I love Currency House – and I have the bookcase to prove it. I possess many, many of the Platform Papers and books including the most recent and exciting history by Dr Nick Herd Networking (on the development of Australian TV). Regardless of how busy I am (and at the moment I am too busy for my own good: working with playwrights, writing grants, directing new work, blogging and opening a new space The Arts Platform on Devonshire Street) I will always make time for the Arts and Public Life Breakfasts hosted by Currency House. They are a brilliant and vital part of Australian cultural life and I recommend and urge all artists and corporate high-flyers I know to attend.

Yesterday’s address delivered by Sally Burton.
Philanthropy: Your Legacy

“The Greeks left us many things to admire, among them architecture, theatre and philanthropy. Philanthropy is still alive today but who are the givers and how much is given? Lottery West commissioned the University of WA to research the patterns of giving in West Australia and in response to their findings Giving West was founded in 2011. Sally Burton, theatre producer, and custodian of the Richard Burton estate, is a member of the board of Giving West, and will talk about where we are today and her own connection to philanthropy and the arts.”

Some may know – some may not know – but every year I donate a portion of my income to arts organisations: some I am also affiliated with in some capacity. I have written about it previously here:
This year as the End of Financial Year approaches, I have three main organisations I will be supporting – to show my affection, my faith and my unconditional support:

I am an artist. I don’t have a fancy car. I don’t have a stable wage. I don’t own a house. My car is ancient. I don’t have a beach house. Nor do I holiday in Majorca – in fact – I rarely holiday… but one way I feel connected and as though I am giving back to my industry is by supporting those who I believe in, and appreciate. It’s what I do. I have been donating to organisations since I moved out of home at the age of 17 (before that time I volunteered for lots of charities in my home town: Red Cross, Salvation Army – I headed door-knocking appeals for Lions and Rotary and held fundraisers for local community groups in need in my teenage position of the President of Interact). I am not from money, not at all, they haven’t been able to work for about 20 years. I say this not for pity. But it is a fact that gives you a context about my situation.


Going into this breakfast, I felt awkward. Perhaps I was the only one in the room who had voiced my severe disappointment at the decision NOT to award The Richard Burton Award for 2011:

Introduced as vivacious and energetic by her friends and colleagues at the Breakfast, I eagerly awaited hearing Sally Burton speak.

And what I saw before me was not at all what I expected. I had expected a call to arms from a passionate and robust woman – a visionary. Instead, a watery and difficult to hear address which contained information which could have been easily compiled from a Wikipedia search on Philanthropy… and difficult to hear despite a well-rounded British accent. The address itself was… well… largely irrelevant to us Eastern States folk – as she spoke mainly of the money in Western Australia (due to mining) and how the multi-millionaires in the west are not great philanthropists. She also was speaking to high wealth individuals – and I believe that philanthropy is NOT only the recreational sport or strategic profile building of millionaires, but also the altruistic act of the humble, everyday person.

I got the distinct impression that instead of an inspirational altruistic and passionate vision, that this was lost and reduced to tax management or financial dick-measuring.

Furthermore the main impression I had of her message in her address was that its important that high wealth individuals who give do so publicly so that their rich friends can follow suit.

I was waiting for a sense of why support art. Why support art when there are people living with chronic illness, or living in poverty? When most of Australia’s indigenous people are not living as long as white Australians?

I was waiting for the speech that gave a sense of why support arists- and for those who might want to read (an old but still relevant) survey on the lifestyle and financial situations of artists please check OZCO’s paper out:

Instead we were told of how being a philanthropist is a humane thing to do. It is a social duty of those with wealth.

She spoke about the Greek origins of the word philanthropy, capping it off with “and the Greeks really knew how to write a play.”

I winced like I’d been stabbed. Cultural cringe… imperial leakage?

One brave person who eloquently asked the “elephant in the room” question something like:
What was the strengths or weaknesses of the scripts last year which meant that you didn’t award the Richard Burton Award for playwriting?”

