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Interview with Hilary Glow

Hilary Glow lectures in arts management and cultural policy at Deakin University. Previous to her academic career, she worked in the Australian theatre sector as an editor and dramaturg and was a theatre reviewer and arts commentator across both print and broadcast media. In Power Plays: Australian Theatre and the Public Agenda, Hilary investigates the work of some of Australia’s most successful playwrights who share a passion about the theatre as a forum for public discussion.

We spoke to Hilary about what makes theatre political, why authors choose to write for the stage rather than television and what challenges political playwrights face today.

What makes a play political?

In my book I’ve looked at plays which have an over-riding interest in investigating the world of ideas, and the way those ideas impact on us and our beliefs. It is difficult to come up with a categoric definition of political theatre partly because it is a subjective matter: what is political to me may be innocuous to you, and vice versa. We have also become inured to the idea that the personal is political and this has come to mean that everything is political. But as I considered the recent work of a range of playwrights, it made sense to draw a line in the sand on this matter. Terry Eagleton says that ‘political’ work is that which refers to the processes of legitimating or challenging systems of power. So I have focused on plays which not only explore current social, economic and cultural issues (race and racism, history and identity, class and globalisation for example) but also demonstrate a quality of critical engagement with these subjects. I am not suggesting for a minute that ‘political’ plays are simply catalogues of worthy ‘topics’ – in fact the opposite is true. I argue that some of the most exciting plays we have seen in our theatres over the past ten years are those plays which have told powerful and dramatic stories of political struggle. These are plays which challenge systems of power and see politics as a struggle over ideas – ideas which define our values.

Where did your interest in political playwriting come from?

As a dramaturg I have worked with a number of different playwrights over the past twenty years, and this prompted my interest in the question of what Australian dramatists choose to write about, and why. And this led to the next point of inquiry: what does it take to produce a drama of bold ideas that engages and challenges its audience? Another key strand of my interest in this field comes from my experience of teaching at the Victorian College of the Arts in the School of Drama from 1982-89. This was an important time for theatre making when students - actors, writers, directors and animateurs – were developing their work in the belief that theatre could (and should) be politically informed and socially inclusive. As a teacher at the VCA I was witness to these developments, which in turn helped to shape both my own dramaturgical practice, and the perspective which guides this book.

How did you choose the playwrights you interviewed?

I contacted the Artistic Directors of the seven state-based mainstream theatres funded through the Australia Council’s Major Performing Arts Board, and five of them agreed to be interviewed. I asked them to nominate those playwrights whom they felt had a current national profile with major, politically-informed plays produced over the past decade. From that list I then selected the writers who were mentioned by more than one of the Artistic Directors.
What was the most surprising result of your research and interviews?

One of the issues that I became interested in is the connection between theatre and nationalism: how does contemporary Australian theatre engage with notions of nationalism and identity? I asked each of the writers if they thought of themselves as nationalists. To a person they all insisted ‘absolutely NOT’. And yet when I read their plays they revealed a fascination with the task of conjuring ‘ Australia’ as a meaningful entity. These are plays peopled with recognisable characters and familiar idioms, landscapes, and sense of humour. At the same time each of the plays provides a political critique of state-sanctioned nationalism. Andrew Bovell’s play Holy Day is a great example of this. The play incorporates many familiar, if not iconic, Australian motifs and characters. And yet the play deconstructs the central nationalist mythology of heroic colonial struggle and achievement in the face of adversity. I found this tension over nationalist ideas very interesting and I used the term ‘critical nationalism’ to define the political project of all these playwrights.

What advantages does the stage have over television and newspapers?

All of the writers I spoke to in the process of researching this book revelled in the task of writing for the stage – in particular, the opportunity to bring ideas to life with a view to engaging live audiences. Theatre, as a live event, is a challenge to audiences and demands something more of them than, say, watching television in the comfort of their lounge rooms. All the playwrights I spoke to articulated a primary interest in the idea of the theatre as a forum for public debate and discussion. Plays like Hannie Rayson’s Two Brothers, Stephen Sewell’s Myth Propaganda and Katherine Thomson’s Harbour – are all great examples of plays which speak to the theatre’s capacity to provoke and challenge audiences.

What are the biggest challenges playwrights face today?

Arguably, contemporary Australian theatre is facing a particularly difficult time. Since 1994 Australian cultural policy has taken an economic rationalist approach: this means that art/cultural product is increasingly valued in terms of its economic and/or social benefits. In this policy environment, many of the mainstream theatre companies are disinclined to stage risky work. The economic rationalist approach to arts policy was ushered in by the Keating government, but its priorities have intensified under the Howard government. There have been some distinctive benefits for the arts sector: a larger and more diverse set of activities (for example multimedia and digital arts) are now included in the ‘cultural’ category; and it has delivered a new and heightened level of public recognition of what is now referred to as the cultural or creative ‘industries’. On the debit side of the cultural policy regime, however, is the necessity for arts organisations, in developing their programs, to place commercial viability above other considerations. For many Australian theatre companies this has meant programming plays which guarantee bums on seats. Flagship arts organisations such as the Melbourne Theatre Company and the Sydney Theatre Company have experienced a comparative decline in government funding and a corresponding increased dependence on box office and corporate sponsorship. This is not to suggest that the Australia Council is unsupportive of Australian theatre, indeed it has been a major force in determining how the writers discussed in my book developed their skills and careers. However, the comprehensive take-up of the arts industry model has seen the diminishment of the small-medium theatre sector and a corresponding decrease in opportunities for emerging writers to have their work shown. In this environment of reduced opportunity, theatre companies make programming decisions on the basis of box office appeal. This, then, is a critical moment for thinking about the viability of locally made theatre, particularly political theatre which deals with controversial cultural concerns and is probably not the kind of sure-fire box office hit that commercially-minded theatre companies are looking for.

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