How The Aussie Theatre Industry Sees Itself & Its Future

30 December 2019 | 1:35 pm | Joel Burrows

Joel Burrows talks to Eamon Flack from Belvoir St Theatre, Todd MacDonald from La Boite, and Matthew Lutton from Malthouse Theatre, about the theatre trends that defined the decade, and what comes next.

Through the 2010s in Australian theatre, we’ve seen everything from David Finnigan’s satirical Kill Climate Deniers to gripping dramas like Leah Purcell’s The Drover’s Wife. To say that we’ve had some decent plays this decade would be a bit of an understatement.

“The decade kicked off with a flood of generational change,” says Eamon Flack, Artistic Director of Sydney’s Belvoir. “There was a real explosion of interest in the classics and reworking them, rewriting them, blowing them open.” 

This trend can be seen in Belvoir’s 2011 production of The Seagull, Melbourne Theatre Company’s 2014 Ghosts, and everything produced by Bell Shakspeare’s touring group The Players. 

While classics were still reworked from 2015 to 2019, the trend did appear to taper off. Flack posits: “This seems to have turned out to be something of a cul-de-sac, stylistically, aesthetically, and culturally.”

Flack also believes that the later half of the decade was defined by “a greater variety of views and voices”.

The Artistic Director of Brisbane’s La Boite, Todd MacDonald, agrees. He says there’s been a “rise of real people telling real stories” and a push to have “diversity on our stages”. This shift can be viewed in everything from Michelle Law’s beloved Single Asian Female, which opened at La Boîte in 2017, to Nakkiah Lui’s Black Is The New White, which premiered at Sydney Theatre Company the same year, with each play going on to tour the country. 

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However, Matthew Lutton, Artistic Director at Melbourne’s Malthouse, makes the important point that diversity isn’t a trend. Trends can wane and dwindle, while, hopefully, diverse artists will continue to be an integral part of the industry. Lutton instead says there’s been a “critical and necessary shift towards presenting greater diversity and equality on our stages”.

The push for diversity on our stages isn’t a new phenomenon, says Lutton, there have been fights for greater representation in previous decades. And the industry’s slow progress in this area only shows far it needs to improve. “In the last decade the Australian theatre scene has had to face stark reminders of how far we still have to go," he says. 

The Australian theatre scene’s relationship with playwriting has also shifted and evolved over the past ten years, with the emergence of playwrights like Christopher Bryant and Jada Alberts. “Australian writing has certainly become more prominent on our main stages,” says Flack. “There is more of it, and a broader variety, both in form and content. I still think it is excruciatingly difficult and confusing to be a playwright in Australia. It always has been, and the loss of Playwriting Australia will make it harder. On the other hand, the major companies are doing a lot more to support new writing. Something very new is happening.”

“We are seeing a greater balance of traditional and non-traditional playwriting practices sitting side by side and bringing audiences together,” says Lutton. “We’ve also seen a new wave of queer playwriting and a new generation of Indigenous playwriting exploding onto our stages.” 

Flack’s professional highlight of the decade was working on S Shakthidharan’s Counting And Cracking. Shakthidharan’s play follows four generations of a family from the 1983 civil war in Sri Lanka to Pendle Hill in 2019. It’s an epic about reconciliation, connection and refugees’ relationship with Australia. Flack says it was an utter pleasure collaborating with Shakthidharan. One of the best things about the production for Flack was “seeing the impact it had on the city and the Sri Lankan community”.

Watching Counting And Cracking was also a highlight for MacDonald: “I loved it. I thought the integrity in the work was immense.”

Another standout moment for MacDonald was directing Future D Fidel’s Prize Fighter. Prize Fighter is a story about a former Congolese child soldier training for a national boxing title in Brisbane. MacDonald reflects, “Seeing it grow, and nationally tour, and really impact audiences wherever it went was a huge highlight for me.”

Moving into the 2020s, Flack predicts that the industry’s focus on platforming diverse artists will continue to make the craft better. “The seriousness with which questions of diversity are being taken will yield unexpected and quite wonderful work in the decade to come,” he says. 

“We’ve just finished our strategic planning for the next four years,” says MacDonald. “And we’re almost falling over leaning into diversity. That is, I think, where it’s at; it’s gotta be where it’s at.”

However, the industry faces serious challenges. Between August and November, a lot of theatre companies applied to receive four years of funding from Australia Council. MacDonald is concerned that a number of these organisations will not receive the funding they need. He says, “If that four-year funding round happens, and rolls out the way that it could, we’re looking at 30 or 40 companies that are going to get cut. And that’s going to devastate a generation of storytelling in this nation.”

“Serious public policy will have to be not just attempted but pulled off if we are are to save the arts from becoming an exclusive cultural club for the few,” says Flack.

Yet, despite the looming threat of funding cuts, there’s still plenty of great theatre to reflect on and look forward to. “There is kind of a critical mass of diverse artists coming through who are really connecting and creating a power base of audiences,” says MacDonald. “Which I think is super exciting.”