Something peculiar has been going on at this year's Australian National Playwrights' Conference,which ended last Saturday. Returning to its ancient autumnal time slot, preventing me from characterising the playwrights as young Floriade plants going through the process of fertilisation and growth as I did last spring, the Conference seemed more reflective, at least in the sessions I observed.
Usually the Conference is avidly practical, turning scripts into blueprints for production. And indeed we are seeing last week and this, in BOD at The Street Theatre, one result of four years' development started at the 1993 Playwrights' Conference. After BOD's opening night, I found myself at the ANU Arts Centre returning to the beginnings.
The Conference always has too much on to see everything unless one can be a full time afficionado: I saw the final readings of The Other Woman by Heather Nimmo and The Woman in the Window by Alma De Groen.
But the unusual was manifest in the Forum called The Very Peculiar Language of Theatre. Here for more than two hours a panel of five argued with each other and with the audience, despite determined efforts by Elizabeth Perkins (James Cook University) to keep the session in order, on the very esoteric question of what is peculiar about the language of theatre.
Lenora Champagne from New York laid her writing soul on the line: get away from naturalism. Play with the elements of theatre, she said: use light as light; the actor as the actor. Work the language and make it extreme. Be poetic, peculiar, eccentric.
But Nicholas Parsons, the writer of the play and film script Dead Heart, after Neill Gladwyn introduced the idea that film and television are limiting compared with theatre, fell about with fury saying that there is no real difference in writing for the different mediums - it's all about telling stories. Except that to me it seemed he meant naturalism all the way.
Ian Robinson and Tom Guttridge seemed to be on the same side as each other, against the devilish Nick, and finally after probably half the audience had had their say, something important came out which caused me to reflect on the qualities of the two readings I attended.
Tom had remarked early on that the relationship between the actors and the audience is "gladiatorial". The language of theatre is not limited by what is set down by the writer, but is a matter of live interaction: audiences are different every night and actors use their skills, their theatrical language ability, to work on the audience and so the play is created anew at each performance.
So what's the writer there for? I concluded that a good writer, using dialogue for the most part, creates an illusion of reality in the script in such a way that directors, designers and actors are given permission, in fact encouragement, to devise their own way of presenting that illusion - of representing that reality.
Maybe this sounds like useless philosophy, but I discovered that Heather Nimmo's play - based on the politics of WA in recent years, centring on the question of how an honest politician can survive an honest mistake - at this stage of its development does not offer the imaginative openings to make it a great play. Set in corridors, party rooms and motels, the script consists almost entirely of two-person talking heads, rather like bad television, and it seems to prove the point of the book by Jerry Mander - Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television - that it's impossible to present serious argument on television. The story of The Other Woman is based on reality, but it remains a pale illusion on stage.
Alma De Groen, on the other hand, writes every word so that myriad implications are brought to mind, and so, apparently quite effortlessly, her play can take us back and forth between Stalinist Russia of 1951, a fictional society 300 years in the future, and a sudden flash of Australia right now. The Woman at the Window is potentially a great play because it gives the audience, as Tom Guttridge said in the earlier forum, the freedom to create their own meaning.
So a funny peculiar thing happened to me on the way from the Forum: I discovered a clearer understanding of how to judge a play. To writers, then, I say: listen to Lenora Champagne. Play with all the elements of the theatre - the light and shadow; the sounds and silences; the movements and stillnesses. And be poetic, eccentric, peculiar and extreme.© Frank McKone M.A., F.A.C.E.
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