Cultural Stock-Taking: An Account of the Future
Potts, Marion, Australasian Drama Studies
This is an edited text of the annual Rex Cramphorn Memorial Lecture, delivered by Marion Potts at Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, on 28 September 2010. Rex Cramphorn was one of the key practitioners to emerge from the renaissance of Australian theatre in the 1960s and 1970s. His work ranged from the experimental to the classical, and was especially marked by his total commitment to the idea of artists working together, sharing and developing skills. Each year, a leading theatre practitioner is invited to deliver a lecture to celebrate Cramphorn's memory.
I believed that my most important function was to establish an atmosphere in which the grace of creativity might fall on any member of the group, giving him or her the right to lead the work.
At what has turned out to be a critical juncture for theatre in Australia, with leadership changes to four or five major companies,1 it felt timely to contemplate what that might mean. The following wanders through some possibilities, but also aspires to take stock and look squarely at where I believe we are as a theatre culture. 'Professional stock-taking' was an expression that Rex coined and it seemed fitting to appropriate it here.
A disconcerting revival of the 1980s is happening at the moment. I feel like I'm being surrounded by my university days in a series of unsolicited flashbacks, dragged back to the future: twenty-one-year-olds are listening to music that I was listening to when I was twenty-one; there are leggings and spotty stockings that I used to own; bangles clanging around and boys with sharp haircuts. But there was one big, defining difference: a cloud hovering that kept casting a shadow right across our dance-floor. It kept pushing its way into our thoughts, kept us vigilant and careful. It was AIDS. One of my abiding memories of the 1980s is driving along in a taxi with Rex past Taylor Square and hearing him say: 'they're dancing on people's graves'.
Rex was the first AIDS victim with whom I was acquainted - the first of many experiences of robbed talent and goodness that we all had to live through. He was also the first real, living artist that as a young twenty-oneyear-old I could claim to know, let alone observe, document, assist. If you were lucky enough to be around Sydney University at that time and you were doing a course through a language department, you would end up in the realm of semiotics at some point, and that - in an idiosyncratic way - brought you right into the study of theatre. In my case, it suddenly meant that I could apply what I was doing in SUDS [Sydney University Drama Society] with a number of really sustainable, nourishing premises. The idea of doing a thesis, then getting a scholarship to do another was really, for me, just a way of supporting myself through a series of observing gigs - a way to watch professional directors at work.
I'm probably the last of this new generation of artistic directors to have known Rex. I can't really say that I knew him well, but I certainly knew the environment well. And there is no doubt that Rex's great supporters, people like Gay McAuley, Kim Spinks, Derek Nicholson, Tim Fitzpatrick, my own peers Ian Maxwell, Chris Mead, Laura Ginters - and visiting directors like Lindy Davies - all made it a place that allowed me to think in my own quiet way. If anything, that time at the Theatre Studies Unit2 taught me to identify and to value those essential features of theatre: the incredible communicative power of three-dimensional space, the live experience and communion between artists and audience, the use of metaphor and the non-literal, the fact that a packing crate can be a car, that an actor can play a dog - those basic things that belong to theatre and to no other medium. For me, Rex's contribution had to do with process; in particular, it was about 'otherness' or alterity: questioning what we do in relation to a vast set of alternatives, imagining a way to work outside the mainstream, adopting a different view of hierarchy. …