Theatre relies on memory. For the audience, it is the only thing that remains after the warm buzz of the event itself – an impression about the show, or characters, or theatre experience – that sits in and with us for the rest of our lives – should memory permit. For the industry – actors need their memory for the obvious line-delivery/stagecraft reasons. Directors need it for the selection of team/play/design. We need memory to ensure we do not re-invent the wheel, but also so we can change/improve upon the wheel. And memory is a fickle thing – carried by the practitioners, audiences that every now and then a brave soul attempts to trap a memory on paper. Try to shape or make sense of the past in words.

Playwrights have a slightly better deal on this one due to publication of texts – but the deal is only slightly better – as not all plays or playwrights are published. I’m reading the Letters of Patrick White at the moment (ed David Marr) and some of his plays are lost. It is true that the residue of theatre are the incidentals pieces of collateral – postcards/flyers, programs, ticket stubs… props, scripts, costumes without the flesh body of the actor are dusty artifacts.

There is a culture, however of theatre’s writing their own histories – as the book launch speech suggested – that sit in cardboard boxes, untouched and unsold in the backrooms of theatres. It’s a literary “I WUZ HERE” scrawled by artists who know the cruelty of passing time and the ignorance of youth. It’s something I seek, and delight in – but feel the weight of my ignorance on, quite often.

Last week, at a very respected director’s house for dinner – I spoke candidly (surprised?) and ignorantly (not surprised?) of the lack of histories of Australian theatre written NOT by the companies. He gently and routinely produced stack after stack after stack of books I had never seen before on the history of Australian theatre. I swallowed my pride, my ignorance and said – “I stand corrected… but show me the books that speak of theatre post “The New Wave.”” It’s true. Perhaps because theatre folk are busy/tired/distracted/forward looking – there doesn’t seem to be alot of time to reflect on the past – not sometimes to document the present. It also may be because since the TRS forming (has that history been written/collated), there hasn’t been a company/venue formed by my generation. My generation is a generation of those who seek legitimization (lots of school and courses for us! Lot’s of “please love us, baby-boomer/old guard,” “make my career linear and lucrative!”) and is a generation of inheritors not instigators, it seems.

And so on the last Monday in May, when Belvoir launched it’s book celebrating 27 years I thought I’d piece together a little piece about reception, celebration etc of the launch.

Riceball canapes and a foyer buzzing with grey-haired chatter. An awkward ‘Hey” from the new AD, attempting to commendeer the crowd. Charming stories of a cat given to the company by Armfield on his resignation affectionately called ‘Neil-ski’ – who according to Myers “judges and condemns” as a forever reminder of Belvoir’s longest serving AD. And then spruiking for the latest (sold out) production of The Seagull. Neil Armfield and Geoffrey Rush stars of the show. The new guard of Belvoir sitting with knees up to their chests on the steps of the theatre, and a speech that made headlines, and newspapers and facebook status updates. A speech which, with a rosy glow of time passed painted a romantic view of two mullet haired men dreaming big, intellectual dreams who dared to be inventive and start something. A speech which listed the who’s who – names were dropped – only the ones who went onto other big, celebrity careers. There were knowing nods, and nostalgic smiles as productions were rattled off, and the alumni were star-studded and overwhelming.

Then the thing that caught in my throat and my heart: something I understood very clearly but thought spoke loudly of the relationship between the generations – a tearing down of a generation. A generation whom Rush feels he has to explain what a coffee table book is, what a friend is… a dig at the younger generations who are assumed to be superficial, too tech-savvy, too narcissistic to enjoy or engage with a history. A harsh judgement cloaked in comedy.

The book was then advertised at “$77 or half price if you are in it.” And that further sealed my opinion of what was really being asserted. Because truly, if this history was for us – so we can learn, appreciate and love our theatre culture and history, it would be in reverse – Any one not in the book it’s half price – those who are in it $77. Primarily because the book is a mnemonic device for the old guard – and a valuable resource for the new guard. To have a copy, when you are in it is more narcissistic, surely, than to own a copy when you’re not.

And a thought crossed my mind – regardless of the paint job, or the website, or the re-branding, or the shows set in glass cages: this theatre will always belong to that generation. the new generation will only be the inheritors – because they weren’t there (nor born some of them) – they didn’t risk or raise the cash, or fight for the space. And it’s something they’ll never know. And so it is not surprising the old guard perpetuate the generational disregard – because as Billie Holliday sang – “Rich relations give crusts of bread and such, you can help yourself but don’t take too much.”

Furthermore I found it very interesting that despite the money raised by two women (Sue Hill and Chris Westwood) – they were barely mentioned – it was, judging by the speech, the speech makers and all appearances: a theatre started, saved and maintained by Geoffrey Rush and Neil Armfield. The essays within also contain 2 women amongst the 9 contributors -strange since women featured strongly in the beginnings of the theatre and it’s founding and salvation.

My hope is my generation and all generations that follow are never intimidated by the past – but insatiably curious and passionate bout honouring all those who have lead the way. I hope that my peers and colleagues feel passionately about starting new ventures, not just inheriting their industry.

My hope is, that we continue to educate each other – on everything – all the time – and that we are always open to being corrected – especially at dinner parties.

Section of the Speech that was posted on Belvoir’s Facebook site –

More press:

No matter how far the Oscar-winning actor Geoffrey Rush has roamed, he has always called Belvoir Street Theatre home. And so it was last night, when the co-star of The King’s Speech joined his friend and colleague Neil Armfield to launch the book 25 Belvoir Street, named after the address in Surry Hills of one of Australia’s most stoic, magical and liberating theatre companies. The Herald arts writer Bryce Hallett reports the Belvoir celebrated its 25th anniversary last year, at which time Armfield, its long-time artistic director, made his exit by revisiting one of the theatre’s great success stories, its 1989 production of The Diary of a Madman. The trajectory of Rush’s film career owes a debt to his resourceful stage adventures in the modest brick theatre’s corner space that Armfield has called ”the spine of an open book”. Edited by the designer Robert Cousins, 25 Belvoir Street combines a pictorial survey of productions with essays about the theatre’s history. ”In the winter of 1994, after a mercurial decade, Belvoir’s Company B teetered on the edge of insolvency,” Cousins recalls. ”While Neil Armfield was rehearsing Hamlet in a cold, drafty church at the bottom of Darlinghurst, the staff at Belvoir agreed to go without pay to keep the doors of the theatre open.” Today’s rebranded company, headed by Ralph Myers, is on a secure footing but staff and artists take nothing for granted. Armfield’s final season reached 135,000 audience members and posted a modest surplus of $64,000. The Herald journalist and author David Marr, who wrote the foreward, sums it up nicely: ”Somewhere along the way Belvoir passed from being a Surry Hills upstart to an institution of the town … Labor loves the place; the Liberals have endowed it generously. Neither side has come to distrust Belvoir enough to dismiss what it’s about. The work has been too good, too rich, too unexpected.”

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