Hear from the newly appointed CEO, Tony Grybowski.


A little bit of a shake up. It’s true. In recent months the Federal Government (in relation to the arts) has been shaken like a snow globe… papers fly like flecks of snow and we watch in wonder. Or perhaps it’s more like the lotto – watching the swirl of numbers seeing them slowly slip into slots. A National Cultural Policy is announced (the first in 17 years) check it out HERE , Minister Simon Crean is reshuffled out of the deck and the very charming and arts-aligned Minister Tony Burke steps up and into the job and introduces himself to the Arts and Cultural sector immediately (yes I was there – being charmed by his enthusiasm – but you can read more about that HERE) – and the Australia Council has a staff reshuffle…

And not surprisingly the arts sector waits with baited breath to find out the fate of funding priorities… and to meet the new CEO Tony Grybowski. You can read more about him HERE

Tony Grybowski has taken a leaf out of Tony Burke’s book and met the introduction to a room full of hungry (not necessarily starving) artists with courage… introducing himself and declaring his Tuba tendencies and even confessing to be a regular theatre goer. It was a fairly un-ruffling address – sturdy and open that things are not yet decided (with a September election looming – that’s hardly surprising) but a few facts are certain: a peer assessment panel will be developed in response to the nature of the grant applications received, that policy areas of the Australia Council will be separated out from peer assessment aspects, that there will be more research into unfunded excellence, that the government will maintain an arms-length approach to OZCO and that the strategic priorities are yet to be determined.

Of course it is the toughest of gigs, addressing a room full of Australia’s most prestigious, prolific and and progressive theatre makers. Especially before 10am. And perhaps before coffee. Especially when there isn’t a huge amount to say except sticking to a cake-taker line: “there are going to be changes and redefinitions but we are yet to determine what those will be…” (I’m paraphrasing.)

Thrown open to the floor and a rather confident question about the configuration of the peer assessment panel asked: will the panel be free from political stacking and the response fairly clear: that the peer assessment panel will comprise of artists – and this is going to be tough because with all the caveats on that (ie being paid $257 a meeting, reading dozens of applications and not being able to apply for funding) many artists don’t want to be an assessor.

Then there was a question from a different part of the floor that asked about the abolition of the ATSI certificate require by Australia Council to prove indigenous status. Grybowski stated that that was a topic of discussion at a recent ATSI board meeting. The querent responded with a statement that made that point that the act of asking for proof is a great source of pain and emotional distress.

On that note, Tony Grybowski’s welcoming/introductory address ended.

At the time I tweeted: (By the way – that ended with a really weird feeling in the room) #ATF2013

Pavol and Kelly discuss the work of their company and the creation of OK Radio

Photo on 30-05-13 at 10.30 AM #2

If you look on the website which is HERE there is a statement by Pavol Liska:

“People are so much more interesting than the art that we give them.” – Pavol Liska

That is sometimes true.
And if it is, or it’s not true (absolutely or momentarily, specifically or generally) – it’s a great conversation starter.

And that’s what OK Radio is about. Created by Oklahoma Theater Company these are long form conversations with artists around the world about what they do.

This session was no different.

Except perhaps the fact they were wearing pyjamas.

It’s an interesting technique the pyjama technique of presentation: there is something cozy and cute about a man in monkey pyjamas. But really – this session wasn’t about being cute. These were pyjama provocateurs.

And this wasn’t a keynote speech of WHAT they do – this was a demonstration of HOW they do it.

And in a conference which was couched in the theme of “conversation” this seemed like a perfectly natural presentation. Which seemed doubly natural as it was being hosted by The Nature Theatre of Oklahoma which you can find more about HERE

A brief provocative spiel about proving one’s dedication to the artform of theatre by raising and keeping one hand up – an act of fatiguing solidarity a perfect physical gesture toward the physical demands of theatre as an artform – but also a perfect booby-trap for a volunteer to be included up on stage and in a conversation.

Interestingly Claudia Chidiac (a colleague of mine) and an artist known for her commitment to community works, community projects and a focus on political and social theatre was brought onto stage.

So the line of questioning is therefore fairly obvious.

PAVOL: “What is the biggest obstacles in the creation of Australian theatre?”

PAVOL: “Would you divide the money into a lot of little grants or give one big pot of money?”

PAVOL: “I worry that we spend more time worrying about money than making work.”

PAVOL: “Theatre people are all very nice people… And I wonder if that is our problem that we are too polite… We choose an art form where we can sit next to each other and touch each other and we’re very good people.”

PAVOL:”Do you think theatre is an effective mechanism for social change?”

PAVOL: “Would you risk not being liked in order for revolution to occur?”

PAVOL: “Do you have an example of theatre creating social change?”

PAVOL: “Do you have a mass audience?”

PAVOL: “Do you think being a nice person stands in our way when we are making theatre?”

PAVOL: “Do you think we should behave more like gangs?”

KELLY: “Pavol lived through the Velvet Revolution and they stopped making art to make that revolution happen.”

PAVOL: “If the political nature of work has lost intensity, that seems ineffective. Forgive me, but that seems weak.”

KELLY: For us the problems are not interesting in theatre: money, interpersonal problems between people.

