Friday, November 27, 2009

An Open Letter to Company B from Caleb Lewis


This afternoon I received an open letter to Company B from Caleb Lewis, one of the Shortlisted writers for the 2009 Phillip Parson’s Award, who has decided to withdraw from the competition.

I have posted the letter below.

I believe that this must have been a difficult letter to write and to send, as Lewis is, as many are, a living breathing playwright whom I am sure, wishes to be programmed on one of Sydney’s illustrious stages. The tenuous balance between the politcs of theatre and the programming of art is something I think all artists are mindful of. In fact, it is hard to feel that programming is fair and transparent when programming comes down to personal taste.
What I admire most about this debate is how the intergrity of an artist is truly measured in the risks she/he takes in voicing what she believes and what she/he knows in her heart is the right thing to do.

Is that not what so many plays through out history ask us to remember?

To thine own self be true….

And how often is it that we bite our tongues, we close our eyes, we turn our backs only later to say “I let that go, when I should have and could have said that I really believe…” As with anyone who has weighed in on the debate (annonymously or otherwise) the fear of being blacklisted is ever present.

To view the whole letter and blog click on this link:

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

MTC no "Boys' Club" according to Ann Tonks

The Age, Letters, 21/11/09

Melbourne Theatre Company is not a “boys’ club”. And I should know. I’ve been the general manager of the company for the past 15 years and proudly call myself a feminist.

This is a company that has produced 50 per cent of the female artistic directors appointed to run state theatre companies for the past 10 years; where the artistic and general management of the company is 64 per cent female; where half the permanent staff are women; where female board membership is four times higher than the Australian ASX 200 average.

There had been an attempt to paint the role of women managers in the performing arts as passive supporters of male artists at the expense of other women. I’ve spent my working life exploring and creating opportunities for women including initiating an all-women radio program (still running 25-years later) and training women in leadership in the Asia-Pacific region and in Australia. If Melbourne Theatre Company was a “boys’ club” I wouldn’t be working there. 

Ann Tonks, Pascoe Vale South

The Age, Letters, 25/11/09

In response to Anne Tonks (Letters, 21/11), the claim that the Melbourne Theatre Company has nurtured the careers of 50 per cent of female artistic directors of state theatre companies in Australia in the past 10 years amounts to the support of a pitiful total of two or three women.  This seems a cynical use of statistics to support an untenable argument. Therefore, I accept her resignation from the MTC on the grounds that it is a “boys’ club”.

Patricia Cornelius, Melbourne Workers Theatre, North Melbourne

Belvoir asks, "Where are the women?"

Philip Parsons Memorial Lecture: Where are the Women?

There has been much discussion recently about the lack of women in key creative roles in theatre and much speculation around why this is the case. Are enough female creative voices being nurtured? Do audiences notice? What could and should be done to rectify the gender imbalance in the creative landscape? ... [ READ MORE ]

Also read Jane Woollard's personal response to the question below.

Where are the women?


A personal response to the question posed by Belvoir Street Theatre.


An account of one Victorian female director's career trajectory and her observations about Australian Theatre.

by Jane B Woollard

‘He may be the country's most passionate and ambitious stage director. A self-described "obsessive theatre-maker", he says he values "art and the need for it.”’

‘His nerves are understandable. At twenty four he is the youngest director to open a main-stage production for Company B since Neil Armfield became artistic director of the company's precursor, the Nimrod Theatre, thirty years ago. He shrugs off the suggestion he could be a directorship candidate when Armfield leaves at the end of next year, but given his achievements it is not that far-fetched.’

‘He has had a meteoric career/A most impressive trajectory/He has blazed like a comet across the sky/He is an enfant terrible/a boy wonder/a wunderkind/a very impressive young man/in youthful middle age/with an energy younger than his years.’

The phallic and ejaculatory hyperbole we read about male theatre directors in the Australian press is intensely wearying. The arts journalists trip over their undies to write this stuff, hoping one day they may get to interview Kosky and his clever glasses. One reads breathless descriptions of male genius and wonders how one can transcend one’s own dull femaleness. To be a theatre director who is middle aged and female is to wear a suit made of albatrosses. In reviews the language about our work differs from that accorded to men. If our work is mentioned by the critic at all. At best we get ‘detailed’ ‘well-observed’ and (my detested favourite) ‘quirky.’ At worst female directors are hauled over the critical coals for getting in the way of an otherwise grand play – heaven forbid that the female director should leave her stylistic mark on the work. Surely we are there to be handmaidens of the script? Not, like our male counterparts, ‘auteurs’, ‘wunderkinds’ and ‘enfant terribles?’

