Australia's Theatre: A Call for a National Strategy. Launch of Trapped by the Past: Why our Theatre is Facing Paralysis by Julian Meyrick, Currency House, Thursday January 20, 2005 at Stables Theatre, 10 Nimrod Street, Kings Cross.
Meyrick is associate director of Melbourne Theatre Company and a theatre historian who claims Australian theatre is stuck in the 1970s. He claims "unless we have a grasp of our root involvement in the art form, then we are taking a living artistic medium and reducing it down to a mentally-inert production line whose purpose is mere self-perpetuation. We are doing more than wasting time, we are actively killing it."
For the launch Currency brought in Rob Brookman, general manager of Sydney Theatre Company, Lyn Wallis, director of Belvoir's B Sharp program, and David Berthold, director of Griffin Theatre Company to challenge Meyrick's position. Berthold's pencilled notes have not come to hand, but Wallis and Brookman - one-time Canberra practitioners at Jigsaw Company and the erstwhile Australian National Theatre Festival respectively - find points of agreement on the "crumbling" since the 1970s of the "middle ground", represented, says Wallis, by regional and community theatres.
"When the death knell sounded for many of them ... a vital training ground for artists at entry level was lost." But, Wallis says, "I find myself working as mentor and facilitator with the Next Wave", listing many new directors working for little remuneration in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, who she claims are as "rambunctious, confident and slightly anarchic" as the New Wave of the 1960s which spawned La Mama and Nimrod.
Brookman sees less chance that they can revitalise our theatre culture. He takes Meyrick to task for blaming the baby boomers, noting that directors like Robyn Nevin at STC and others in major companies do their utmost to give work to new writers. Meyrick, says Brookman, sees historical trends and wants a national strategy of "cooperation". Sounds like Sesame Street, "brought to you by the letters S and C".
The issue, says Brookman, is money. There is plenty of cooperation among the majors, and by the majors with community and independent practitioners. But the balance of the majors' incomes is the problem. At STC in 1980 private sponsorship was 0%. Now government funding is 7%, private funding 9%, and box office 75%. On the face of it this looks like an improvement, but there is not enough money in total. Result one has been that major companies program carefully to avoid losing sponsorship while trying to maintain quality in new and classic play productions. Result two has been to survive by, gradually, bowing to financial pressures which lead new writers to produce string quartets but no symphonies.
The amount the Australia Council gets to distribute is decided by the Federal Government while relatively small amounts come from State and Local Government. It's not the baby boomers' fault, for they do their best to bring on the Next Wave. It's not lack of cooperation. It's more money. And it's government at all levels that need to kick in so the companies can get the cultural balance right.
© Frank McKone M.A., F.A.C.E.
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