A good friend staged his first professional production recently, Kaleidoscope – a one-man show about internalised transphobia, written and performed from the lived experience of an exceptional writer/actor duo. They’re planning to turn it into an ultra-low-budget film one day. My friend had plenty to say on the process, and the frustration of presenting something outside the spectrum of ‘acceptable’ or, in one reviewer’s terms, ‘palatable’ tone. The play disturbed a bourgeois hegemony, even stranglehold, on what is and what is not theatrical, what is and what is not acceptable as performance. This is, of course, the greatest achievement of any piece of art – otherwise, why bother?
Unpack that. There’s something awfully bourgeois about the medium of theatre. Divided into the various endlessly self-devised categories, it is an artform that almost prides itself on its inaccessibility to the working class. Tickets are more expensive than a cinema for most large productions, and underground productions are on a ‘who-you-know’ basis, where anyone outside the circle of independent theatre is unlikely to even know that a show is being performed.
Student theatre is no exception to this. More often than not, bourgeois canon is upheld over accessible work. The Sydney University Dramatic Society (SUDS) recently put on Hamlet as a major production. Albeit displacing the canon through a contemporary sensibility, the stony-faced take on Hamlet is alienating and elite – matte white and black all round. The merit or otherwise of revisiting and translating the canon of Western theatre into a contemporary context notwithstanding, the privileging of a bourgeois sense of ‘the theatre’ as institution is dangerous and wrong-headed.
This is, of course, in contrast to the very urban, very working-class tradition of the theatre in other nations. The Italian writer Dario Fo, for example, famously interrogates issues at the heart of working-class life and organisation in a manner, that of the farce, accessible to a wide audience. Even Shakespeare wrote for the urban poor of his day. Performances of his tragedies neglect the wide appeal of comedy and satire as a unifying, upwards-punching critique of capitalist hegemony.
Part of the problem is structural. Income inequality and a lack of disposable time or income means working-class practitioners might be edged out of the industry by time- or investment-rich artists from a more privileged background. This will in turn reflect a specific class character to ‘the theatre’ as institution, homogenised through financial inequity alone. Alternatively, the lack of clear career pathways through the industry might turn off those from a background of financial insecurity or instability. Writing or acting full-time at the level demanded for professional performance is something very difficult to do; to still balance the books without a significant amount of capital backup is even harder.
The issue, I think, also comes down to the construction of ‘serious’ culture. It’s the same across literature, film, theatre. A specific voice – that of the white, middle-class male – is assumed as the universal; anything that falls outside of this speaking role is dismissed as frivolous. Books about women are less likely to win prizes. ‘Teen’ fiction is ignored, despite its mass appeal by university and high-school English courses, while minority voices – be it queer or writing of people of colour – are delegitimised. The specificity of the canon, be it the contemporary or classical, in creating a hierarchy in which heteronormative masculine voices dominate the field is stifling. A friend pitched the following once as the next bestseller: ‘White Man Writes Veiled Version of Himself in Unrequited Love with Woman, But–’, leaving the ending blank for the requisite narrative complication of the day. Somehow, theatre has inherited the worst of this tradition.
Great things are happening, true – Kaleidoscope is proof of this. There is interest in theatre that falls outside the narrow boundaries of what is acceptable, what is ‘palatable’ for a bourgeois audience. But with massive cuts to the Australia Council gutting the scene, it’s not hard to imagine a direction for the future: art which is accessible to a mass audience, beyond the constraints of elite ‘serious’ culture.
We have a chance to reshape the stage as a transformative place where voices from across the spectrum are consistently heard. It is possible to imagine a future in which the theatre self-legitimises itself as entertainment across class divides, rather than narrowing its focus to the interests of the cultural gatekeepers. But this can only be done with the radical reinvention of the purpose of culture. That is, to interrogate hegemony and deconstruct the power dynamics which constrain both art and artists. You have nothing to lose but your nicely printed programs.