I stood in a backyard in Queenscliff in 1986 and watched Halleys Comet make its progress across the sky. Midway through finishing my three year directing diploma at VCA, and filled with bright hopes for my future as a theatre director, I was humbly anticipating my impressive career as a theatre maker and practitioner. The 1980s were a brave new world, or perhaps being 24 years old made it seem so. There were no impediments to my vision and drive as a female artist, the glass ceiling had been dissolved, and the young men I was training with enjoyed working alongside women.

The comet was not as I expected. It was bright and slow, its movement undetectable to the naked eye. It inched across the edge of our sky in slow increments. It was a veil of light being pulled slowly across the black sky, like the trail your hand leaves when you wipe it across a rainy window pane. The Bayeux tapestry came to my mind. ‘Isti mirant stella,’ I whispered to myself. ‘There is the hairy star.’

‘I shall enter the firmament of Australian theatre in just such a way,’ I thought to myself. ‘I shall brightly lead the way, I shall make striking flowers of light in the thespian heavens.’

Twenty-three years later, my working life as a theatre director has indeed been like the progress of that distant comet, in ways I didn’t understand in 1986. My career has had a less predictable trajectory. The work trails behind me, a varied tail of light and shadow, a slow traversing of struggle and joy. But the work has been powered by the pulsing core of energy – artistic vision, knowledge, practise and skill. And by the wonderful collaborators who have made the work with me. There has been a steady flow of theatre-making, in the independent theatre, funded and unfunded, in the education sector and in community, working in the field of cultural development, transforming true tales into theatre, giving voice to those who stand on the fringes of the community, or bringing to light forgotten words from the past.

In past years the debate about access and equal representation for female directors in Australian theatre has flared and died, flared and dimmed. I have stood by, not signing letters, not joining the groups, believing with each year that the low representation of women in these roles is an aberration, an oversight that will be rectified the next year. Surely?

But it is an inescapable fact that the statistics for female directors are getting worse. The recent release of the seasons for MTC, Belvoir Street, Malthouse Theatre and Griffin Theatre have shown it to be worse than ever, with no women directors employed in any of the 2010 seasons curated by these companies. In response to criticism and questions asked in the print media and theatre blogs, Belvoir Street Theatre in Sydney is hosting a ‘Where are the Women?’ forum on 6 December in conjunction with the Phillip Parsons Young Playwright Award.

Why does all of this matter? We have in Australia legislation called the Equal Opportunity in the Workplace Act which became law in 1986. This legislation explicitly states that organisations must adhere to the principle of Equal Opportunity in employment. But the principle of Equal Opportunity rarely applies in the theatre industry. For example, the Melbourne Theatre Company, as a department of Melbourne University, is obliged to adopt this position as an Equal Opportunity employer. However, the few ongoing roles for directors that women could apply for are never advertised. In recent years the plum job of Artistic Associate at MTC has become vacant twice. On both occasions it has not been advertised and has been offered to and taken up by men. One discovers that so-and-so is now in the role, and one thinks ‘I would have liked to apply for that.’ But the opportunity never presents itself.

The MTC Board and its Artistic Director defend their right to hire on merit alone, and at their discretion. There seems to be an attitude that they should not have to be accountable to such dull and pedestrian principles as Equal Opportunity, and that to open the doors to artists other than white middle class men would create a culture of mediocrity. Funded by public monies, Major Performing Arts Board Companies have no obligation to comply with EO legislation or to account for their progress or work in regard to it. Indeed, the MTC Board has scoffed at the idea of quotas, affirmative action, and has indicated they resent being asked why it is that they rarely employ women in these key creative roles. The funding bodies who are charged to fund the major companies take a hands off approach and blithely let them go on their way, even though the said companies contravene the funding organisations’ own EO guidelines. Theatre critic Alison Croggon wrote recently that we would not want to return to a quota system. I don’t remember such a system ever being in place. And surely equality is a principle we hold dear in our society. In this debate there has been an assumption that equal opportunity equates with mediocrity. A somewhat cocky belief that if you open the door to a variety of people, namely women and people of different cultural backgrounds, then there will be a dumbing down of the work, a dilution of skill and artistic excellence.

