Bok bok! Theatre in Australia! Bo—k!

Screen shot 2015-01-18 at 8.42.22 AMThere’s a delightful symmetry in cleaning out the chook run and listening to ABC arts. Yesterday I listened to actor Lex Marinos, writer Annette Shun Wah and Stephen Page, Artistic director of Bangarra talk about diversity and accessibility in the arts.

Usually I avoid these kind of discussions, as too often they descend into the usual arts-speak, where regular words, like ’embarrassingly juvenile’ are replaced with words like ‘powerful’ and everything starts ‘resonating’ like a lone chook in a drum.  Nouns are turned into verbs and before you know people are asking questions like ‘What does it really mean to be doing church?’ as you’ve sat down for a cup of tea with Peter Sellers’ Indian alter-ego.

I tuned in halfway, to hear the panel bemoaning Australia’s theatre audiences which are apparently brimming with middle aged, middle class, predominantly Anglo-Australians. Why instead don’t they resemble carriage D on the Mt Druitt line? they asked. 

Panelist Annette Shun Wah answered this question the best: because these people have got better things to do.

Cue much breathy pontificating about theatre and its failure to resonate with ‘everyday life’. And just like that we’ve shifted gears, from ethnicity to class. Because middle class Chinese, Indians and Greeks DO engage in the arts, but they’re not on the Mt Druitt line. And they’re less interested in the peculiarly Australian form of ‘misery theatre’ so lauded by the arts establishment where production is charged with a almost evangelical humanism.

I’m talking about the kind of theatre that ‘engages’ with its audience, that ‘opens and sustains a dialogue’ about what it means to be’a one-eyed, meth-addicted minority bandicoot. Or something. 

Compelling and hard-hitting theatre too often descends into a kind of tour-de-force of social dystopianism and decay, a form of middle class titillation, populated by audiences for whom ‘engaging in a dialogue’ about being on the wet end of life’s colonic irrigator is a form of ponderous emotional tourism. For everyone else, including the unreachable ‘Mt Druitt’ crowd, life can and does already deliver more than enough drama to keep a bulging class of overfed NIDA graduates shaking through the dishes with faux gravitas.

The only person who came close to answering the question was Stephen Page, who rightly observed the ebullient and durable zeal that surrounds Bangarra. Simply – Bangarra allows people to tell their own stories, and they can be glorious, and inspiring, and beautiful.

Bangarra is an oasis of aspirational images. Whiteys have TV for that. This is why the only time the other panelist, Lex Marinos, says he sees an Anglo doctor in a hospital is on T.V. Because T.V isn’t theatre, it’s aspirational art – Anglo Australians think being a doctor in a hospital is far more honourable than working three days a week as a consultant dermatologist in between flat-whites and stand-up paddling boarding. T.V is performance as uplift, it’s story-dictating rather than story-telling, how you want to be rather than how you are. TV versus theatre invokes the old ‘entertainment’ versus ‘message’ tension, a perennial question I’m glad the ABC is still hashing out, even if only for the benefit of my chickens.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the whole discussion though was Lex Marinos’ statement that ethnicity played an inconsequential role in the T.V version of Christos Tsoilkas’ The Slap. I find this particularly surprising, given that he was in it (and bloody good).

I only saw two episodes of The Slap, both of which ran along almost paint-by-numbers tensions involved in being first and second generation Greek immigrants. It was a high-pitched manifesto detailing the shifting definitions of success laid out very clearly along ethnic lines, There’s the voluminous tension between the bling-on-my-thing mechanic brother seething at his middle class, coke-snorting lawyer cousin, both of them unmoored by traditional expectations of masculinity and success enmeshed in and refracted through their ‘Greekness’. Or how about the ‘immigrant wife’ – highly qualified vet and her faltering attempts to slot into a regime of benign suburban racism? Or the Anglo Australian couple, hopeless bogans, flip-flopping through half-hearted, tragic new-age parenting, the booze picking up where the entitlement leaves off? Tsiolkas’ characters are plotted out on the x-y axis of class and ethnicity like a game of Battleships.

But then what would I know? I’m up to my eyes in chook-shit. And I still love Tsiolkas.

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