Griffin Podcast: State of Play


Why do we need theatre in Australia? Angela Catterns interviews a panel of theatre professionals—including Fred Copperwaite, Lee Lewis, Chris Mead and Alana Valentine—about the state of Australian theatre, now.

Produced by Angela Catterns
Music by Charlie Chan
Sound by Tony David Cray

State of Play Transcription

Angela Catterns: What’s the state of theatre in Australia? Why do we need theatre in Australia? What’s the good of it? And in a world of KPI’s, performance reviews and justifying every dollar spent, who should foot the bill? I’m Angela Catterns and right now these big issues are being debated between four experienced theatre professionals.

So how would you describe the state of Australian theatre—Lee Lewis, Artistic Director at Griffin Theatre Company?

Lee Lewis: Well I think the writing is amazing, the actors are incredible, directors are exploring things that we’re not seeing on stages overseas. But the funding is abysmal.

Angela: Fred Copperwaite—actor, director and co-founder of Moogahlin, the Aboriginal theatre company.

Fred Copperwaite: Yeah I agree with that, I think the funding is abysmal. Particularly since last year when all those—a lot of the smaller-to-medium companies were cut. And that’s the grassroots level for the bigger companies, and that kind of thing; that was abysmal and that was outrageous, because that’s where a lot of new artists come from and you draw from that, and if you don’t have that, then there’s no trickle effect up or sideways.

Angela: But Fred, didn’t you say earlier that your funding was ok at Moogahlin?

Fred: Our funding was ok, yeah, we did very well. We actually scored big-time. But, at the same time, this is our tenth year and before, last year, we’d been working project to project and none of us were paid for nine years so…This is a bonus but we’re not complacent because it allows us, for the very first time, to develop a program—a four-year program—which is fantastic and we’ve just done a project and, for the very first time, we had the money upfront. But, you know, within the climate, that money could go in four years. I think the thing is, in terms of longevity, you’re never really secure. 

Angela: Chris Mead—theatre Director at Griffin and Literary Director at Melbourne Theatre Company—do you feel secure?

Chris Mead: We’re secure to the extent that theatre has been one of the, you know, mainstays of human civilisation since the year dot. Since we put a hand against a wall and recorded the fact that we were there. I think that we kind of forget so often that performing with people is, a kind of, is what develops our brain and is a way that, as a species, we survive and communicate. And it’s non-zero sum game. You know? We’re thrilled by theatre. It doesn’t do anything necessarily…we want it to do things— 

Lee: Oh, it does do things!

Chris: No I’m not saying it doesn’t do things, what I’m saying is that it doesn’t have to do anything—it can be fun, it can be educative, it can be pedagogical, it can be just silly.

Lee: It is the thing that ensures that we have empathy as humans. It is our empathy machine. And I think, if you cut away the theatre, you cut away our way of speaking to people non-journalistically in ways that make us care.      

Angela: Alana Valentine—award-winning playwright and board member of the Australian Writers Guild.

Alana: I mean, I’ve been doing a lot of work regionally and it’s always really high stakes because they don’t get a lot of funding so, every time they produce a new Australian play, they want it to work. But their audiences are being taught about what that looks like, what a culture in the regions looks like. And I think it could be an interesting model for all of us to keep in mind—that you can grow audiences, as long as you bring them along with you.

Chris: I think that’s great. Actually, that’s a really good point—I’ve been working in Dubbo for the last eighteen months or so, with the community and just in town, and there’s an incredible energy up there.

Angela: Alana, do artists have to subsidise culture themselves in Australia?

Alana: Well yes, I mean, the truth is the Guild has just fought for a small increase in the writers’ commission fee—it’s taken us 4 years to do that. And when you look at the inflation and the cost of living—Sydney, for me, the second most expensive city in the world—you know, a small incremental increase, the Guild has fought for that. So, in fact, writers are in pretty much the same position they have been for thirty years, that’s kind of the hard facts of it. And it’s the Guild who fight for them to actually increase that.

Angela: So who should pay?

Chris: Well, it’s only really been since World War II that governments have become significantly involved in funding the Arts. And yet we treat it as if its become a commonplace thing, but actually it’s really only been a couple of generations. And it’s a genuinely fraught area if government gets involved—then there’s got to be a responsible spend of that money and it’s got to somehow balance the instrumental benefits of that spend as well as the intrinsic benefits. And, the company I spend most of my time working for, it’s less than 10% of subsidy that state and federal government can find and we rely mostly on ticket sales. I’m not saying that’s a great thing but, as a result of that fact, the company—MTC, where I work—believes very strongly in Australian work and about the legacy and value of that and so we’ve gone to a number of philanthropists and are going to be launching a very exciting new thing very soon. However we get the money, we have to get the money. Because imagine if you go to market with a new handbag or earphones or something—and it costs us $1.5 million to put on a show, and it’s often the case that we’ll spend $10,000 on the development of that show—now any business person would say that’s completely crazy, you would never go to market with that little research development spend. And yet we do it all the time and wonder why they don’t work! We have to invest not just in the play, it’s actually investing in the people. Because people make art and, you know, it’s not brain surgery, we have to spend time on the people. It’s a craft skill, working in the theatre—you’ve got to do it, and do it, and do it again – and invest in that audience just as much as your investing in the people that make art for that audience.

