An apology and a response
I write regarding Jana Perković’s essay published on this website last week. Its publication has attracted much comment, both on this site and in other forums, which require my response.
There are a couple of issues that I want to address. First, the error of judgment displayed in quoting an unpublished manuscript without permission. This was a serious omission, for which, as the editor of the article I must, and do, accept responsibility. The playwright has been contacted directly with an unreserved apology. There are a few mistakes I have made in my life that I have devoutly wished could be taken back and this one certainly ranks high on that list.
Second, the article is published in a context of six essays designed to highlight various issues, or hotspots, around theatre in this country, the first being Alison Croggon’s thoughtful reflection on the role of criticism, published in April, and four more to come (from Candy Bowers, Bruce Gladwin, Tim Roseman and Angela Betzien). The commissioning spirit was to get us all talking about the work, to get a wide variety of different perspectives from across the industry about what people are thinking, dreaming and/or getting passionate about. It is not conceived as a platform for advocacy of any single viewpoint, but rather as a launching pad for robust and honest discussion. That’s why the comment thread was always going to be key to the objective of the series.
I don’t write this response in order to justify the article – it must speak for itself – but I do feel compelled to explain the rationale behind its publication. It would be disingenuous of me to pretend that I didn’t know Jana’s article would be provocative. It is an opinion piece and, as such, it contains personal and passionate views of the type not often expressed in a public forum; indeed this is the nub of the essay itself. I have been very distressed about the degree of hurt expressed in some of the responses it has received. Apart from assuring anybody reading that it was in no way intended to cause hurt, I want to outline my own, personal response and why I, as a ‘sometimes-working’ artist in this country believe it to be an interesting contribution.
It goes without saying that making a living as an artist in Australia, as in many countries, is a hard path. Opportunities are few, companies feel (and are) difficult to penetrate… this is a familiar story. What excites me about Jana’s article is that, rather than engaging in that familiar level of the debate, it raises large cultural questions about the conditions of making art and how our cultural environment both assists and obstructs the struggle. I have often said (and heard others say) that this is a hard country in which to be an artist. I believe this to be true of nearly everywhere, but Jana’s observations about what it is in our culture specifically that makes it difficult are fascinating. I have sometimes found it hard to ‘keep the faith’ over the twenty-five years I have been working in theatre. It has often felt as if noone, outside of artists, really cared about it. It has been a struggle to defend (even to myself) my choice and the sometimes-difficult life circumstances that it has led me into.
I was genuinely excited to read Jana's essay because it challenged me as an artist to think about my own culture and how the work that I make intersects with it. It gave me a large, active frame in which to view not just my own work but that which I see as well; the way in which our specific cultural habits act on everything we make and view. That is not a conversation I hear, or have participated in, very often beyond the maudlin observation that “Australians don’t like art” (which I have been known to utter and I also know is absolute rubbish). I was excited by the articulation of a large cultural pattern, the ‘niceness’, that makes the sort of directness I love in all art – not just theatre – so hard to achieve. It seems to me to be a vital thing for us to talk about, engage with and challenge. I see art’s function in society as a provocateur rather than a mirror. To be that provocateur requires a sophisticated understanding of society’s deep cultural language and patterns. I found Jana’s articulation of how art (in this case specifically playwriting) intersects with that level of culture fascinating and inspiring.
I do not read the essay as a criticism of all Australian plays or all Australian writers, but rather as an attempt to divine and analyse how the form functions within its cultural context and its potential to grow and change through that perception. I see it as deeply provocative and challenging, qualities that I find exciting, bracing and fundamentally positive. Though there is much that I disagree with point-for-point, sometimes mildly and sometimes radically, I do not regard its intention as being to destroy anyone or anything, and I would certainly never have considered publishing it if I did. That so many have read it differently has given me great pause for thought, hence the passion (and length) of my response.
Speaking explicitly now from the organisation’s point of view, in its larger context, Jana's essay was designed to contribute to a national conversation which unpacks the issues that affect us all, as individuals and as part of a larger community. Amongst the many comments it has provoked was a challenge to consider how we might begin to address the issues raised. This is something that is occupying a great deal of thinking and discussion within AustralianPlays.org. As a team, we are proud of our track record as a positive voice within the theatre community. We got it wrong with the unauthorised use of a quote from an unpublished manuscript. We are clear that this must not be our last word on the matter.
AustralianPlays.org Literary Manager