For Once, Some of the Comments Are Worth Reading

Ben Neutze, theatre critic and Deputy Editor at Daily Review, wrote this article, which highlights one of the heavier ball-and-chains attached to the ankle of Australian musical theatre.

People commented. Some of them commented intelligently. I mouthed off a bit.

Lately, the chat has been between just me and someone name Kim. Hi, Kim, if you’re reading this.

If you have thoughts on the many matters raised, please share them, here or there.


6 thoughts on “For Once, Some of the Comments Are Worth Reading

  1. Hi Peter – really enjoyed your blog pieces here. The serious issue in Australia across the board, and not just on the boards in Australian musical theatre production, is the lack of depth of development capital. The risk-reward equation does not work here for the limited capital available. Major tax-breaks would help, as they did for film, but so few performers and creatives understand the financial imperatives and how they would indeed benefit. There is however the occasional individual or corporate who will back a new show, but these are rare. Having an established process and channel underpinned by grants and/or the tax system is far better. Also, connected people such as yourself and Ben Neutze need to highlight and recommend clearly that some fledgling work seen is indeed truly worthy of being picked up (not everything but that occasional piece that could tick all the boxes). Commercial producers are very aware but are not generally incubators, but may well respond if there is a clear message – regards Kim.

    • Many thanks, Kim, for posting, and for sharing your thoughts.

      I’ve seen comment elsewhere by others, who know more than I do about such things, that a common barrier to a set-up like the one which helped Australia’s film industry is that musicals are widely seen as too light and fluffy to be worthy as art; or, even worse, too commercially successful to need help! Somehow, Australian film managed to convince the nation that it needed help, and was worth helping. Maybe we theatre-types could learn something there.

      Personally, I come across a great deal – a very great deal – of entrenched thinking about how much things cost: “Well, for our staged reading, we’ll need a 500-seat theatre, with lighting, sound, and a band,” someone will state confidently. (This will be the first time the show has been put on its feet).

      “Nope,” I’ll say. “We need a community hall, in daylight, casual clothes, no microphones, a few cameras, and a nearby pub.”

  2. So that the thread can keep on going somewhere where the person I’m most interested in talking to is likely to read it – I think I basically agree, staged readings need the minimum, you don’t need every bell and whistle.

    The thing I find interesting is, the two Sydney groups that are usually considered the protectors-of-the-musical-flame, Hayes and Squabblogic, both have a pretty mixed record when it comes to new Australian work. Squabblogic hasn’t done one Australian work in 10 years of existence, but they do have a musical of “The Dismissal” on the books for next year. The Hayes launched at least two-three new Australian musicals I can think of in their first year, but I can’t think of a single new Australian show they did this year. They have one planned for next hear (“The Detective’s Handbook”, coming through New Musicals Australia). The strange thing is, “The Detective’s handbook” has been through what sounds like a more rigorous process of multiple assessments and a workshop, yet at the basic conceptual level, I’m far more interested in “The Dismissal” (the plot sings, it’s got obvious drama, it’s got grand passions, and goddamnit, it is actually Australian. And it possibly has a role for Norman Gunston). Why is it the one with the less-visible development process is the one I’m keener on? (It might be because New Musicals announced 7 other candidates, at least three of which have more obvious selling points). Surely, if we’re complaining about the lack of brave producing, the wise thing to do is to at least not have people going out there pushing shows that have no obvious selling point beyond “won a competition”?

    • But Simbo, ego and delusion in the arts is a wonderful thing! However you are absolutely right. That is why it becomes the classic definition of “economics” – the allocation of scarce resources among competing ends. That is also why there are hard-headed commercial producers and non-delusional artistic/program directors at the likes of OA, MTC, STC and QPAC.

      • Oh, clearly therre are ridiculously dumb decisions made in most of the subsidised companies as well (to take an example – MTC’s co-production of “Once”. It makes sense for MTC to do the show. It does not make sense to use the way-too-large Princess Theatre, and it probably guaranteed a show that would have run a reasonable season in the 884 seater Playhouse or even the 997 seat Comedy instead staggered through with tickets on Halftix in the 1,488 seater Princess).

  3. I’m on the Advisory Panel for NMA, but I have zero connection to the shows that have reached Stage Three, so I feel like I can speak freely. I know of writers who, when approached, opted not to be on the panel, but I thought it was important for composers and lyricists to take part, and I knew I could recuse myself from any piece I had some involvement in.

    So, first I submitted two of my own pieces. They didn’t even make it to Stage One, and that’s probably a good thing to have happen to one of the judges. Meanwhile, I listened to, read, and gave feedback on three other shows, all of which I thought had potential, and all of which I recommended for something not-quite-a-workshop yet: a table read with dramaturgy to follow, perhaps, or a revision of Act One after completing Act Two. That sort of thing. None of those pieces got to the next stage, and I don’t have any connection to the pieces that did.

    Importantly, though, none of the Panel’s assessment was based on perceived commercial prospects. We gave feedback on the quality of the writing first and foremost, and practical matters to do with being staged at the Hayes, but at no point did I consider – or was I encouraged to consider – whether this piece would play in Parkes. Is Parkes a fair Aussie equivalent to Peoria? Anyway, it starts with a ‘P’.

    Just as well, I reckon, because it’s been my experience that nobody – I mean, nobody – has the faintest idea what new works will catch on with the public, especially in Australia. It was one of the explicit briefs of the Pratt Prize – to award money to a show with commercial appeal – and their panel didn’t manage to pick a single hit before disappearing without ever really officially announcing their own demise. That’s to say nothing against the work of the writers who won the award. It’s kinda miraculous that some of those shows got to go on more than once.

    In summary, I think the reason we all look to Hayes and Squabbalogic and expect such great things from them, is that they’re the only game in town, at least until VCA’s New Australian Music Theatre Project gets going. And that’s ridiculous. Imagine if the only new Oz novels were coming from tiny little indie publishers, and all the major publishers just did new editions of books from overseas. Imagine if the only new Oz TV was made by little production companies, and all the larger ones just re-shot American shows.

    Even though I like some of the musicals that come here, and even though I love many of the people who put them on, going to musicals in this country is like going to a music festival and seeing only covers bands.

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