Hi Kids, apologies for the silence – I have been out picking cotton – which is code for bum down head up trying to earn a few bucks. I cryptically hinted only recently I have a day job, so no I don’t live on air or the blue blood of young actors. But it is a job that comes and goes in waves – call it freelance, casual, wotever – it helps pay the bills and it’s lots of fun. Right now I got some work. Last year was quiet – with repercussions for the quality of cat food I could buy for Amos and Nitro. But the system has kicked in again and now I am on a new project (a history of Sydney’s G&L Mardi Gras – more on this later). I mention this other life as people almost always introduce me as a critic, which at parties inevitably increases the likelihood of going home alone. I appreciate that age may may also be a factor at play, but I do remember in my younger days – at the height of my fame as a critic – the look of fear that would overwhelm a young virgin-type when they suddenly anticipated forensic degustation of their potential upcoming bedroom performance. To assure the said victim that I was hugely inept myself has never seemed to help.
Anyway, after years of schlepping around the fringes of print media I have mostly given that sort of thing up. The odd essay maybe. And I do have a possible book to work on – on the work of a stage designer – agreed to by a publisher but being expensive needs raising finance first. Meanwhile, as financial philosopher Peter Singer may ask: “how is James to live?” Well yes, true, the kindness of strangers. But, apart from that, since 1993, I have also been recording what are known as ‘whole life’ interviews for the Oral History and Folklore Collection of the National Library of Australia. Quite simply ‘life stories’ of interesting Australians. Because these assignments are not in print, few people know they exist – so here I am to tell you. Not just because it’s about me, but to alert you to the phenomenal archive of stories here, of which mine are but a few handful among many thousands.
I came to this Library work, nearly 20 years ago now, as a journalist who happened to be living in inner-city Sydney, the physical/spiritual/emotional heart of Australia’s AIDS epidemic. The National Library was embarking on a major new topic: ‘Australia’s Response to AIDS’. Initially I mostly interviewed young men who were dying, including actor Timothy Conigrave, who at that point was halfway through writing his famous book, Holding The Man, later turned into a successful play. That was a great interview – by that I mean, Timothy (not surprising to anyone who knew him) was funny and heartbreakingly honest. Actors playing the role have been able to listen to his voice and manner of speaking, which is why the part has never been played sentimentally. Tim was bold and cheeky to the end – no syrup.
Several of us worked on that project, but a decade later I was asked to revisit it by myself. Re-interviewing not only survivors, but doctors, nurses, activists – and catching up with people who had slipped the net the first time around. One result of all this work was an offer to work, more recently, as a researcher on a documentary called Rampant: How a City Conquered AIDS (by the director of Leaky Boat). Rampant is a fantastic film because it shows you just how amazing many of the people were who engaged together at so many levels in Sydney to stop the epidemic from spreading from the gay ghetto (elsewhere via drug users and sex workers) to the broader public. If you’re reading this and have no idea what I am talking about, this is today’s main point. How well do you know the history of your city? And just why is it that you think we don’t have our own stories of interest to tell?
Let me put it another way. I hang out a bit with quite a few people young than me – even some in their 20s. And I am shocked how little they know about even the recent history of this city. Being mostly up-and-c0ming theatre people, I am even more dismayed to discover how little they know about the history of this city’s theatre life. As individuals it’s not their fault. If they wanted to know more, where would they begin to look? But I also believe that it’s currently the fashion to think that the past is not important. Belvoir’s recent publication of a book overlooking its creative life thus far is a helpful contribution. While there needs to be a more research and publishing, I think more importantly is the need for us to start respecting the past as a resource. Australian theatre is forever re-inventing the wheel – with not enough building and moving forward as a result. And these histories are quite specific.
If there is one thing I have learned over the years is that theatre – of all the art forms – is the most parochial. Sydney’s theatre world is a solar system away from that of Melbourne’s. London, Prague, New York – either now or a hundred years ago – is another galaxy. And yes it’s all very nice to toy with a so-called ‘classic text’, either reverentially or with massive creative disrespect (turning Gogol into Gaga), do as much of that sort of stuff as you want. But if we want a theatre culture to thrive, it also needs to regularly till home soil. And if you don’t what’s in that soil nutritionally, how can you make the best of this year’s sowing and next year’s harvest? Shakespeare may well have set most of his stories in times past and in exotic locales, but that as just a trick: every single one of his plays was also, sometimes mostly, about what was going on in London that year. Were the King’s Men reviving medieval church drama or even the Greek classics: no. Every play they, and their competitors, staged was by a current or very recent local playwright. I believe there is a connection between this simple fact and the huge numbers – thousands a day – that attended the Elizabethan theatres.
