Saturday, August 9, 2014

Take Me to Your Leader by Wesley Enoch

Take Me to Your Leader by Wesley Enoch.  Platform Papers No. 40, August 2014, published by Currency House, Sydney.

Commentary by Frank McKone
August 8

Wesley Enoch’s subtitle is The dilemma of cultural leadership.  Let me begin by pointing out that Wesley is a cultural leader in his own right.  He should be formally recognised.  We have the right government at this very moment to do this.

Just as in England we have Sir Paul McCartney et al, PM Tony Abbott can have His Excellency, General the Honourable Sir Peter Cosgrove AK MC (Retd) dub Sir Nick Cave, Dame Cate Blanchett and Sir Wesley Enoch, as well as all those others that Wesley nominates, including: “filmmaker Gillian Armstrong AM, novelist Thea Astley AO, novelist Rodney Hall, designer Jennifer Kee, ABC broadcaster Jill Kitson, Indigenous teacher and performer Michael Leslie, choreographer Graeme Murphy AM, cartoonist Bruce Petty, arts czar Leo Schofield AM and academic Peter Spearritt”.  This was the team that wrote “the first ever national cultural policy, called Creative Nation” for Paul Keating in 1994.

Among other “elders of the theatre [who] are often forgotten, thrown on the scrap heap of natural attrition and fashion [are] the rare few [who] seem to float above it all – Robyn Archer, John Bell, Wendy Blacklock, Carol Burns, Peter Carroll, John Gaden, Roger Hodgman, Liz Jones, Robyn Nevin, George Whaley; but for every person remembered there are untold casts of forgotten.”

But is this European style what Australian leadership is all about – a sort of cultural popularity contest where the monarch picks the winners?  Is it what this “Nunuccal Nuugi man from Stradbroke Island” really wants?  Is it appropriate?  At the risk of offending the Australian Indigenous “race” under Section 18C, this one-time £10 Pom says I don’t think so.

Nor does Wesley, of course.  He’s far more polite than Sir Paul McC, as I suspect are all those others Wesley mentions (though I’m not so sure about my suggestion, Sir Nick).

So let’s get down to the business of Enoch’s argument.  Talking of theatre, his artistic milieu, he claims essentially that the history of government support for the arts, largely through the Australia Council, has ended up undermining the creative energy which we saw taking the lead – despite lack of support – during the 1960s and 1970s.  “In the 1970s with the establishment of the Australia Council we saw the formalising of funding support and the growth of some kind of official culture.  Funding provided a framework within which to experiment and explore ideas that examined Australian life and reflect our own aspirations.  The question today is whether the idea of state-sanctioned culture has led to the taming and silencing of the rambunctious, dissenting mob that ruled our performing arts for over two centuries.  In the search for the approval of the public purse have we lost our wit and charm, the art of surviving through persuasion, our critical purpose and our taste for the popular?[Enoch’s emphasis]

In particular, Enoch notes, “After the stock market crash of the late 80s a new type of economic speak crept into the cultural language....We started to see papers on economic impact and multipliers, and we moved from an artistic community to an industry.”  In 1993, when the Drama Committee of the Australia Council, which included Wesley Enoch, divvied up the money according to the old criteria – diversity, gender representation, Indigenous arts, young people and Australian content, and the overarching ‘excellence’ – “All hell broke loose.”

The committee had found “that the larger theatre companies did not comply with the criteria.  Their lack of cultural diversity, gender representation and Australian content was very clear....Most of the large theatre companies received decreases in funding of around $500,000.  This freed up resources to support a range of other activities across the country.”

Then, writes Enoch, “The boards and artistic directors of the larger theatre companies went direct to government to have the Australia Council return the money that had been taken from them.  This was the beginning of the MOB (Major Organisations Board), an unfortunate acronym that soon changed to MPAB (Major Performing Arts Board).  This Board removed almost all artistic and cultural leadership criteria from the assessment of these privileged companies.”  Only “the overarching criterion of excellence remained unchallenged” and the “larger companies exited the general application process and the dollars they had been receiving from the Drama Committee went with them.”

