Here's what you do if you want an article about yourself on the front of THE SYDNEY MORNING HERALD.
1) Talk to a reporter about your play.
2) Answer any questions truthfully
3) Use a portmanteau word like 'white-splaining' to describe the process whereby the Non-Indigenous director of your ( Indigenous ) play has imposed his own political agenda on your play.
It was an easy enough task. But the word had people up in arms, as well my reference to the type of writer that major Australian theatre companies are courting nowadays.
Not only was the play appropriated, but my concern about the director's process was hijacked as well.
In time I'll detail the whole messy affair with directors, literary managers and theatre companies who ignore the blatant theft of plays by writers who should know better.
For now, it is the work that matters.
But that word which caused some consternation... it's been around for years.
So here's a bit about WHITE-SPLAINING I found - just in case there is still someone out there who thinks I have anything against white people.
Maybe I should let my white wife in on that secret I suppose...
H Lawrence Sumner.
I wrote an opinion piece in the Australian. I was invited, so I thought 'why not?'
I'm glad to have set the record straight as far as my issue with loss of voice. It won't change a lot of minds. It's purpose was to clarify, not to persuade.
Having taught on institutional racism, I know won't get anywhere with companies that are more interested in the bottom line and being seen as 'politically correct' than they are in making sure they are ethically and morally correct.
It was a hard lesson to learn. I wipe the dust from my feet - and move on.
So here's to the next play.
I refuse to stay bitter. Here's a monologue from my second play, DOWN, that I'm trying to live out this week.
"We ran for our lives. From men with guns. We found our father the next day amongst the ashes of our village and watched our mother wail, holding his charred body. Weeks later, in the first of many refugee camps, she insisted we forgive. We will never forget. But we were told to forgive. Forgiveness is not the sunshine or the rainbow. It is not the beautiful moment when your heart is no longer in pain. It is not a silver box with a bow on top."
"It is the thunder. It echoes and roars down from the dark sky. Down through time, down into the soul. It is the one act that pierces the past and future. It reaches back through the years to denounce and stand against the will of evil men. It stretches into the past to release and say ‘What you did to me will not hold me here."
"It runs ahead into the future to compass about, and make the way clear for me. It is the strong, sure ringing of a bell from the highest tower, to announce that I have arrived with no burden or bitterness in my soul. I will not allow my heart to get bitter. That will attract no good thing to me."
Grace to you and yours,
It is the business of a general to be quiet and thus ensure secrecy; upright and just, and thus maintain order - Sun Tzu
Silence is one of the hardest arguments to refute - Josh Billings
Choose silence of all virtues, for by it you hear other men's imperfections, and conceal your own - George Bernard Shaw
Be still and know that I am God - Psalm 46:10
I sat across a desk from the head of the South Australian Film Corporation, discussing a script which was okay. It had it's flaws. But it was a reasonable third draft. A story about a burnt out female musician.
During the discussion, the subject moved to the cultural aspect of the project and if it was an Indigenous story with Aboriginal characters. I asked why that mattered.
The reply was, and I quote "Your Aboriginality is the best thing you have got going for you. You should use it."
This - from the now outgoing head of the SAFC.
I had pitched the same idea to Tryptych films, based in SA. I even brought my guitar along, played them a couple of tunes and then presented the story. The lead character was female.
The first question asked by the head of Triptych films " Is she Aboriginal?".
"She doesn't have to be. I guess she could be" I replied.
"Ooooh. Maybe we could get Jessica Mauboy!"
Would this have been asked of any other writer?
It was satisfying to say no to the SAFC.
I'm sure that making a project distinctly Aboriginal will attract funding, cache or add cultural capital to a project.
But it shouldn't be the first port of call for me as a writer.
It would be fabulous to be able to write freely, with no concern that any producer, director, actor, designer, film or theatre company had their own agenda. But they all do.
In their effort to be 'collaborative' and work on my script, my characters or my project what inevitably ends up happening is a lot of second guessing by these people about what I wrote. Then, sadly, I end up second guessing myself.
Because of someone else's AGENDA I lose AGENCY.
It's difficult to fight, because agendas don't show up right away. They usually don't appear when you're in the room pitching a project. Which was unusual when it happened at SAFC and Triptych. It usually happens when you're bumping in, talking to actors or meeting the director or in other places where it is difficult to extricate oneself.
