Are playwrights really a threatened species?
This article was first published on ABC Arts Online, 2013, and has vanished from the interwebs with the rest of the ABC Arts Online archive. Obviously, with the massive cuts to arts funding since the election of the Abbott Government, the situation in 2016 has changed drastically since 2013. But, as David Williamson referenced it in a speech published today, it seems worth having this particular essay readily available. So you can read what my actual argument was.
In the past couple of months, there has been something of a perfect storm in Australian theatre. According to a series of inflammatory articles published in The Australian, playwrights are a threatened species, being “swept off the stage” by a new generation of directors who would rather stage adaptations of classic works than grapple with the difficulties of new work.
The poster boy for adaptations is wunderkind director Simon Stone, until recently associate director at Belvoir St Theatre, whose latest work, a take on Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, is now in rehearsal at the Melbourne Theatre Company. Stone, who has provocatively said that he steals from and corrupts classic plays in order to create theatre that speaks to a contemporary audience, exemplifies the so-called “auteur director”.
As Rosemary Neill claimed in The Australian, Stone’s work “is part of a wider dramatic shift in the Australian theatre toward adaptations — a trend that is alarming and alienating some of the country’s most accomplished dramatists. These playwrights feel dramatists, along with original Australian plays, are being marginalised, while adaptations of pared down, sexed-up classics — often devised by auteur directors — proliferate and are marketed as cutting edge.”
This is a debate marked by polarised and often vitriolic language. In one article, Neill accuses Malthouse Theatre of a “deep-dyed ideological bias against text-based plays”, and the Australia Council of a “dereliction of duty” in permitting companies to self-assess adaptations as new Australian work. Playwrights talk of being in “despair”. Director Aubrey Mellor said in a letter to The Australian that the “the saddest aspect of reworking the classics is that living writers are starving (or forced to write part-time) whilst the dead ones are abused.”
Others, like Belvoir artistic director Ralph Myers, stepped in to defend Stone, arguing that adaptation is a standard theatrical practice that can be traced back to the ancient Greeks.
The debate intensified when playwright Lachlan Philpott’s dispute with the Perth Theatre Company over their production of his play Alienation hit the headlines this month. Philpott objected to the direction of his play, and in particular the excision of 30 per cent of his text, allegedly without his permission. The dispute is now in the hands of lawyers, but before he stopped making public statements Philpott told ArtsHub that this conflict was “a sad indication of the way that playwrights are viewed in some parts of the theatre sector. There seems to be an unfortunate sense of lack of confidence in writers’ words…”
Philpott is Chair of the Australian Writers’ Guild Playwriting Committee, which has issued press releases calling for “respect for writers and new Australian work”. Playwright Stephen Sewell, Head of Writing for Performance at NIDA, goes further, taking issue with what he called the “public slagging” of playwrights. He called for the resignation of Australia Council bureaucrats who allow theatre companies to claim that adaptations count as new Australian work. “It’s bizarre, absurd and a terrible, terrible blow to writers who are committed to reflecting on what Australia is. It’s just outrageous and personally I think they should all resign.”
The strangest aspect of this whole debate is that, for all the sound and fury, nobody bothered to check if these claims are true. Is it correct that new Australian plays are being “swept off the stage” by cheap and easy adaptations of classics written by auteur directors?
I did check the facts, and I can categorically tell you that these accusations are completely untrue.
The real story is much more interesting.
Adelaide critic Jane Howard and I logged the 2013 seasons of all the Australian Major Performing Arts Group (AMPAG) theatre companies, which represent the main stages of Australia. These companies are the Melbourne Theatre Company, Sydney Theatre Company, Queensland Theatre Company, Black Swan Theatre Company, the State Theatre Company of South Australia, Malthouse Theatre, Belvoir St Theatre and Bell Shakespeare. For the sake of this argument, we used a hardline definition of adaptation, labelling as adaptation many works, such as Andrew Bovell’s lauded version of Kate Grenville’s novel The Secret River, which might more properly be considered new plays.
Of a total of 93 productions mounted in 2013, we found that a healthy 54 were new Australian works — that is, almost 60 per cent. Two further productions were of Australian classics. International work (classics, adaptations and new plays) totalled 37 productions. Of the new Australian works, 25 were new plays, 19 were new adaptations of prior work and 13 were collaboratively devised. (The figures don’t add up because there is some cross-over in the categories). Six are collaborations between two writers, five of them a writer/director team. AMPAG companies produced work by a total of 34 Australian playwrights in 2013.
