Scenes from a radical theatre

Theatre is politics and love … and the two intersecting.
– Alain Badiou

(direct address to the audience)


You are young and have not yet forgotten that anything is possible.

There is something bigger to believe in than your career prospects and your résumé, your future super dividends (as if you have any), your individual rung on the clichéd and fundamentally absurd ladder of fame and fortune.

You want to be an artist, whatever that might mean, and, in particular, have found yourself seduced by the mysterious archaic art of theatre: the ‘beat’ of comic timing that triggers laughter among strangers, the conjuring of burning-real emotions in the service of make-believe situations and relationships only held together as credible, and more than credible, as vital, significant, even hypnotic, by the shared endeavour of yourself and your band of comrades.

For imagine you do have a band of comrades, who have trained together in this art form.

And imagine also that you share certain secrets among you, not only the normal secrets every group gains who share houses and lovers and long nights drinking and, maybe, Vespas, and certainly gossip, but other secrets as to the true nature and indeed revolutionary potential of your art form; that theatre can be more than a balm and a distraction, more than a mark of civility for the ageing bourgeoisie subscribing to their Shakespeares and their Chekhovs and crossing their fingers before the new Australian play; that theatre can in fact DISRUPT, it can SUBVERT, it can bend and reshape perceptions of reality so that, emboldened, we can laugh at tyrannies both subtle and savage, and question what we would otherwise accept as natural and normal and the way the world will always be – stacked in some asshole’s favour.

This secret, theatre’s radical unmasking of the world, is not yours alone, of course, and much less your invention; it gains strength from its lineage, its whispering here and there across the world, through names like Brecht in Berlin and Meyerhold in Moscow in the 1920s, Artaud in Paris, Houseman and Orson Welles at the Federal Theater Project in Depression-era America, Dario Fo and Franca Rame in the factories of Milan in the 1970s, Augusto Boal in the favelas of Brazil, Joint Stock, the New Theatre, the Australian Performing Group. Just to name a few.

But back to you and your band of comrades – imagine now that you believe you share among you your own special version of the secret, a version that is somehow new and distinct and in itself revolutionary, and that the power has been given to you, by virtue of what you’ve learnt and your amalgamated talents, to make with this secret something extraordinary. Something bigger than any one of you. An act of love and politics.

So together you start a theatre company.

Scene 1
In which will be shown, at the beginning, how gender politics cannot be avoided

I am walking into the lounge room of Barb’s rented flat. An Adelaide evening in the late 1980s. I say to Barb: You know, we only have so many roles in the next play and it looks like you’re going to miss out. And this is really difficult to say but – we always have this problem. We have so many women actors in the company and it is really hard to find enough parts. The Casting Committee have to cast the people best for the roles because we all need the play to be as good as it can be

Barb is sitting on the floor smoking a cigarette, her dark hair flicked behind her ear. Her fingers are shaking ever so slightly. She already knows what I’m going to say. She’s interested to hear how I’m going to say it. She looks me in the eye. And – how do I say it? Barb, we really don’t think you’re as strong an actor as the others. You are great at certain roles but perhaps your range … I don’t say that; I’m not sure if that is even true. You are so good at administration since you have taken on that role. If you would be interested in continuing, expanding in that role … we really need … we’d really love you to … become the administrator: the pay-off, we both know, is that it will be one of the only roles in the company that stands a good chance of receiving a regular weekly wage (and leading to a good career beyond).

As one founding member of the Red Shed Company collective talking to another, I feel like I’m doing the right thing telling Barb that she should give up her long-held dream of being an actor and reconcile herself to the reality that her talents lie in production and administration. (Years later I won’t be so sure.) I feel like I’m helping her make the Tough Decision and that this is what being a member of a collective is all about. We have to be able to say things straight, I tell myself: to speak the truth to each other. Yes, she’s trained for four years at Flinders Drama Centre expressly to become an actor, but now this is the second time in a row she’s missed out on being cast, and this time there were seven roles for women in an all-female cast. By happenstance, we have ten women actors in the collective and only two men. Almost all of the plays ever written have more men in them than women, oftentimes vastly more. We commission our own plays, and aim to create as many female parts as possible. But even so, evidently, it’s not enough …

For my part, I am lucky. I am not an actor but one of the three directors in the company. We might be a collective but we’re not hippies; we recognise different skills. Cath, Tim and I can share the directing jobs around so that we get one at least each year. Cath and I also write plays and Tim designs sets; we work on each other’s productions. Within the non-hierarchical ranks of the collective, we are privileged by virtue of the relative scarcity and specificity of our skills. And being men, Tim and I are privileged doubly, as the women aren’t shy to tell us.

