Welcome to Witness, a new home for discussion of Australian performance. Have a look around – we’re celebrating our first month with free access to all our editorial.
Witness is the brainchild of me (Alison Croggon) and Robert Reid (sorry, Doctor Robert Reid). We’ve been working together since a lightbulb moment in March 2017. It grew from a Facebook conversation in which we idly raised the idea of starting a new project that combined my reviews and essays and Rob’s desire to make a YouTube video series on Australian theatre history.
Shortly after that conversation, we were long-listed for a Walkley’s Innovation Grant, an initiative run by the Walkleys Foundation. Although we didn’t get a grant, we were “incubated”. This was our introduction to start-up culture, which was illuminating in several ways: for one thing, we decided that we wanted very little to do with it. However, it did make us get our shit together. Probably the most useful thing we did was survey some of our core readership, and this led us to believe that Witness was worth the gamble.
Witness is in part an evolution of Theatre Notes, a review blog that I ran for eight years between 2004 and 2012. It was a surprising success, getting almost two million visits over its lifetime: the archives still receive 13,000 visits a month, five years after it closed. It led to many things: perhaps most notably, I was the first digital critic to be awarded the (then) prestigious Geraldine Pascall Critic of the Year award in 2009. And many other young critics set up their own blogs and entered the conversation.
The blog adventure demonstrated that there’s an audience hungry for in-depth discussion about the performing arts, an audience that’s drastically under-served by conventional media. Everyone came into the debates – other critics, audience members, the artists being critiqued – and that period launched some of the best conversations I remember about theatre.
In 2012 I saw which way the wind was blowing and shut up shop. Since then I’ve been writing and reviewing for places like ABC Arts Online (a worthy initiative which has now been permanently removed from the internet) and The Monthly. But I did kind of miss blogging.
Five years later, Rob and I started talking, and Witness is the result. Witness isn’t TN 2.0, although of course I’ll be reviewing and essaying. It’s something new.
Arts coverage in general, and critical debate in particular, have taken a lot of hits recently, but 2017 was the worst year I remember. In May, there was an outcry when Fairfax newspapers sacked most of its arts journalists and critics. In December came the sad news of the closure of the long-running RealTime. In early February this year, Limelight Magazine, which covers classical music and opera as well as theatre, went into receivership. (It has since been rescued by an investor.) I argued in The Monthly in 2016 that Australian critical culture is in crisis: since then, the situation has become much worse. Witness is one small attempt to combat this crisis.
A big difference from TN is that we hope to make a living from our work. When I was blogging, I made enough money from my books to enable me to do all that work for nothing. As with so many things, the situation for authors has changed radically over the past decade, and that’s no longer the case. A big lesson of the blog experiment was that no one can continue to do this work for no financial return: almost none of the many blogs that so enlivened Melbourne’s theatre scene from 2005-2010 still exists. Everyone became more tired and more poor.
We considered the alternatives, and decided that the most transparent and direct means of supporting ourselves was crowdfunding. This is why we’re asking for your support. We’re not seeking advertising, for a number of reasons that include editorial independence. So we’ll live or die by our readers.
Another important part of Witness is our First Nations Emerging Critic program, in which an Indigenous emerging critic works with us throughout 2018. We can’t do a lot, as we’re a very small enterprise, but we can offer space, resources and mentoring to develop a new critical voice. And we mean “critical” in all its senses: arts criticism remains very white, and this means that crucial perspectives on race or colonialism often don’t get mentioned at all, or at best are marginalised. We’re delighted to have Carissa Lee, our inaugural First Nations Emerging Critic, on board as part of the team. As you can see, she’s deadly, and she’s already widening our perspectives.
As well a being a playwright and director, Rob is an academic. His passion is Australian theatre history, in which he recently completed his PhD, and he is burning with knowledge that he wants to share. Hence Rob’s Theatre History video series, and our desire to bring together public and academic commentary on performance.
We both believe that our cultural history should be available to everyone, in tandem with discussion of the latest work. Context is something that’s missing from so much discussion of Australian art, and we want to put it squarely centre stage to address the increasing lack of cultural memory that bedevils Australian performance.
There’ll be more context in our podcast series. We’re planning two podcasts each month: The Witness Podcast, which will discuss what’s happening right now, and The Witness Interview, an in-depth exploration with a significant performing arts practitioner, which will go live mid-month. Our first Witness interview will be with Patricia Cornelius, and goes live on March 15. And don’t miss our monthly discussions on 3RRR’s SmartArts with Richard Watts.
Dancehouse is one of our Stage Partners, and we’ll be launching with a critical program around the Keir Choreographic Awards. This includes reviewing all the shortlisted works, and an Extended Live Night, How To Like Dance with Witness.
And you’re all invited to our launch, when we’ll be announcing our inaugural Witness First Nations Emerging Critic. It’s at La Mama on March 3, so save the date to come and lift a glass with us to celebrate getting this far.
You, the performing arts community – audiences, artists, arts workers, critics – are central to Witness. We want to give you all a place to converse that perhaps is more hospitable and expansive than the wilds of Facebook or Twitter. We have developed a social aspect to this website, so you can join the Witness community, participate in debate and collective projects on our members-only forums and (if you’re in Melbourne) come to the theatre with Witness with our Live Nights program.
Witness Live Nights are about having conversations in meatspace, like the breathing, warm-blooded human beings we are. They’re currently limited to Melbourne, because that’s where we live, and interstate and international conversations will obviously have to occur online, but we’re very excited about our Live Night program, which will be run in conjunction with our Stage Partners.
We had a trial run at the Malthouse Theatre in November (thank you, Malthouse), which was a huge success. With our Witness team – me, Rob, Jess Gonsalvez and Bryan Andy – around 30 people went to see Pamela Rabe in The Testament of Mary. We all ended up yakking about the show for an hour and a half. As someone said on the night, it was like book club for theatre, and it was great fun (you can see most of us above, although a few had left by that stage in the evening). Most of all, it was validating. People do want to talk about performances they’ve seen. All sorts of people.
Join us on our awfully big adventure and help to make quality criticism sustainable by signing up to become part of the Witness community. You can support us and gain access to all the Witness features for a mere $10 a month.