At the launch of Witness at La Mama Theatre last weekend, co-founder and editor Robert Reid made a speech. He called it a rant. But really it’s a kind of poem.
I worry we’re going around in circles.
I worry those circles are shrinking.
European Australian performance has a history of more than two hundred years. Prior to colonisation, there are traditions stretching back for millennia.
I worry that a lot of us think Australian theatre sprang fully formed from the heads of Tyrone Guthrie, John Sumner, Robert Quentin and Hugh Hunt (wealthy, cultured Englishmen all).
I worry that a lot more of us don’t even know who they were.
What do people think happened here before The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll?
There are vague notions of an ancient monolith known as J C Williamsons that was somehow the antithesis of all that is good and alternative and cultural. A kind of popular entertainment WalMart, crushing the Australian artistic impulse beneath it.
And before that there were convicts right? And some of them staged The Recruiting Officer to celebrate the King’s Birthday for an audience who paid for their seats with flour and rum.
I worry about statements like, “There was no theatre in Australia before the 1950s”. “Australians weren’t used to hearing an Australian accent on stage” and “Australians don’t get theatre”.
I worry that they reinforce the idea of Australia as a cultural wasteland. I worry that this implicit imperialism, this colonial servility, is a sad kind of cultural Stockholm syndrome.
I worry that this was a way of centralising intellectual and cultural authority in the hands of a privileged few. I worry that this has not changed and, in the intervening years, has only got worse.
I worry that in these ideas, these imaginings of who we are, you can still hear the clank of chains.
I worry that we think film and television killed mainstream theatre. That they can do spectacle and realism better than us so the general audience would rather stay home or go to the cinema.
I worry that people call cinemas, theatres.
I worry that we feel like going to the theatre makes us who go somehow special, different, better. I worry that these feelings are the creeping foundations of middle class white privilege.
I worry that the Australia Council statistics say thirty percent of Australians attended or participated in theatre or dance in the past five years.
I worry that we think that’s good enough.
I worry, the most I worry, is for the other seventy per cent.
Oh sure, they go to music or libraries or galleries. But I worry that we have abandoned them to the TV, the cinema and their advertisers to feed them their stories about who they are.
I worry that we hush each other and demand silent, reverential awe for the magic taking place on stage – in that unattainable space where only the beautiful and the lucky are allowed.
I worry that we creep around these places like palaces or tombs. Attending to the solemn duty of demonstrating our culture by performing “going to the theatre”.
I worry that we’ve forgotten that theatre and dance are live and social experiences. That these are not passive “sit in the dark and pretend you’re not there” experiences. That live performance is a vital process in the functioning of the system we think of as society. That it confronts us with our fears, our prejudices, our triumphs, our better natures, our humanity, each other.
It is – or was – a coming together to be part of a collective act of empathy. Not adjacent to one. And that requires more than just rapt attention and respectful silence.
Perhaps all this can be blamed, as with so much else, on Plato and Aristotle. But that old black magic, catharsis, can’t be achieved in silent repose. An audience needs to speak, to be able to process. To each other. Back to the performance.
If live performance isn’t a conversation between the stage, the pit and the stalls, then it might as well be cinema. Maybe we should blame Ibsen and Chekhov for the fourth wall.
There is a deep need in our community for a space to respond socially to performance. I believe, I have long believed, that the performance community needs a place where it can gather, talk, reflect, challenge and grow. A place to deconstruct the complex experiences offered by the artists amongst us.
A place to learn what happened here before yesterday. And, in the light of that, to make sense of today.
Until recently much of this activity took place in the arts sections of our newspapers, but now reviews have shrunk. They’re no longer useful for anything more than marketing.
I worry that we have forgotten that this work on paper served as a bridge between art and its audience.
I worry that these often maligned, often deserving critics did most of the heavy lifting for us, allowing us to sit back in the not-really-very-comfortable seats in the dark and wonder about what we’ll have for dinner after the show.
I believe that criticism, the active process of interrogating a work, an experience, a moment, is not and should never have been the sole purview of an enlightened few. It’s the job of all of us.
It’s a very 19th century idea to think that only a few among many are so special as to have the authority to speak for all. That idea has long since come to the end of its usefulness.
If we can’t speak about the art we’re making and seeing, what’s the point of the art at all?
The place for that process doesn’t need to be on paper. It can be carried out just as well online. And, of course, it’s best in person.
Making sense of art is not a secondary process.
The whole of the community – artists, critics and audiences – makes sense of art as it happens.
We make sense together.