BEN ELLIS STATE OF PLAY
State of Play - guest essays from leading voices in Australian theatre.
AN ESSAY BY BEN ELLIS - July 2019
“No dramas, mate, no dramas.”
That was on the phone to an electricity company.
“No dramas, Ben. No dramas.”
That was the neighbour, arranging a shared nature-strip-mowing system.
“No dramas, no dramas.”
That was the nurse to my British wife just before going in for the C-section.
Automatic expressions stick in my head like burrs to a sock. Since returning to Australia last year, a very different Australia from the one I left in 2005, I have heard or overheard the expression “no dramas” used at least a hundred times. I have never heard it used elsewhere.
The words we use, especially when we’re working on automatic, reveal more than what we’re thinking. They reveal what thoughts are thinking us into being. There’s a great example of this in Susan A David’s book, Emotional Agility. Fill in the blank: Mary had a little ________.
How did you fill in the blank? Even if you went for a gag, it was probably in opposition to “lamb”. This example raises the question, what has control - the thought or the thinker? Unaware, using language loosely, systems and societies of thought have us filling in the gap. Our expressions blurt us out, not the other way around.
No dramas, no dramas.
“No dramas, no dramas,” is a very contemporary Australian expression. I prefer “too easy”. Because “no dramas, no dramas” means that we fear conflict. We fear drama so much that we refuse to understand it and become susceptible to propaganda. We sense emotion and the “no dramas” reflex kicks in, and, worse than any dramatic reaction, defensiveness about “our” racist cartooning habits takes over. We can’t have anybody upset or delineating any of our shortcomings. We can’t analyse everyday life for the dramas they present: people wanting things from other people they can’t get without giving up something else or changing. Dramas show cause and effect. That the plague comes. That Birnam wood comes to Dunsinane. If we keep saying “no dramas, no dramas”, any problem that needs to be addressed gets ignored until it manifests as an emergency. We’re in a constant state of crisis despite - no, because of - our insistence on “no drama”.
By the way, I like digressions. I like reading them. I’m a fan of employing non sequiturs in dialogue, which infuriates most actors and directors when I write characters that speak them, because the dialogue at first can appear to be literally inconsequential. The speech is not visibly prompted by the speech or thought before. But I’m beginning to understand that there is a deeper structure beneath the utterance. The absent-minded will always be filled in by a thought, and the thought that they think is seldom theirs, but says everything about them. And many of the characters I love to write operate like this, and often it’s meant to say something about Australia. Australia, the land of deliberate gaps, lost children and being “the middle of nowhere”.
So, before I unpack what’s going on with this deep and absent-minded desire for “no dramas” in Australian colloquial speech, allow me to address my return to Australia and facing up to Australian theatre companies again. There’s also going to be other stories, a diet rant - that is, a rant without the anger - and maybe a few ideas for fellow playwrights and exercises for those who want to give it a go. I’m your value meal today. (And, also, in the long run of writing this essay, I became the resident playwright at 16th Street in Melbourne, working alongside the incredible dramaturg and director, Iain Sinclair - it’s almost as if I essayed myself into being. Plus, I started co-ordinating and publishing The Campaign & Afterplays, which has got the playwrights notice from mainstream media.)
First, the obvious stuff. Let’s address Australian playwrights’ elephants in the room. The major companies. What disappoints me - I think (because do we ever know exactly what disappoints us? perhaps there’s something deeper below the thought) - is that theatre companies and their representatives who parlay with playwrights continue to communicate - nay, transact - with us along a success-failure axis. Prizes, shortlists, etc. Yea or nay. Zero or one. Whether you’re in or out, you feel isolated, a box ticked.
You might get a meeting, and you get a shot at something, but you don’t know what kind of target you’re trying to hit. The deadline for a competition is on N Month XX. Why don’t we have the power to have forums where we converse or convince, and how the hell did it get this way? How have we lost the ability to be heard? Why does it happen?
Some of the big companies continue to show that they believe some kind of cachet exists in lassoing a group of inexperienced playwrights into some kind of scheme. But that’s less about giving voice to playwrights than it is about prioritising those who have yet to develop voice. Important, but not great for great dramas. Or great companies if they don’t learn to value drama and trouble.
No dramas, no dramas. Our culture seeks to suppress conflict, which results only in narrow outlets for rage and judgement, traffic jams of frustration with no dialogical movement.
