The 2012 Philip Parsons Memorial Lecture was
delivered by Andrew Upton on Sunday 2 December, 2012. The
Lecture is delivered annually by a prominent arts professional and
provides a platform to speak candidly about the industry and raise
debate among audiences and performing arts practitioners.
Theatre is now.
It is of now and therefore, inevitably about now. That is the most abiding characteristic of the form for me. 'Now' is its it-ness. Forms of recording drama have evolved into other forms in their own right. Theatre remains. Now only. A deliberate live act, witnessed by an audience. And the audience is vital too, actually, because the theatre bear does not shit in the woods unless it is being watched. Rehearsals are not performances and performances are only cancelled when no one turns up to watch them.
The definition of theatre's Nowness gets increasingly complicated and elusive the more an attempt is made. It is now but it is a special kind of now. It is a now that has been talked about, planned, discussed, designed and lit. A now that has been rehearsed. A now that includes the past and is in dialogue with the past; a now that is already a then and, a now that was in some way made then. A sort of Meta-Now. And I want to discuss the construction and creation of that Like Wow Meta-Now we know and love so much. There are three key parts to it for me.
There's the now we are in. Then there's the personal and, ultimately, there is the universal - the cultural river that streams and burbles and eddies around us. To my mind, it is the careful and deliberate offsetting, tuning and marshalling of these three massive forces that makes Theatre resonate with thrilling insights, emotions and shimmerings.
For Peter Brook, famously, theatre was best encapsulated in the definition: The Empty Space. But I don't think it is an empty space in the same way I don't think that an acoustic guitar shoved full of clothes suddenly becomes a suitcase. There is more going on than emptiness, even in his elegant definition at the beginning of the book, because there is also watching and playing and, from these, associations. And those associations and wonderings, those images conjured, can be ordered and tweaked and made to resonate.
Theatre is a specific space, but it is also a resonating one, like the body of a beautiful instrument. Resonating as a present participle to keep it in the here and now and as an adjective to keep us imagining what that does to the meaning of space.
Resonating is not echoing, which is a repetition and a diminishing. Nor is it amplification. Resonating is the orderly harnessing of tones, semi-tones, harmonics and vibrations. It is the deliberate structuring of these things to make a chosen sound. Resonance involves harmony and dissonance; it involves layers of input that are sometimes contradictory, conflicting; it involves disjunction and diminishing; it involves problems, all lined up to vibrate together into one unified heavenly swell. As you can tell, I am no musically-trained sound theoretician; these are my terms and so I am defining them for us now. Resonance in the context of theatre, points to deliberately tuning the layers of material at your disposal. It involves playing with the literal. It demands we remember there is brown in shadows, purple in clouds, sadness in joy. Practically, then, what have you got at your disposal? The script. The cast. The setting. The clothes. The lighting. The sound. The tempo. The venue. The audience - your own understanding of the associations and cultural vibration of the people who will come. All the material being put on stage can be delicately separated out and attended to deliberately or intuitively or both to create a cascading arpeggio of ideas and emotions.
It is all there for you to tune and retune to the times and the space in which you live. And, most importantly and inescapably, it will happen here, now. It won't happen there, then, because that was a different production. And it won't happen again unless it's a huge success, and even then, you see, it won't happen again, because what will be happening again will be the return season of a success. And that's a very different audience mindset.
And this may all seem like the long way round to restating the bleeding obvious but it is obvious and, for that reason, often ignored. When ignored, the evils of generalisation and audience expectation get their miserly grip on the delicate bud of priceless expression. Generalisation often starts with hat-tipping to the gooder, older days. The show someone I knew saw when. The days when God existed and authority could be called upon. Audience expectation is the passive consumption of the meaning, of the value, of the greatness, of the holy endeavour that we are advised, by people who know better, to call art. But holy art is not what we are here to do. We are here to put on a show. Now. Why is passive consumption a problem you ask? Because it is not in confrontation with time. It is not engaged with things as they are happening now; it is outside of the now. When I lose touch with my Nowness I lose touch with my openness, my sense of danger and adventure. So, when the audience can feel that fabulous, astringent tension in the air that what they are witnessing is happening now, and only now, that is when they are open to difference and to change. That is when you get them and, some of them, you get forever.
Apart from generalisations on how theatre used to be when it was better, what other passive (aggressive) audience/critical techniques must we be mindful of? Blame. It was the set's fault. It was the sound. Blame is a way of not thinking further about the choices made, because even the things that defeat us as theatre-makers - those things that we just have to allow on stage even though we are unhappy with them - we must take responsibility even for them. Consequently, I implore the audience to read all choices as deliberate and, so, whether you like them or not is less relevant than what happens to you when you engage with them. Criticism that springs from there may well be harsh but will contain the seeds for the theatre-maker's growth by helping them to refine their sense of tuning, structure and resonance.
