Buried alongside its younger sister Playworks, the Australian National Playwrights’ Centre is dead. (November 11, 2006)
Deep sadness wells up within me, remembering my own rough and tumble treatment 25 years ago. Every day for two weeks my script - the avant-garde play of 1981 according to ANPC founding member Katharine Brisbane - was tried and tested by top actors like Helen Morse, shredded by the famous Nimrod director Ken Horler, while I was personally advised by iconic writer Barry Oakley. Every night I added, subtracted and reorganised ready for the next day’s flagellation. I’ll never forget the satisfaction I felt when the public reading created the exact feeling in the audience I had aimed for.
Depression, unfortunately, did not a theatrical success make. The Death of Willy died after one Sunday night reading at Anthill Theatre in Melbourne. A man in a raincoat and I were the only audience.
I apologise for this personal intrusion, but this was what the ANPC was about - bringing the reality of theatre production to bear on the work of new writers, as well as developing new works by established playwrights. In my year I watched Dorothy Hewett receive the same kind of treatment.
But can the Australia Council, by taking the money previously given to Playworks and ANPC to fund the new national script development organisation PlayWriting Australia, expect to ever engender the old excitement, tears and driving force?
Money isn’t everything, as politicians in power regularly tell the rest of us. PlayWriting Australia will begin with $330,000, a little more than the defunct bodies received between them. If you were to operate a business servicing a constant demand in every state and territory, plus running an annual two-week day-and-night practical development program employing the professionals needed to work with perhaps 20 new writers, how would you go with a budget of less than $150,000?
ANPC director Mary-Anne Gifford told me this level of funding over the past few years has meant the annual Playwrights Conference was almost all that was left of the wide-ranging work which is needed to support new theatre across Australia. How much should it be? At least $500,000, preferably a million to cover the work of both ANPC and Playworks.
Is our culture worth funding properly? May-Brit Akerholt directed ANPC from 1992 to 2002, a powerhouse of energy, I remember, at conferences in those days held at ANU. Canberra’s Carol Woodrow, with Timothy Daly, focussed on new script development for many years in special programs outside the annual conference. Both are adamant that the Australia Council funding must be seen as an investment in this core support function.
Akerholt’s key point is that innovation and risk-taking is essential. The freedom to fail underpins the success of the ANPC and Playworks in getting scripts to professional production stage. Woodrow notes that Tom Healey, 2006 Conference director, had to rely on workshop directors being offered free by the large established theatre companies. Risky work is of less interest in these circumstances. Even the name PlayWriting Australia smacks of bureaucratic fashion rather than challenging theatrical guts.
Up and coming young director, based at ANU Arts Centre, Rhys Holden organised the first Australian Theatre Directors’ Conference in September this year. The university had to pick up the shortfall, though all staff were volunteers, the keynote speakers, including leading director Aubrey Mellor, were not paid apart from fares and accommodation while the other 80 participants paid their own way entirely. Mellor said, “Over-worked and under-paid, we work in isolation in an atmosphere of general artistic timidity and in a climate where political passion is scorned, where writers lack ambition and where the media tends to see anything ‘Australian’ as box-office disaster.” He also said of the annual Australian National Playwrights’ Conference, as Holden recalls, “As a director, if you’re not there you don’t exist on the Australian theatrical map.”
In Akerholt’s view, the one good thing is that the very well regarded playwright Michael Gow, currently artistic director of Queensland Theatre Company, has accepted the chair of the interim board of PlayWriting Australia. His reputation was established when his play The Kid went on through the ANPC process to critical and commercial success, followed by the even more widely known Away.
I found myself in agreement when Gow told me that he has the same concerns. The Australia Council, representing government, commissioned a report, saw that both ANPC and Playworks were struggling, and is acting as broker to ensure that support for new playwrights will continue. The interim board has Council staff and facilities available to it until the end of the year, when the old bodies are finally wrapped up and PlayWriting Australia begins its independent incorporated existence. Death and resurrection is an ancient theatrical theme. (The new name, by the way, was decided by the interim board, not imposed from above.)
The call is out for an artistic director and administrator. The first annual conference in July 2007 will accept some new plays for showcasing, but its main purpose will be to plan how to rejuvenate, reinvigorate and recreate the atmosphere, the excitement and the process that Gow remembers as such a positive force when he was the new kid on the block in 1982.
Gow believes that there is political indifference, but the ball is still in play. His aim is for “a bigger and better ball, and more fun to play with”. More news early in the new year.
And, I was pleased to hear, with Gow’s fond memories and because a fixed place and time on everyone’s calendar is essential for success, PlayWriting Australia will return the annual playwrights’ conference to Canberra.