Angela: Is there a culture of philanthropy towards the Arts in Australia?

Lee: There’s a very beginning culture of philanthropy. I think we’re probably about 100 years off there being effective philanthropy.

Angela: That’s a long time…

Lee: When you look at the time…philanthropic model, sure, but that’s the project. Because gradually government funding is just going to diminish, within the next 20 years we’re going to see funding for the Arts disappear entirely.  So all of the companies are developing their relationships with philanthropists and developing a language that convinces individuals that, if they want a complex cultural life, they have to pony up for it. And then the question is, how do we make sure that the culture remains accessible to people that don’t necessarily have the money to be able to afford it.

Angela: Why do you say that in 20 years time government subsidies will end to the Arts?

Lee:  I think that there’s just a cycle of diminishing funding for the Arts and whether that comes in spectacular cuts, like what happened last year under Brandis, or whether its in the attrition, the slow erosion cutting that was the three years before. Three years before those cuts, Griffin had not received an increase that allowed us to keep up on a CPI level. So, that had essentially been a form of cutting that was quite invisible and absorbed by the company and, as Alana said, we just find ways to subsidise ourselves—everybody working in the Arts works way more hours than is ever stated on a contract, the props, they contribute consumables, everyone will bring in stuff from home, actors dress in their own clothes, “yeah, I’ve got a t-shirt for that”—that’s just a really invisible layer of subsidy that happens.

Chris: I blame the romantic poets for that. Certainly the idea that there are just people who can exist happily in a garret. You know, God reaches down and touches them on the shoulder and says, “You are the child prodigy or the boy-genius.” And often it’s that gendered. And yet of course when you reflect on who those people were, they were mostly rich men from rich families. And yet that’s not the way that art presents itself, and we have to be alive to that.

Angela: Is it the role of the government to support the arts and theatre in particular? 

Chris: Well I think the argument is a very strong one for government because it’s about accessibility. You know if we believe that culture is important, if we believe that civics are important, you know if we believe in the democratic project, then yeah absolutely.

Lee: I think government supporting accessibility is important and I think government supporting education is important, do I think that they should be supporting all of these companies to the extent even at your 10% Chris, no I don’t. I think we should be learning how to run the companies better and listening to the audiences and investing the money from the successes into the works that we want to put forward that might not make the same kind of money. I don’t think we’re thinking strongly enough commercially speaking, I think we’ve developed a dependence on subsidy, counteracting a truly commercial possibility for some work. I think were burning through a lot of plays and not necessarily exploiting the potential.

Chris: And a lot of playwrights and a lot of actors.

Lee: And a lot of playwrights you can have a really great play sit on the stage and then you move on to the next one as opposed to ‘what can we do with this?’ ‘Where can we take it?’ And it’s not that we don’t necessarily think about it but all of our resources are focussed on the next season and the next season and we’re not taking really great works to other places or not promoting them in other ways.

Chris: And I’ve certainly had, you know, very strong conversations, robust and dynamic conversations with artists who leave the country and just say it will never happen here. That because we have no West End or Broadway and because the middle tier is so, you know, tricky and in a perilous situation, they just go ‘forget it’ there’s no sense of growth here, that as Lee says, we churn through people as an appalling failure of ‘through put’ for want of a better phrase and we end up damaging our own industry.

Angela: On a hopeful note, I think that a lot of young playwrights, I mean I agree with what’s being said, I just want to say, for me, I’m getting this really exciting feeling from young playwrights about needing to invest in what’s going on in the world and for bringing their audiences along with that. And I think that one of the things that we can learn from them is just to kind of have confidence that that generation will start to go ‘you know what, we’ve had this time where things come to us, now we actually realise that we’ve got to fight for it, we’ve got to be vocal about it, we’ve got to say what we don’t like’ and I think that’s certainly a lesson your community has learnt in a great way Fred, you’ve got to just constantly draw a line and say beyond this I will not go.

Fred: Because we’re, as I said we’ve got this funding but our focus is getting private, philanthropic funding, we want to be independent of the Government and it’s given us a stay of time and it’s got us over a big hump where we can, for four years, where we can relax.

Lee: The theatre community is getting much better at working together. If the first 50 years were this competitive race to gather enough resource and infrastructure to not collapse when the funding disappears, now it’s actually about collaboration a lot more between companies.

