Chris Mead, exit stage left.
PlayWriting Australia’s Artistic Director Chris Mead had his last day at the company on Friday before heading down to Melbourne to start his co-ADship with Sam Strong at MTC.
PWA posted a fabulous article from SMH way back in 2007 when Chris had just started working with the brand new organisation.
“AUSTRALIAN theatre is facing paralysis: this was the dramatic claim from the Melbourne theatre director Julian Meyrick in his critical essay on the state of Australian drama, Trapped by the Past, published by Currency in 2005.
He pointed to the dearth of new Australian plays being premiered on our main stages; he noted the absence of the voice of a new generation of Australian playwrights from our theatres; and he argued his case for what this might mean for Australian drama.
His essay is as relevant today as it was two years ago. For example, glance at this year’s seasons of our two leading state theatre companies - whose brief surely must include new Australian work on their main stages - and you will find only three new Australian plays listed: two for the Sydney Theatre Company, both from established playwrights, Michael Cove and Andrew Upton; and only one for the Melbourne Theatre Company, also from an established playwright, Hannie Rayson. The rest of the repertoire for both is made up of imports and classics.
Taking Meyrick’s view, this should set alarm bells ringing: “Australia should be slap bang in the middle of a newly emerging dramatic sensibility,” he wrote. “Where is it?”
Chris Mead, 38, has been given the task to find it. It is a tough call.
In November, Mead was appointed the artistic director of a new organisation, PlayWriting Australia, set up by the Australia Council with a $330,000 yearly budget for three years to develop, among other things, “great new Australian writing for performance” and “to facilitate a national conversation about writing for performance”.
Take away the corporate-speak, and Mead’s task appears to be two-fold: to set up a developmental structure nationally that will foster new writing; and to set up another national structure to show and sell the results.
PlayWriting Australia replaces two long-serving bodies that were set up years ago to do the kinds of things Mead is being asked to do: the Australian National Playwrights Conference (ANPC), which provided a developmental platform nationally for Australian playwrights, inaugurated in 1975; and Playworks, formed in 1985 especially to help women writers with script development and the means to establish their voice on a stage long dominated by the men.
“It was felt that there was now a duplication of several services among the two organisations,” says Mead of the council’s decision to withdraw its funding from ANPC and Playworks last year and amalgamate their functions into the one, streamlined body.
“This new approach, I see it as a fantastic chance to re-imagine the sector,” he says. “It offers a time for a rethink about things, and time to respond to the way the industry is now.
“I see my task as setting up an organisation that will give writers resources and opportunities, to build bridges between writers and directors, writers and theatre companies, even our writers and international theatre companies.
“I want to set up a situation that follows the writer through, every step of the way. And I want to find voices that aren’t being represented on our stages, to make sure that these writers are offered help and skills all the way along.”
Behind all the talk, Mead says, lies the thought that maybe it was time for a generational change in the way things were done.
The loss of Playworks in particular is a sign that this might be so: “Women are still under-represented, I know, but today there are other key questions that need to be addressed, like racial questions, or the special needs of the mature-age playwright, for example, or those playwrights for whom English is a second language. Or the young emerging playwright on their 10th draft.
“There really is an archipelago of different advocacy roles we want to fulfil.”
In some ways, Mead has been in training for this job for some time. Although his doctorate from the University of Sydney is in Australian history, it was “doing theatre stuff” that he found he most enjoyed, for this was a time of intense experimentation formally and ideologically in the theatre.
“It was in the late 1980s and 1990s and I was drawn to all that performance work that was going on then,” Mead says.
“I was very influenced by The Sydney Front, that sort of thing. After I handed in my doctorate, I won a scholarship to the UK. It was at the height of the time all that the new writing was being done at [London’s] Royal Court. I was incredibly inspired, not because they were producing new work, so much, but because they were producing work of people my age. I would look around the foyer and say to myself, oh, my God, young people actually go to the theatre.”
On his return to Australia Mead dived into the theatre scene headfirst: he formed the Melbourne experimental theatre group Kicking and Screaming, for which he wrote and directed mostly experimental performance pieces; and he worked with Sydney’s Griffin Theatre, reading the piles of unsolicited scripts it received as the only theatre in Sydney committed to a performance repertoire of new Australian plays.
He worked as a literary manager first for Company B Belvoir Street and later for the Sydney Theatre Company; and he acted as convener of the last two playwright conferences of the now defunct ANPC.
Mead also acted as producer in the Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf2Loud series, which deliberately focused on experimental work from under-30s writers, actors and directors.
The next two weeks for Mead will be crucial. On Monday PlayWriting Australia officially begins its first developmental conference in Canberra. Both it and Mead will be under the spotlight, along with the 20 actors he has chosen to accompany him on this first “rethink” and “reimagining” of the past - as well as four dramaturgs, a clutch of directors, including Wesley Enoch from Sydney and Angela Chaplin from Perth, and eight promising scripts chosen from a pool of 160 submitted from around the country.
PlayWriting Australia’s second conference, in which new works will be showcased before theatre company managers, directors, agents and entrepreneurs, is scheduled for February.
By then, the scrutiny will be intense. Is this organisation really representative of a “new deal” for new Australian playwriting? Or is it another splurge of funds on yet another bureaucracy among the many in arts administration, no different, except in name, to the national playwrights body it replaced?
“I think we have to challenge every expectation,” says Mead of his task. “And I think we will, because we are here to create the kind of conditions that produces good playwrights, playwrights who produce not scripts but passionate exciting stories that are also works of art.”