If the answer is going to be no, make sure it comes from your mouth and not theirs.
The only sure answer to AGENDA is to be sure of your own AGENCY and your own VOICE.
PEACE, and have a great Christmas.
Here's the news. My play, THE LONG FORGOTTEN DREAM is debuting next year in the Drama Theatre of the Sydney Opera House. The last year has been a wild ride with rough drafts, development and long chats with staff from Sydney Theatre Company.
I am so grateful to Kip Williams and Polly Rowe for showing such support for a piece of work that for the better part of a year, turned me into a bearded, robe wearing recluse.
Today of all days then, I find it necessary to re-examine how I arrived at this point in time.
In my coastal town of Goolwa during a 2012 arts conference RESILIENCE became the new buzz word. Words like 'cultural maintenance' and 'cultural resilience' fell from the mouths of guest speakers, like wisdom from the mouth of Minerva.
Within a week or so, all of these well travelled, well payed keynote speakers flew back to whatever holy loft they came from and most artisans in Goolwa got on with their art, as did I.
I'm glad to say that when all the conference prophets left town I chose to just keep doing what I did. Over the last five years I've managed to keep writing, studying and creating.
Resilience isn't given to you because you attend a high priced conference. Resilience is the stuff that anchors you to your work when everyone else has left the room. Some of what follows I've written elsewhere, scrapped and reworked, until I found my footing around what cultural maintenance and resilience are for me.
RESILIENCE AND IDENTITY
It can be argued that from federation, the arts scene in Australian society has been dominated by an artistic milieu of colonialism. Historically, the type of art that hung on the walls of parliament, art houses and galleries, the various plays that were performed and the kind of music available, was chosen by people who were heavily influenced by Social Darwinism. As a result, theatres, galleries and cultural exhibitions became the stomping ground for elitism and the most insidiously covert form of racism – artistic colonialism. Even when emerging artists of the 1950s and 1960s began to throw off the restraints of their predecessors and art was increasingly used as a form of protest (in a time when intellectuals were declaring that Australia was part of a network of herronvolk democracies), the protester’s involvement in arts practice always had a powerful fall back position. The majority of them came from the dominant culture.
There is no sense of destiny without a sense of history. In our desire to press forward into artistic destiny, we must secure a reasonable understanding of history, painful as it may be. A devastating by-product of the historical promotion of British / European art was the potent disregard for Aboriginal artistry. If it was not being totally disregarded, Aboriginal culture and art forms were regarded as less than civilized and fell into the dangerous category of ‘the other’. In much the same way as it was comforting for plunderers to categorize Australian Aborigines as less than human (Chan 1999), it is correspondingly comfortable to view Aboriginal art as ‘other’ and Aboriginal artists as needy recipients of funding.
With major funding organizations promoting their funding ‘success stories’ on websites it is plain to see that the emphasis of a majority of funding for visual art is placed on art derived from traditional form, or is of a political nature. In other words, the majority of Aboriginal visual art that is funded is stereotypically ‘other’ or discusses ‘otherness’. It suits the needs of an artistic colonial mindset to maintain a perception that Aboriginal people are only skilled in basket weaving, dot painting and making political statements. This is not cultural maintenance – it is a perpetuation of cultural dominance.
If we see culture as something that is socially constructed and maintained then the ongoing construction of Aboriginal culture is in danger of grinding to a halt. This is due to the fact that Aboriginal artists who desire to express themselves artistically outside the boundaries of a colonial paradigm are not viewed as ‘genuine’ Aboriginal artists, but as abberations.
A standout example being the most famous Aboriginal visual artist, Albert Namatjira. “As the first prominent Aboriginal artist to work in a modern idiom, he was widely regarded as a representative of assimilation. Namatjira's brilliant career highlighted the gap between the rhetoric and reality of assimilation policies. He encountered an ambiguous response from the art world. Some criticized his water color landscapes as derivative and conventional, others viewed them as evidence of acculturation and a loss of tribal traditions.”
It is important to acknowledge heritage.
But to continually refer to people as ‘Aboriginal’ artists is to classify rather than promote. It does a disservice to members of a community who have struggled to maintain specific expressions of culture when that expression is undermined, misappropriated, misrepresented and taken advantage of. Conversely it is also detrimental to pigeon-hole artists according to their race, color or creed, unless that artist expressly intends for their work to articulate that meaning or they give their permission to be so labelled. The sad point in the above quote is that Albert Namatjira was widely regarded as a representative of assimilation rather than widely regarded as an artist.
