A day for mothers – not “special persons”

A celebration of mothers – not “special persons”.
Cover illustration: A Celebration of Babies, edited by Sally Emerson

On the second Sunday in May, the daycare centre that my 20-month-old grandson attends presented his mother with a card: Happy Special Person’s Day!

When the centre first invited her to attend a celebration of Special Person’s Day the previous week, she had assumed it was for people with special needs.

It hadn’t occurred to her that it meant mothers – or people performing a mothering role.

Such is the power of language to affirm or erase.

We in Australia learned this in 2017 from the campaign for marriage equality, which replaced the cruel and pejorative terms aimed at the LBGTIQA community with the words “equality” and “love is love”. 

As a result, people who had previously condemned same-sex marriage, now understood. In the acceptance of marriage equality something was gained. 

But in accepting Special Person’s Day instead of Mother’s Day, something is lost.

There may be many special people in a child’s life: aunts, uncles, teachers, carers, mentors, but they are not always mothers.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a mother may be defined as “the female parent of a human being; a woman in relation to a child or children to whom she has given birth; (also, in extended use) a woman who undertakes the  responsibilities of a parent towards a child, esp. a stepmother”.

As the dictionary notes, there are many different types of mothers – birth or biological mothers, surrogate mothers, foster mothers and adoptive mothers – who all share the profound, life giving and life-changing experience of mothering.

The word “mother” describes not just a person but an experience.  A mother is not just a special person, she is someone who mothers.

Regardless of how one comes to motherhood, it is a title that is earned – and hard won –  just as the day named in honour of mothers was hard won. It took its founder Anna Jarvis years to win recognition for a national holiday honouring the sacrifice of mothers for their children and more years to fight the commercialisation that resulted.

As the best-selling novel The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams so eloquently reminds us, women’s experiences have historically been denied in so many ways, and often with words.

Perhaps it was not the intention of my grandson’s daycare centre to take away that power, but in the desire to be inclusive, we must take care not to erase the experiences of those who have already historically been excluded in so many ways.

Flowers and cards are lovely, but words are powerful and when they are used to affirm and empower they are the greatest gift of all.

Small independent theatre – the keeper of dreams

Carolyn Bock, as Catherine, in the e-baby 2015 premiere at Chapel Off Chapel, with direction and dramaturgy by Anna McCrossin-Owen.

The sum was 314 pounds – 314 pounds of hope.

That was the modest distribution sum I received this quarter from publishing and licensing agent David Waters at Stagescripts in London, which licences my play e-baby for productions in Europe and the USA.

It was a delightful surprise. I had thought that Talking Horse Productions the small production company in Columbia, Missouri, which had applied to produce e-baby during Covid-19, had been defeated by the virus.

But no, Talking Horse (https://www.talkinghorseproductions.org/ – like many small independent theatre companies – remains optimistic, if not for 2021, then later.

So does Les Antonietes Teatre in Barcelona, Spain (http://www.lesantonietesteatre.com/).  Les Antoinetes has secured the rights to e-baby for five years in the hope that it may be produced post Covid. Their plan is to translate the play into Catalan and tour the Catalan territories. If that’s successful, it will be translated into Spanish for further productions.

A production of Uked! – The first play-along ukulele musical, which is licensed with David Spicer Productions, was also planned by Libretto Productions in New Zealand this year, but cancelled.

While Covid-19 has decimated the theatre industry, it has been surprising and gratifying to find that these small independent companies – often with no government support – are still working valiantly towards the future.

This is often the only way that the work of independent playwrights like me can be seen.

I produced e-baby myself in 2015, and Uked! – The first play-along ukulele musical in 2019, as well as numerous small plays in the past decade, so I know how challenging producing can be in the best of times.

I’m also grateful to Stagescripts and small independent publishing and licensing companies like them, as well as Australian Plays Transform, who have struggled on despite lack of income.

It’s great to see main stage companies in Australia getting back on their feet, using their creative skills to develop work despite Covid restrictions, and I’m excited to attend their shows.

But it’s community theatre that gave me my start and independent theatre that is keeping me going.