Fred: And there’s a lot more companies now too, I think.

Chris: Yes and no.

Fred: There are a lot of more smaller, little groups that are around, I think.

Lee: A lot of super small, but not in the medium sector.

Fred: Not in the medium, yeah.

Lee: Not in the medium sector, that’s been cut away.

Fred: But maybe this is the conversation, I mean, how do they get to that next level and can they sustain themselves?

Lee: Yeah.

Chris: You know, it’s a terribly fractured community and it has been in the past

 Lee: I mean, seriously. Last year with the funding cuts, when everyone started to talk to each other for the first time, and tried to articulate one sentence that we all agreed on, we couldn’t do it. It was actually a learning exercise in how much we don’t talk to each other and how much we don’t agree. And if the artistic community can’t agree on what is important to us on a value level, then how can we possibly communicate to an audience of people who ostensibly are paying for us with their taxes? 

Alana: Probably needed a writer at that meeting Lee…

Lee: No, interestingly, we went to writers to actually generate the language for what we wanted to say, but it was interesting how hard it was to wrestle down to even one thing that we wanted to say.

Alana: Well, what is the core business of this thing? Like, what’s the core business of a broadcaster—it’s actually making radio. What’s the core business of a theatre company? It’s employing artists to make theatre. So, I’m not under any illusion about the realities of doing that in the twenty-first century but, at the same time, is there a balance? Has it bloated into something else that artists aren’t being made available to?

Chris: Well this is true to the extent that, what is useful for an institution—stability and certainty. And that’s what an institution requires to continue, and yet, what artists bring is often the opposite of that. So it’s uncertainty and chaos. And trying to find a balance between those two things is tricky.

Angela: Under what conditions, do you think, the arts and theatre in particular really flourish in Australia?

Chris: It’s a thrilling question culturally and historically as well. Someone who likes Stephen Pinker, for instance, argues that actually art is almost surplus to what we do as humans to survive and we only do it in times of excess. But of course, you can think of a million examples where that’s entirely wrong and it’s fundamental to the way our brains develop and that story is core to that.

Lee: I think we go through fluctuations in so far as the environment. I think we do flourish when we’re persecuted, I think that the voice of resistance comes up strongly. And I think that’s, on some level, what audiences and governments count on – the fact that, you cut the money away, we will still make work. There’s a sadness in that but there’s also a ferocity in it as well and I think we will keep making work as the funding is cut away but we’ve also learned that, to make it well, we need to find support for the doing of it.

Alana: Well I think that the theatre is still a futile industry, as opposed to being a democracy. I think that we flourish when we a sort of benevolent dictator at the top who likes the arts. I think that, basically, we need someone who takes a personal interest in the arts and they see it in all these dimensions and we don’t have to argue for it and they say, “I’m going to give you all the resources—if not the money, then the resources—and I’m going to empower you to do what you want.” 

Angela: Has there been anyone that you can recall in your lifetime that’s been that person?

Alana: Well, who do you say—

Angela: I would say Gough Whitlam.

Alana: Gough Whitlam, of course. I mean, that’s when the arts flourished—you had someone who did that. And yes I think there’s been Arts Ministers since then and certainly there’s been State Premiers who’ve taken an interest in the arts.

Lee: But it is petrifying when you have a minister coming in, as the portfolios have been changing so much across Federal and State in the last few years, when the reshuffle happens and you look at the biography of the person and they’ve got no interest in the arts—this is a stepping-stone position for them towards something else—and you just go, “How do I talk to this person,” and you start all over again. And, again, the fragility of funding—especially coming from my point of view when you’re working in new writing, when those voices of the writers are antithetical to the values of that minister you go, “Let’s not bring them to that play, let’s wait ‘til we’ve got one that they won’t hate.” And you kinda go, that’s awful. It’s actually awful and petrifying because, like you said Fred, you’ve got four years to find some other form of support. Four years to spend some of that resource on making sure that you’re not dependent on that money. 

Chris: So there was this extraordinary director from the UK in the 1940’s and 50’s, a guy called George Devine, and his argument for funding was: how do you take the trouble with the difficult dramatist? How do you work with art that’s in advance of the public taste? And that seems to be a kind of strong argument for funding. But beyond that it’d be great to think that the stories themselves are enough to drive an audience to get out of their houses. To stop watching streaming services and to go, “Actually, I’m thrilled by live performance”; whether that’s a band, whether it’s poetry, whether it’s seeing visual art; but that they’re thrilled by the idea of actually sharing the space with some real people. 

Angela: Thank you Lee Lewis, Fred Copperwaite, Alana Valentine and Chris Mead. I’m Angela Catterns. Let’s keep this discussion going and see you at the theatre soon.