Playwriting: celebrating the art against the odds

Ben Brooker: 2016 National Play Festival

Participants in the Lotus Asian-Australian Playwriting Project, First Draft Intensive, 2016, Sydney

Participants in the Lotus Asian-Australian Playwriting Project, First Draft Intensive, 2016, Sydney

Look one way, and new Australian playwriting seems to be in a parlous state, underrepresented by the major performing arts companies and, through its closeness to the small to medium sector, at the coalface of swingeing cuts to the budget of the Australia Council. Look the other, and it’s possible to detect distinct signs of life, especially in the flourishing of work by writers from Indigenous and culturally diverse backgrounds, and a new formal adventurousness responding to the advance of live art.

Both of these views were covered during my conversation with Tim Roseman, Artistic Director of Playwriting Australia, ahead of the 9th annual National Play Festival, a series of play readings, artist talks, workshops and industry forums showcasing works from PWA’s various development programs. This year the festival is returning to Melbourne—“the source of so many of our great stories, and home to over one-third of all Australia’s playwrights,” according to Roseman—following its first time in Adelaide in 2015 (”Creativity, generosity and taking the pledge”).

Alongside the main program of six plays, there will be two regional showcases—highlighting work by Asian-Australian and New Zealand-based playwrights respectively—two panel discussions featuring impressive line-ups of speakers that include John Romeril, Hannie Rayson, Joanna Murray-Smith, Tom Holloway, Van Badham, Jane Montgomery Griffiths and Angus Cerini, various workshops and masterclasses and a keynote address by Michael Gow titled “The Agony and the Agony: A Totally Impractical Guide to Playwriting.”

Participants in Indigenous Playwrights Bundanon Retreat, 2015

Participants in Indigenous Playwrights Bundanon Retreat, 2015

In conjunction with the Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance’s Equity Diversity Committee, the Adelaide event saw the launch of a Diversity Pledge, intended to be incorporated by writers in their play scripts to discourage producers from what Roseman calls “presumptive Anglo casting.” I ask Roseman what his sense is of how the pledge has landed within the wider theatre community in the 12 months since its launch. “I would say,” he replies, “that it has been strongly embraced by the writing community and that since its inclusion in all of our application processes, around 70% of play scripts we’re seeing at PWA are engaging with it in some way.” Of the works showcased in last year’s festival, five, according to Roseman, “have had some kind of further life”—Phillip Kavanagh’s Deluge, Elena Carapetis’ Gorgon, Michele Lee’s Rice and Lachlan Philpott’s Lake Disappointment among them—but Roseman stresses the festival is not a marketplace but “a smorgasbord—I never want it to feel like if these plays aren’t produced then they have failed.”

I remind Roseman that in Adelaide a showcase of local emerging writers was a feature—and, indeed, for many, a highpoint—of the program but hasn’t been retained this year, replaced by region-specific programs Aotearoa Now and Lotus. Roseman explains: “We always at the Play Festival have some kind of showcase of emerging artists. Last year in Adelaide it was local playwrights because we didn’t think there were many opportunities for Adelaide-based writers to reach out and connect with the national playwriting scene. If you’re in Melbourne, chances are you’ve already got that access. So we wanted to use the opportunity to, again, introduce the industry to artists that they may not be familiar with yet. For the last two years we’ve been running the Lotus Asian-Australian playwriting program in Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales. We’ve chosen four of that program’s writers—Katrina Graham, Natesha Somasundaram, Ngoc Pham and Shari Indriani—to each exhibit a 15-minute section of first drafts of plays they have been working on at quite a high level of artistic development with leading playwrights from across the country.”

Roseman sees both showcases as redressing significant holes in Australia’s theatrical landscape—“We’re far more conversant,” he opines, “with new work from America and the UK, and even Canada frankly, than from New Zealand”—but it’s the paucity of Asian-Australian playwriting that is of palpable concern. “Lotus,” says Roseman, “evolved out of a tragic absence of new Asian-Australian plays on the stage. When we started the program, we looked at the tens of thousands of published Australian plays from the history of theatrical production in this country and could find less than five play texts that were published by Asian-Australian playwrights. So there’s a massive problem that our stages don’t reflect the culture of our population and this is our first step in putting together a cohort of talented, hungry playwrights who can address that.”

Melodie Reynolds-Diarra

Melodie Reynolds-Diarra

As for the main program, featuring works by Melissa Reeves, Steve Rodgers, Emily Sheehan, Olivia Satchell and Chris Summers, it’s Skylab by actor Melodie Reynolds-Diarra (a Wangkathaa woman from Western Australia) that I nominate, from what I’m told of it, when Roseman throws back to me my question as to which of the plays he is most excited about. The play uses the 1979 crash-landing of the US space laboratory Skylab off the southern coast of Western Australia as a jumping-off point for an absurdist yarn about, in Roseman’s words, “how our Indigenous communities function outside of the main conversations that we tend to colour them with.” What is it about Indigenous sci-fi at the moment, a seemingly unlikely genre reflected in, for example, ABC TV’s Cleverman and Warwick Thornton’s video work The Way of the Ngangkari in the Tarnanthi exhibition at the Art Gallery of South Australia in 2015?

I wonder aloud what next year’s festival, the 10th, will bring. A special celebration? A retrospective of past achievements? Then Roseman tells me there isn’t going to be one; the cuts to the Australia Council have seen to that. “We’ve lost around $150,000 a year from our Australia Council grants,” he says. “So we’re down exactly what it costs us to put on the Play Festival each year. What we’ve decided to do is change the Play Festival to a biennial event so it will return in 2018.” This is further evidence—as though any were needed—of the Turnbull Government’s shortsighted and irresponsible approach to arts funding but Roseman, despite conceding the “disabling” nature of the loss of funds, is characteristically chipper: “We’ll be in a position where the same number of plays will be coming out of our programs—in fact, a couple more plays a year I think—but it does mean a refocus for us and it means working out how we sustain our long-term mission to change the shape of the Australian stage when there are fewer opportunities for work that isn’t already connected to a producing framework.” It’s a question that will be on many minds when the Play Festival opens in Melbourne.

Playwriting Australia: The National Play Festival, Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, 27-30 July

RealTime issue #133 June-July 2016

© Ben Brooker; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

29 June 2016