The last panel we were there for on Sunday afternoon was All The World’s A Stage: Australia’s Contribution, with Jack Hibberd (playwright), Hillary Bell (playwright), Morris Gleitzman (novelist) and Michael Gow (playwright, director, and Artistic Director of Queensland Theatre Company).
The main theme was the state of the Australian theatre industry, and where playwrights fit in the system. Hibberd discussed the DIY aspect of theatre; with a play, you can write a script, find some actors and get them interested, and hopefully rope in a sympathetic director. He admitted it wasn’t as easy as ‘presto, here’s a play’, but fringe was possible. He also commented that in London, major theatre companies actively scour the fringe scene for new works, whereas that doesn’t happen so much in Australia. Gow disagreed, claiming his staff source new work for Queensland Theatre Company all the time, as it revitalises the company while supporting new writers. During the discussion of the term ‘Australian theatre’, Gow also suggested that due to the far-flung nature of our population, it might be more relevant to discuss Sydney theatre, Melbourne theatre, Brisbane theatre, even Bendigo or Alice Springs theatre.
Morris Gleitzman went on to say theatre is economically closer to book publishing than film; it’s not as crucial to look for international audiences for a play, as it is for film. Gow added that films are so laden with debt by the time they’re released that they have to try for an international audience. Plays also don’t have the same number of people with an economic stake in the work, so it doesn’t get re-written as much as most films do. Bell continued this, adding that conservatism comes with committee; a poet can be in a room by themself and write anything they want, whereas a film is practically public property. She considers a play to be somewhere in the middle, as there are still actors and orchestra to pay, but it can still be edgy, still be the writer’s work.
As a sidenote to the film discussion, Gow added that auteur theory, where the director is the driving force behind a film’s style and reception, isn’t working in Australia because writer’s aren’t close enough to the centre of production. We need to learn to write good films before we worry about who’s directing them.
The inevitable question about how to get more people to go to the theatre came up, and all panelists agreed that the only way was to make it as cheap as going to the movies. If people could go to see Shakespeare for $15, more of them would. There was also some discussion of that other key issue, of the way theatre and all the arts are forced to justify themselves in commercial terms, to try and put a dollar value on their worth to society. When someone mentioned theatre and football in the same sentence, commenting that they were both part of our cultural framework, it did occur to me to wonder what the commercial gain of sport was, and what the dollar value of football’s contribution to society was. Anyway…
A main theme during the last part of the panel was that it would be great if we could take the piety out of theatre, and rub off some of its perceived elitism. Getting the kids into it would be a great start, and all panelists agreed that people shouldn’t be afraid to go see a play. It’s not just for swanky, arty people, and you don’t need cultural permission. Gow did finish with a great story about the production of Oedipus Rex, with Marcus Graham as Oedipus. Apparently, he was in the audience while a school group was there, and was sitting next to a girl who was texting a friend. He peeked at the phone, expecting her to be planning their post-theatre activities, but was surprised to find her texting "Oedipus is totally hot". He was encouraged by the fact that they were engaging with the play, discussing it in much the same way as early audiences would have chatted at the Globe. Later on in the play, when Oedipus’ true relationship to Jocasta was revealed, he caught her texting again: "This is totally gross, but if he was my son, I’d do him."