Friday, March 4, 2011

The New Theatre Scene Down Under

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Contributed by Doug Howe


Having spent the better part of the last dozen years living in New York, I now find myself nearly as far away as I could be in the Land Down Under, where everyone is your ‘mate’ and there are ‘no worries’ at all. Right off the bat, let me clear up some cultural misconceptions people may have. First, no one drinks Fosters. It’s purely for export. Second, no one throws a shrimp on the barbie, because they aren’t called shrimp. They’re called prawns. Third, no one says, ‘crikey’, though they do say ‘dinkum’ and ‘fortnight’. Fourth, koala bears do not exist (cause they aren’t bears). Unfortunately, giant spiders, snakes and sharks do. And fifth, despite popular belief, there were over 20 million people in Australia before Oprah Winfrey discovered it. What I’ve discovered over the last year, having made three trips here for two month stretches each, is that there is an incredibly vibrant and exciting theatre scene as well.


As my colleague from Romania commented, Australia suffers from a geographic isolation that is similar to the political isolation the Eastern Bloc suffered during communism. Though Aussies are an outward looking people, they experience a form of cultural separation that requires a great deal of effort to overcome. Their closest socio-political neighbors are in East Asia, though culturally they are similar to Canada in their ties to the United Kingdom. This creates a very unique balance of influences and perspectives, and is one to be highly observed and regarded as the world becomes further globalized.


I can only speak of my personal experiences of the theatre scene here in Sydney, but I hope it can act as a micro to the macrocosm of the greater picture. Many of you may have heard of the two larger theatres here that have toured to New York. The first being the Sydney Theatre Company, which Cate Blanchett and her husband Andrew Upton run. Their productions of Hedda Gabler and A Streetcar Named Desire were presented at BAM in the past few years. The second is the Belvoir Street Theatre, which recently did the production of Diary of a Madman at BAM with Geoffrey Rush, and the Broadway production of Exit the King with Rush as well. At STC, I’ve seen Steppenwolf’s production of August: Osage County and Tot Mom directed by American film director, Steven Soderbergh, about a child disappearance/murder. I also saw the final performance of Madman and an incredibly production of Beckett’s Happy Days at Belvoir. As you’ll notice, none of those shows were Australian works, and only two of them written in the 21st century. So where are the new Australian plays?


Two answers to that question are the Griffin Theatre and Playwriting Australia. Griffin is the home of new Australian drama. They produce four main productions of new Australian writing each year, as well as four independent productions that often include one or two new Australian works. They also hold an annual $10,000 playwriting award for best new work that I am currently assisting them with. Their current production is a revival of Andrew Bovell’s Speaking in Tongues. You may know it as the feature film, Lantana. Playwriting Australia is not a producing company but an organization that promotes the development and disbursement of new Australian plays. I am helping them with their annual play festival that will be here in Sydney in mid-March. If you have any interest in new plays from Australia, these are the two places to look first.


As a closing note, there has been a rather substantial generational shift in artistic leadership in Australia as a whole recently. Companies that were run by the old guard for decades have now changed hands over to Generation X. In the last year alone, new artistic directors have taken over the Belvoir and Griffin in Sydney, MTC and Malthouse in Melbourne, Hothouse in Albury Wodonga and Queensland Theatre Company in Brisbane. This means seismic shifts in how theatre will develop over the next decade in this country, and I’m very excited to be a part of its genesis. Be sure to check out the connected links for further information about the theatre scene here, and feel free to comment on this post. The key to enriched communication is clear and engaged dialogue.

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Doug Howe is the Artistic Director of The Internationalists, a collective of directors from around the world whose mission is to create a more open, sustainable and interactive global theatrical community. In the past two years, he’s been to ten countries on four continents, and no matter where he find himself, he always feels at home when he’s in a theatre.

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