In the 2018 Sydney Theatre Company season brochure, I have been described as a "Ngarrindjeri writer". It doesn't offend me. Because it is not racialising my job. It is making the audience aware of my claim to authenticity. So before any Indigenous activist discourse begins around this play and how I am represented, let me be very clear. My appeal to authority is my work and my culture. I have no issue with the label 'Ngarrindjeri artist'. If anyone cares to notice, I'm also called an Australian playwright on the same website... so can I gently say, move on.
Having said that, in the definition of artists used by major organizations, colonialism and whiteness continually re-centres itself. Rarely is the term ‘White artist’ or ‘Artist of English descent’ used. This argument was also taken up in 2011 by Carrie Miller in issue 57 of The Australian Art Collector. “This conjuring into being of the Aboriginal other in relation to white European Australian art seems to be more of a function of the generalised and institutionalised racism that colonisation instantiated rather than an overt and explicit racism on the part of individuals operating in the art world now. Nevertheless, using categories like Aboriginal or Indigenous, if only as seemingly benign ethnographic classifications, have real effects in the present, allowing past practices to persist through a lack of confrontation with them.”
It can seem that highlighting this erroneous type of categorization could result in funding bodies adopting a ‘damned if we do and damned if we don’t’ mentality. However, the error lies not in the practice, but in the perception behind the practice. Namely, the perception that Aboriginality as only defined by colonial patriarchy is a prerequisite for funding. Nowhere else is this more clearly seen than in the degrading practice of including a certificate of Aboriginality along with funding applications.
Artists do not create art in a vacuum. They exist on a continuum spanning generations, past and future. They are influenced and inspired by artisans who have gone before and have the potential to inspire those who come after them. We are able to recognize a painting by Pro Hart or Drysdale or McCubbin. In respect to identity, Namatjira transcended racial identity and became one of those artists that we can name as we walk through a gallery, simply saying ‘That’s a Namatjira’. By doing so, we close the book on the phrase "Aboriginal Artist" and open the way for future art students to walk through a gallery and proclaim ‘That’s a Queenie McKenzie’. The artist’s identity is no longer attached to racial qualifications, but artistic ones.
RESILIENCE, CULTURAL MAINTENANCE AND MEANING
Cultural maintenance has been defined as the effort to sustain a culture by asserting its way of life and preserving its material embodiment. For the most part, when it came to Aboriginal cultures, preserving material embodiment meant the collection and preservation of artefacts. More recently, emphasis has been placed on the preservation and restoration of language. Cultural maintenance is more than the preservation of a language. “In a culture, meaning often depends on larger units of analysis - narratives, statements, groups of images, whole discourses which operate over a variety of texts – areas of knowledge about a subject which have acquired widespread authority.”
If something is living it grows. Remaining faithful to the definition of cultural maintenance means we must allow the whole definition to find expression. Giving room for the assertion a culture’s way of life is to allow space for the ongoing cultural discourses and interaction between the members of that
culture. It is to allow and support the growth of new expressions of meaning in an ever-changing world over a variety of texts. The language and cosmology of a culture is a foundational source of strength to its members. But while that may provide structure, the articulation of that cosmology can be more fluid. For example, there are many expressions of Christ’s Passion, from classical music, to paintings and even film. But the meaning remains the same. There is a shared knowledge and understanding of The Passion amongst the members of the Christian world, regardless of denomination.
So too, amongst the members of the Aboriginal community, foundational beliefs can be expressed in different ways, irrespective of the location or language group. A point in case - a deep and abiding sense of connection to the land can be seen in a Papunya dot painting, a Ngarrindjeri traditional dance, the songs of Archie Roach, the plays of Jack Davis and in the films of Warwick Thornton and Rachel Perkins.
“To belong to a culture is to belong to roughly the same linguistic and conceptual universe…” Cultural maintenance falls prey to ambiguity when the individuals doing the maintenance do not belong to that culture but feel entitled to ‘cherry pick’ what is meaningful and what is not. The arrival of European artistic expression is a relatively new phenomena on the cultural landscape of what is now called Australia. Aboriginal traditions, cosmology and oral history have been sustained over thousands of years but the keepers of that history have had to come to terms with the loss of sacred places, languages and ceremony in a very brief time. The fact that Indigenous ceremonial artistic expression still thrives is testament to the resilience of a people who, in spite of their collective grief and loss, continue to assert what is meaningful and what is not, through the protocol of Eldership.
