Tuesday, 22 August 2006

"Acting Up"; the state of Australian dramatic arts

The panelists on the forum "State of the Arts" were Peter Cousens, Dr Ian Maxwell (head of Performance Studies at USyd), Bill Bennet (a director), Graham Thorburn (from AFTRS) and Lyn Gailey (from the MEAA). It was hosted by Simon Marnie who was, as always, very witty and entertaining (I love seeing radio people in real life and hearing the voice come out of a real person instead of through a radio!).

Their analysis of the Australian arts scene was pretty depressing actually. Lyn Gailey's main point was that the government's funding and support is just crap (my word not hers), and that it's appalling that arts funding has basically not gone up in about 10 - 15 years. The ABC apparently receives a huge amount less than other countries' public broadcasters do from their governments. The BBC, for example, receives stacks of government money and is doing great things with it.

Peter Cousens has recently launched an exciting new company called Kookaburra, a national Musical Theatre company equivalent to the existing opera, ballet and straight theatre companies. He talked about how all the "musicals" that have been successful in recent years (ie The Boy From Oz, the Dusty Springfield show etc) are not really musical theatre at all, just "musical events" that, he thinks, devalue the art of real musical theatre... especially because there's a lot of money behind those shows, so more theatrical shows have a hard time getting a look in. Anyway, Cousens is hoping that Kookaburra will do something about all that by staging some excellent, real, musical theatre.

Bill Bennett also talked about the difficulties of funding and said that even if you do manage to get together a great film on a low budget, you still have to find ways to get it distributed and watched by audiences and just desperately hope that you make your budget back.

There's a bit of sadness that increasing numbers of Australian filmmakers, actors, etc are finding that it's easier to just go overseas where there's more money and hopefully more work.

Another point was that the big overseas films that were coming here in the 90s are not doing so as much anymore - they're going other places (New Zealand, Romania, other small European countries) where it's more affordable and there are fewer restrictions... so that's another big chunk being taken out of the local workload. The comment was made that we have to stop thinking we can rely on foreign filmmakers to fill in the gaps between our own productions... we have to find ways to make sure our own productions are constant and valuable enough that the foreign productions just become supplemental.

Audiences, too, have a big part in this. One panelist related that they were in line at the cinema and the couple next to them were talking. One said "let's see so-and-so" and the other replied "nah, that's Australian." And that seems to be the attitude of a lot of Australian movie-goers - I think it's appalling. We've got to turn that around, we should be proud to go and watch Australian films. It's bizarre - we, as Australians in general, have a big rude attitude towards Americans and the "americanised" culture. Yet when it comes to films, we can't get enough of theirs, while our own great films spend a couple of weeks in the cinema begging for an audience.

Ho hum, like I said, a bit depressing.

So, basically, the hope of these panelists was that the government would get it's act together with funding and genuine support programmes, and that Australian audiences would start to value and appreciate our own local works as much as foreign ones. The, maybe, our industry will have an upswing again and we can start to look forward to a more valuable productive future.

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