Jana Perkovic on why Australian state theatre companies are really boring

This summer, like last, NewMatilda.com is running a series on the Australian arts that is comprehensively better than anything you’ll find in tired newsprint.

Today’s mail-out was a cracker, with articles by 3RRR’s Clem Bastow and Spark Online’s Jana Perkovic.

Perkovic’s article is  a stand-out, showing why she is one of the country’s best young arts writers (let’s hope she stays here and doesn’t return to Europe). “There’s a thriving, internationally recognised performance scene in Australia,” she argues, “but it’s barely reflected in the programming of major arts companies.”

Beneath the surface of Australian cities bubbles an undercurrent of performance. Artists — both young and old, trained and untrained — are creating small interventions of chaos and beauty, much of which draws on specific local traditions of vernacular theatre: travelling circus, pub music, guerrilla performance, mixed-media cabaret.

In contrast, state-funded theatre in Australia is increasingly artistic anaemic.

With the honourable exception of Melbourne’s Malthouse, our major performing arts companies have persistently avoided this undercurrent, opting for programming that lacks flair. Even allowing that 2009 was a panicky year for the mainstream — the Global Financial Crisis bit into both ticket sales and corporate sponsorship — the year’s programs were altogether business-as-usual. Fifty years after Merce Cunningham choreographed to chance music and Beckett put nothingness itself on stage, our theatres still offer a bewilderingly old-fashioned mix of European classics, last year’s Broadway and West End successes, and a smattering of local plays with music (the latter to be distinguished from musical theatre by virtue of being unfunny).

Scavenging through Australia’s main stage offerings in 2003, German journalist Anke Schaefer noted that “every expectation of a German audience of 100 years ago would have been well served by these productions”. The problem is not just that our mainstream theatre is overwhelmingly male-dominated and almost completely white. And it’s not that staging a play written in 1960 is still considered adventurous — it is the abyss between what the bulk of “performing artists” in this country are doing, and the work showcased on the well-funded stages.

It’s an excellent article: timely, perceptive and substantially right.

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