In genuine cultural maintenance it is the duty of rightfully appointed Elders to draw meaning from collective ceremony and interpret it. That duty belongs to no one else. In the same manner, contemporary artists within an Aboriginal community bear a similar responsibility for their own work. The discourse, coded or not, contained within the work is the property of the individual artist.
Within the context of an Aboriginal community, if the work is an individual work, then the artist alone should be accountable for meaning and interpretation. There is a discernible difference between a collective ritual and an individual piece of art.
There exists a manifest difference between a group ceremony handed down from generation to generation and a modern artistic expression. Therefore, we might well ask, does an Elder have the right to reject a piece of work as genuinely Aboriginal? If, in an effort to assert a continued way of life or cultural expression, an Elder disapproves of an individual piece of work, where does his/her responsibility lie? To cultural maintenance or the continuation of a living, breathing culture that is forming new expressions of resistance with each new generation of Aboriginal artists?
Where do the new Aboriginal Hip Hop musicians sit within the parameters of cultural maintenance? Are they seriously engaged in the continuation of resistance and thereby maintaining their culture or, to paraphrase Drew Barrymore in the film Music and Lyrics, are they destroying ‘two musical cultures’ at once? Who decides whether their music is ‘genuine’ Aboriginal art?
Australia Council encourages Aboriginal musicians to apply for funding but on their website they state “… traditional knowledge that underpins Indigenous artwork is what defines it and sets it apart from mainstream art.” Are not these musicians continuing to assert their culture and way of life by putting
political discourse into song? We need only look at the success of Non Indigenous bands like Hilltop Hoods to consider that Hip Hop is a genuine form of resistance and artistic expression in Australia for Indigenous artists.
If artists do not create art in a vacuum then we might say that in forming new expressions of resilience and resistance in song, dance and art, individual artists within an Aboriginal community are able to consolidate their own place on the continuum. In doing so they give meaning to their own lives, much like their ancestors did. “The truths of social living…were enshrined in their religion…A strong belief in that religion ensured maintenance of a social and cultural order that most of them (Aborigines) seemed to have regarded as eminently satisfactory. Within they found recognition of the dignity of man as a person, and assurance that his life had pattern and meaning, and that in death he was not lost to his society; that an essential essence remained and could never be dissipated.” (Berndt & Phillips 1973)
The complexity of processing and interpreting meaning from ceremonies, songs, painting, films and theatre in order to assess what is viable for the ongoing survival of a people and its culture needs to be left up to the people who are active participants in that culture.
The title Traditional Owner does not just apply to land, but to knowledge and meaning. Just because a new work does not appear ancient, or does not fit the funding bodies definition of Aboriginal art, that does not disqualify it from having as much Aboriginality and meaning as those works that the world is already familiar with. From bark paintings to stage plays, from didjeridus to digital samplers – discourse that brings meaning and operates over a variety of texts is a sign of a healthy, resilient culture. It is also a sign that artists in Aboriginal communities have the ability to break free from the semiotic limitations of texts imposed on them in bygone eras.
RESILIENCE AND ACCOMMODATION
“Much of twentieth-century Aboriginal art is ‘transitional’ in a number of ways. It is the art of people overwhelmed by an alien culture within which they have had to learn to live in order to survive, since the whites have made few adjustments.” J & M Megaw, 1988
Two needs have been illuminated so far. (1) The need for mainstream arts organizations and funding bodies to disengage from the practice of classifying artists by race and (2) The need for the Aboriginal community to identify and allow discourse that is authentic in the work of individual artists for the purpose of cultural maintenance. The first point speaks to an external action that can bolster the confidence of the Aboriginal community. Confidence to create and present work, knowing that the work will be appreciated for it’s own sake and not simply because it is part of a colonial ‘otherness’ paradigm. The second point speaks to an internal process of maturation on the part of Elders and individual artists in an Aboriginal community. Becoming mature enough to recognize that change is inevitable, but traditions can still be maintained with integrity. In the bigger scheme of the current arts system, these two needs are simply a starting point for Aboriginal groups who are on the journey to becoming more resilient artistic communities. They are mechanisms to resist further erosion of Aboriginal values. But to be resilient is to not merely be resistant and defensive.