Barb takes another drag on her cigarette and looks at the fireplace, which is fittingly cold and empty.


Scene 2
In which may be gleaned the politically important distinction between the traditional theatre’s ‘fourth wall’ and a neighbour’s fence

Imagine a room roughly the size of a tennis court. Heavy walls, a concrete floor partially covered with scavenged wooden boards, a peaked tin roof on which rain, when it comes, is deafening. For a hundred years or so, a baker’s warehouse. Latterly a theatre, although one without fixed seats or proscenium. The Red Shed. A room, really. At one end, floor to ceiling metal doors onto narrow Cardwell Street and in one of these, a hatch. Our front door.

The hatch swings open and a woman enters, stooping. She wears a headscarf, a blouse, sensible shoes. She is supposed to be middle-aged and English; in fact she’s 21 or so and from the Adelaide suburbs. But Jenny carries her part well – she drops her weight into her hips and purses her lips as she bustles around what she believes (or she would have us believe that she believes) is a local community hall where she is the tireless and seldom-thanked coordinator of a fete for agoraphobics. It is our first production, in late 1986, an English social satire in which agoraphobia becomes a metaphor for the isolation and ingrained powerlessness of women. But lightly! We want an economy of meaning built on pleasure: laughter, recognition. Some of Jenny’s – ‘Gwenda’s’ – lines stick in my brain even now, in a Midlands accent straight out of a British sitcom: I’ve been on the go since six – my Teasmade ejaculated prematurely. (You have to hear it with the sing-song voice and the accent on the first syllable of the last word to get the full effect. Is that funny or is it just me?)

The audience of eighty or so – a full house – perch on either side of the room on benches, watching the action unfold between and around them. The actors are close enough to touch and the audience on the other side are like a mirror, laughing. You can see their heads following the dialogue like a shape-shifting tennis match, now with two players, now three or five. Now a chorus, now a soliloquy. Now a song belted from the battered upright piano placed in the corner.

The end of the play calls for the agoraphobics to fling open the entrance to the outside world and step out. Emboldened, in their own way liberated. And do we have just the doors for the job! An actor unlocks and pushes the huge metal doors apart, so that an entire wall of the little theatre vanishes, revealing the road and the neighbour’s fence on the other side of it, the clouds and stars beyond. A cool evening breeze blows in, the night air from the parklands. The cast edge gingerly towards the void. Cue! A white Datsun 180B screeches up the road and hangs a left turn into the theatre, slamming to a halt slap bang in our midst. The cast flatten to the walls and the audience scream. Fuck! Sorry! shouts the punk woman driving. She gives us all the finger, like she’s trying a little too hard to be cool. Reverses out and screeches off again. The actors look at each other, shaken. The audience glance around at each other and start to laugh, first with relief and then, as one by one they cotton on, at the good trick of it. They smile and make faces at strangers across the theatre. The actor/agoraphobics gather up their courage and make their way out together down the street and into the night. A moment of silence as the audience looks out there to where they’ve gone, and at the neighbour’s fence, the clouds and stars behind. Anything could happen now, or nothing. The neighbour could pop his head above that fence and wave, or scowl.

Someone starts the clapping, and it reverberates under the tin roof until the actors jog back and take their curtain call lined up along the footpath. Including Katy, who played the punk. Then the actors clap the audience too, for playing their own part well. Afterwards, the audience themselves walk out through the big doors, breathing in the night air, going home or out into the city. Emboldened, we are hoping, in their own way liberated.

(We added the car bit in, that wasn’t in the script. You couldn’t do that, in most theatres. But that is the point. We don’t want to do what you can do in most theatres.)

Slow fade.

Scene 3
In which will be demonstrated that democracy is unglamorous but necessary

The essence of politics can be subsumed in the question: what are individuals capable of when they meet, organise, think and take decisions.
– Alain Badiou

Upstairs, up the steep narrow staircase that is virtually a chimney, in the loft above the makeshift dressing rooms beside the theatre, we are meeting. A Tuesday evening, sevenish, although it could be any time really. Clumped on sagging chairs or arranged around the dusty floor cross-legged, knees hunched or sprawling, we are meeting. It’s not unusual; if we’re not performing or rehearsing or arguing at the bar, we are often to be found meeting.

