The present crisis in Australian theatre offers a unique opportunity. Robert Reid explains why we musn’t blow it
This is a crucial moment for Australian theatre, a moment when it is vital that we don’t retreat into the way things were or try desperately to keep them as they are. There has never been a more important time to be good at what we do. This is our moment of crisatunity. It’s important that we don’t blow it.
Since the wave of funding cuts caused the collapse of the community theatre movement in the late 1980s through to the Brandis raid of 2015, Australian theatre has been incrementally pushed away from its audiences year after year. In the Coalition policy statements of 1988, Shadow Minister for the Arts Chris Puplick baldly described their policy towards the arts:
It is time to reassert the proper responsibility which any Minister in the Westminster system of government should accept for the development and administration of public policy. The so-called arms length principle has become an excuse for Ministers to ignore and avoid their responsibilities for defining and promoting a proper national arts policy. In the next Coalition government the Minister will accept and discharge this direct responsibility. The Australia Council will be abolished and its functions transferred to the relevant Department responsible for the Arts, thus bringing Commonwealth policy into line with that adopted in each of the States.
Within the Department there will be a separate Major Organisations Unit to advise the Minister (in conjunction with the Department of Finance) on the appropriate level of direct funding for the major performing arts bodies and the major national cultural institutions. These will be expanded to include not only the major companies such as The Australian Opera, The Australian Ballet and the various State Theatre Companies but also the major arts education institutions, in particular the National Institute of Dramatic Art, the Australian Ballet School and the Film, Television and Radio School. These organisations will be funded directly by the Commonwealth and will be guaranteed funding on a triennial basis, subject to their continuing to meet standards of excellence. *1
This fundamental desire to bring the arts under control, subject to the direct authority of an arts minister, has motivated a sustained, ideologically driven attack over 30 years. As a result we have, in Victoria alone, gone from 10 mid-range companies and dedicated theatres spread through the suburbs in the 1980s to (arguably) four venues and one mid-range company with its own theatre, all centralised in and around the CBD. A prolonged campaign against the arts by successive governments on both sides of the political divide has left most artists desperately attempting to make enough money in any field they can find simply to sustain their practice, while a handful of the very lucky are paid to make art for only a few. This attitude has left an estimated 190,000 Australian artists and related workers without any income support during a global pandemic.2
But this is also a moment in which the performing arts community has a compelling reason to explore new methods of reaching beyond our subscribers (or family and friends) towards audiences that have too long been ignored. The technology to broadcast our work has been at hand for more than a decade now. The internet has given us YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and podcasts as mechanisms to reach people who would not normally be able to travel to the city where the theatres are, or to pay the price of admission or the ancillary costs of seeing shows, or are left out of the discussion entirely because of language or cultural differences.
The community theatre companies of the ’80s had the right idea. Theatre then was an intensely local affair. WEST and the MRPG and Theatreworks (in its beginning) took their work out to audiences who were not accustomed to going to the theatre in the city. They made work that was about the lives of those audiences. They made work with those audiences. The audience, the community, was at the centre of their artistic practice, not on the periphery. Those audiences were more than just wallets in seats.
These companies had to physically go out to these audiences. There was no internet for The Mill Theatre in Geelong, there was no YouTube for Melbourne Workers Theatre, no Spotify for Sidetrack in Sydney. The artists acted with generosity, sacrificing the glamour of the mainstage to make theatre that reached those who needed it. These were theatres that took the stage out to their audiences as a place of negotiation and debate, a forum where artists could do the work of reflecting and provoking the community to engage in ongoing self-examination.
With all the theatres shut down and companies struggling to survive Covid-19, now is the moment in which we might – more, we can and must – finally turn our focus towards access over spurious notions of “excellence”. If we continue business as usual, making work that caters to a fraction of our potential audiences, we risk becoming the irrelevant indulgence for a privileged few that conservative reactionary media and politics paints us as. If we haven’t become that already.