Contrary to popular perception, new plays are still the most popular means of producing new Australian theatre. Of the 19 adaptations, 13 — or 68 per cent — are actually written by career playwrights, with Tom Holloway leading the charge with two different works. (To avoid controversy we didn’t, perhaps a little unfairly, count Simon Stone as a playwright.) This gives the lie to Mellor’s claim that playwrights are starving because of the flood of adaptations: it might be truer to say that some playwrights are supplementing their living through adapting prior works. The number of adaptations of classic plays by auteur directors — both by Simon Stone — stands at precisely two, or all of 2.15 per cent.
I then looked at the seasons of the same companies in 2003, applying the same criteria. What emerges is a fascinating snapshot of how Australian main stage culture has changed in the past decade.
Two things are immediately striking. The first is that we are making more theatre, with the number of productions growing from 68 in 2003 to 93 this year, an increase of 36 per cent. The second is that the number of original Australian plays on main stages hasn’t changed at all.
In 2003, AMPAG companies produced 25 new Australian plays, by a total of 31 playwrights. (Interestingly, 10 of these writer credits are collaborations between three or four people — perhaps a foreshadowing of what we now call devised work. If we count these projects as devised works, it brings down the number of playwrights to 21, and the number of new plays down to 22.) Two further productions were adaptations by playwrights and another four were productions of Australian classics. The number of international plays is 37, exactly the same as in 2013.
Let me repeat: in 2013, our main stages produced no fewer new Australian plays than they did in 2003. But these bald stats nevertheless reveal a massive change in theatrical practice. The growth in AMPAG productions is driven by new Australian work: that extra 36 per cent consists of a completely new category, devised theatre, as well as adaptations of novels, films or plays by Australian artists.
It isn’t, as the headlines claim, that Australian playwrights are being driven off the stage by adaptations. What has actually happened is that adaptations and other kinds of collaboration have built an entirely new stage.
For writers, the picture is complex but encouraging. The number of new Australian plays might be unchanged, but as a percentage it has decreased as the number of productions has grown, from 37 per cent to 27 per cent. However, if we count all work authored by playwrights, including adaptations, the proportion of local playwrights on our main stages remains pretty stable over the past decade: 40 per cent in 2003, 41 per cent in 2013. If we discount the 2003 works that could be considered devised, the number of playwrights being produced has actually increased from 21 to 34, a growth of 62 per cent.
One might reasonably expect the AMPAG companies to reflect the most conservative figures for new and riskier work. Out of interest, I took a sampling of the 2013 programs of four independent venues which stage curated seasons: La Boite (Brisbane), Griffin Theatre (Sydney), Theatre Works (Melbourne), Bakehouse Theatre (Adelaide) and Perth Theatre Company. This is far from definitive, but for the record these indie venues produced, as I expected, a higher percentage of new Australian plays — 41 per cent of the work staged, out of 65 per cent total new Australian work, compared to 27 per cent in the AMPAG companies.
These figures are merely raw cross-sections, but they are revealing. It seems to me that reports of the death of original Australian plays are greatly exaggerated.
Rather, the main stages have transformed to reflect wide-ranging changes in Australian theatrical culture. Instead of being the only form of new Australian theatre, as was the case on our main stages in 2003, plays are now just one way of making it new.
For all the misleading claims, the sense of grievance among some Australian playwrights seems to be quite real. The subtexts of these debates are deeply complex. Some return to the endlessly recurring debate about “Australian stories”: a nationalistic vision that, as Stephen Sewell puts it, sees “a genuine Australian theatre examining, challenging and redefining the Australian character and way of life”.
Radio National host Michael Cathcart recently described Australian plays as an “Australian story told by an Australian playwright with Australian actors, of course, directed by an Australian, I suppose”. This narrow definition — familiar from the regular spats that erupt around the Miles Franklin Literary Award — assumes that the vision of people such as Simon Stone isn’t, in fact, “Australian”, which is highly arguable.
Even more problematically, it posits a “real” Australia that throughout our theatre history has often presented itself in quasi-naturalistic plays mostly written by men and mostly concerned with the white middle class. As La Boite Theatre Company director David Berthold points out, it’s an argument that goes back to the objections against the “internationalist” plays that Sewell and Louis Nowra were writing in the ’70s, when they were accused of not contributing to Australian culture.