Resilience has more to do with accommodation than resistance. In the resistance and accommodation model used in the historical study of Aboriginal/Colonial relations, accommodating and making room for an external influence can be seen as just as valid as resisting it. Trading with or taking on the customs of an occupying force was a means of survival for some Aboriginal groups. While resistance can be seen as simplistic in its methodology (Attacking cattle, protecting land or refusal to give up a native language), accommodation, though ostensibly passive, was a complicated choice and a more adaptive form of resistance for some individuals. To be able to accommodate the loss of land while continuing with ceremony, ritual and art in the face of overwhelming change is more akin to what Mark Robinson ( one of the keynotes at the aforementioned conference in Goolwa) calls adaptive resilience.
“Adaptive resilience is the capacity to remain productive and true to core purposeand identity whilst absorbing disturbance and adapting with integrity in response to changing circumstances.” – Making Adaptive Resilience Real, 2010.
In this paper Robinson advocates a move toward an artistic philosophy that embraces a more ecological systems approach rather than a business stance. He freely admits that this philosophy should be used as a starting point for discussion and analysis, rather than just considered another fad. While warning that resilience should not merely be the latest buzz-word he proposes that resilience theory shifts the perception of the arts sector from economy to ecology. This draws on the assumption that living ecological systems are adaptive and resilient in times of change. The shift from ‘arts economy’ to ‘arts ecology’ is likely to be a more functional parallel for South Australian Aboriginal communities in the Alexandrina region, since accommodation as a form of resilience was already being practiced in the 1830s. During this turbulent time of change ‘…Kaurna people and groups from areas such as Encounter Bay and along the Murray needed little encouragement to come into the colonial capital, Adelaide.’(Pope, 1989). They saw it as a peaceful way of surviving. Europeans saw it as an opportunity to concentrate an Aboriginal population into one area, thus making it easier to claim land that was not ‘occupied’. While Aboriginal and European groups of Adelaide lived peacefully during a time of mutual accommodation, agendas for land were never far from colonial thinking. With this in mind, it is useful to point out that Robinson warns against resilience theory becoming simply another arts sector agenda, ‘the post-2010 box for people to tick by generating so-called Resilience Plans.’
Aboriginal communities have been the subject of so many health, education and arts initiatives by successive governments that it is almost tiresome to hear about the arrival of a new paradigm. Also, having each successive government or arts board impose an initiative can create an unhealthy dependency on government, leading to a collective learned helplessness – the antithesis of resilience.
Again, cultural maintenance is more than the preservation of a language. It is the ongoing effort to maintain life, creativity and a functional artistic lifestyle in midst of turbulent times.
To be resilient, one must be in the fight. One must be tempered by the fray. In the end, as always, it is the work that matters.
It's great when your hard work has paid off. Mine has, in very unexpected ways and very big ways.
While I can't yet share where my work has led me, I can say this - It would not have happened without shutting a few things down.
One of them is my mouth. Almost a year ago I came to the conclusion that sometimes I just need to close my mouth and do the work. Not rant about unfairness in the system, regret my choices or blame others for my lack of discipline. I just had to shut my mouth and work.
I love my restless mind. It keeps me up at night, creating, pouring over details and it will not let me go until a scene or song that I'm writing is either settled or sung. But I had to shut myself off from having too many things to say about too many other things in this world. The one thing I had to concentrate on was NOT offering an opinion. I had the occasional Facebook rant or the odd gripe here and there. But my daily barbs for things and people I disagree with are now off limits. I cannot and will not waste my time and energy on bloviating.
I believe I have some important contributions to make to the cultural conversation in my country. I can't make them in an undisciplined fashion. So my mouth is now firmly closed when it comes to pedestrian ephemera.
I had to shut down bad eating habits. While a lamington from my local bakery will give me the energy I need to get a few more lines written, the rush dies after an hour. Therefore, almonds, carrots, sugar free biscuits and xylitol in my tea have become the norm. I hate it. I absolutely hate it. But my body has thanked me and my garden now looks more like a market garden than the mess it was. I have eight small garden beds of various vegetables and one large corner patch reserved for potatoes and tomatoes. The vegetable garden is also a beautiful respite from staring at a screen all day.