The MTC Board declared in its recent letter to the Australian Women Directors Alliance that female directors are not employed by the company unless they have demonstrated success on the mainstream stage, working for companies that make work for audiences of 15000 – 30000, such as Belvoir Street and Malthouse Theatre. Unfortunately neither of these companies have programmed work directed by women in 2010, so it appears we female theatre directors are trapped in a vicious nineteenth century circle. Whenever I direct a project, I approach it with the full strength of my vision, skill and artistic integrity. Directing requires the same degree of artistic excellence when making work for a small audience or a stadium audience. Of course with greater financial investment the stakes go up. But one is supported through this process by the financial and administrative staff of the larger companies, by an experienced production team, and by one’s own experience managing budgets. Whether a production budget is large or small the same principles apply.

What underlies these feeble arguments about ‘mainstream,’ ‘main stage’ and handsome budgets, is a nasty sexist assumption about women and leadership. An assumption that women are too empathetic, and therefore cannot make tough decisions, can’t manage a budget, and don’t make strong directors because empathy equals weakness and indecisiveness. An empathetic heart is a strong heart. To be kind (if people wish to believe this is the sole province of women) does not preclude having nerves of steel and a canny eye.

‘Where are the women?’

I hear again the forlorn cry from Belvoir Street Theatre and I must answer it.

We are in our 30s or 40s and approaching the peak of our practice. Many of us have children, and so the fulltime jobs of Artistic Director or Associate Director are, it has to be said, difficult. Men with families perhaps make a different set of choices, perpetuating certain cherished myths about artists being ‘driven’ and that the process of making theatre is a superhuman task, above and beyond normal energy and familial commitments. Their unquestioning commitment to the unsustainable habit of overworking compromises us all. Women tend not to want 80 hour a week jobs that take them away from their children. Networking in theatre foyers over a stubby of boutique beer is not so easy for some of us. The structure of succession in Australian theatre relies on being seen, being social, and being in the right places. Female directors with families struggle to build these informal professional relationships.

In Australian theatre we are enamoured with the young, with the male, with fragmentation and society’s diseases. As a theatre maker, if you do not make work that reflects these obsessions, then you are invisible. So when Belvoir Street Theatre poses a fatuous ‘after the horse has bolted’ question like ‘Where are all the Women?’ my response is to say – ‘Fuck you! We have been here all along, making fabulous varied work that is not dressed in fishnets, whiteface, sad puppets, rear projection screens, costly perspex, 10 000 litres of water and ear-splitting sound scores. That stuff is only unexamined fashion after all – not craft, not ‘zeitgeist.’ Perhaps our Major Performing Arts Board Companies could make a consistent and focussed commitment to getting out and seeing the work of more practitioners, instead of waiting to be dazzled by the next bright young boy genius. (‘He reminds me of myself at that age.’)

The Malthouse Theatre’s mission statement declares as one of its truisms ‘Theatre is inherently and profoundly sexual.’ What the? This, more than anything else, is evidence that the smart young-ish blokes have had their hands on it for too long and I am beside myself with rage, lost opportunities and despair - that all my training and experience and vision counts for naught. Ironically, this makes me mad as an Xray Specs song.

Oh Bondage up yours / Oh bondage no more!' (times two)

‘Where are the women?’

Right here, working at the coalface of theatre – in education, in community, in little theatres and workplaces. We have been making a range of work that is not necessarily particular to being female, it is varied in genre and from, and it is made of different material to the garish stuff that is fashionable in Australia at the moment.

No one is speaking out for the sisters except the sisters. Our brothers in art are quite happy with their fortune. They do not wonder why we are not standing beside them, taking roles of artistic authority and leadership. They do not ask themselves why it is women who are administering, publicising, and managing men’s work. Nor do they ask ‘How did I get this big opportunity without having to go through a formal application process, in a fair competition with a variety of other directors?’

It is clear that male directors and Artistic Directors are quite content and thrilled with themselves, their genius heads held aloft and smiling, as they saunter across the glass ceiling, never once looking down to see us peering up their trouser legs. They are too absorbed in their important work of artistic leadership, and ensuring that qualified, kind- hearted clever women do not get their hands on the means of production, the resources for story telling and therefore a voice in well-resourced theatre making in Australia.