Her response was along the lines of:
“We had the great fortune of in the first year awarding the prize to an exceptional play by Caleb Lewis for Clinchfield. He set the bar very high. Last year we read 110 plays, and none of them, with my hand on my heart were worth $30,000.”


Here’s a few point to consider:

1. The inaugural guidelines of the Richard Burton award (2010) stated:
“The competition is open to full length, unproduced plays which have been written in the 12 months leading up to the closing date of the Award. Plays that have been commissioned by a company are not eligible for the Award”
This year the guidelines have changed.

2. The winning play, Clinchfield by Caleb Lewis was produced in 2009 by Flinders University (where he was teaching at the time) and is quoted as having “played to sold-out audiences” (though it must be note that this was not a professional production, but a student production – this show had the benefit of being put before an audience- whereas many plays submitted to awards, have not.)

3. MANY, MANY playwrights and plays I am aware of submitted their work to that award, which followed the guidelines in 2011. Many of those plays have gone on for production nationally and internationally. AND have won other national theatre awards. I’m not going to name them, I don’t need to.

FURTHERMORE: It’s no secret that I love Caleb Lewis – and this is not having a go at him – he deserves (as many playwrights in this county do) recognition, money and support. I was absolutely thrilled for him. Absolutely. But a recent WA review of Clinchfield has stated:
“Whether Clinchfield can make the grade remains to be seen… Clinchfield may not yet be ready for a wider public, but at least it has a path to success those other shows lacked.”

My point is that reading and judging plays is a very personal thing. There is no perfect new script and not awarding a play on its potential is absolutely narrow-minded, and egregiou.

Playwrights – especially those not commissioned and without guaranteed production – have a hard task of writing, especially as theatre is absolutely a collaborative artform.

What Sally Burton failed to recognise is her power in giving a “message” to playwrights – a message of “not good enough, no money until you can do it on your own anyway.” It is, in my view COMPLETELY COUNTER the spirit of philanthropy. This award is a strings attached donation – which I think is one sure way to smother risk in art, art in writing and ultimately culture. To have a wealthy British woman, who’s inherited wealth has gone on perpetuating the “ROYAL” court, ballet, theatre in the UK – tell our writers that they’re not good enough is a cultural cringe moment of the HIGHEST degree.

So now the award is changed. No longer $30,000 for a play to head towards production. It’s now $15,000 for 2 writer to DEVELOP a play.

OUTRAGED! (Again!)

How many more “DEVELOPMENTS” do our writers need? And what is this saying about all the companies that are there to assist play development? OZCO, State Arts agencies, Playwriting Peak bodies not enough, does Sally Burton want to join that too?
If anything, THAT development option SHOULD have been given last year if they couldn’t find a ready play. If the aim of refusing to award the money last year was to inspire the artists to excel, she has countered this by lowering the stakes into creating this as a “development” fund. To do that THIS year lowers the impetus and the stakes for the writers – after all $15,000 is only 5 more than the Griffin Theatre Company (and they aim to provide production) AND The Philip Parsons who offer the same.

It’s her money. She can do what she wants with it: but I don’t think Sally Burton realises the symbology of her decisions to the playwriting community, and ultimately to the (potential and established) philanthropic community.

What feels most difficult about this, is that when someone has extreme mega-wealth and when there is a sector in much need: the conversation always seems one sided. It feels like Sally Burton is all powerful and not to be criticized. It could easily appear to bite the hand that feeds – I don’t ever expect that Sally would ever feed a mangey dog like me, I’ve been living off scraps for so long, I doubt I could stomach a caviar dinner and so, I have nothing to lose.

But I’m going to end on this:

I read around 200 scripts a year. By the end of this year I will have worked with (developed, directed, produced) 25 playwrights. All this is without anyone’s financial support (government included.) I KNOW first hand how hard playwrights work. I appreciate the hard work, the vision, the passion, the sacrifice and time it takes to write and submit. I understand the personal agony of rejection. And all I can say to our playwrights is – keep going.

Please, playwrights. Swamp Sally Burton’s competition with quality, passionate innovative plays that confuse and confound her. Show her just how amazing you are.
Entries close Fri 6 July 2012