PAVOL: The mission is how do we get the best out of the artform – and here we are all ready to touch each other – but we are weak. It is sad to see ourselves not make the most of our artform.

PAVOL: Do we have an imagination to make change? No offense to Alicia – but all we can we imagine is to change the seating in the theatre… (he gestures to the fact we are seated onstage in an auditorium full of seats) Do we have an imagination?

And then the floor was thrown open.

A comment was made that perhaps the ineffectual nature of theatre in Australia was the fact that there wasn’t a threat of artists being gaoled or murdered for their art.

And at this moment, the Keynote was no longer about what was on stage, but the discussion on the floor.

A huge conversation errupted which I don’t care to notate (I stopped Tweeting then and I don’t need to start now) only to say that known activist/warrior/hiphop artist/writer Candy Bowers gave a passionate oration forward about the “unacknowledged Aparthied” in Australia that blew everyone away due to its sheer force of reckoning: “Our biggest problem is that we have indigenous 10 year old boys killing themselves & we’re putting on My Fair Lady?”

A flailing defense. Some sputtering sentences.

Sentences snipered before they could begin.

Wesley Enoch walked out of the room.

The room was silenced.

Pavol acknowledged he was intimated “in a good way” by Bowers.

And everything she said is undeniable. And we all know that.

The country in which we live and make work has a history which is filled with huge pain and shame and horror. A history of invasion. Of human rights atrocity. Of neglect and abuse. A history which continues of not facing up to that which is difficult, that which is ugly. That which is true. It is true that the suffering of indigenous people is not a thing of the past – but of our living history. It is true that there is a HUGE gap in the life expectancy for indigenous people as opposed to non-indigenous people. We live in a country where language, cultural practice has been denied and lost and cut out of memory. We live in a country which has not faced it’s past on a practical, social, day-to-day reality.

There is no defense for our history. There is nothing more that can be said.

At that moment, when Wesley Enoch left the room –

There can be only silence – because the fact that there are social justice, equity problems existing in this country means that Pavol is right: theatre is not the greatest mechanism for social change.

And socially, as people, (not just as artists) we have failed.

Then, Lee Lewis, Microphone in hand acknowledged that Wesley Enoch had left the room and that this was a time to make a decision about who we were going to follow.

People started leaving.

I stood up, gather my things and left.

It was quiet as I walked across the stage. I heard my heels. Nothing else. I pushed my way out of the doors of the theatre. I quietly hugged who I needed to. Sat on a milkcrate and continued to Tweet.


There I was. A person who for years has believed in the power of conversation and discussion, opting not to continue with that discussion- but to continue my own line of personal questioning on Twitter:
Do I stay and listen and try to understand this conversation – or do I leave to indicate my values?
So is it chicken or brave to leave a conversation?
If you stay in a room because you are paralysed or too uncomfortable or scared to leave – how can you make great epic art?
We talk about wanting dangerous and political art for social change – but can we hack it?
And what if all the theatre we made triggered that type of reaction? That “I feel sick” “I need to de-brief” reaction.
How can we claim to want to make art that changes the world when we’re not practiced/equipped to handle a social crisis in a room?

And look at us.

A community who believes in art.
Believes in the necessity of conflict (which all drama is based on).
A group of people who are all about creating safe spaces for dangerous ideas.
Individuals who may claim that we are willing to not be liked for revolution (social change) to occur.
People who at the opening of the session were identified as some of the nicest, most polite, gregarious people – now fractured. Now sitting apart.
A group who live their lives believing in communication and confrontation.
Artists who want to trigger powerful responses in an audience – and yet we experienced a full breakdown of communication.
Surely if any group of people were prepared to tackle the tough stuff, to have a conversation on a higher or deeper level surely SURELY that should have been us?
We spend our lives talking and finding compassion for difficult characters or tough situations: and surely we would have been practiced and prepared for that style of thinking, or conflict?
Has story taught us nothing about how to regard each other?
Has our practice not prepared us?

No. It didn’t.

BUT (and here’s the clincher)…. the genius of all of this was that we proved OK Radio’s line of questioning wrong.

Look what happened: a situation full of conflict asked for action.
This was us DEMONSTRATING to OK Radio (and to ourselves) the power of words, of action: the rudiments of theatre.
There we were SHOWING our conflict: possibly for the first time to that intensity, to that level of discomfort. We were showing that all acts are politicized. That words carry weight and ARE affective. (and anyone who has been audience to Candy Bowers knows that deep, deep in their bones and soul and gut and heart.)

How often are we asked to reveal the unrevealable – to be courageous in art – to be unashamed in being ugly – to be provocative – to be risky in what we say/do/show? How often are we trying to push the barriers? Or push ourselves?

And we were pushed.

Pushed into a defense of theatre.

Pushed into revealing our politics, and thus our fractured perspectives.

Pushed into confronting facts.

Pushed into confronting history.

Pushed into making a choice about what had to happen next: stay, talk or walk.

Now pushed into a moment for and of and about social change?

Some in tears. Some indifferent. Some angry. Some alone. Some hugged together.

And there I was. Trembling.

And then there was morning tea….

(For more on this session please check out Jane Howard’s post HERE )