David Carlin, author of the critically acclaimed memoir, Our Father Who Wasn’t There (2010), as well as countless essays in Griffith Review, Overland, Victorian Writer, Text and Continuum, currently works as a writer of creative nonfiction.
However, Carlin’s career in the arts began in the theatre, more specifically, in the radical theatre experience of the Red Shed Company.
The Red Shed was a unique, extremely successful, politically grounded theatre project based in Adelaide; in Overland 209, Carlin writes about his experiences collectively running the company and the ways they influenced his approach to creative work.
In your article, you write about theatre’s ability to disrupt, subvert and reshape perceptions of reality. Do you remember when you first realised theatre had that ability?
I grew up in Perth and the theatre scene wasn’t huge there but I did see some great shows at a tiny venue called The Hole In The Wall – my Mum used to take me as a teenager. The first political show I remember seeing was by a Fremantle collective called Desperate Measures. It was wonderful late-70s agitprop. Around that time I also saw Circus Oz and loved their ironic subversive humour. When I studied drama at Flinders I was introduced to Brecht, Dario Fo, Augusto Boal and others, and started to learn the techniques of political theatre.
Now that you work primarily as a writer, do you miss the collaborative spirit of theatre? How has your time working in theatre shaped your writing practice?
I do love a mixture of collaborative and solitary work. I still do a lot of collaborative projects, working in other fields (not theatre per se at the moment). Things like the Circus Oz Digital Archive project – an interdisciplinary team of performance, media, design and computer science people creating prototypes with Circus Oz for a new ‘Living Archive’ built from digitising videos of their performances going all the way back to when they started in 1978.
Also I had great fun co-directing the recent NonfictioNow Conference we hosted at RMIT in collaboration with the University of Iowa, which involved a lot of international and local collaboration, bringing together a whole lot of writers and journalists and artists of various sorts. Writing itself can have interesting collaborative aspects: I’m in a writing group and get involved in various workshops from time to time. We also have a small group at RMIT with whom we do collective ‘shut up and write’ sessions in a café; this encourages a kind of improvisational approach to writing that reminds me of theatre.
You outline some of the challenges the Red Shed-ders faced maintaining their commitment to their political ideals whilst running the company, particularly in regards to issues around gender and class. Why do you think it’s important for artists/writers/directors to remain committed to their political ideals when working on their art projects despite the practical challenges?
Well, I think art and politics and life are all inextricably intertwined and personally I feel a kind of ethical responsibility to be conscious of that in thinking about the projects I choose to work on. But also that ethics has to be itself intertwined with pleasure and joy! That is the key. It’s much easier to wake up in the morning and be doing something you believe in and feel passionate about, if you are in the privileged position to be able to do that.
It seems like, since the days you and your fellow theatre-makers created Red Shed Theatre Company, art-making has become increasingly de-politicised and more market driven. Would you agree? What are the consequences of this?
I think the structures within which art, including theatre, is produced have become, we could say, more exquisitely commodified over the past twenty years. This reflects the wider cultural climate of dominant neoliberal ideology in which artists are asked: what are your ‘KPIs’? What’s your five-year business plan? What’s your competitive advantage? And all of this has become normal. One consequence is that things can go backwards – for instance, the opportunities for women playwrights and directors in this country.
What advice would you give young people today facing the same challenges you faced?
I don’t feel qualified to give anyone any advice really, but since you ask … You need to find a good mix of people to collaborate with, people with complementary skills but diverse thinking; you need to do whatever you can – study, travel, read – to build up an independent perspective, find out whose ideas you want to steal and whose you want to shed; and, basically, go for it! Be bold and let yourself fail, and then pick yourself up and keep going!