You may say that this job is better done now by TV and film. My argument would be that no matter how much of it is done by those forms, our theatre still needs to rise up out of our own local soil for us to produce truly beautiful flowers and healthy nutritional crops. Okay the plays can be set anywhere in place and time, but to do what we have done in recent years and downgrade the status (almost get rid of) the Australian writer – and the home-grown story – is, I think, a huge mistake. I am picking up here on the discussion which followed my review of The Business and has continued on other online theatre blogs in relation to a number of other shows – including Baal, The White Guard and The Seagull. Those comments have set me thinking: something is wrong with our current funding and programing priorities? Since I started out in the 1970s, I have never known a time before when at least one, if not several, playwrights were household names. The breakthrough moment was Ray Lawler’s The Summer of the 17th Doll, which in the 1950s not only played to huge numbers in Melbourne and Sydney, but toured up and down the eastern states, a town a night – and then went on to New Zealand and even London. John Sumner, soon to emerge at the Artistic Director of the MTC, regarded the play’s success to be an aberration, and went to no trouble to encourage any more of that sort of thing – not when you had so many fine English plays, new and old, to choose from. In his view this was more than fortunate, given the fact (as he saw it) that Australians had no interesting stories of their own to tell. That kind of attitude, I believe has crept back into the group mindset. And while it may be true that Dad & Dave nostalgia, or Home & Away soap are not what we are looking for, that in fact it may be quite difficult right now to know where our home-grown talent could and should be heading that doesn’t mean we don’t encourage it. Those with an interest in the theatre in Australia – audiences as well as theatre-makers – were familiar not only with the names but the work of many living playwrights including Stephen Sewell, Dorothy Hewett, Alex Buzo, John Romeril, Jack Hibberd, Alma de Groen, Louis Nowra, David Williamson. In 2011 I cannot suggest the name of one contemporary playwright as well known or whose work is held in comparable regard. Look to the USA, UK, anywhere in Europe, almost anywhere in the world where a theatre culture exists – and the same would not be true. However else we play with the data available, this tells me something is very wrong.
I have decided it is not good enough to simply say ‘an international’ outlook better suits these times. For all its success at so many levels, especially skills and competence, our theatre world right now feels unimportant and spiritually empty. We blame the print media for being ignorant in not caring about it. But have we ever stopped to ask if perhaps we are not newsworthy? I am fairly sure that if we came up with something interesting enough it would be splashed across the front page. When Opera Australia presents La Traviata next year on a massive pontoon moored off Lady Macquarie’s Chair to audiences of 3,000 a night, I am sure it will get media coverage. A work for one actor and one audience member would also attract attention if it were truly interesting enough.
Rather than comment on the artistic policy of the big theatre companies ( maybe another time soon), I am going to pursue this conversation from another angle: the Indie scene. A few weeks back I saw three shows back to back. Rope at the Bondi Pavilion, The Coming World at Darlinghurst Theatre and Mum’s In: Stories from Razorhurst. Rope was actually Peter Hamilton’s 1929 West End (London) thriller, Rope’s End, which Hitchcock turned into an absorbing thriller. The play in its time (and place) was well regarded. There was a very good team working on this show including director Iain Sinclair and actors Anthony Gee and and Anthony Gooley. It’s a thriller with a few ‘social issues’ relevant to its time. There is no reason not to do it now, but at one’s own risk. The anti-war themes now appear feeble. So, at best, it’s a thriller. Or needs to be. And this production simply did not not jingle the nerve endings enough to earn that title. I can be done: I saw a production of Wait Until Dark, a very similar kind of play, at Marian Street some years back starring Georgie Parker and Andrew McFarlane – it scared the pants off us! I felt, watching Rope at the Bondi Pav, that about 80 percent of the effort on the night went into keeping the British accents straight and generally creating the period milieu. All that would have been simply assumed in London in 1927 and the actors would have devoted the bulk of theirenergies to other stuff like like creating heightened psychic atmosphere. Also, I attended a few days into the run (not freebee opening night) and there were only a handful of us in to see the show.
