Australia: Artists No Longer Mavericks at Society's Fringe
The Age, 9/14/09

"Shakespeare wrote in Measure for Measure that 'Truth is truth to the end of reckoning.' Shakespeare was a man who knew a thing or two. So what is the truth of Australian theater? It's in decline. It's been in steady decline for most of the past two decades and, for some reason, policymakers cannot see it, and the industry and its audience have chosen to ignore it. Theater in this country has, for too long, been trapped in a limited reality, a white middle-class sport both on stage and in the auditorium, comfortable in its homogeny, creatively self-referential and, it seems, almost determinedly culturally unrepresentative.

To fully understand the problems that surround the theater, you must first look at the historical record with respect to arts policy.

It is clear that governments do not know how to position the theater arts. We have to have them because…well, we have to! As a result, we are left with an almost obsessive desire to bureaucratize theatre arts. Since the early 1980s, theater has increasingly been viewed by government as a publicly funded commodity, and so policies have been formed seeking to mandate its meaning and focus cultural practice towards a largely economic agenda, while at the same time finding increasingly more sophisticated ways of trimming subsidy. With major subsidized theater companies now established on almost commercial footings, ticket prices have risen, cast sizes have shrunk, and programming has become inevitably less adventurous—affecting audience development and creative diversity. Mid-range companies have all but disappeared, leaving the development and staging of more audacious work largely to an under-resourced and often dramaturgically illiterate fringe. It's a program of fiscal strangling so dexterously handled that the Australia Council's most recent policy initiative 'Making it New' may truthfully be called 'Making it Cheap.'

With these changes has come a steady shift in the position of the performing artist. We are no longer the mavericks at the fringes of society. Subsidy has made us a part of the system. And whereas, in the clear light of day, performing artists should see their art form as a forum for ideas and social benefit, it seems we have become unwitting apologists for our governments' dysfunctional funding model, drunk on the lure of public acceptance and the false sense that a successful funding application means the work we are doing is creatively validated."

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