Without our thinking about it, because of ‘no dramas, no dramas’, the Australian playwright becomes an alien at large. To be patronised? Yes, dear. To be photographed or shoved pictorially in a box on a program brochure? Yes. To be given a desk? Maybe, but make sure they don’t get in the way. But included or central to the machinations of the demi-commercial state theatrical juggernauts? What is a playwright to that juggernaut but a carrot stick to a tank? Somebody inside the tank might want to munch on one but the carrot stick is inessential for what the tank does. Without considering the living playwright at its heart, major Australian theatre is built all wrong, fighting on the wrong terrain.
We don’t want dramas. Maybe shows. But not dramas. If we start relying on what playwrights excel at we might have to think and negotiate stuff we don’t understand. Let’s concentrate on displays of the usual characters. $104 worth of confirmation bias. Per ticket.
Now, another digression.
Slavoj Zizek writes about three or four books a year. He’s one of my favourite authors, figures, chimeras, prophets… With Sophie Fiennes he filmed The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. In Ideology he makes the point that ideology is most visible in the moments that we take for mindless entertainment. When somebody criticises a cultural moment, and defenders rush in to say, “but it’s just a film/football/boys-playing-at-being-boys!”, that’s where ideology exerts its real hold. It’s the idea, or system of ideas, playing the person, allowing them to be mindless and, as the Coke slogan tells you, “enjoy!” Where enjoyment is the injunction, that’s where power and the system operates. Thus, it’s no mistake that the political system and the entertainment industry seem to merge further and further until billionaire reality TV stars run governments.
In terms of my own perversity, it’s because of this insight that I continue to believe in the power of theatre. Theatre has the power to trip-switch the mindless, to bring ourselves into self-knowledge. Mindless entertainment is in fact the most ideologically forceful propaganda out there. If I’m ever considered a political theatre-maker, then I’m not nearly half as political as those who push out musical theatre blockbusters or comedy, especially including those apparatchiks who say “the audience is simply in for a great time”.
“No dramas, no dramas.”
The current status of Australian playwrights feels not dissimilar to what I witnessed in London at the end of the ‘noughties, only differing in appearing to be a much longer-term problem.
I lived in London for over a decade, and I suppose I became enough of a playwright there to be able to talk about the differences between there and here. I developed different muscles as a playwright in London, mostly due to periods of alternating luck and lack. Culturally, actors didn’t try to improve my scripts and they always tried to play the typos. That sort of approach meant I took more responsibility for my text. In fact, representing Australian playwrights at an international theatre event during the 2006 World Cup in Germany, I spoke to a German dramatist who loved the respect given in British theatre to the playwright, where the text is treated with reverence, “as if the dramatist knows what they are doing!” They told me that with the big explosion in post-reunification drama, epitomised by Roland Schimmelpfennig and Falk Richter et al, that because directors and dramaturgs would chop and change a playwright’s text without consultation to suit the production, and because there was a demand for writing, playwrights became “only” writers, often serving up to 300 pages of text to publishers, often unedited, because of the correct assumption someone else would take care of the final shape. I learned to take more care of the shape while in Britain. I think that in Australian playwriting one often expects a German going-over all the while being evaluated by British yardsticks. Because, industrially, so few listen to us.
When in the UK I seemed to get commissioned to write plays at speed with only a month or two before press night. To others, I was the playwright who could write quickly: a curse. It’s great to be able to get “rapid” commissions, but you end up exhausted and making mindless, entertaining choices.
But that’s another digression. When I first moved to London and unexpectedly had to forge a career in a new country from scratch (productions, publications and prizes in Australia counted for nothing) the city’s theatre was in the grip of a trend for “non-text theatre”. But London was and almost still is a city of playwrights. After a couple of years of literary managers at London companies not really engaging with playwrights, a number of playwrights formed a group to fight back. They met in an upstairs room at The Antelopes pub in West London, and so became called the Antelopes. They included David Eldridge, Amy Rosenthal and Duncan Macmillan. The word got around - if you were a playwright and you were concerned that you were not being listened to or your plays engaged with, you joined the Antelopes and together we could find something that we could do to push back.