The thing is, we are inventing everything. We are fresh out of drama school and all we know is that we want to make art that matters – somehow. (It is almost impossible to write about this without invoking clichés. Let’s list them all to clear them into a corner and be done with them: ‘art that matters’, ‘makes a difference’, ‘inverts the status quo’, ‘is part of the solution, not the problem’. There. They can sit there like flypaper for conservative cynics.) Our ideas have grown out of the courses we’ve done at university, the heady Foucault we’ve read, the Lacan, Irigaray and Kristeva, the Brecht and Edward Bond. Our ideas have grown from our teachers and mentors at Flinders, the iconoclastic Noel Purdon who screened Hitchcock and Imamura movies through a haze of smoke and taught us that Shakespeare’s characters would have sounded more Western Suburbs than North Shore; and Jules Holledge, the British émigré theatre director and academic who we all, even now, either have an intellectual crush on or feel spurned by, and in some cases possibly both, because she is a genius at directing actors and making thrilling theatre out of radical ideas and bodies (and she loves each of us, her ex-students, either enough or not enough).

Down the road is the ‘big house’: the Festival Centre, the artistic establishment. Museum theatre where the middle classes sit in neat rows on freshly combed carpets, smiling peaceably at the voices tinkling and booming, at the costumes and the decor and the wigs, and if they’re lucky nodding off contentedly without anybody noticing. This, we realise even at the time, is a caricature (there’s actually Jim Sharman and Neil Armfield doing good stuff), but etched in any decent caricature is the deep-down heartfelt truth. This is an art form architectured for the ancien régime.

We don’t want to work in the ‘big house’ (we tell ourselves, at least). We want to make a theatre that is revolutionary, popular, subversive and free (in spirit: we’re going to have to charge at the door to at least get a little money coming in) – and we don’t want to put any pragmatic limits on what that theatre might be or how we might go about getting to it.

So we have to meet to work things out, because we can’t take anything for granted. Except, we already know there’ll be no bosses. Why should any of us be a boss over any other? We’ve all just come out of uni, haven’t we? We should all be accorded equal power, rights and responsibilities. The theory is taken as a given. The tricky part is how to work it through in practice, as collectives past, present and future will attest.

This scene upstairs in the meeting room turns out to be, frankly, a little bit postmodern. It begins to represent not just one collective meeting but all several hundred of them across the lifespan of the company, condensed, compressed, abstracted, now with Katy chairing and Cath diligently taking minutes in the minute book, then Cath chairing and straight-backed Tiina on the minutes, with her distinctive hand, and so on and so forth.

Early on, having no money whatsoever to employ anyone, we write a list of all the jobs we can think of that need doing and nominate ourselves for portfolios (Minister for Revenue, Minister for Costumes, Minister for Correspondence, Minister for Front of House, etc.); for the shit jobs, like cleaning the toilets, we make a roster and hope to stick to it.

Later, as the number in the collective swells then dwindles, passions rise and tempers fray and people become worn down, storm out, limp off, cry. We caucus and gossip on the side. One day Eileen shouts at me: David, you are the most bourgeois person in this entire company!

Which I think about for a long time.

On one occasion a putsch is narrowly averted after we fall momentarily under the sway of Curtis, a wild and charismatic avant-gardist with a penchant for Fassbinder who wants to mess with our cutesy lets-have-a-revolution-but-go-home-to-Mum-for-tea minds, and make some REAL art.

Gina and Andy burrow into favourite chairs; MaryAnne stretches out on the floor like a cat. Barb stands by the open doors at the far end, blowing smoke out onto Cardwell Street.

How many countless others have been through something similar, in arts collectives, political cells, social movements? Setting out with no clear models or instruction manuals, no external leadership. Fathoming it all. Will we take this path or the other? What is right and what is just, and what’s a good cunning plan that might just work? And who is actually going to clean the toilets?

At quarter to ten, the meeting breaks up. Time for cheap carbonara in that place off Grenfell Street.

A lighting change agreed by consensus (sorry: cheap joke).

Scene 4
In which the thorny question of money will be raised

In our first twelve months, paying ourselves nothing, we put on six plays in five seasons.

We soon learn how to apply for grants.

So in our second year, we receive some funding. Not a lot; as much as can be expected, starting out. We can now pay proper Equity minimum wages, but can afford to mount only one production (and a little schools-touring show that pays for itself).

There are about sixteen of us at this time. We can’t all have jobs in that one production.