Katharine Brisbane said in The Australian in 2011 that “we didn’t bring the audience with us and we laid down rules of engagement in the minds of the Australia Council and the public that drew a line between the informal theatre groups in their makeshift playing spaces and those privileged to play in the rising halls of culture.”3 This is a moment where we can at long last go to those audiences and bring them with us.
That’s why it’s so important not to do this poorly.
In 2018 the total number of paid attendance at the biggest, oldest and most well-funded mainstage company in the state was 250,114 (not distinguishing between return customers and new). Out of a population in Melbourne alone at the time of 4.6 million, that’s roughly 5 per cent of potential audience members. Of course, its naïve to think that one company, or the industry as a whole, should be able to reach 100 per cent of the population, but is it really acceptable for the company with the widest reach in the city to only be reaching almost five per cent?
When so many of us are stuck at home, when so many of us are relying on streaming services and podcasts and video conferencing software to communicate, to escape, to educate, now is the time for theatre to reach out, using the media that it has largely ignored, or at best flirted with as a form of advertising, to remind the rest of the 95 per cent that theatre can be for them, too.
Of course, there will be missteps along the way, especially at the beginning. It’s frustrating that these missteps could have been made at a time when it was less urgent, if only the mainstage companies had invested in new technology over the past 10 years. And it’s disappointing that for some in the industry these seem like scary uncharted waters, despite the years of pre-existing material freely available online that has already made these first faltering steps, despite decades of innovation in broadcast media like live television and radio drama. No matter how uncomfortable and difficult it might be to call out these missteps at a time when we’d all prefer to encourage any timid steps into the future, it’s important for there to be informed, detailed and honest criticism of these first few steps.
Theatre creates a feedback loop between the artists and the audience. The critic is part of that audience and criticism can be a crucial aspect of how artists grow their work. No good comes from tossing another rephrased press release onto the bonfire. No good comes from patronising the artists or softening our criticism. To do so would not only undermine the efforts of those artists and risk these missteps being repeated and entrenched, but – far more importantly – it betrays the trust between critic and audience. In my experience an audience knows when it is being sold a bill of goods. A cosy relationship between companies and critics, no matter how parlous the circumstances, only further reinforces the idea that theatre is only for a select few.
That’s why its important that we don’t shrink from this moment. This might be the last chance for a long time to reach those audience that we seem to have abandoned.
So, in the interest of demonstrating what is possible, here are a few companies that have been doing a good job exploring the potential of social media for live theatre:
In Brisbane’s 2011 article, she wrote that the “problem is even more crucial today because our demographics have changed so radically. We have always been a population of immigrants but from the ’70s the number and nationalities have multiplied. Many of these groups have settled in rural areas and are transforming local communities. But our metropolitan theatre reflects too little of this.” 4
Australia really, really needs theatre right now. As conspiracy theories and disinformation spread, as millions lose their meagre part-time jobs, as governments and mainstream media continue to downplay climate change and right wing extremism, Australia – all of Australia – needs to hear alternative voices. Providing those voices is one of theatre’s most important jobs.
These are not new arguments. I’ve made this case over and over, in essays over the years: in 2011, in my Platform Paper Hello World; in 2017 for Witness; as part of an earlier essay series for Australian Plays, and most recently as part of the disccusion around Bleed Online.
I want theatre to go online. I want theatre online to be good. I want theatre to reach people who might only be able to access it online. I know it can do these things.
However, if our most prominent companies refuse to change, not only will theatre lose what little relevance and social power it has left: it will deserve everything that’s coming to it.
We can do better.
We must do better.
All of us.
1 The Excitement of the Arts, The Liberal and National Parties Vision for the Arts and Culture in Australia, 1988, pp. 12 13, as quoted by Gardiner-Garden, op. cit., p. 36. Link accessed 26/08/2020
2 Arts industry calls for emergency support package, The Guardian. Link accessed on 26/08/2020
3 Audience Left Behind in the Dark, Katharine Brisbane, November 28, 2011 | Australian, The Weekend Australian, The Australian Magazine, | Page: 015 | Section: Features