Enoch sees cultural leadership as much more than putting on ‘excellent’ productions.  He writes, “Artists, by their very nature, are rogues and philosophers – instinctual, naughty, vibrant, edgy, fringe-dwellers who use their wits to survive in a world that pressures its citizens into many shades of conformity.”  And, in a brief reference to his own culture which I would love to know much more about, he states, “For thousands of years in this country there has been a balance between the sacred and the profane in performance.  Lewd, sexually explicit dances sat side by side with the most profoundly-felt ceremonies.”

So is there a way we can get back, at least to the kind of leadership we once had from another list of names: Jennifer Blocksidge, Rex Cramphorn, Jack Davis, Alma De Groen, Max Gillies, Louis Nowra, John Romeril, Stephen Sewell, Brian Syron, Rod Wissler and even the still popular David Williamson?  But, Enoch asks, “would a vocal critic like Stephen Sewell ever get produced on our mainstages these days?  Would any radical voice find access to the resources of the larger companies and if so under what conditions?  It is interesting to remember a time when Neil Armfield, Gale Edwards, Dorothy Hewett, Stephen Page, Geoffrey Rush, David Williamson, were radical and new and the systems that were in their infancy supported them to grow into national and international figures.”

I sense that in his conclusion, Wesley Enoch does not agree with previous Platform Papers contributors, Peter Tregear in Enlightenment or Entitlement and Julian Meyrick in The Retreat of our National Drama (reviewed on this blog February and May 2014 respectively).

Opposing Tregear, he writes “The apprenticeship is a long-established trade practice in other fields but has been abandoned by theatre and the responsibility surrendered to the tertiary education sector.  But the university structure, with its emphasis on academic excellence and compliance is an inappropriate place for a budding actor or entrepreneur to learn the practicalities and opportunities of theatre life.”

Enoch doesn’t mention Meyrick, but perhaps the two could meet in the foyer of Meyrick’s proposed National Theatre (which I proposed could be established in Canberra).  The National Theatre would be entirely focussed on producing new and classic Australian work, would not be a university institution, and would operate as a guild, with its practising performers, writers, directors, designers, technicians and managers mentoring apprentices in each field.

Productions by the National Theatre would not take place only in Canberra, of course.  The leadership it offers must be seen around the country.  The model I see for this in  today’s theatre world, perhaps, is the way Bell Shakespeare is based in Sydney, opens shows in other cities, tours, and offers both mainstage and educational productions.  We have some of the management structure already in place in Playing Australia.

All we need is someone like Wesley Enoch to be the artistic director.  Not Sir Wesley.  Just the Wesley from Stradbroke Island who writes “In Aboriginal society, I was taught, everyone dances and sings and paints and tells stories.  You have to, the arts are the way you understand the world.  If you don’t sing and paint and dance and tell stories you have no way of connecting with your family, your landscape, your history, your religion, your survival.  Everybody does it and understands the power of culture.”

And the Wesley Enoch who worried about accepting sponsorship from a sandmining company – the one which works on his traditional country, Stradbroke Island.  “On one hand the money could facilitate the project’s realization and enable its artists to reach their potential.  On the other, there are deep cultural and spiritual issues connected to the exploitation and extraction of the Land.  I talked with my father and other elders.  Their advice was to accept the money and use it to promote the stories, people and spiritual and cultural values that the project was attempting to celebrate.  I should also use what skills I had to speak up about the issues that were important to me.  So in the end I decided to accept the money of the sand mining company.”

The project was the play Black Diggers, reviewed on this blog January 19, 2014.

Enoch lays out his sponsorship options, saying “I don’t believe in such a thing as ‘clean money’.

1. Boycott or deny participation as artist or

2. Accept support from the sponsor; but at the same
time create a critical environment within the
work or in a discussion about the work that
promoted alternative views to those of the donor;

3. Adopt a ‘it has nothing to do with me I just
make the Art’ position.

He concludes:  “The only way to really promote debate is to be part of it; and to engage through your work.  That is why my preference is Option 2.”