informed is good; anything else is just noise.

What’s really needed in the theatre is discussion that breaks out from the old themes and encourages fresh ideas – approaches to solving whatever problems are perceived to exist in ‘the system.’   If the institution of funded theatre in this country needs renovating, where do we start?  Should it be by suggesting, as did one recent provocative blog post from the US, that one sector be examined for relevance.

Taking the regional theatres as an example, the writer put the question ‘ … what social good, what social betterment, (do) these organizations provide?  They are tax-exempt charities, after all.’  Granted he’d begun by questioning the appropriateness of hiring ‘stars’ for a regional’s season in order to prop up box-office returns, but he ended up with a much bigger question. Well, I’m not touching that one but, whatever the idea being put forward, a diversity of informed voices is needed to join in discussions on the state of the theatre.  If they’re not informed, then they need to be. And, in order to be heard where it matters, it really does need to be a chorus from the rank and file – the theatre makers and their audiences – and not just the usual theatre advocates and well-meaning arts bureaucrats.

While we’re at it how about some upbeat critical commentary from all quarters – and I’m not just talking reviews of productions here or self-congratulatory, reverse-cringe odes of the ‘we’re better than they are’ kind which fool no one,  but informed and respectful observations – on the excellent work being done by companies large and small across the sectors, because it’s there if we care to look for it. Rather than harping on negative space, I’d enjoy a wider conversation spiced with success stories of the work of individuals and groups – funded or not. We say we ‘celebrate theatre’ but we don’t.

We could start by asking where are the ideas for creating a sustainable theatre-making company in a saturated labour market?

Without government funding the arts in Australia couldn’t happen, this is a given. But there never will be enough government funding to go around; so what’s to do about that?  Do you jump the institutional ship as Isaac Butler and others in the US are doing, or do you ask why the system is sick, and how to fix it?  Where and how are the innovative business models being built, private sector patronage sought, business and artistic partnerships being forged, mentoring happening?  Who’s talking about these things and getting the word out?  Who’s talking to politicians about the social worth and excellence of the ‘tax-deductible charities’ that federal and state arts ministries are funding?  More importantly, what are they saying?

If you are interested here’s one intriguing financial plan for a sustainable theatre from Chicago’s New Leaf Theatre.  It’s fresh, bold and they believe, doable.  I look forward to hearing how it develops.


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2 responses to “Is there anything right with the theatre?”

  1. Goldele Avatar

    what you are taking about is exactly why The Winestain Project is part of the Auspiciouse Arts Business Incubator!

    After running around for a couple of yuears trying to make theatre and also being compleatly lost as to how to start a career as a theatre director in Australia, i sumbled across them and joined ASAP, as I could nto sutstain my projects emotionally (from a stress point of view) and fincaically, but I refuse to take no for an answer. There has to be a way to make the quality tehatre I want with out being dependant on funding (none of which I have yet managed to access)

    I shudder to think how much money I have put into my own and others work, to come out behind fincially after the project ends.
    .-= Goldele´s last blog ..AUDITIONS =-.

  2. Katherine Lyall-Watson Avatar

    Wonderfully provocative post, Kate. Thank you.
    Problem solving instead of finger pointing – what a novel idea!

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