James Arthur Waites (06.03.1955 – 12.02.2014)
Arts journalist and writer, mentor to many in the arts community and theatre critic James Waites passed away at Coogee Beach on the morning of the 12th February, aged 58.
James had been suffering from long-term illnesses and had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. With his health in terminal decline, he made the considered decision for his last swim to be at Coogee while he was still in a position to do so.
Jim Waites will be remembered by all who knew him as a deeply compassionate individual who was a Son of Josette and Tom, much-loved brother of David, Frances (dec.) and Tricia, beloved uncle to Kirsten, Christopher and Aiden’ and favourite nephew and cousin to Waites, Heffernan, Jenkins and Craig families.
Details of a memorial service will be available on this site and elsewhere from Friday 21st February 2014.
The Australian Arts community have acknowledged his passing on Facebook, Twitter, blogs and print press. Selected links are included at the end of the brief and potted biography that follows.
”We must remember that each performance is a unique work of art, merely bearing a similarity to the performance the night before, and other evenings yet to come. Then there’s the matter of what each of us brings to the encounter.” – JAMES WAITES
James Waites was born on Buka Island off the mainland of Papua New Guinea in the days when Australia was responsible for the ‘Administration’ of this country.
He went to boarding school at Holy Cross College, Ryde – where he appeared on stage in a rare moment of casting brilliance from the drama teacher as Adelaide Adams in Calamity Jane – a role he relished but never repeated (publicly). Building on that theatrical success, James began a Law Degree at the University of NSW in 1973, but finished his degree Majoring in Drama.
James spent a short time as a dresser for actors keen on a quick change. And yes indeed, in the wings of the theatre, they were certainly quickly changed by James. At this time James was fond of furry jackets and compromising situations: he sometimes noted they went hand in hand.
Before long he emerged from behind the curtain and established a career as a dramaturg, working productively with cutting-edge directors like Jim Sharman and Rex Cramphorn. James developed a method of rehearsal observation which would document process and be included inside many rehearsal rooms, a position rarely afforded if ever to a journalist.
James began his professional writing career writing arts documentaries for ABC Radio back when there were budgets for local content creation at the ABC. It wasn’t too long before James’ perfect teeth and undeniable charisma allowed him to (according to him) bluff his way into reviewing plays for the influential National Times in the early 1980s. Considered “the young gun,” snapping at the heels of Harry Kippax, James made a mark with pithy twenty-five word theatre reviews which signalled a change of guard at a time when theatre was waving anew from the shackles of stuffy pseudo-Brit posturing. James was as fresh in perspective and critique as the theatre of his time – energetic, irreverent, sharp-witted and confident.
He helped create the short-lived, but innovatively executed and historically important New Theatre Australia. In true James Waites style, he never shied away from not only short-lived, but innovatively executed and historically important documents, but creating a stir and controversy with his work and opinions.
He was prolific, passionate, uncompromising and unstoppable. He taught theatre history, critical analysis and dramaturgy for NIDA/UNSW and University of Western Sydney (Theatre Nepean) from whence many, many graduates have gone on to bigger and better things – or have at least married well.
Best known for his years as chief drama critic at the Sydney Morning Herald through the mid-1990s, James was fired. He claimed this was most possibly because he dumped “big time on Les Miserables,” – “I don’t find the story very well told…It’s almost impossible to follow without the program notes. We are carried along mostly by the music. And as I began by saying, the music sucks.”
Despite this, James continued to write on arts and culture for several publications including The Bulletin. A keen swimmer and surfer, he made sure he rode the wave of print journalism as long as he could before it dumped him. He then caught the next wave in he could: the online revolution which saw him cut his teeth on contributing reviews and comment to www.australianstage.com.au for about two years. He enjoyed the long form freedom – the ability to instantly connect and banter with readers.
With a little help from his friends in August 2008, James decided “it was time to push his own boat out into the cyber-ocean of cultural comment” and start jameswaites.com and joined a community of online journalists, citing that “blog is a horrible word.”
He was for a short time a member of the Sydney Theatre Critics, and his favourite award of the year was The Deadlys which he say as “the most sexy and entertaining awards night and the place to be.” He wrote rehearsal documents for many companies including Big hArt, Urban Theatre Projects. Contributed to the 25th Anniversary book for Belvoir and continued discussion on art and theatre on his Facebook page.
In 2009, James was brutally beaten on the train returning from seeing a show in Parramatta. It took him many years to recover from the incident and believed that it was it was his well-dressed appearance that made him a target of the gang of youths. He felt he’d falsely advertised: all the designer labels he was wearing at the time of the incident were bargain finds from his local, much-frequented St Vincent de Paul opportunity shop.
Though still attending as much theatre, opera and performance as was possible, his writing slowed. On 11th June 2011 he wrote: “It is taking me longer to get back to writing on this site than I had expected. The wind is still not in my sails. I see plays and really don’t have much to say about them. Sorry about that. Just about everything seems so ‘how’s your father’ and profoundly slight. I hope, in writing this – to declare my hand – such as it is, I may begin to begin to set myself free.”
An historian for National Library’s Oral History Program, he conducted an extensive series of interviews with Australia’s leading theatre professionals, most recently he was conducting interviews on the initial years of the Mardi Gras. He was also conducted the interviews for the Raising the Curtain: “a celebration of the Australian voice through the history of our live theatre” describing waves of nationalism, genre bending and politics that has shaped Australian arts, culture and identity.
On February 12th 2014, just before dawn, James Waites decided that he would dive into the waves for the last time at Coogee Beach. The State Coroners report recorded that James had drowned.
Leaving details for a non-religious memorial to be conducted at a theatre, and his ashes scattered at Coogee, James will finally receive his secret wish to write and direct a show at a main stage Sydney theatre company.
Details of the memorial services scheduled for March will be announced in the coming weeks and will be open to all who loved him, all he loved and those who respected and revered this irreverent, energetic, larrikin statesman of Arts and Culture.
Australia Council for The Arts