The group ran by “Chatham House Rules” - that is, after attending the meeting you could talk about what was talked about, but you were expected to keep shtum about who was there and who said what. The what was more important than the who said. By all means say you were there and what the group decided to do, but no attributions. This is the kind of rule that kept careers safe and necks protected.
The first meeting delivered well over a hundred playwrights, who all of a sudden were finding each other, talking out similar experiences, realising that they were not going mad. The Antelopes decided upon a set of demands to take to the artistic directors of the companies that seemed most dedicated to destroying their literary departments.
People talked about what was said without attribution. Terrifying.
Artistic directors around the country called up playwrights, wanting to know who said what, who was there, etc. Some literary managers and artistic directors even demanded that they be able to attend personally. And yet. Every single participant kept to the Chatham House Rules. Not long afterwards, some artistic directors circulated or published responses to the demands of the Antelopes, and one felt the advocates of non-text theatre retreat - what those advocates were really after was the end of not text, but the discomfort of drama.
The work of the Antelopes revealed the divide of text and non-text to be false, or, rather, pursued by advocates of nothingness. The kind of theatre board members who turned out to be actual politicians or the sort of people who might be working for Goldmann Sachs or Lehmann Brothers, brought in for an aura of imagined organisational expertise (and hope of donation-gathering) rather than their artistic or ethical knowledges.
What is the similarity between then and now? I’m both alarmed and comforted by the idea that the political groups that fought against marriage equality partly did so on the grounds of the importance of symbolism. One of them was ex-PM John Howard, whose reason for rejecting an apology to the Stolen Generations was along the lines that mere symbolism doesn’t work. Go figure.
And yet. We know from wedding ceremonies that symbolism changes lives. The effects may not necessarily hold but words and gestures count. Sticks and stones break bones, but naming things can detain or free you. Judges pronounce sentences; they do not type some numbers silently into a terminal and let robots do the rest. Our society runs on rituals, on dramas, on the negotiations their forms allow to take place.
Non-text or post-dramatic-text types pursued a muzak of movement in the theatre, ways of saying only one thing, rather than many conflicting or complex things. “New” adaptations and immersive interpretations where audiences went away not as audiences but more as individuals with atomised experiences. After a year of monthly-or-so Antelopes meetings, the mood in London changed. Some literary managers and artistic directors even moved on. Literary departments re-emerged. To paraphrase Miller, attention was paid.
The Antelopes provides a model for how playwrights can force the hand of Australian theatre companies to reconsider how they treat us, if we want that. For, at the moment, it is either as individual insiders or outsiders, and our conversations are boxed by our fear. In terms of models, there is always a place for the Guild in this. But we have to do much of the heavy lifting ourselves: a union is foremost what its members are and do (with official paid representatives an essential and adjunct element of that).
As far as I can listen, playwrights in Australia are unhappy about a lot of the same things but have been unable to create or cohere a set of demands as to what we want changed, apart from our cash flows. Slavoj Zizek believes that the best of humanity needs to assume “the courage of hopelessness” and make impossible demands. It’s only through acknowledging how bad the situation is and then making what may seem to us at the time unreasonable demands - higher minimum wages or marriage equality, for example - that we get shifts.
Because, at the moment, we have short form support for many playwrights of particular age- and CALD- profiles who are going to face being unsupported for life after they turn a year or two older. What we need is the same consideration and organisational structures for such (and all) playwrights’ longevity that we currently give to white, male directors. Because, honestly, when we think “mid-career director”, we feel the idea, the click, generally, internally, of where a mid-career director goes or sits or can go or can sit. We could argue that such a sense exists for the actor in Australia. But for the playwright? The playwright who’s been bolstered out of an industrial neurosis for novelty or identity? Will those industrial neuroses creating revolving doors of support for novelty take responsibility for the structures needed to sustain careers and the kernel of Australian theatre itself? There are few thought gaps in Australian theatre where instead of “lamb” we automatically say “playwright”.
Donald Trump once said power is fear. As much as I dislike him, perhaps that’s one facet of power and nobody is shit-scared of playwrights. Not enough to listen to us. Yet. We’re like old dogs chasing new cars. Yapping occasionally but outsped. We need to change form. We need to collect ourselves. We need to swarm. We need to herd.
Could an Antelopes-style, heavies-in-sunglasses Chatham House Rules group work in Australia?