So this is a shout out to encourage all theatre lovers to support their local independent and community theatre companies during this difficult period by attending shows and donating where possible.

It is often the smaller companies who take the risk to produce new work, showcasing stories that are not always championed by main stage producers.

As Adam Brietzke, Artistic Director at Talking Horse said: “It’s a tough time for all involved in art. We’re all in this together.”

Mr Goh and Sonja make film debut in Singapore

Pathey Nimidam 2020, available for viewing from November 20-29 at Singapore’s Esplanade Theatre. Ticket link below.

Change Shift, the little Tamil play with a big message, makes its film debut at Pathey Nimidam at Singapore’s Esplanade Theatre

Mr Goh, the inimitable Singapore taxi uncle (played by Drake Lim), and his ever-patient passenger Sonja, (Hasisha Nazir) make their film debut at Singapore’s Esplanade Theatre from November 20-29, in my little play Change Shift, as part of the annual Pathey Nimidam Tamil 10-minute play festival.

Change Shift, which featured in the festival in 2017, has been revived for this special Covid-19 edition of the festival, beautifully filmed by K. Rajagopal.

Nine plays will be presented at the festival, which celebrates the Tamil language and culture, a vibrant part of Singapore’s diverse population. The plays are all in Tamil but have English sur-titles.

Change Shift is the story of Sonja, who on a rainy Friday in Singapore is desperate to get to the Indian High Commission to collect her passport to get to Nadu the next morning for her wedding. Sounds simple, until she meets the inimitable taxi uncle, Mr Goh, who has a mission of his own. Ammu Thomas features as the unsuspecting Indian High Commission official, also called Ammu.

The play is directed once again by well-known actor, comedian and director Susie Penrice Tyrie, who has lived in Singapore for many years and is also a member and founder of Wag the Dog Theatre.

Susie and I met through The Stage Club, when I first arrived in Singapore in 2012, and collaborated on many projects until I returned home to Melbourne in 2012 after six years as an expat.

It is a privilege to be included in the festival again. I’m thrilled that it was filmed, so I can see it in these Covid-19 travel-restricted times.

Book now for a taste of the wonderfully diverse and fascinating theatre culture in Singapore.

Please note: The ticket price is for all plays in the festival, which are presented one after the other in the same space.

The highly sensitive world of playwriting

How does the modern playwright juggle the demand for diversity and specificity with the nature of creativity?

Imagine you are writing a book. Imagine that this book must include the word “fire” or “environment”.

Imagine that the characters must be under 18, or perhaps over 50, or must belong to a particular ethnic group, or have a particular sexual preference or gender. 

Imagine that you cannot write about anything that you have not directly experienced yourself.

If you come from a disadvantaged group, there are opportunities to submit your work in that category, but anyone else who merely identifies with that group can also submit in that category, which means that you are once again competing in the general market.

Your book can be no more than a certain number of pages, and you cannot submit it for publishing or reading if someone has already read it, or if the people in your area have read it.

Welcome to the crazy world of the 21st century playwright.

Playwriting – if you want to get produced – has become strangely prescriptive, beyond the normal restrictions of budget, taste, and size and nature of the theatre, which are restrictive enough.

A browse through the popular website Play Submissions Helper, which lists opportunities from all over the world, is a case in point. 

Mostly these theatres do not accept plays that have already been produced, which means that if anyone else has seen it, it cannot be seen again – which is akin to saying that a library only wants books that no one has read. 

The reason for this, of course is the modern idea that every play a company produces must be a World Premiere, and anything that has already been seen and reviewed is off limits – even, in some cases, if it’s a 10-minute play and they don’t pay the playwright.

There are also limitations on themes and geography, as well as identity. 

Producers want plays with the theme “The Camp Out”, or with Jewish content, or by people who’ve served in the military, or by writers from only a certain geographic area, or with the theme “retrospect” or “Missouri” or “Among the trees” or “forgiveness and retribution” or by writers who are 12 to 18 years old and writing about “heroes and monsters”.

Or the play must include “a take-out container” as a prop, LBGTQ characters or themes, or be by people of Middle Eastern descent.