Highly inflammable

waiting to explode

neurotic tensions

risen overflowed

(Inflammable Material/ Warrior in Woolworths, Xray Specs, 1979)

Monday, November 23, 2009

Old Fashioned Sexism

3RRR SmartArts, 19/11/09

Presenter: Richard Watts

Interview with Michael Kantor

RW: It’s a strong season, the Season One of 2010, but the glaring absence – is the lack of women directors. There’s been a lot of discussion about this in the Australian theatre sector over the last few months. Not one woman director in this season..

MK: Not in this first season. In the second season – that is actually balanced quite well in fact – quite in the opposite way.

We’re very aware that it is harder for women to make headway inside major companies, and we haven’t been great at it – I’m the first to admit that.

When I came into the position my predecessor had really tried to make significant differences in that respect by having kind of grids and having kind of ‘We’re going to have 50% of female writers and 50% female directors and we’re going to have 50% indigenous and 50%’ and everything was 50%.

But the problem was that it had actually kind of limited the kind of range of work that was taking place. So I chose not to have quotas. And I think that’s right not to have quotas but we have to remain vigilant at all times and sometimes and I think it’s not just us. I think every company has kind of ….allowed a situation to develop - and it’s not a good situation – in which it is harder for women directors. And there’s no reason, there is no inherent reason why a female director can’t direct on a big stage, or that they want to do different kind of work – I just don’t believe in that. I just think it is kind of a little bit of … hard, hard sort of time for us to all.. think hard about how we’re going to make those kind of opportunities in the future. 'Cause I think it’s real, I think the issues are real.

RW: How do you think those opportunities can be created? Mentorship schemes for emerging women directors have been identified as one...

MK: Yeah. absolutely. I think it’s about opportunity. I think about ‘How did I get to direct plays?’ I was just granted fabulous opportunities very early on in my career. That is kind of - that mentoring role. I’m not sure about schemes and scholarships – all great stuff. And bursaries, we do bursaries down at Malthouse and we do try and favour, you know …sections of the industry that are not getting a leg up and so there have been a lot of female bursaries given, but ultimately I think it’s choices made by programming – whether it’s programming by committee or by artistic directors - that make sure the that opportunity is big and large because lots of small opportunities can be good but you’ve really got to be given the leg up for big opportunities, I suppose.

I think that we also - we’ve had just recently Jenny Kemp and um..Rose Myers direct for us…We have had lots of great directors. And right now up in the Tower the piece is actually directed by, principally by Halcyon..that’s sorry I’m referring

RW: Africa

MK: Africa, which is running now. So I don’t feel that bad. I don’t think our record’s disastrous, but it could be better. And I think it could be better from us, from the MTC, from STC, from Belvoir – from all the companies.

RW: It’ll be a situation I’ll be looking with interest in the coming months and years to see – because it will have to be a long term change.

MK: Yeah. I think so.

RW: We hope that it happens.

MK: I think it should happen. I mean, I do wonder whether it’s a bit of old fashioned sexism, really and I might be part of it. But – and it’s really good that it’s come up as an issue. I think it’s fabulous that articles are being written and people are being pushed on it. 'Cause that’s how change happens, really.

RW: Very much so.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

MTC forced to comply with Equal Oppotunity Policy

Theatre company ends 'boys' club'

by Robin Usher | The Age | Thursday 19th November, 2009

AUSTRALIA'S oldest state theatre organisation, the Melbourne Theatre Company, has been forced to reverse its position over the limited number of women it employs in creative roles, especially directing, after criticism that it had created a boys' club environment.

The company's parent organisation, Melbourne University, intervened to insist that its practices complied with the university's equal opportunity policies and anti-discrimination legislation. An MTC board meeting tomorrow is expected to appoint both an equal opportunity officer and an EO committee to ensure the company's practices fit in with the university's staff equity policies.

This follows complaints about ''an overwhelming downturn'' in opportunities for women directors at the company in recent years by a convenor with the Australian women directors' alliance, Melanie Beddie.

She said the university's vice-chancellor, Professor Glyn Davis, had responded with written assurances that MTC practices would change, including the advertising of positions such as associate directors, which previously had been appointed unilaterally by the company's artistic director, Simon Phillips... [READ MORE]