Some of the debate suggests a nostalgia for the authority of the writer, which has seemingly been lost in the brave new world of collaborative production. Playwrights such as Edward Albee speak of the playwright’s “vision”, which the collaboration of theatre is expected to serve minutely. I suspect that the very form of this argument is misleading: in theatre, the “vision” is inevitably collective. In successful collaborations, these different visions — the writer, director, designers and performers — each serve each other. Lachlan Philpott’s dispute with Perth Theatre Company, for instance, is a collaboration gone catastrophically awry; whether this is truly representative of Australian theatre as a whole is questionable.
Nevertheless, is the present furore, as Berthold recently suggested, actually a symptom of a deeper problem?
“I think there has been an diminishing respect for playwrights in recent years,” says Berthold. “Lately, I’ve heard far too many alarming stories from level-headed playwrights to think differently. Some stories have been shocking. I think some of our theatres have lost the intellectual and cultural capacity to best nurture plays and playwrights into full dramatic life.”
This is a question that can’t be addressed by crunching numbers, but it chimes with something I have thought for years about Australian theatre. Despite the rise of striking new talents such as Lally Katz or Declan Greene — nurtured, notably, through long-term collaborations with small independent companies — writing has often seemed to me the weakest aspect of our theatre culture. I think there are many reasons for this, some of them obvious and some much less easy to trace.
One context that must be taken into account is the high rate of attrition for anyone who works in the theatre. As is well known, at any given time 90 per cent of actors are unemployed. In the theatre, it is only the lucky few who make it to the stage at all, whether they are directors, performers, designers or writers.
I happen to be married to an Australian playwright, Daniel Keene, so I asked him what he thought. Keene is one of the lucky ones: he has been widely produced in Australia and especially in Europe, where he has had more than 80 productions on main stages in the past decade. He says he understands why some writers are angry, although he doesn’t share that anger himself.
“Let’s face it, it’s hard being a playwright,” he says. “There are only so many stages, and only so many plays can be done every year. In order for your plays to be done, you depend on other people to realise them. And sometimes collaborations fail, as they must be allowed to do: but it doesn’t make things any easier.”
Several people I spoke to noted that writers aren’t nurtured by theatre companies in the same way that directors are. Benedict Andrews, for instance, was nursed by the STC through some notorious popular failures in his early career, which led to his present international success. If a playwright has a similar public failure with his or her early work, it is likely his or her next play won’t be produced. Australian theatre companies are full of residencies of various kinds for emerging directors, but, unlike Britain, similar programs for writers are much rarer. In response to this need, La Boite and Griffin have established new year-long residencies for playwrights.
Chris Mead, formerly head of Playwriting Australia and now the literary director for the MTC, says playwrights can find it difficult to find their place in theatre. He ran a number of company residencies for both new and established playwrights while he was at Playwriting Australia and said these were crucial. “Rather than a commissioning structure, it says, hey, you’re an artist, come and work with the company and be part of the conversation.”
Like Berthold, Mead agrees that dramaturgical skills in Australian companies are still minimal. “It’s an industry-wide problem,” he says. “What is the conversation around a new play?” As the MTC’s literary director, he sees himself as an advocate for playwrights. “We have to take playwrights seriously in an institutional sense. They have to be allowed to get it wrong.”
Many people look to Europe, in particular Germany, for their sophisticated systems of dramaturgy. In 2008, I spoke to German playwright Marius Von Mayenburg, who is a dramaturg for the Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz in Berlin. He said that it was the “ideal job” for a playwright. “I react to the traditions we are working with in the theatre, I react to the actors. And in my work, I am reading all the time. I’m always looking for what’s ‘missing’, for what isn’t being addressed in the plays around me, and then I try to write those plays myself.”
Such jobs are far and few between in Australia, but playwrights nevertheless hold some prominent institutional positions. Andrew Upton is artistic director of the STC, for instance, while playwright Van Badham is associate artist (writer) at Malthouse Theatre, where she effectively holds the same job as Mead. Other main stage companies list literary managers and advisors among their staff, although few are playwrights themselves.
It’s clear that some things can definitely be improved for writers in our theatre, but neither is the situation as dire as it is commonly painted. And there are encouraging signs that some institutions are aware of problems and are beginning to address them. Perhaps much of the vitriol simply goes back to Keene’s observation. It’s hard being a playwright.