First published September 2007

Its coming up to the pitch season for independent theatres across Sydney, and I am feeling that rise of panic in my chest as I start to assess my options for pitching something. I have been seeing shows all over the place, having a look at what’s on and what’s getting chosen… who are the independent players in this game… and it is surprising what’s on and where it comes from.. how its been supported. It becomes blaringly obvious that there is an ugly frightened figure, quivering in the corners of our theatres: cultural cringe. “Still!?!” I hear you shriek.

Whether we like it or not there is still a preference for plays from elsewhere… especially when its advertised with a 7-10 word starry eyed blurb from the New York Times or heavy with the acclaim of the UK critics circle award. Perhaps it is the provincial “grass is greener” idea… well we are “down under”(the arse end of the world: which I can’t help but wonder if the original cartographers were from Australia, would the world map still show Europe and America as the top of the world?)

Is it perhaps the fact that the Australian public and practitioners are exposed to contemporary Australian plays (of the 1970’s and 80’s) at School where they are taught in a time capsule: complete with “original production photos” of angry fat white men in Safari suits swilling Fosters? Perhaps the idea of Australian plays feel a bit archaic? Perhaps that “Australia” that is presented and spoken feels a little… Unfashionable? Perhaps a little simple? Perhaps a little bit irrelevant in the context of a shrinking world: a globalized villiage that we would stamp something as Australian when what plays seek to do is find a human experience? I don’t know if other countries label their plays as “new American Play” or “New British play”. Perhaps the labelling is a problem in itself?

And just to be clear, my definition of an Australian play is not limited to splashes of traditional iconography: hats swinging with corks or lamingtons… or footballers storming around on stage saying “crikey” or “bloomin’”… it merely refers to a play that is written by an Australian citizen or a person that identifies as an Australian. And also, unlike one recent suggestion… I don’t believe that Australian writing is a genre within itself. And unlike a comment made in a recent AWG seminar titled “Are Australian Films Different”(which was a watered down title which originally was called “Are Australian Films Crap”)… I don’t think Australian films or plays are “boutique” or “arthouse.” Labelling them as such marginalizes the potential of the reach of such films.

Is it (as a fellow playwright mentioned the other night when I caught him questioning why a season of new English plays were being shown at a local theatre) for the reason that plays from overseas are often presented to us practitioners in bound published books unlike the unceremoniously stapled new untested Aussie script? Are directors and producers so simple that they judge plays by their covers?

If unproduced or minimally produced Australian scripts were published: would that inspire more confidence in the play itself and therefore solve the lack of new Australian plays being produced on main stage and independent theatres? But then again perhaps they are unpublishable? Publishers want to publish books that will sell and would a collection of new Aussie plays sell? Who would be buying them? Or perhaps it is the lack of development time for Australian plays: that playwrights are usually scribbling plays whilst trying to keep a full time job: to keep fed, and don’t have the luxury of time or space. But is that a uniquely Australian problem or a universal symptom of modern times?

Is it the fact that a contemporary Australian play has a living breathing writer attached to it and that fact in itself can be a terrifying thing to confront. If you are a director and producer or actor and you take on a new writer or a new play do you give the work the benefit of the doubt and assume that the work is complete and perfect (as you would a play from anywhere? Or do you know there is a long road of development and workshopping ahead? Can a play be “workshopped to death,” as Peter Kingston (who is, some say, the guru of the new Australian play) had said to me last year during a workshop? Perhaps the fear of getting it wrong and having to wrestle the writer to your way of thinking is impeding the choice of plays directors produce. I’m sure a writer is easier to deal with when they live twenty thousand kilometres away or if they have been dead for 400 years: there is a definite safety in that!

Is play development lacking in Australia? Is playwriting a skill to be learned as you go or at an institution or is it an ability which a person is born with? As mentioned in the recent Australian Writers Guild article by Chris Mead, playwrights often get their chance to develop and produce work through a partnership with a brave and trusted director. But I think it is quite difficult for directors to meet the playwrights and difficult for playwrights to meet directors. And once the meeting occurs, there is a leap of faith to trust them (whatever side of the fence you are on).

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that audiences in Australia and overseas want to see new Australian plays. There is absolute proof that when a play touches the hearts of people, (as “people” more than as “Australians” –whatever that might mean) the play is a rip roaring success… I’m sure you can think of a few of these moments… for me it’s the first production of Cloudstreet. So really I think that if you make it… people will come.

A playwright friend of mine, Melanie Tait has had huge successes in the UK with a play called Vegemite Tales. It has become one of the most popular and long running fringe shows in the UK. Van Badham works as a full time playwright in the UK. Other Australian playwrights exist as writers overseas… while a few privileged handful of writers here hope to be noticed and programmed. Why is that?

I’m on the hunt for some new Australian plays. I’m ready to meet some writers with something to say. . I’m looking for plays about 70 minutes… I’m willing to read anything, anyone wants to submit. And I urge directors and producers of the independent theatres to do the same. Seek out Aussie writers as you would seek foreign writers, set them a challenge and a deadline. Start a dialogue about a play and lets start investing in the talent we have here.