Or it must showcase “Sapphic super-heroines”, or be by women of colour or transgender women, or those with a feminist perspective, or it must “highlight intergenerational relationships” or be by “female identifying or non-binary writers”. 

Or it must include “50 per cent characters that are female identifying”, or must take place in a gas station, or feature the theme “science fiction summer” or “holiday”, or it must be inspired by H. P Lovecraft and his work, or with the theme “myths and legends”, or be by writers “age 12 or under” (how many six –year-olds are writing plays?)

I didn’t make these up. These are the real demands of real theatres around the world today.

I realise that one reason for this is that these theatres are targeting specific audiences or that they are trying to encourage diversity in the writers and actors they employ and the stories they tell.

But where does that leave the playwright?

Of course, this complaint sounds very un-PC.  But do not mistake personal frustration for a lack of generosity to those who have been historically locked out of the writing world. As an old, disabled woman myself, I understand the need for more diversity in theatre, and for stories that reflect society in general, not just an elite few.

The problem is that this policy misunderstands why people write. We write because we have something to say and are compelled to say it, in whatever form it takes. Therefore being told what we must write, and how we must write it, runs counter to how creativity works.

Few playwrights have in their drawer, at the ready, a play about these very prescriptive issues. The notion that we might suddenly write a play to fit these requirements and deadlines is a strange misunderstanding of the playwriting process. It can take years to gestate a play, and certainly months, if not years, to write it.

Some of these restrictions are for a purpose. The producers want to promote something with the play, or to encourage a certain attitude, or idea, or to shock people out of complacency into awareness. Fair enough. But that’s not playwriting: that’s public relations.

It seems playwriting these days has become a tool for the correction of society’s ills. This is a noble cause.  The best theatre can make people laugh, cry and think, so it’s understandable that some producers think it, therefore, MUST make people laugh, cry and think a certain way.

It is ironic that in attempting to do so, producers are promoting another type of homogeneity. Demanding that writers write about certain things, and banning them from writing about others, is a type of censorship that should be abhorred not promoted.

But when it is done in the name of victimhood, it is difficult to criticise without looking as if you are hurting those who are already hurting.

I don’t know how other playwrights cope with these restrictions.  For me, playwriting is such hard work that I cannot do that hard work unless I am compelled by the topic and the characters and story.

For me, it simply can’t be prescribed, even for a very good reason.

Are you a playwright? What’s your view?

How theatre helped America out of the Great Depression

And reinvented itself in the process

One third of a nation…a cast of 120 and seen by millions during The Great Depression

Would you believe that theatre employed up to 12,000 people in the USA during the Great Depression, that it was mostly free, and  – get this – the producer was the US Government?

In some ways it made sense. According to the digital exhibition, The Show Must Go On – American Theatre in the Great Depression, theatre was the main entertainment for most people before the Great Depression. In 1927 alone, 250 shows were presented to an audience of an estimated 20 million.

The economic collapse of the Depression was a double blow to the industry, which was already competing with the “talkies”.

In 1932, incoming President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal Initiative and the Federal Theatre Project aimed to keep theatre professionals working until the economy recovered, providing $6.7 million to bring theatre to the masses.

Actor, director and Vassar Professor Hallie Flanagan was charged with running the program, and set out to bring cutting-edge quality theatre to those who had never seen it.

From 1935 to 1939, she created a network of regional theatres and produced almost 64,000 performances seen by more than 30 million people around the country. 

The Federal Theatre Project also encouraged racial integration and enabled other marginalised voices to take to the stage, creating units of the Negro Theatre Project in 23 cities.

Flanagan’s aim was to produce theatre that educated and informed ordinary people. Following the German director Edwin Piscator’s idea of taking real-life stories from newspapers, the FDR employed journalists and theatre makers to dramatise important issues of the day, through The Living Newspaper program.

In Flanagan’s words, these aimed to “dramatise a new struggle – the search of the average American today for knowledge about his (sic) country and his world. To dramatise his struggle to turn the great natural and economy forces of the time toward a better life for more people”.

The plays frequently featured a character known as the Little Man, who represented the ordinary citizen, and who commented on the proceedings throughout.

