A Community Challenge

May 27, 2015 § Leave a comment

Given the current political climate and the necessity of decentralising the main stages as the be all and end all of theatrical endeavours, I believe that it is essential for amateur theatres to engage more with new writing and utilise their existing infrastructure to support developing artists.

It’s safe to say that today’s politics leaves the arts in a fairly precarious position. In addition, the funding of such an industry is rarely deemed worthy of the national conversation, despite the number of people employed in the struggling sector exceeding 200,000 – a figure that disguises the reality, which is that there are also many, many unemployed people looking for work in the arts.

Although there is talk that Labor will rectify, somewhat, the cuts made by the Abbott Government – and let’s not forget the previous government’s Creative Arts Policy (which has been ‘archived’, apparently) – there is still no guarantee that anything will be changing anytime soon. In fact, there is still no concrete opposition policy. So I don’t think anyone is, or should be, hanging his or her hat on a change in government to pump funds into the industry.

As critics Alison Croggon and Jane Howard discovered, to alleviate some of our fears, the main stages are in fact producing new Australian work – and not just adaptations! In fact, despite the political climate, theatre companies are producing more work overall than ten years ago. So it’s nice to know that new work is still being made and that art is still being created.

While it is important to debate the decisions the main stages make in scheduling and producing work, we cannot and should not rely solely on them to shoulder the burden of producing art. In fact, in so doing we disempower ourselves by relinquishing our ability to take control of our cultural identity.

There are a number of smaller theatre companies engaging in the production of new work and that is fantastic. However, there are also a number amateur theatre companies scattered throughout the suburbs and rural areas who have resources and infrastructure that should be called upon to begin developing new, or at least more, Australian work.

Amateur theatre companies are wonderful creative hubs that create nexuses of people having fun; people practicing their craft; people willing to pay for tickets; gossip, scandal, romance and so on. I know I am romanticising this corner of the arts community somewhat, but the significant fact here is that they are part of the arts community. What’s more, they’re a part that is often left out of the discussion around new work and choices in repertoire. So I ask: Why not develop a new work? Why not focus more on some Australian plays? Why not organise some in-house writers and dramaturges? And to those artists without a venue, why not approach amateur companies to begin the discussion? Let’s try and adjust the philosophy of spaces as ‘venues for hire’ and tap into the myriad amateur theatre companies who have pre-established networks.

Of course I can imagine the immediate outcry at this point: ‘no one will come and see the shows’, ‘Australians don’t write good plays,’ ‘we don’t have the resources’, ‘it’s just not us’, ‘but people like The Importance of Being Earnest’, ‘but this is a director centric industry and my version of Private Lives will literally change lives!’ Those are all valid comments and concerns, kind of. Yet I can’t help but wonder, given the circumstances, if it’s not a reasonable appeal to ask amateur groups to do more with regards to cultivating new writing.

There are a number of titles that continue to crop up, and I have nothing against those productions or plays. I can understand the logic of ‘give the people what they want’, rather than go experimental. However, given the established infrastructure, it seems like a waste to constantly breath life into foreign works and shy away from home grow ones – new or otherwise. Perhaps these theatre companies should focus more on the questions, ‘why this play?’ and ‘why now?’, rather than deciding upon a well-worn piece just because it’s easy.

What I propose is that we all take more charge on a community level. We should begin by acknowledging that there is difficulty finding funding – which does not mean stop trying – and work together to support one another. Amateur theatre companies are poised perfectly to incubate new work, as they are able to give the shows space and time to develop. Given the number of shows done by these companies each year, is it really unreasonable to suggest that a few of them be new work – or, at least, a revival of an Australian work?

Some plays could be written for the community, allowing for local stories to be told. This line of reasoning is not as saccharine as it sounds; once, this was a more common endeavour and lead to the careers of a number of still prominent playwrights. No doubt this would lead to innumerable Australian Bad Plays (if that’s the term we now use); but given there are innumerable terrible productions of ‘classics’ every year (sorry not sorry), I see no reason why some of the failures shouldn’t be used to facilitate the growth of our own writers. Is it risky? Sure. Would it be difficult? No doubt. Is it worth it? Absolutely.

There are a number of programs here and there that encourage writers in areas outside the CBD, especially in terms of ‘festivals’, but I would like to set the challenge for amateur theatre companies to do more

Some might argue that this is not the role of amateur theatre companies. They might say that fringe festivals and so on is the space for the likes of that. They may say that amateur theatre companies are not about ‘development’ and ‘industry’ but only about communities fulfilling their artistic needs. Some might also smile politely and tell me that amateur theatre companies are stressful enough without adding an extra dimension. And others would say that they would love to program a new work but there is no funding. I argue against all that – there are plenty of actors, directors, designers and stage managers cutting their teeth on amateur drama – why not writers too?

There is little enough work for everyone out there and there is only so long that we can sit back lamenting politics (dire though it may be) and the lack of jobs in main stage companies (true though this might be). If a completely new work is out of reach, why not ask homeless theatre companies in for a season to develop something in-house?

And so again, I propose a challenge: I don’t know exactly how – for the intricacies of such a shift would change depending on the those involved – but local theatre companies should put new work on the agenda. Step up where Federal and even State leaders have failed, and engage with the writers. Let’s see what we can do about getting more and more new work out there to the public. That begins by taking control of the conversation and realising the power of community theatre.

This article first appeared on Theatre People

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