Putting Australian playwrights centre stage

Professor Julian Meyrick

Australian theatre needs to back its own playwrights for reasons of both cultural relevance and good economics, according to Flinders University Strategic Professor in Creative Arts, Julian Meyrick.

In a platform paper commissioned by performing arts think-tank Currency House, to be presented at the Dunstan Playhouse this evening, Professor Meyrick calls for the establishment of a national theatre to take on a role in co-commissioning and co-producing locally written plays.

In The Retreat of the National Drama, Professor Meyrick says the fashion of giving preference to adaptations of “classic” and new plays from overseas threatens to lose the ground won by the famous New Wave of Australian writers 40 years ago.

“While we certainly need the benchmarks of overseas classics, we risk losing our own core dramatic consciousness,” Professor Meyrick said.

Although he believes there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the now entrenched habit of picking up plays from the UK and America, Professor Meyrick said Australia needed to maintain its own cultural footprint in the repertoire.

“Otherwise you’re just operating in a culture of cover versions,” he said.

Professor Meyrick also said that his statistical analysis of classic and new works by State and second-tier theatre companies puts the lie to the myth that contemporary local plays were necessarily a commercial kiss of death.

For at least a decade, he said, the second biggest earners for the Melbourne Theatre Company, after overseas contemporary plays, were Australian new works, ahead of the classics.

Professor Meyrick said the call for a national theatre is “a very old and venerable one”, and echoes similar appeals made as long ago as the 1920s and 1940s.

But in contrast to some earlier visions, Professor Meyrick is not proposing a national theatre as a “hero” company, and looks more to emulate the model of the National Theatre of Scotland.

“It’s not about great artists touring the country doing great art: instead, it’s about strategic investment. Australia needs a dedicated national theatre that is a co-commissioning, co-producing, co-developing body that will not undermine the existing theatre network, and that can work with companies to produce more, and better, work,” he said.

“You get quality only within diversity; you need a spectrum of voices and spectrum of imaginations to do the job.”

Professor Meyrick said that given Australia’s lack of a critical mass of theatre productions wherein apprentice dramatists can immerse themselves, higher education offers an alternative way to learn their craft.

“If you can’t absorb skills contextually, then you have to absorb them pedagogically, and there really is an important role for well-taught, thoughtful, practice-orientated drama writing within the university environment,” he said.

Leading by example, Professor Meyrick is currently directing a State Theatre Company production of Neighbourhood Watch, a 2011 work by Melbourne playwright Lally Katz at the Playhouse, with Miriam Margolyes in the lead role.

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