Amazingly, some of the scripts that were produced for the Living Newspaper Federal Theatre Project are available to download from the Federal Theatre Project Materials Collection at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, including possibly its most famous work, One third of a nation by Arthur Arent.

The title of the play was based on a quote from President Roosevelt himself.

I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished…The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.

— Second inaugural address of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, January 20, 1937[1]

The play documents the failure of the Housing Act of 1937, where a $565 million housing program only managed to alleviate two per cent of New York’s slums.

 It ends with the Little Man and his wife vowing to continue to lobby the government until “everyone in America has a decent place to live”.

Like all Living Newspaper plays, it was based on extensive research. The script includes an eight-page bibliography and a cast of 120. (It was helpful that none of these plays were expected to make a profit.)

At its peak, the Federal Theatre Project employed 1500 costume and scenic designers, 10,000 actors rehearsing and playing in small professional productions in 62 cities to audiences of 500,000 every week all over the country.

Eventually, its left-wing focus brought it under suspicion of Communist influences and the money and support ran out.  

However its legacy was immense and it serves as an example of how, rather than be seen as an irrelevant burden, the arts can provide a way forward in an economic crisis.

As Flanagan herself said in The New York Times, shortly after the project was terminated:  “We know now what many doubted four years ago – that great numbers of people, millions of them, who had never gone to the theatre, or had stopped going, want to go to the theatre if the plays are good and the admission reasonable.”

Hallie Flanagan – National Director of the Federal Theatre Program during the Great Depression.

Taking its lead from the US Living Newspaper program, London’s Royal Court Theatre will create six editions of a Living Newspaper of its own in November, in response to the current pandemic. Weekly editions will be created and edited by a collective of writers and performed around the Royal Court building

The rise of The Independent Theatre in Australia

Doris Fitton, founder of Sydney’s Independent Theatre

The Australian Government during the Depression did not provide a similar economic lifeline. Indeed, its rejection of the Keynesian stimulus policies that were adopted by the UK and the US resulted in prolonged hardship in Australia compared to the rest of the world.

However Australian theatre responded to the crisis creatively according to the History of Australian Theatre (HAT) archive. While the big commercial theatres struggled, there was a rise in amateur productions, known as the “people’s theatre” movement.

In 1930 Sydney, actor and entrepreneur Doris Fitton, came up with the idea of a subscription fee of 10 shillings each from 20 fellow actors and friends to form The Independent Theatre, which continued until 1977 when Fitton, by then a formidable force in Australian theatre, was in her 80th year.

The Independent Theatre mostly presented plays that were considered uncommercial by the big theatre companies, encouraging Australian playwrights and introducing Australian audiences to contemporary international playwrights such as Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter.

The plays were produced on a shoestring budget with limited sets, in mostly small venues and ran for a limited time, until the company found a permanent home at the Miller Street Theatre in 1939.

Sound familiar? Independent theatre today continues to run on a similar model, producing small-cast works in intimate settings and relying heavily on subscribers for income.

The current pandemic has brought similar challenges to Australian theatre to those of the Great Depression – but not necessarily similar solutions.

The Australian Federal Government’s $250 million Recovery Program for Australian arts industry to “get back to business” has been regarded by many in the industry as too little too late.

Production closures caused by Covid-19 are yet another blow to the industry, which has struggled with punitive funding cuts in the past decade. In March alone, 33 arts organisations lost their Australian Council funding.

It will be interesting to see what changes result from the current pandemic, and whether, as in the Great Depression, the response enables new voices, new forms and new ideas.

So far, the creative reaction of theatre makers globally has resulted in an unexpected marriage (via Zoom) between two of our most popular artworks – theatre and a film.

Will it last? Perhaps, as in the Great Depression, theatre will rise to this new creative challenge and new forms of theatre will be a permanent part of the artistic landscape in Australia and throughout the world?

Perhaps. But it would be worth a standing ovation if the Morrison government took a leaf out of FDR’s book and saw the arts as the solution rather than the problem.

Are you enjoying new and old art forms during lockdown? Have your say about the benefits of the arts and the impact of Covid-19 on the industry: