I have a confession to make. While I appreciate that there are many reasons why people go to the theatre, and many genres and spectrums, tastes and predilections within the sphere of artistic judgement and participation; I go to the theatre to look at good scripts in action – scripts that spring from a vivid ear for language and dialogue tempo, with storylines that derive from an imagination that goes beyond the reproduction of the wholly verifiable. I feel that the script has to be at the centre of things. (I’m an old fool like that!) It’s kind of a basic standard or benchmark for a range of different theatre styles, manifestations, and definitions. After all – doesn’t a decent musical still require a good script? Doesn’t some of the most ‘unscripted’ content still require scripted ideas that facilitate quality control and dramatic potential? Even good improv has scripted boundaries, conditions or ‘rules’. But is the ‘good script’ what’s being offered on Melbourne’s biggest stages, such as Malthouse Theatre? And is it even a priority?
‘What a great script.’
‘I really liked the script.’
‘The script was excellent!’
You don’t hear these refrains too often anymore. Praising the script as an immediate or automatic response to a piece of theatre appears to have fallen down the pecking order of critique – and I have a theory as to why.
It’s because we’ve long moved away from a ‘script’ culture in favour of a ‘proposal’ culture, and our responses to theatre have been conditioned or re-programmed as a consequence.
Take one recent example from Malthouse Theatre. The question to ask is not whether Looking for Alibrandi was good or bad theatre; the right questions to ask are why it eventuated in the first place and what that process looked like.
A proposal culture often ensures a theatre proposal for a well-known novel, film, identifiable piece of literature, or zeitgeist opportunity. In other words, in too many instances, the starting point for writer and theatre company is not at ground zero, idea inception, or point of originality. That would be far too risky.
No-one’s heard of Looking for Daphne.
This concept is then transferred or translated to an event on the stage, the motivation being that people will recall (in this case) the novel or film and an instant clientele of support will transfer to a transient, but immediate, theatre audience.
One of the many problems with this process is that it is one in which there is no discernible basis in ensuring a good script, or rather – the need for it to be a good script is secondary, or tertiary. People attend the show on the basis of familiarity with the original source material – not the adapted script. Such marketing stratagems are commonplace and are designed to facilitate the goodwill of patrons who will likely embark on a generous assumption i.e. in this case, that the theatrical production will match the novel from 1992 or the film version of 2000.
The ‘proposal’ is then judged according to ticket sales. A ‘good’ proposal will equate identifiability among patrons, which transfers to profit.
Here’s where it gets interesting. The role of profit for a theatre company creates a paradox by ensuring that a theatre company cannot produce art – when it is driven to profiteer from the proposal culture that is, in turn, wired-in to the matrix of the zeitgeist of issues-based opportunism, identity politics, and populism – if the strictest of Wildean definitions are applied; given that profit is entirely functional, and ‘all art is quite useless.’
In the contemporary world of main-stage theatre, this means that programming decisions have never been more unrelated to actual quality of theatrical expression of an original idea.
For those who are less familiar with Oscar Wilde’s preface to his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, the writer reasons that creative expression fails the definition test of art if it flies too close to offering a discernible function. In this respect, all issues-based theatre or that which dogmatically seizes upon an overt zeitgeist opportunity would also fail the Wildean definition, being as such works tend to push an overtly authored opinion, with the resultant tendency – to paraphrase and transpose another of Wilde’s maxims – of revealing the artist and concealing art.
(As a poignant aside, if there’s any truth to the claim that the function of so-called Woke Inc is not to primarily promote visibility and social justice for minority participants, but to profit from them or to ensure the sustainability of third parties, as some moderate voices from such backgrounds, including indigenous cultures, do substantiate; then the most famous homosexual in the history of art would also have a thing or two to say about that, perhaps offering something along the lines of: the hand that thrusts an entity to the limelight of the free market, does so with an acute eye upon self-interest. The following, deliciously paradoxical quote from Wilde’s, The Soul of Man Under Socialism goes further: ‘The arts that have escaped [uniformity] best are the arts in which the public take no interest… We have been able to have fine poetry in England because the public do not read it, and consequently do not influence it.’)
It’s not that the recent expression of adaptation at Malthouse Theatre, one of Melbourne’s largest stages, was or was not good; it’s that the mechanism of societal and economic forces that created it and the priorities that reside therein are preoccupied with creating a marketing hook – indeed an entire apparatus, the function of which has little to do with creating that which is ‘good’, much less that which is enduring.
The mistake that a great many people make in this space is to assume that because something premieres at a place like Malthouse Theatre, it somehow deserves all manner of abstract accolades – such as good, strong, successful, important…
It is not, by reason of its premiere and the public perception of the four-walls that houses it, any such thing necessarily or by assumption; in many instances it is a mere commodity, and will soon be overtaken by the next season of commodities. Such a course appears irresistible and sadly pre-destined in the contemporary landscape of what might generally be termed creative development or entertainment. We are fed a globally and (to some extent) pandemic inspired sugar-hit of comfort culture that metastasises the creativity crisis, in which the past is looped and consumers seem trapped within it or conditioned to the cookie cut creed by risk-averse entities that too often capitalise on the low bar of ‘what works’ by offering peak-optimisation and on-trend dreck. Ironically, both the creative team and the theatre company’s desire for relevance, immediacy, identifiability and profitability, and their lack of imagination in bringing the development of that which is so verifiable, so located, and so utterly determined to be about something, renders Looking for Alibrandi and like projects not only redundant at season’s end, but also entirely consumed.
