Is a Playwright’s Utopia possible?

What does a Playwright’s Utopia look like?
That was the provocation for an industry forum held as part of Playwriting Australia’s (PWA) National Play Festival 2015. Taking place at the Adelaide Festival Centre last week (Weds 22-Sat 25 July), many of Australia’s leading playwrights, dramaturges and directors and many emerging writers gathered to ponder this – an idealism that perhaps did not stack up against the reality of looming funding cuts. The forum’s participants were selected from expressions of interest, so many already had something to say. Over the two morning sessions the usual gripes and concerns were aired, but there was also a collective sense of purpose. And the message seemed to be that it was up to artists and arts organisations to demonstrate first and foremost to the Australian public, their audiences, the relevance and importance of theatre to our social, cultural and imaginative lives.
The Australian Writers Guild (AWG) was also there consulting with playwrights on guidelines for best practice for professional work. Given the number of writers in the room the development of this work-in-progress was rigorous and intense and we can only hope the final draft will be embraced by the theatre industry.
The Equity Diversity Committee (EDC), part of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, presented another shot at creating a utopia. Writers were encouraged to sign a Diversity Pledge. This could be inserted alongside character descriptions in the script and would encourage the diverse casting of roles.
In addition, various topics were raised that ranged from proper payment for playwrights, new models for engagement with communities, independent versus main stage writing, to the privileging of auteur or director-led productions over new writing. Many of these topics are a constant whenever playwrights congregate but it is important to keep these discussions alive. Nonetheless, as pointed out from time to time, it will be incumbent on playwrights to speak up for themselves if they want more opportunities for productions of their work.
As much as this point may be true, in the current climate where fear of exclusion is the main driver of behaviour, many will stay silent. This is reflected in the recent concerns that many of the major performing arts companies did not speak out in favour of smaller companies and independent artists when George Brandis, the Minister for the Arts pulled over one billion dollars from the Australia Council for the Arts and transferred it to the new National Program for Excellence in the Arts, the NPEA. The muted leadership from those in a position of strength, led some to ask how can less powerful voices be expected to take up the slack?
Many of these concerns and dilemmas were beautifully encapsulated in the keynote address for the Festival given by Joanna Murray-Smith, one of Australia’s most prolific and produced writers. Murray-Smith poignantly revealed her vulnerabilities in this precarious profession through the personal story of her struggle with the loss of her mother, a champion of her work and a woman of immense integrity. She described her love affair with the writing life and how at the centre of it she placed the audience. An essential player in this drama that writers rarely talk about, Murray-Smith described the audience as an ‘amorphous, sometimes frustrating, occasionally disappointing and often inspiring lover’. This brought her onto not the banalities of a writing life, a topic often discussed in the forum, but its philosophy, and it obligations. She asked ‘What is my greater responsibility to the world I write for?’
Murray-Smith asserts that her intention is a radical one, but at the same time she is bored by overt political plays that trumpet an ideology in crass unimaginative ways. For her, the best writing is that which ‘channels up from the dark, that defeats our less interesting strategies. Our hearts are more interesting than our heads.’
Many in the audience for her address, who had spent the day grappling with a Utopian vision for playwrights, may have agreed with her sentiments. But it would have been bitter sweet as many they do not have the opportunity to even show their work to an audience, and what little chance there is, is under attack. Perhaps sensitive to the trials of most writers for theatre, Murray-Smith did call on them to have courage, not only in their writing, but also in ‘writing in the face of all oppositions’. More importantly, as many in the arts are wondering when and where the axe will fall, she stated that pragmatism is not art and that ‘courage comes also in saying what is important out loud, at the cost of something. Because the cost of silence is a greater cost.’
At the Festival there were many thinkers, academics, and bureaucrats alongside arts workers. The collective experience and intellect in the room was immense.
Whether Playwriting Australia’s Industry Forum, the AWG’s Best Practice Guidelines, the Equity Diversity Pledge or even Murray-Smith telling us how it is, will be provocations to action for some or all of them still remains to be seen.
In her closing remarks Murray-Smith asked artists to be open about their love for their audience, society and the wider world. And perhaps more importantly she recognised that ‘When artists stand up to be counted, we do so not from negativity or dogmatism, but from a profound engagement with our world and how it works, a connection to justice, and an unshakeable interest in humanity.’
That sentiment sums up the relevance of arts to us right now, and should inform any Utopia playwrights hope or strive for in these confronting times.

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