Those left out by the Casting Committee begin, understandably, to lose heart and drift away. It is all very well being the Minister for Front of House so long as you get a meaty acting role occasionally.

In our third year, on the back of more good reviews and an excited buzz around the town, our funding more than doubles. But it is still not enough to pay for the three new productions we’ve set our hearts on, one for each director and one at least for each actor.

Our funding is predicated on paying Equity minimum or above. As proud and paid-up (at a discount) union members, we have no desire to undercut the hard-fought, collectively bargained rate. By the same token, we want to distribute our scarce resources – cash and roles – as evenly as possible throughout the group, and it seems absurd and counterproductive for a few of us to be earning a fat $350 per week for eight weeks solid only to be on the dole again the next month, while fellow collective members are getting, to be blunt, fuck all.

To resolve these contradictions, we come up with a scheme we dub The Slush Fund.

The Slush Fund is simple in design but based on a complex ethical calculus which, although rationally unimpeachable, nevertheless leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Hence the name.

I’m sure there must be a term in economic theory for this kind of mechanism, but we remain innocent of whatever this might be. Here’s how it works: each collective member officially employed by the Company is paid Equity minimum (a flat payscale, it scarcely needs be said). Next, each payee commits, independently and voluntarily, to donate back to the Company via a special account (The Slush Fund) approximately one third of their weekly wage, on the understanding that said monies will be returned to general revenue to pay the wages of the next season. Basically, we get paid exactly what we should but then give back a set amount. And so on in a virtuous circle. Brilliant!

We all agree that, having no big personal overheads such as families or mortgages, we can afford to proceed on such a basis. I’m not sure how we handle it with tax – perhaps our donations are deductible? At this point, tax issues don’t play uppermost in our minds.

The Slush Fund is kept a guilty secret, a clandestine manoeuvre (although we run it by our local union organiser, Stephen Spence, who scratches his head but can see the communist logic); we are always aware that somehow masochism is underwriting our subversive collectivity. Despite the fact that it works perfectly on its own terms, and nobody cheats or reneges, it can’t last; we all agree on that. We cast it aside the next year and consign ourselves to doing less work that’s better paid.

Funding ebbs and flows but mostly flows. For quite a few years we go from strength to strength. One of our rewards is the chance to write even longer grant applications on forms more and more baroque. We are encouraged by bureaucrats to write strategic plans and mission statements. A consultant we are advised to employ leads us to build action plan upon action plan, bullet point upon sub-claused fucking bullet point. For months afterwards we gaze at them from time to time, as their fleet of management-speak good intentions sail away into a foggy distance.

We just want to make good theatre.

Scene 5
In which will be seen that there’s a fine line between the sublime and the ridiculous

February, 1989: I am directing a play we call the Brownie Show (In Cahoots). It’s the first play written by Melissa Reeves, who was two years ahead of us at Flinders and will afterwards write plays and films that win plaudits and awards across Australia and beyond. (We will also champion playwright Daniel Keene and help launch the careers of actors Syd Brisbane, Ulli Birvé and Eileen Darley, among many others. In a little over eleven years we will commission and premiere 19 new Australian works, including ten by women. Four times, we’ll be invited to premiere at the Adelaide Festival, taking over warehouses and theatres.)

We are rehearsing for the first season of In Cahoots at the Red Shed. It is a warm afternoon and we are attempting our initial run-through – or ‘stumble-through’ – of the whole play, having spent a couple of weeks working piece by piece on establishing the sense and action of each small section.

The plot concerns a group of Brownies (the younger sisters of the Girl Guides) who are holding their annual ‘parents and friends’ evening. The audience, just by coming along to the show, will play the role of the ‘parents and friends’, and because theatre is a ritualised game of shared pretending, they will be asked to believe that these young adult women (the actors) are in fact naive pre-pubescent girls: Brownies. There is fun enough in this since the characters of the girls are wittily drawn and it is apparent that their sweet old leader, Brown Owl, has a few roos loose in the top paddock. But as the play unfolds, the pleasure turns subversive, when it is revealed that the Brownie characters (all but one) are actually young women pretending to be naive girls, hiding out in the carefree polysexual world of Brownies rather than progressing to what, by their analysis, is the conformist marriage-preparation factory of Guides. Why? Well, so as to have the freedom to organise together, using their Brownie skills and resourcefulness, to build an international underground activist coalition for social change, of course. Their scheme might be refreshingly far-fetched but it appears to be working and, what’s more, their belief and optimism cannot be doubted. Every audience member, whether in sophisticated St Kilda or conservative Streaky Bay, out on the edge of the Nullarbor, will laugh and cheer the Brownies on, swept up despite themselves in the outrageous joy of revolution.