I had to shut down friends. Or rather, those that called themselves my friend. I had a friend of thirty years who I didn't know was racist. I had a friend from church, who I had known since my early twenties who used my house and company as a way of escaping his responsibilities. He would arrive with cigars and war stories and basically dump his troubles. I soon discovered that this was his way of taking a break and 'being bohemian', as he told others. I live on the south coast and my company was his break from life. I had other friends who would only ever see me alone and never in a group because they couldn't stand the way I would 'become the centre of attention, just by being there'. It took time away from my work and writing when I had to entertain people who ended up not really caring about my work at all.
Last of all, I had to shut down the false image of me that people were creating. It gets a bit scary here. I know racism exists in Australia. It was just tough to see it close up in the theatre. Lateral harassment and bullying from other artists in the Aboriginal community became a real thing to tackle. I had heard about this pettiness and jealousy, but I never thought I would see it first hand. Get an ounce of success as an Indigenous man and there will arise ten other Aboriginal people to tell you that you are acting white, or they will be passively aggressive and remind you that 'they know the real you'. There were also Non Indigenous people in my professional artistic life who have ascribed to me an arrogant attitude. When this type of behaviour was challenged I would find that these teachers, mentors, do gooders had never really experienced having their practice questioned by a person of colour. Where a white up and coming writer/director would be called assertive, I was labelled as aggressive and difficult. Key people that should have helped me to the next phase decided that I was difficult to work with. This was based on the fact that I refused to be silent on my choices about what constitutes good writing and good theatre - and that I refused to be a token black.
It was a horrid thing to discover that the very people who were supposed to be teaching me, mentoring me, knew almost nothing about Australian theatre or it's need to grow. These are the people I regretted listening to.
I had to shut this regret down. I had to shut these people from my head and just work. Just write.
Because of that experience, the last thing I had to shut down was my lack of trust in the theatre community. Over the twenty five years of being in the arts, I have seen the good and the bad. Dressing room antics, a total lack of disregard for the safety and mental well being of crew, political infighting and exclusivity in cliques that form in theatre communities here in South Australia. I had lost my trust in the process. I had nothing left to offer. So I chose to write one epic piece, that would attempt to say everything I wanted to say about this country, my part in it and the way forward. I shut everything else down, closed the door and wrote for one year.
Then I found one person I could trust. My trust was rewarded.
The result of that one year of introspection and reclusive living?
It's coming soon.
Originally posted August 1st 2013
As I type, I’m sitting in the library of NIDA…getting ready to work with the third year NIDA actors.
I’m half way through the NIDA year and have learnt that methodology is more useful to me as a reflective tool than a creative one. Stanislavski was a genius…but applying a regime to a play is fraught with potholes. It’s necessary to take from Stanislavski what you find useful for yourself as a director, rather than adopt a whole set of ideas. It is a marvelous toolkit…one that will stand me in good stead as I move further along the track.
For now, all I can do is look back over some of the highlights from my time here and hope that the year keeps progressing the way it has. Each new week brings different challenges and different rewards. I can’t help but admire the actors I have worked with so far. At times they have left me awestruck…both ACA and at The University of Woollongong.
My fellow directors are just as talented…and I am extremely jealous of their youth, vitality and intellect. I have no problem boasting about them. They are the future of Australian Theatre. I feel rich when I am around them. I am a blessed man indeed to be in the company of such talent. All that is left to do in this post is to provide you with some visuals from the year so far.
As I polished this piece of writing a few nights ago I looked out to the roof of NIDA from my balcony where a recent Gala was held to raise money. I sat through the tech run the night before and, apparently, mention is to be made of Nick Enright and his contribution to theatre. During the tech run a small spotlight falls on the glass cabinet dedicated to him. The rich and the elite of the theatre world will no doubt be in attendance. Amongst them, so I was told, will be past directorial alumni. Theatrical lineage is discussed a lot at NIDA, so I anticipate the names of Jim Sharman through to Kip Williams will be discussed in that foyer tonight. My eyes move back to my desk and I see on the shelf a text book. Fifty Key Theatre Directors. A subjective list at best. Names like Stanislavsky, Bausch and Armfield appear.
A name not found in this book and even more likely to not be discussed at tonight’s NIDA Gala is the nameSteven Berkoff.