The hardest audience burden of all is the sitting back and waiting to be fed. This blobby "tell me a story while I chew my cud" has left me wondering if seats should be removed from theatres altogether. We have a responsibility to our audience and they in turn have a responsibility to the medium. Sit up and engage. It's not feeding time; it's haranguing, coaxing, wooing time. Get, as John McCallum said, theatre-fucked. You paid the money, you may as well get the disease.
To do any kind of justice to the role of the audience, or the role of criticism, is beyond my remit and probably beyond my ability, but it is an important element in the Nowness of theatre because it is one of the important records of how that piece of theatre took place right then, in that time, and so needs to be kept alive in our minds.
Theatre happens now and in more than an empty space. The resonance of that space will be tuned by the theatre practitioners' many choices. Those choices communicate the real meaning. Hence, theatre is not here to put on plays, it is rather that plays are one (very significant) contribution to the putting on of theatre.
Imagine a production of The Cherry Orchard. Is there any way that the production you just imagined is the same as the next person's? Can there be a correct production of The Cherry Orchard? Did you try to imagine the correct production of The Cherry Orchardor your own? If there were a correct production, who could you cast? Olga Knipper? The great Stanislavski himself? Would it be all Edwardian jackets with fly-away collars and corseted ladies? Were the four scenes conveyed in realistic detail, or were they painted backdrops from the period? Where was the pesky sideboard of which Gaev speaks so extensively? Was it dark wood? Was there a television on it? Running water in the taps? Champagne in the bottles?
The point being? The whole thing is up for grabs. There is no correct Orchard. No perfect rendering of the play. We have a script and we work towards a production. All the answers to all the questions which face us as we set out on the near impossible task of bringing this world alive, now, for us, will be predicated in one way or another on how to make this play resonate for our audience - here, now, in this space. The themes will shape themselves, the meaning will evolve. The cart must not be put before the horse. The theatre as it exists now will tell us how to do the play, and we will find the theatre in the play only by doing it this way. The theatre will come first, the play second.
This is contentious for writers brought up on the erroneous notion that their words are sacred and their musings finite. But, at these important crossroads (of the sacred and the profane, form and content, theory and practice), literature does not count for much in theatre. We all know good acting and bad acting is a matter of taste and a matter of time. There is no hard and fast definition from theatre to theatre, country to country, time to time. The same applies to set design, lighting, sound, costumes, and, of course, to directing. So, unsurprisingly that is how best to assess writing for the theatre. If it speaks to now, it is good; if it muffles, confounds and/or distorts now, it is not. What is remarkable about Hamlet, The Cherry Orchard - and there are many such great plays - is that they can be re-tuned to now and make sense, make tunes, make us hear and feel now.
They may fit the bill for literature but that is separate from their theatrical value. When you set to write literature, you'll be hard-pressed to write a play. Just set out to write a play, then put it on - if it works, it'll be nothing like you imagined.
My guess is that we all have a very personal relationship to theatre. Because, when you come into the theatre, you bring with you an ongoing relationship to your past, your self, your time on this planet. Whether you are an audience member or a theatre-maker, you bring all your you-ness with you and that is the next piece of the puzzle. Personally, theatre saved my life. Seriously, it changed and remade my life not once but twice. So far.
1976. I was ten. We privileged white Australians were still in the thrall of ideas and ideals that would seem as alien now as the cane and the sport-mad school. Rugger, cricket or poofter were the choices in those heady days. To be honest, poofter chose me because I would have loved to play cricket for Australia except I never got taught the rules. Poofter also chose me because my dad was an avid subscriber to what was then the Nimrod theatre company. I assume that means my dad was a poofter. Either way, I had been exposed to theatre and the rules made sense. So, there I am at what could only be characterised as a Dickensian institution for the most important citizens in our democracy. White. And because it's a laugh after the game they do a school play and, because I fall into the category of poofter, I sign up for it - smiling from ear to ear.
I'm not telling this right. I was a ten-year-old at a school in the middle of nowhere. I was surrounded by boys I didn't really understand, and divisions and structures I didn't really get. And there was a school play. A place I understood. An ambition I could genuinely and realistically harbor. A safe haven. The play chosen was The Bushrangers. The title contains the plot, setting and characters. I was cast as one of the bushranger gang and was also understudy to the very good front-rower playing Macabe. A major role. This is my time, this is my thing. At last, something I can love in this damned, incomprehensible place. Unfortunately, none of the staff took it at all seriously so they could only rustle up costumes and props for the main gang members. It hit home hard, I was filler. An extra. The understudies were going to go on in their casuals. I was heartbroken. This was supposed to be my chance to contribute to the life of the school. Some boys do this, some do that. This was meant to be my shot at my that. A week before the opening (and closing) night a package arrived for me (exciting at the best of times) - a box with my father's familiar illegible scrawl on the top.
