This was written hours prior to the fire that destroyed La Mama HQ in 2018, and long before the recent Australia Council funding cuts. To say that it has been peer reviewed since that time would be a stretch. However, it has been read and endorsed by a number of experienced theatre arts participants, including key stakeholders. (‘Current’ in the context of this blog is intended to mean the period before both fire and Australia Council funding cuts).
La Mama Theatre is the only effective unsolicited script-house in Australia’s second-largest city. The way the arts process works in relation to theatre in a weak arts culture (i.e. an under-funded-arts environment) is that it becomes closed and insular. This may not be deliberate, for there is the pragmatic economic concern dictating that the bulk of opportunities for writers are contingent on third-party agents.
In short, strong arts cultures spend more on arts and have far greater opportunities for unsolicited scripts. Moreover, they are transparent. The Royal Court (epicentre of UK script-houses for six decades), The Bush, Theatre 503, etc. are able to offer generous windows for writers due to a far more generous funding model, and a culture that acknowledges strong writing as volatile and that which often derives from unpredictable and remote sources. Furthermore, strong arts cultures actively seek new writing through these unsolicited and often year round opportunities.
Many of these points are interrelated, but La Mama’s ‘Summer Program’ and ‘Winter Program’ are arbitrary and therefore quite meaningless program titles, other than to those already acquainted with the venue. Contrastingly, the Exploration Season communicates a clear message: it is a season for developing and predominantly young theatre makers. The distinctiveness of this message needs to be applied to the entire programming calendar. As it stands, La Mama Theatre has an Exploration Season of 6-8 weeks and a generic season that spans the rest of the calendar. This is certainly the perception. Greater segmentation invites greater clarity of definition (and the perception of more): a three-week season of physical theatre, for example, juxtaposed with a three-week season of very tight, well-scripted, two-handers. In short: control and communicate the programming narrative more vigorously.
La Mama Theatre cannot effectively assist with the development of mid-career playwrights in its current form. The perception of La Mama Theatre is that it’s a place for experimentation, from which artists move on to a ‘bigger or better’ environment (or fizzle out). In absence of an effective theatre for new writing in Australia (as per the UK models listed), La Mama is nonetheless the nearest thing to a script-house. This message needs to be communicated in a way that ensures greater quality control. It has the market cornered in Melbourne, but this idea isn’t fully realised due to many of the above points.
By implementing a clear program for mid-career playwrights, of 9-12 weeks of the calendar, La Mama Theatre will again become a destination theatre company with strong brand integrity – rather than a too isolated and largely developmental one that is often inundated with submissions because of venue scarcity. In an environment of the sternest, coldest economic rationalism, moving with the times will mean that the venue may not be able to support 10-15 theatre genres and many works that are essentially incomplete.
3-4 experienced playwrights per year are given a three-week season. The gate ratio may be changed to a 50-50 split to account for the risk. Put simply, many new plays cannot be staged by La Mama Theatre in its current form, meaning that the intention to support the strongest new theatre is not being realised. Actors are motivated by longer seasons and challenging works of substance. Such works are more extensive technically and developmentally, and often warrant longer runs. This initiative is an act of the utmost purpose and distinctiveness. It will help to re-position La Mama Theatre and challenge the perception that it is a place for first drafts. Internally, this will create a three-tiered system, with each level inspired to grow beyond itself. This need not invite elitism.
- Playwriting competitions, not unlike the one offered by Griffin Theatre Company. Prize money would be offset by an application fee. There might be three of these per year, for writers at different stages of development. An objective such as this will achieve many positive linkages to the arts community, and help to cultivate year-round interest in the venue.
- Selective commercial and artistic flexibility: the consideration of offering three-week seasons if an independent theatre company provides some of the financial heft. Two week seasons often fail to provide presence for artists.
- The submission policy must be more focussed, in order to move away from a ‘proposal’ culture – a feature that often generates or replicates issues-based theatre and ‘verification’ as opposed to art.
- Improved technology at both venues.
- Anonymous submissions: this is in line with international best-practice for theatre companies and competitions, and is the surest way to negate nepotism and improve programming.
- Quality control improvements in digital communication, proofing, marketing output and related staff training and professionalism.
- Draw new patrons (and revenue) to the site through the licensed bar (4-6 days out of 7). i.e. make it a permanent idea for the general public; not just an incidental idea for theatre-goers.
Copyright © Cameron Sievers, 2018