That’s the idea, anyway.

At the first run-through this afternoon, it’s not quite working.

I’m a diligent director. I’ve done a lot of homework. The actors, Katy, MaryAnne, Tiina, Sally, Ali, Joey and Alice, are all smart and talented. Melissa is a witty, subtle writer.

But we’re doing something wrong. It’s not funny. Instead of being refreshingly far-fetched the premise just seems, well, stupid.

Our mentor Jules is sitting on an old kitchen chair watching the run-through, with her hand in front of her face to hide her grimaces. We’ve invited her along: she’s Melissa’s dramaturge for the script. She only needs to say a sentence or two and I get it. The problem is that we are playing the absurdity as if it is absurd. That’s why it isn’t funny. The more absurd the plot gets, the more it needs to be played as deadly serious and real. Simple, really.

I talk to the actors.

After that the play works. Seemingly like magic. Everywhere, always. Better than any other play I’ll ever, ever work on.

At the end of In Cahoots, after the Brownies have stared down the threat from the Boy Scouts who’ve come to lay siege, Tony Abbott-style, to the hall but like all bullies turn out to be more bluff than substance, and after the Thatcheresque ‘Commissioner’ from Girl Guide HQ, the Brownies’ nemesis, has been taken hostage by the Brownies but later breaks down and cries and talks about her traumatic childhood and departs on friendly terms with the ‘girls’, MaryAnne as old Brown Owl, who has missed all of the conflict, climbs back in through a window. She’s been out walking, so she says, across the night-time roofs. She is growing weary; you can see the shadow of death across her. She asks for one last song and they join her in singing Vera Lynn’s ‘We’ll meet again’ in four-part a cappella harmonies. Which sounds corny but it isn’t, partly because they are exquisite singers and the harmonies are like cut crystal, but mostly because of how the actors play the situation, as if together among themselves and with the audience gathered all around they are connecting, just quietly, without making any big deal about it, to some much bigger ritual tradition of community, the singing up of shared time. I could watch them sing that song forever, honestly.

Thinking about it now, I reckon the Brownie Show worked so well because of its resoundingly enjoyable contradictions: its faux-naive framework of irony and artifice created a space in which, paradoxically, something very real could happen in that room, among actors and audience alike.
Badiou again; he says, there is something communist in all theatre. And isn’t all great theatre created by ensembles?

The first season will sell out. We’ll remount it. We’ll tour around the country. We’ll be invited to travel to festivals. It will be our first big taste of success.

(Delivered quietly, on a bare stage)

One by one, we leave. Almost from the beginning, people are leaving, while others stay and stay. I guess it’s in the nature of these things. It’s tiring to invent the world. Easier to get a job and work for the man, and well, actually, you can only live on love and politics alone so long, I guess. Is that right?

We fan out into the industry: to the Australia Council, Sydney Opera House, Arena Theatre, State Theatre Company of South Australia, Sydney Theatre Company, Melbourne Theatre Company and many more. We go undercover; infiltrate. We become shoemakers and marry bikies; we write novels, run the Mardi Gras. MaryAnne turns up in New York selling Ralph Lauren.

Nothing quite works out how you imagine, does it? Which is not to say it isn’t ever worth it.

In that small creaky room, and wherever else we played, we made connections. We lost our petty selves in the joy of shared endeavour. And on those nights when everything came together we took audiences, as if in little homemade carriages, to places of delight and wonder. There were moments so tender-sweet in those Red Shed shows when the actors in the ensemble (it would be unfair to single any out) would pause to focus as a single pure emotional note rang out – a simple gesture, an exhalation, a gaze met or unmet, and with it always an idea (Badiou one last time: theatre, in its origins, is thinking-in-the-body) – and the audience would catch that note and hold it aloft in the air suspended, each of them joining each of us, the actors, the director and designers buried in the crowd, the stage manager at her desk, the Minister for Interval Drinks listening in the moonlit courtyard, to keep it so. What could be better than that?

David Carlin

David Carlin is a writer and Associate Professor teaching Creative Writing in RMIT University’s School of Media and Communication, where he is Co-Director of the Nonfiction Research Group. His memoir Our father who wasn’t there is published by Scribe.

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