Inside was a full-scale replica of a flintlock pistol. You could pull back the hammer and shoot it. You still can. My boys play with it completely oblivious of the fact that it arrived in my hands like a life buoy before I drowned - a message from home that said we think what you are doing is important.
I never got to play Macabe but I had the best fucking prop in the whole show. I was in every school play from that day onward and my life was never the same again. Twenty years later, almost to the day, I was at a small gathering of friends. We all had something to do with theatre or film but mostly we were theatre wannabes. At the time, I was working in the film industry doing continuity. I had started in editing and used the employment - three or four months of well-paid work - to take time off to write or do things in theatre. Independent shows, strange scrappy little sidelines. But more and more I was working in the film industry and, looking back at that moment, my connection with theatre was at its most threadbare. I was nearly giving it up, talking like a disillusioned person, except on this night. This night, I engaged in a long and genuinely thrilling enthusing on Ivan Turgenev's A Month in the Countrywith the most beautiful, intelligent and engaging actress. She was working in film at the time but I knew she was a stage animal and it thrilled me just to talk about whatever it is that makes the stage such a particular place. Before we parted that night, we kissed. Six months later, we were married.
Neither of those moments is about a play or show I love. I tell these stories because, as Jeanette Winterson wrote, what you risk reveals what you value. A personal connection and relationship must be staked on the Now. These stories are about theatre inside my life. Theatre as a place to be. A place that allows, liberates, frees and satisfies something inside me. Of course, there has been that handful of shows that has affected my sense of theatre forever. Of course, there are plays I read time and again. We all have those. Thankfully, they are mostly different for all of us.
I want to place theatre's power for change and our personal connection to theatre in a broader conversation about Culture. So, let's start with a bit more about that Australia I grew up in. It really was a very different country - probably a different world - but there was at that time some incredibly exciting writing going on. Incredible playwrights who are linked by a project - shared explicitly or not - of getting The Australian Voice and Australian stories on stage. I think that project is done and the follow-on is so far advanced I really am talking about something long gone. The current project, well into its third decade, is Australian Theatre not Australian Plays necessarily but Australian Theatre. I date its lucid inception in my life from Neil Armfield's production of Hamletwith Richard Roxburgh as the Dane. That was when I learnt the newness, the specificity, the immediacy and the lifeblood of theatre. It taught me how to adapt the classics to our time and place, and it taught me that the classics were for us to play with. That we had as much right to them as anybody. It has, as I remember it, all the qualities that I would associate with the Australian theatrical voice. It was spare, but the imagery burnt into you. It was naughty, dangerous, disruptive. The emotional weight of the play took you by surprise because it was played lightly, ironically, with abandon. That's my personal marker, but time is nothing like history, time is hazy and the development lines between Nimrod and Belvoir alone are so blurry that to say definitively that something happened on the 9th of May in such and such year is a nonsense. But a personal relationship brings a history and, in my history, that is the moment Australian theatre changed emphasis. The meaning of being an Australian at the theatre was allowed to be more than just an investigation into what made us unique and interesting, but telescoped out into what made us particular in the scheme of all things human, in the big culture that throbs and grinds all around us before we are born and long after we are dead.
Inevitably, historicising in that way seems to infer progress, and the progress-narrative characterises the past as essentially a step towards the better present. It always does, but it isn't like that, it is waves of change and inquiry that swirl together like a beautiful ice cream with burnt brown veins of delicious caramel surrounded by a bulk of vanilla. Every generation has their own particular caramelly concentration that it is attracted to but it is the wholeness of culture that binds us and holds us together. Madness, in this ice cream analogy, might be seen as too much of the caramel intensity of one's Nowness and not enough of the softening, binding, all-embracing vanilla of the wider, older culture.
Setting aside inherited genetic patterns - the impulses in bees that lead to hives and in ants that lead to nests - culture is a uniquely human endeavour. It is formed at the intersection of our Nowness - because all life is bounded by the tyranny of time and space.
Consider our personal histories, memories, associations and our shared collective knowledge, including the humiliating knowledge that we might be ignorant of something - self-awareness is a huge engine of creation, as is ignorance. Culture is the intersection of those things with the genetic patterns we inherit. Let me reframe that: those patterns are the paper on which these interactions are writ. And these interactions between the self and the world - the world as past and the world as present - are the way culture is made and makes who we are. It takes place in language and writing. It takes place in gesture and encounter. The mushiest, most electrifying bit of it takes place in our eyes. The eyes are the window to the soul because the soul of humanity is Culture - how we interact with it and allow it to affect and change us in our singular finite lifetime. The rest, to be brutal, is biology.