A couple of night later and it was much the same thing. The Coming World by American writer Christopher Shinn is relatively recent (premiering in London in 2001), but it suffered the same challenges as Rope in that so much work had to be done by the cast in mastering the Connecticut accents that few acting resources appeared leftover to bring the play to life. It was a good cast – Cheree Cassidy and Ian Meadows, and a director of promise in Caroline Craig. But did the earth move for me – I sat there rigidly disengaged. Again I was attending a couple days after opening night and the audience was tiny.
While this is hardly a scientific survey, I found it fascinating to discover that I had to fight my way in to see the next Indie gig in my diary. There was a queue down the street. After the mind-numbing experiences of Rope and The Coming World, I trotted out on a very cold night at the end of that same week to Mum’s In: Stories from Razerhurst. This was the creation of Vashti Hughes – a show for one performer (Vashti) with piano accompaniment from partner Ross Johnston (co-writer credit), and a script involving many characters – male and female - from the era of east Sydney’s razor-gangs, including Tilly Devine (brothels), Kate Leigh (sly grog), Nellie Cameron (prostitute), Frank green (thug) – all getting ready to attend the funeral of Guido Caletti, leader of Darlinghurst’s razor-gang Push.
It takes a lot of guts to create your own one-person show, though credit must also in this case to others, including director James Winter. But here’s the thing. Mum’s In didn’t even have the support of a recognised co-op or Indie venue. It was put on in a ‘secret venue’. Nor did it have what you might call ‘a budget – a nearly bare stage and one outfit. What Vashti does do however is throw herself into creating a script that grabs you by the throat and never lets you go. She just dug into the soil beneath her own feet and pulled up this story like as giant sweet potato (apologies for the extended agricultural analogy). The ‘secret location’ (you only found out where it was after you booked) was in East Sydney, not far from the East Village hotel which for most of its life was better known as The Tradesman’s Arms, famous for the sawdust on the floor in the Razorhurst era, put there to soak up any blood. Of which, apparently, there was lots.
Vashti would be the first to admit that Judy Davis is the better actress. But with a good story and loads of commitment, help from her team, she pulled off a fun and successful Indie theatre gig – certainly one of the best Sydney has seen this year. All advertising was done at no cost by social networking, as they like to call it, and word of mouth. If you arrived in 1930s gear you got a discount on your ticket. You also got a shake down for hidden weapons. Inside, at the tables, you could buy ‘sly’ grog served in jam jars. Despite the secret venue not being exactly of the era the story was set in, a general ambiance was created. I sat with a friend and two older women who could well have been Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh in their senior years: they certainly dressed up for the occasion.
So this theme of telling our own stories. I am trying make two points. Our theatre culture’s past if full of stories, and we should know them. and our Australian culture more broadly – past and current – is loaded with many fascinating stories. Where to find them. Back to my day job. For one thing, nothing is stopping you dipping into the National Library’s Oral History and Folklore collection. I will finish with this. After the AIDs project I was invited to start interviewing eminent theatre professionals. I have completed dozens of these now. There are more from another interviewer and there is a huge collection from dance world. Personally, I had no idea when I started out how fascinating out theatre past – say from the 1930s – has been. But you can access these interviews – that’s what they are there for. I am off the theatre topic for the moment while I concentrate on an oral history of Sydney’s gay and lesbian Mardi Gras. But, I suggest, listen to my interviews with directors including George Ogilvie, George Whaley, Peter Oyston, Doreen Warburton, Arne Neeme, Richard Cottrell, for example. Hear them talk about directing the classics as well as their many premieres of new Australian plays. Not everyone has been interviewed, and not all the interviews are equally successful. And no interview is uniformly fascinating. But I can assure you, put in the time, keep your ears open – and you will learn heaps. The struggles, the ups and downs, the hits and flops, the great personalities – great stories – all om a theme – striving to create an exciting home-grown Australian theatre culture.
To look at a list of the people I have interviewed for the National Library go to this address. Better still – head to HOME – and take a snoop around the whole collection. People have been interviewed from all walks of life. Right now the Library is working on a series of interviews with Forgotten Australians – people raised in foster and institutional care. I worked in this briefly in its pilot stage – oh my gosh. You think we don’t have stories – are you kidding me. Sorry no photos with this story – too busy. After all, I am currently immersed in a near permanent state of Sydney’s G&L Mardi Gras – from 1978 to 2011. That’s a lots of bums up (and tits out) and I have to deal with as many as one person can single-handle. Occasionally coming up for air!