Art’s role: to disturb or please?

By Kevin Bathman

A few months ago, I received an email about attending the Australian Theatre Forum 2015, an industry event that happens every two years.

The event was open to professional theatre practitioners, producers and commentators from all parts of the industry – independents and project based collectives, small to medium and major companies, producing venues and festivals.

Since I embarked on a personal journey of discovering and learning more about the intersections of art and social change, I figured ATF 2015 would deepen my understanding about the Australian arts and theatre sector. Happily, I applied to be a delegate as an independent, and was lucky enough to be offered a place.

Produced by Theatre Network Victoria (TNV), the event generates discussion around contemporary practice, policy, sustainability and audiences. It is attended by artists, presenters, producers, managers and policy-makers and was held in Sydney from 21-23 January, just towards the end of the Sydney Festival.

As David Williams, ATF 2015’s curator mentions in his welcome notes:

ATF 2015: MAKING IT will ask: How are theatre makers “making it” – aesthetically, ethically, culturally, logistically, practically, economically? What are they making? What drives them to do so? Who are they making it with, and for whom are they making it? What new models are enabling theatre artists to “make it”? And how might theatre artists continue to “make it” in this current political climate dominated by austerity thinking?

In addition to this strong focus on theatre practice, ATF 2015: MAKING IT will also ask: how do we “make it” in the theatre? What are our pathways and our professional journeys? What are our turning points? What are our disasters? What are our strategies for resilience?

Here are some of my personal reflections on the event:

Diversity was high on the agenda

This particular topic has been on the radar for the past few years in the arts sector, and it was encouraging to see ATF tackling the topic of diversity in a few sessions. On the first day, the highlight was listening to the keynote speaker from Indonesia, Goenawan Mohamad. A poet, playwright and public intellectual, he offered us a rare insight to his experiences as an artist and publisher spanning an incredible era of social and political transformation in Indonesia.

He was the founder and chief editor of weekly news magazine Tempo, until 2000. Tempo was twice forcibly closed by Suharto’s New Order administration because of its criticism of the authoritarian regime. In 1999, Goenawan was named International Editor of the Year by World Press Review magazine.

Another session I attended on Day 2, ”Pathways to Diversity – What Does It Take?” discussed the lack of diversity on our stages. Belvoir Artistic Director Eamon Flack, independent artists Sopa Enari and Rani Pramesti, and Australian Theatre of the Deaf Artistic Director Medina Sumovic gave us insights on their take of diversity.

As Sopa Enari said, “Diversity is not part of Australia’s psyche. We don’t celebrate differences or speak about it excitedly. It must come from within, with a genuine willingness to learn.”

The emergence of Asia 

On Day 2, in a session titled “Asia: So Hot Right Now?”, Paschal Berry, Annette Shun Wah and Dave Sleswick spoke about their projects in collaboration with Asian artists and companies. It reminded me how Australia is still lagging behind in establishing a meaningful dialogue with Asia.

For the most part, these collaborations should be looked on as a long-term strategy and not merely ticking boxes on an arts grant.

Honouring Indigenous stories 

Throughout the forum, there was a strong emphasis on Indigenous stories, and the act of “deep listening (dadirri)” based on respect. Being a migrant to this country, I am always hungry to learn more about the Indigenous culture.

From Rachael Maza’s (artistic director of Ilbijerri Theatre Company) introduction to “what is black theatre?” and the idea of cultural appropriation versus cultural exchange, to Richard Frankland’s (playwright, scriptwriter and musician) dramatisation of the idea of “cultural load” for an Aboriginal person, I came away from all these sessions with a deeper understanding of the Aboriginal culture.

On the last day, we heard from Rhoda Roberts (Head of Indigenous Programming at the Sydney Opera House) talking about preserving, writing and supporting Indigenous stories.

As an added bonus, ATF 2015 also invited Aunty Donna Ingram to do walking tours in the heart of Aboriginal Redfern, starting with a yarn at The Block and a short walk to see some local landmarks and discuss the neighbourhood’s social, cultural and political history.

Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed ATF 2015  it certainly engaged me with the provocations, stimulating discussions and debates, and the opportunity to hear many different and inspiring perspectives.

Here’s to the next one!

Kevin Bathman is an arts editor at Right Now.

*Headline provocation is from final keynote address by Belgian festival director and curator Frie Leysen. 

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