To my mind, the most perfect expression of the conundrum and the bugger that is life can only be found/experienced/grasped collectively in the performing arts. Because they are subject to the very boundaries of life itself. Time and space. And theatre is always (at its best) charged with two simple conflicting themes - Identity and Death - which are probably the two parts of the sentence that says: Life.
So, for my money, theatre is the wellspring of our Culture. It is bound by the rock and the hard place that forms the tiny crevice in which we live - time and space - and it summons Identity out of nowhere until Death (or completion) in a massive exhorting hymn to Life. The other art forms are hybrids, offshoots and refinements. That is not a reflection on their invaluable contribution to this thing called humanity but, if you want to be right there on the pulse that connects you right back to the moment when consciousness flickers into being, socially, then theatre is the medium for you. People will say cave paintings. But they aren't cave paintings, they are set designs. Back then, those people crawled down into those deep, forbidding places perhaps with only a sputtering animal-fat candle for light (but what great light that would be!). They gathered there and in that tiny hopeless glow in that vast subterranean gloom, they painted a backdrop and told the story about the thing that was uppermost in their consciousness. Survival. Defeating death. Staying together just one more year, one more season at least. Please. And not someone else. Me. Us. Now.
It's hardly changed at all, theatre. The content, sure, but not the form. Empty space? No, no, no. Very full. Very attractive and singular. Very specific and finely tuned to the best embodiment of that yearning.
Tamás Ascher, who directed Uncle Vanyafor Sydney Theatre Company in 2010, said that the stage must be a place of destiny. Destiny is of course a dirty word in a liberal democracy because it negates freedom of choice. Destiny is as old as the cave theatres and as hard to sell in the modern world. But destiny is important to the meaning of theatre and to its value. When someone close to you dies, their life quite suddenly has a distinct shape. In the context of their death, chance and randomness begin to take on the shape of the inevitable. And the meaning of their life can only be read in the light of that finite pattern. That is what it feels like when someone dies. Their life sets, not in stone but into a narrative.
I am not an actor or a stage manager, so it is very rare for me to go backstage during a performance. The first time in my adult memory was during the New York tour of STC's Hedda Gablerin 2006. It was fascinating for two significant reasons. The first was to see, through the gap in the flats, the audience's attention. They pour into this crucible of light through their eyes. Every face is alive, bearing witness to something that seems to be happening inside them as much as it is happening in front of them. Their attention does not interfere with the action on stage. It embraces and inhabits it. The second insight I gained was into actors and to a lesser degree stage managers and stagehands. The zone just out of the crucible of light - what we call off-stage - is a place unlike any other I have ever been privy too. The attention of the folk there is quite similar to that of the audience. They are half right here, right now and half in some silent inner meditation.
The stage is a twilight zone between life and death. That is why the stage, when it is in the right hands, is literally a crack between this world and the next. It is inhabited by ghosts. Actors are half taken over, stage managers are like acolytes or officiaries at some strange wake cycling through eternity. The narrative has defined the world and the stage is a place of destiny.
This world and the next? But we know. We have known since Darwin. We know there is no God. No afterlife. But something inside us yearns for that silent crucible that shimmers across time and talks of who we are and how we might be better or, at least, no longer worse - about how we can live in this strange subterranean void. There is a lot of talk in ethics about the difficulty of society and legislation keeping up with science. That's very dry. The big issue breathing down our necks as a species is the resolution of our spiritual yearnings with the Godless universe that we find ourselves in. God lent authority, moral certitude, an understandably finite version of eternity. There was a way, a truth, a narrative that closed. All this is gone for many of us and yet the evolutionary pressure inside us has not abated.
Language is considered, by many who know far more than me, to give a great and simple insight into how we ended up with Gods and spirits and ancestors. We name something. That something is taken away. But the name remains. The idea remains in our minds. And so an absent thing has a presence in our lives. A very real, very functioning presence. In the beginning was the word. That evolutionary drive that makes language possible fills us with absence, indefinable fears and hopes and yearnings. Our memories of the dead. Our ability to see and remember what the past was like. We are filled with absence. Spiritual beings in a godless universe. Only culture will soothe that ache. And never quite.
There's one loose end I need to briefly clarify amongst the many dangling threads. I rather cavalierly claimed Identity as a key recurring theme. Identity in theatre. Oedipus? Hamlet? It seems to me all the great plays are about one person usually finding out who they are and, often in the best plays, they do that through action. Action that tells them (and us) who they are by how they go about getting there. That's what we are there to watch. We are there to witness the way we can get to know ourselves, our Identity. Again and again. Before the final curtain.
Theatre is a mercurial amalgam of the eternal now, the unknowable self and the ever-receding past. It is about life and death and how to live. And it is right there in front of you. Now. And then gone forever, until tomorrow.