On Monday 9 October, ten delegates who attended the Australian Theatre Forum gathered to share their experience and reflect on their time in Adelaide the week before. Thanks to independent delegates Mararo Wangai, Jay Emmanuel, Mitch Whelan, Riley Spadaro, Humphrey Bower and Barb Hostalek, Fiona de Garis and Zainab Syed from Performing Lines, Eva Mullaley from Australian Blackfulla Performing Arts Alliance and Julian Hobba of The Blue Room Theatre for joining us for the evening.
We thought we would share with you just a small number of what we thought were interesting points from the night.
Humphrey: The conference was very much overshadowed by the past two years, by the sense that there had been this very traumatic government intervention into arts funding by the sequestering of all that money from the Australia Council and so it was a very political forum. It felt like all the key notes and all the sessions had a very strong political edge to them and were as much about the world as they were about theatre. In the last two years, not just funding to the arts but in general society was under attack because of things that happened in Australian and around the world, so it felt that themes around identity, diversity, social disadvantage were really strongly in the room all the time because there was a sense that times had got tough.
Mitch: Ivan Heng from Wild Rice (Singapore) said something that really interested me, which was the idea of theatre that entertains to unite. There was a conversation around sacrificing your career on the altar of activism and I think that Ivan’s perspective about theatre being a tool for creating change and addressing diversity while still being entertaining really resonated with me.
Zainab: I have to say that even though it felt quite heavy in terms of construction and politics, it was also deeply moving and empowering and inspiring to be in a place where there was a lot of conversation about agency, about when all of it is going south, that we as artists, as theatre makers, as people who facilitate the arts, do have a lot of agency in how change can be local and specific, and a lot of times that is when it has the greatest impact. And so I felt there was this underlying sense of why hope as to why we create: art speaks to our humanity, it is our humanity and so, will always be larger than any of the limitations that are placed on it.
Julian: I feel like the first keynotes set up a theme and a challenge that ran through the forum which was about paradigm shifting and by just continually presenting you with the view of people e you don’t normally hear from you were consistently being asked to put yourself in a different paradigm in the way you look at the industry you work in. On reflection, the fact that the first speaker, the first moment was ‘We Are Fucked’, shaped the paradigm that we put ourselves into in a slightly pessimistic way because you found that throughout the forum people were then feeling the challenge to say ‘We are not fucked’ and you never really felt like you were convinced by that.
Riley: The best thing that came out of a it [a conversation about climate change] for me was from one of the producers of the Dream Big Festival in Adelaide, and she said climate change is such an abstract issue and it’s so unattainable but the arts can respond to it in our own processes and practices, we can use recyclable paper to print our scripts and use sustainably sourced materials to build our sets but more so engagement with the arts makes people more empathetic and the more empathetic people are the more likely they will be to enact change, and the more likely they are to enact change. It was sort of like, arts can’t change the world, but arts can change people and people can change the world.
Mararo: I felt like the coming together came at the end. I felt like I would leave each lecture/key note/conversation a bit traumatised, a bit like ‘why am I even bothering with art?’ and a bit shaken. But then I would have these conversations with such like-minded individuals which were so hopeful and so full of perseverance and people committed to achieving whatever artistic goals they had. I find it hard to think how you can curate that hope into the forum, because ultimately just sitting and listening to someone else’s perspective is a bit limited. I found that every time a talk finished and I connected with people, I could leave feeling like I was moving towards something.
Jay: I almost saw it as a two part series that was going on every day. There was the pain that was the key notes, but then afterwards during the conversations I had a lot of hope. I am think about whether there is a relationship between the two, whether you have to go through that pain to feel that hope. The conversations did shake me up and make me feel emotionally vulnerable, after the first day I almost felt like I was going to cry and my friends were also feeling emotionally charged because of the conversations that had just happened. But after we finished the first day, when we were all done feeling exhausted and jetlagged, going and speaking to people there was suddenly a new energy of ‘Hey, we need to talk about this’ and there was an urgency that I had not felt before.
Fiona: I felt like there could have been a sub-theme for the conference which was ‘Just Do It’. A lot of speakers ended up using that phrase. And in an optimistic way, I did often think, ‘oh you could do that little change’ – and specific local change is what effects global change.
Julian: Something else that came up was that theatre makers are being risk adverse, they are not making risky work. It came up every now and again, and I thought that was interesting. And why is that, if we are feeling so challenged? I don’t know the answer.
Eva: One of the best conversations I went to was Kyle and Kamara and Rani on Spirituality. What they essentially talked about was their practice and what they do spiritually and Kyle while making So Long Suckers, they all sleep in the middle of the day for an hour, because dreams are really important. I wouldn’t do that, I would eat together would be my format but it was so unapologetic and that’s what I love. I want to make art unapologetically and do what it is the art needs of an ensemble at the time. So I definitely walked away from that one going that’s going into my practice, not sleeping, but there’s got to be something that’s spiritually uplifting during the day to inform the work.
Barb: At the end of the conference there was this woman who works at an independent theatre company in South Australia and she asked ‘what can I do to use my white power for good’ basically, and it goes back into decolonising and using privilege for good. And I said I try to think locally and implement something bigger from myself, hopefully having a bigger impact immediately around me and then globally which will have more sustainable impacts for generations to come. I thought if there were more practical things for people of privilege to have their hands on, we would get over that uncomfortable feeling of shame, guilt and social isolation which all those feelings present as barriers and restrict us from connecting as people as human beings. Perhaps then people could stand safe and secure within themselves saying I’m owning what I feel, I am acknowledging these feelings and history but I’m also prepared to do this and that, do something to be a part of what is going into theatre companies whether main stream or small/medium theatre companies and saying we want cultural safety practices implemented for everyone whether they be writers, directors, producers, stage managers and artists etc., whatever the working title so ultimately all theatres have audiences in greater attendance than what sporting arenas attract. If I can be this for a small underrepresented group than maybe, just maybe that same practice can then be embraced to facilitate a safe relationship for others from diverse groups such as the queer community, Muslim communities, Asian and hearing impaired etc. to come together and share in the power of performance and human experience through stories.
Fiona: In the Women in Arts Leadership session, there was a conversation that happened between me and three others on how to fix the problem of childcare. We discussed having a budget line for ‘access’ requirements, and thought wouldn’t it be great if this just got accepted by funding bodies in general because everybody just did it; that you could just label childcare ‘access’. This budget line could just address any need that was required on a project around accessibility, whatever that happened to be. Whether it is the need to get your work translated because you can only write in your native tongue, but want it to be performed in English, or you need a childcare allowance, or you need Auslan interpreters… I believe it is now quite accepted in the UK as a standard budget line, so I feel like that’s something that we can work on here. I’m going to chat with Culture and the Arts WA – but I reckon just start doing it!
Riley: In the break out session with Jo Bannon on access, there was a lot of people with disabilities there, and one of them said ‘It’s not about us, if it’s without us’ and I thought that was really nice in terms of engagement and access. To actually have plans on how to engage with communities and how to engage with people. That one sentence really stuck with me for the whole conference.
Picture of Critical Conversation – Australian Theatre Forum Special Edition by Fiona de Garis