2) What’s the best thing about being a theatre critic for The Australian newspaper?
What’s brilliant is that it allows me to straddle mainstream and alternative worlds (my favourite position – one of my mottos is that a moving target is harder to hit). When I was asked to be Melbourne theatre critic, I was very anxious that it not affect the blog, which is my first priority; if it had meant that I had to change my modus operandi, I would have declined the position. But The Australian was very accommodating.
The Australian is the only national daily newspaper here. I like working for them. They have all the usual print limitations – not enough space and not enough money – but they are the only print arts section I’ve worked for (and here in Australia, because of the concentrated media ownership, I’ve worked for practically everybody) that always consults you about cutting your copy. And where the arts editor is actually interested in art.
It’s also a bit of a return to my beginnings for me, because I started off my professional life as a journalist on daily papers.
3) Ideally, what would you like theatre artists to get out of your reviews of their work?
On the blog, which is where I do what I consider my “real” reviews, my main aim is simply to provide a response. I.e.: “I was there, and this is what I experienced and what I thought.” Whether that’s useful I guess really depends on the artist involved: I am one member of an audience, and that may be handy or not. I hope that my response is useful in the way that good conversation is useful. Especially in the case of artists whose work I admire, I hope my responses are encouraging and interesting.
Also, I do provide a record of an ephemeral event, which in the end is perhaps the most useful thing I do.
I don’t make theatre. I have in the past, but that hasn’t been the case for several years, and never when I was working as a theatre critic. Over the past few years I’ve been mainly writing poems and fantasy novels. I don’t have a problem with knowing and speaking to theatre artists (I’m even married to one), and friendship has never been a barrier to honesty for me. (My friends are all very patient people.) But I think it would be ethically dodgy territory to, say, offer someone a text, and then head off to review their shows. It would put the artists themselves in a difficult position, and would be difficult to handle my end. I know earlier Melbourne mainstream print critics have done just that, and I always thought it was a bit suss.
Mind you, such ethical difficulties don’t pertain in the literary world, where novelists review novelists and poets review poets all the time.
5) When you look at the landscape of contemporary Australian theatre, how much of it seems to be built on (or make explicit reference to) the country’s Aboriginal performance traditions?
Not much. There are some excellent Indigenous theatre companies and artists: Stephen Page’s Bangarra Dance Theatre is probably the best known internationally, and there is a strong contemporary tradition of Indigenous theatre, with shining talents like the director and playwright Wesley Enoch. But it doesn’t integrate with the mainstream theatre conventions as much as you might expect.
Why that is so is extremely vexed. Some of it is about the understandable sensitivity Indigenous people feel about cultural appropriation, and the reluctance of white artists to step on those sensitivities. To say this is a complex area is somewhat understating it…!
6) How have your experiences as a theatre blogger influenced your ideas about theatre?
I think seeing and writing pretty well constantly about theatre for almost four years has simply allowed me to evolve my ideas. I’m not sure that my basic feelings about art have changed much since I first started thinking about it; but blogging has exposed me to a lot of work that has made me challenge or refine or extend my thoughts. Which might well have been – for me, anyway – the best thing about it.
7) What does feminism mean to you?
Feminism is the real F-word. Women tend to deny they’re feminists, it has had a lot of bad press. I think that’s a shame. Like those who oppose racism, feminists simply protest against the idea that a certain class of human beings is less than fully human.
I became a full-on feminist after I had my first baby. As a young woman I was free to choose my behaviour, free to pursue a career, free to be what I liked. As a young mother I hit the social machinery head-on, and that’s when I began to understand how women were forced into limiting roles by virtue of their sex alone. Motherhood is the mother of all roles, and I refused point blank to conform to any of them. I was what is known as a “bad mother”. (You can imagine that my high achieving children cause me considerable private pleasure, in the light of the dire predictions made when they were younger.)
Feminism is the recognition that women have the right not to be considered inferior just because they were born female. It doesn’t imply any sort of superiority. The thing is that there are many kinds of feminism, it’s hardly a singular entity. I get impatient with some kinds of feminism, especially the single-issue-type that ignores factors like class and race. I don’t like the victim mentality that goes with some strands, and I do get tired when it seems that feminism always seems about beginning again from the basics, as if it’s one of the outer circles of hell. But, sadly, I do think it’s as necessary as it ever was.
8) What’s the most memorable complaint about one of your reviews you’ve ever come across?
I can’t remember!!
One nice thing about doing the blog is that I haven’t had much hate mail. When I was theatre critic for The Bulletin (a national weekly magazine, our version of Time) in the early 1990s, I got mail that had to be opened with asbestos gloves. Maybe I’ve mellowed, though I do think the culture has changed since then. I was sued once over a review. That was pretty memorable.
It’s profoundly important, though in ways that are hard to track. I am sometimes criticised for being too word-centric as a critic. I’ll admit that one, though I don’t see anything wrong with it. I think words are important, and are as important in theatre as any other aspect of the art.
I think probably the most important thing is that years of writing poetry means I have a finely attuned ear, especially for rhythm. I suspect that a lot of how I experience and respond to theatre is predicated on its rhythmic structures.
10) As a writer, what are you better at now than you were when you were younger?
I don’t make so many embarrassing mistakes as I did when I was younger. Or at least, I don’t make the same mistakes. That’s about it, really. Writing is always about starting at the beginning, and that means that you never actually know what you’re doing. I used to think that one day I would grow up and everything would be clear at last: I still remember when it dawned on me that growing older just meant that I was more aware of my ignorance. I have often thought of consciousness as a light spreading over a dark sea: the wider the light grows, the more it reveals the depths beneath.
But on the other hand, if I wasn’t learning all the time, writing would be a very dull way to spend my life.