I had the pleasure of his company for a brief hour in the bistro of the Adelaide Festival Centre in 1994. I was in the middle of a directorial traineeship with South Australia’s State Theatre Company. Berkoff was there in rehearsal for his one man show. The memory of the conversation is vivid. We were introduced and he began to bluntly ask about why I worked in theatre, where I started and if my practice was informed by my connection to the land as an Aboriginal man. I lied and said it was, to which he seemed pleased. He advised me to get out into the desert more and seek creativity. I was so in awe that he would have me at his lunch table. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I was not from a desert people. All I cared was that he was genuinely interested in me as an artist. I have been intrigued by his work ever since.
I was surprised by the reaction of a colleague at NIDA when I told them I had changed my essay subject to Steven Berkoff. ‘He’s a fucking Zionist.’, they snorted. This is, quintessentially, why he intrigues me. He polarizes people.
In various texts, be they newspaper articles, television interviews or books, Berkoff describes himself as somewhat of a transfigured director. On the one hand he speaks about his youth and the days of longing to get into the club, the theatrical clique. He became vehemently opposed to mainstream . Nowadays, he is ostensibly part of it. His participation in a Hollywood flop like The Tourist is as far away as any artist could get from their origins. On the BBC arts program Hard Talk, Sarah Montague questions him about his anger and hatred of current theatre. She boasts that last year British Theatre had its most successful year. Berkoff replies ‘No, that’s not true. Last year musicals were successful. The masses came to the theatre to see musicals. They are a valid art form, but they take up time in the big theatre spaces. A year, five years, ten years…all for one musical.’. Berkoff will not give in.
Why is Steven Berkoff such a polarizing force? Is this a deliberate choice on his part?
A Theatre of Extremes.
‘Mediocrity is not a crime, by no means. Most of you are mediocre, which is why you go to the theatre. To watch other mediocrities.’
The audience is given no quarter during a Steven Berkoff production. Having now seen him on stage three times, once for Tell Tale Heart / Actor/ Dog and twice for Shakespeare’s Villains, I can attest to being drawn in as Berkoff takes you to the limit of his performativity and commentary in his one man shows. In Dog I watched in horror as Berkoff portrayed a skinhead so in love with his pet bulldog that he began French kissing it. The mime kissing became extreme, Berkoff opening the jaws of the pet and passing himself through the canine, coming out the other end from dog mouth to dog rectum. All mimicry, all gross.
In Shakespeare’s Villains, the line from Richard the Third, ‘lascivious pleasings of a lute…’ is spoken by Berkoff while he mimes fellatio. His commentary on how political correctness destroyed his opportunity to play Othello is blunt and striking.
If his is a theatre of extremes then, to Berkoff, it is one surrounded by the theatre of the mediocre. Berkoff developed his theatrical form in direct response to his dislike of naturalism in British theatre, which was filled with bad acting in ‘…grim, plodding attempts to be natural.’ Berkoff’s minimalistic use of space steered well clear from the trickery of set designs and audience pleasing spectacles such as revolving stages. ‘What is lost on the stage is the entire space since the ugly monster sits like a great turd in the middle of the playing area….If I go to the theatre and see one of those things on a stage, my heart sinks, since there can be no art of the player, no choreography, since the director knows not that form’
I am intrigued by Berkoff firstly because his was an indirect route to becoming a director. From a poor immigrant family, Berkoff longed for purpose and escape. Having been rejected after auditioning for Olivier (who didn’t bother to show up) when the National theatre was being set up and being rejected sparked in Berkoff a fierce determination. His memoirs tell of years wandering through various branches of theatre. Acting, mime, directing for community theatre, movement study and eventually ending up in Paris where he found his aesthetic. Minimal set and pushing bodies to the extreme are Berkoff’s calling card. The heightened gestures, physical mechanics and the mixture of science with choreography are direct results of his time in Paris, having studied movement with Jacque LeCoq With this aesthetic Berkoff captured an audience for himself, with bodies in simplistic sets. The most stunning of which was the set and body design for Kafka’sMetamorphosis. ‘A skeletal framework of steel scaffolding suggesting an abstract sculpture of a giant insect is stretched across the stage.’ The stage is sharply lit, throwing shadows of the frame and the human body against the upstage wall.