Well let’s consider the hurdles. We have the distance issue. There’s no National Theatre of Australia. And there’s no de facto national theatre of Australia either, despite the protestations of state companies in Melbourne and Sydney. There’s no geographical locus. There seems to be a shift to Melbourne since I’ve returned, but that could be about house prices as much as anything else. (By the way, I think Australia should try a company along the model of the National Theatre of Scotland, not based in any particular theatre, which would really force us to take work around the country and forge a visible tangible concept of Australian theatre. Works for our Shakespeare company, doesn’t it?)
But the provincial quirks of the nation’s theatre system shouldn’t stop the playwrights of Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Newcastle, Adelaide, Sydney and Hobart from sharing their wails within the walls of function rooms or scout halls or retirement homes. The Antelopes developed Birmingham and Manchester chapters. Yes, Melbourne and Sydney groups would probably be the largest. So what? If people got talking, face to face, and felt better connected to each other instead of competed out of life by each other, that’s a, er, win.
So again, let’s ask. Why not?
Australian theatre. The size. We don’t have the same respect for playwrights that the UK has in general, because of Shakespeare.
Well, we never will if we don’t get together and find a way to tell companies what we need let alone want. And Shakespeare’s dead, by the way, and wrote in a time where London’s population was between half and two-thirds of Melbourne’s.
Try again. Why not?
Won’t the playwrights simply all just get drunk and moan?
Probably most of them. But we’ll do that, and we’ll do more than that. For we understand the structure of drama, we can structure our gatherings with dramatic purpose and thus create more of an effect.
Besides, no change ever happened because a bunch of contented people sat at home thanking the universe for not grinding them into even finer particles. We are dramatists and we need to follow the protagonist’s rules of drama: fight for something, win or fail, and realise what’s essential, tragic, truthful and funny about ourselves in the process. Or serve as exemplars of how not to go about it. Dramas provide insights, lessons, instructions, warnings, joys, scares and delights. Life.
Quick digression again. The questions that helped me structure and write a play quickly: 1) What is the main character frustrated about not having? 2) What do they do about it? And by doing, I mean doing, not “deciding”. 3) Who or what is going to get in their way? 4) What are the consequences of their doing?
Use these questions to get dramatists back in the conversation. To get drama back in the structures. Drama first, economics second, culture wars third. Let’s talk about the drama of getting a litre of milk that doesn’t rip off everyone but the dairy processors. Let’s talk about the drama in daily life of choosing a pizza. Let’s talk about the drama of a pensioner outside a cafe in a gentrifying (or should that be gently-frying?) suburb wanting to shout at the customers inside for ordering soy lattes and dukka.
Back to the Diet Rant. That is, a rant without anger.
Playwriting in Australia needs tangible support lifted out of the prize-failure axis that we find ourselves stuck in. We need companies that will back and incorporate playwriting craft rather than pluck playwrights to satisfy an identity or image. We need artistic directors who ensure that their staff know that we are as important if not more important than a company’s donors. We need clearer explanations of why some artistic directors favour choosing the products of British and American theatre over anything by an Australian, and we require the opportunity to at least match that vibe ourselves if that’s what one honcho wants to direct or program. We need organisations that help us realise our common interests as playwrights in a society, rather than as fighters over scarce prizes in the current shit show. We need to be able to explain to ourselves and to our society at large why we make the craft decisions we do, how we make drama, in the same way that everybody now seems to know how to crush a garlic bulb with the flat of their cook’s knife blade.
But we need to put the case. We need to group together and find strength in a collective purpose. We are the playwrights. No one else is going to write our script.
Until then, it’ll be no dramas, No dramas. And we’ll never help ourselves figure out who we are.
Drama is not histrionics or unnecessary trouble. Drama is the necessary trouble. Drama is what happens as a result of the doing. Are we Australians not doers? Writing drama helps us to understand our acts, to become aware of ourselves, so that we confront the thoughts that are thinking us.
We don’t need to fight ‘cultural’ battles we have already won. We grow when we expose ourselves to conflicts where we may lose. That exposure creates stakes and narratives, rather than propaganda. The understandings that follow the drama may, as in The Crucible, help affect politics, but first we have to focus on humanity and loss.
To insist on not facing up to the drama of life - where our emotions, bodies, breath and ideas collide and play - is to leave us ever more susceptible to contrivance and magical thinking. To emotional manipulation. To fantasies of crime waves. To fantasies that the billionaires who want to project gambling’s sputum on World Heritage sites somehow represent ‘the people’.