People will say that the greats always resorted to populism and had a keen ear for the zeitgeist, and that adaptation has essentially always occurred. To the latter point first: simply that it is limiting and deeply problematic when adaptation, sequel, and prequel become the go-to for artistic ‘product’ or definition, cultural output or vision. I doubt this warrants further explanation. The now deceased and somewhat famous Australian crime writer once ruefully opined: ‘We live in a semi-literate country.’ The proposal culture exacerbates this problem because it doesn’t promote (perhaps no longer understands) dramatic literature from source, often o’erleaping the unopened script in favour of the pre-packaged concept.
As to the point about populism, let’s consider a couple of random subjects from history. The Tempest, like all of Shakespeare’s plays, is not wholly an ‘issue play’ or one for the masses; if it merely ticked these boxes, it would have been forgotten. It would have been consumed at the time of inception. Like all great works, it touches on the immediate and goes beyond it. It doesn’t ‘locate’ or create ‘relevance’ too overtly. In other words, it transcends function, which has ensured its immortality. Pinter wrote about mental illness, trauma, and abuse without labelling or signposting to the effect of ‘Here is my new play about mental illness, trauma, and abuse.’ (see La Mama, Stevie, 2022). Look at the people in The Caretaker and The Birthday Party, along with many of his other works. He elevates story, character, dialogue, situation – not zeitgeist or dominant pathology. Such zeitgeist ‘tapping’ is a by-product. TBP was indeed a flop that changed everything. Pinter railed against ‘verification’ till his dying day, and revelled in ambiguity.
If these plays were written – here – today, they wouldn’t feature on main stages.
Taking this to its logical conclusion, the conditioning process of the proposal culture that we see enshrined in mainstream stages like Malthouse Theatre (for that is what it is) ensures that a great many people are not attending theatre shows for a new experience; they are attending the theatre for a shot of comfort, in which the outcome is a known or trusted commodity, and the economic risks associated with generating curiosity in the original and unknown can be side-stepped. The known is the raison d’etre of the pre-fabricated audience; it’s what such an audience craves; indeed, this is what the pre-fabricated audience is designed for. The greatest theatre experiences of my life have been those in which, instead of knowing, I leant forward in a transfixed state of not knowing. This state of wonderment, in which one suspends the need to know – absolutely – is akin, I imagine, to what some describe as divine bliss. McCann’s tearing of the newspaper to open the second act of The Birthday Party is a seminal example.
My London professor once told me to have sufficient respect for an audience in order to demand more from it; to be partially unrecognisable to the present (unlike Macbeth, I haven’t killed a king), yet oddly or un-demonstrably triggering aspects of present and immediate lives at the same time (Duncan’s murder signals the death of the Macbeth’s relationship, a trauma that most adults have experienced). The highest complement a writer/director can receive from a random punter, indeed a stranger, is not, ‘Wow, it was great because I absolutely understood everything.’ Rather, it is:
That was one of the best things I’ve seen, even though I can’t claim to have understood it entirely.
With the latter claim, the punter is responding favourably to a work that has transcended empiricism and the absolute, something that has perhaps transcended time and place, something that excites through its intangibility. Something more…
For those who enjoyed encountering Looking for Alibrandi at Malthouse Theatre, at least consider the possibility that we deserve more, far more; that the brand-new-second-hand mindset that brought it to fruition is deeply limited, one that is lock-step with the current creativity crisis, one that is paranoid about risk, and one that fails to understand the famous maxim about art: ‘There are no lattes in the desert.’ For those who were bitterly disappointed by their experience of Alibrandi at Malthouse Theatre, perhaps understand that because of the socio-cultural, political, psychological, and economic conditions, motivations and priorities outlined in this post, this assessment might have been assumed from the off.
An old man yelling at clouds? Of course! And what’s wrong with a bit of money for a sector whose participants die young? Nothing. Profit as the by-product of a creative endeavour is all well and good; but as the great Oscar Wilde himself long ago attested: function, in this case profit, that motivates, underpins, and is baked into the cornerstone of inception of a creative endeavour must logically preclude art itself.
Art, if it is to be so defined, will endure by its quality or capacity to transcend function.
So here’s hoping for Looking for Daphne sometime soon. No idea what it’s about – but I’ve heard it’s a stonking script!
Cameron Sievers is a London trained theatre director, playwright, and novelist, and will stage his sixteenth production, The Gist, at Bard’s Apothecary, 24 Crossley Street (Melbourne CBD), in November ’22; at which time he will resume the war against the proposal culture and present both antidote and anathema to the creativity crisis. He posts once or twice a year, and thinks that this is a rule of thumb to which more people should subscribe.
Copyright © Cameron Sievers, 2022