Berkoff, The Master Self Promoter
The ability to develop a unique style of theatre that relies on only the voice and body in a time when musicals and spectacle began to dominate is the area of his practice I am most influenced by. To shun the conventions of your contemporaries and go it alone. This distinctive element of Berkoff’s work is what I find most compelling. The audacity of flagrant self promotion. Berkoff created, and still creates, an image of himself in the media. He has become known as the difficult guy to work with. Long before Christian Bale graced film sets with his tantrums, Berkoff was threatening his colleagues. His work at self promotion is informed by his decision to be creative in spite of his contemporaries. Building iconography around himself, he forged his own path in his day, mainly because those around him were wanting to put him into a box. Harry the actor, His fictional character from Berkoff’s book of short stories, Graft, is obviously autobiographical when read in conjunction with his official autobiography Free Association. His hatred for theatre critics is well known, partly because of his extreme reaction to them, ‘…insults, bannings, even a death threat.
Berkoff sees himself and his aesthetic as a unique product. Although he now has an agent he is still an independent artist, steering clear of submitting himself to any company that would dilute or pollute his vision. For that reason he is personally involved in his publicity. He controls the perception that the public and theatre community have of him. Rather than waiting to labeled, he is aggressive in his resolve to maintain his persona and set the record straight about his work when the odd critic has written a disparaging review.
Since image and publicity are forefront in his practice, Berkoff believes the image of Olivier is problematic for British theatre and British actors. Berkoff describes Olivier as ‘…the great statue that sits upon every stage.’, and Olivier’s Shakespearean reputation as Mountain Everest, telling how so many actors have attempted the climb and ended dead at the base of ‘…that great mountain.’. Olivier is problematic for Berkoff because of the perception that people have of Shakespeare and acting, as something that is sacred and available only to the few.
Berkoff’s attitude to publicity, persona and perception are of interest to me because I have struggled with a similar theatrical experience. Coming from a very poor background, being the only Indigenous family in a school of mostly British immigrants, I developed a keen awareness of difference. As I moved up through secondary school and discovered Shakespeare through Othello, I found that teachers were unwilling (or unable) to unpack these texts for me due to their perception that Shakespeare was not for the likes of me.
Pursuing a career in theatre was problematic for me in Australia, largely due to the constant attitude that as an Indigenous actor I was , and continue to be, offered parts that speak to my appearance. The image and perception of Aboriginality sits like a great statue on the Australian stage and screen. In auditions and interviews I am openly compared to other Aboriginal directors and find myself frustrated at the temerity of companies to even think that, just because I have the same heritage as Warwick Thornton or Wesley Enoch, I would want to follow their path of making specifically Indigenous film or theatre.
I have therefore had to shape my persona over the years, and have to do so with every theatre company or theatrical institution I work with. My application for NIDA did not appeal to any part of my cultural background, but at the interview for the directing course I found myself answering questions about whether or not I wanted to write Indigenous plays and would I be open to sitting in on the playwriting course as well. Recent tutorials here have also been problematic in that there seems to be very little effort to be factual about Indigenous history.
For each play and company I have been involved with, whether it be a Chekhov, Shakespeare or Nowra, I have had to work doubly hard to overcome the unuttered perception that I should be in a loin cloth for every production I’m in.
Not being able to escape these perceptions, I used it to my advantage. Like Berkoff, I decided to create my own shows and am involved in shaping the image that people have of me. It has become part of my practice to shape people’s perception of me. If I am considered a difficult person to work with then it will be for good reason. I do not accept mediocrity in my fellow actors when rehearsing. I do not accept the path of least resistance in directing. While I steer clear from strong remarks about other people’s performances, I will hold my ground and justify my own reasons for choosing a play or choosing a particular actor to work with. I have a handful of people that I trust, creatively and am always willing to jump in if I see an opportunity to be on a team with creative people who are better than me. It's the only way to learn. This can be difficult since my aim is to travel as far away from current Australian theatre practice as possible and shape my own identity and aesthetic, without having to ingratiate others to myself or, as Berkoff puts it, sit around the foyer and ‘…socialise with the luvvies.’
To return to my initial observation, I believe that Steven Berkoff has made a deliberate choice to polarize the theatrical community, due to its initial exclusion of him as a performer of Jewish heritage. This decision has served him well. I have yet to see whether my decision to polarize will benefit me in the same way.