No dramas means bottling up emotion: desert or flood. Nothing in between.
This isn’t to say that we need to spend all of our time on the phone to electricity companies describing how we feel. Or brooding or ruminating. It’s to say that we need more drama. We need to show up and experience it. More ways to approach conflict. More understanding of the ways our goals collide and conflict, our stories clash and contradict. How, especially in the context of our First Peoples, our stories survive and persist.
And we have to argue for companies and productions that serve the drama rather than the spectacle. Some of the best Australian plays that I’ve read I have also seen derailed by Australian productions that sought to blast the text into being, a thousand lighting and sound cues where a single bulb would have done. The play itself got ignored and drowned beneath the production’s surface, the critics usually piled scorn upon the play/playwright, unable to see past the production, and the playwright retreated into hurt or envy or academia or reviewing, and the beautiful life that we could have seen lived no further. In a land where people say “no dramas, no dramas”, odd enough it is the dramatist who has to take responsibility for others’ failures at it.
Which might just open up some hope for us yet.
If the responsibility lies with us, then maybe, just maybe, we need to exercise it better. Every human being is a dramatist, but playwrights can help us make sense of the stories we are yet to tell of our lives.
The 1983 version of me who became obsessed with Macbeth, while Bob Hawke became the leader of the ALP, saw more clearly into the mess of politics thanks to Shakespeare.
I could see that maybe Hawke was Macbeth, and Hayden was Duncan. I could make those links easily enough. But the witches obsessed me because I could never figure out who Hawke’s three witches were. And I still can’t. What apparitions convinced Hawke in his sessions after winning union battles that he would ascend? Drama allows for ghosts, saints and the unbelievable, wholly excused by their portrayal by living beings. Drama is the spark between the rational and the anxiety, the known and the unknown. Drama is not the catalyst for how societies move from one understanding to other understandings; it is the movement.
Dramatists’ proximity to this power is why playwrights must be part of theatre company management or corporate structures. Decisions about Australian theatre’s future are consistently made without playwrights employed at the table. Yet ask most artistic directors how many years they would expect a playwright to work on a text before it’s “ready” and you would get the answer of perhaps two to three years. A commission earns a playwright a one-off fee of $15000 or so, only half of it available upon signing, with the other two quarters coming in with the next two draft submissions. Can you feasibly live on $8000 a year? Can you serve the professional and social networks that you ought to make more powerful work? Could you possibly find yourself with four full commissions a year, with potentially eight to ten projects on the boil every year? How much unpaid work in terms of developing, pitching, meeting, etc., must you do to support that? Why not simply write the plays you want to write and see if somebody wants to do them? Why not produce them yourself? But with what resources?
Most people have no idea how little we earn and how much work we do for no reward and how skilled we are at what we do and how our lives get exploited; we try to promote images of ourselves as schmick and spick and span and sparkling as the best of things and feel shame (I know I do) at admitting the truth. That we don’t know how much longer we can afford to go on like this. We’re getting older. We’ve got kids. We can’t afford trips to dentists. We have to keep going. We have to keep chewing through the pain. There’s something in this idea for the play. If we can just crack it, a few minutes here or there, maybe a workshop…
Australian theatre is not remembered or will ever be evoked or recalled via productions of other nations’ plays. We think of plays - Away, Don’s Party, The Doll Trilogy, Stolen, Brumby Innes, Who’s Afraid of the Working Class?, Atlantis, Rice, The Blind Giant is Dancing... Similarly that’s what we do if we are living in the UK or the US - and in the UK, Shakespeare is often used as a spur to contemporary playwriting rather than as a lance. In the long run, no one’s going to figure out our national experience through the reception history of a smartly re-directed or adapted Marlowe or various state premieres of Sarah Ruhl’s next probable masterpiece; they will read our plays to find out what was going on in our minds, and to grasp at why our actions betray our sentiments. We have to stop discounting making a drama of things, rather to show up and serve our platters of confusions and angers and wrong-headed solutions. Until we make more drama of ourselves, we’re only putting on accents and playing dress ups.
No dramas? More drama, more drama. Please. More drama.
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State of Play - guest essays from leading voices in Australian theatre.