B1, B2, B3 and B4 are babies, obviously. In the performance text on my tablet the place is a childcare centre and the time is just after the beginning of the election campaign. The four Bs are talking about Leunig and his sister, and government childcare funding, and it all ends in tears. Cry Baby by Emilie Collyer is a six-minute text from a collaborative Anywheres writing exercise published online (at voteplays.home.blog) as The Campaign & After Plays. When the recent election campaign was about to begin (the Somewheres won) playwright Ben Ellis brought together a group of progressive Melbourne playwrights to contribute short election-exploring performance texts which could be published each day online during and for a time after the vote was taken and finally assembled and performed by student actors.
Michael Connor’s reviews appear in every Quadrant.
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Including Ellis, eight playwrights took part, four women and four men. Setting out their aims, Ellis made a clear Anywhere statement locking together irrelevant political matters and indecisiveness. In his eyes it would be “the first Australian election since the rise of Trump and Brexit and the fall of Cambridge Analytica. At times, it might feel that all or nothing is at stake.” After the election Quadrant Online published an editors’ list of eleven of the issues which had resonated with Somewhere electors and won the election for the Coalition—none of the Ellis topics were mentioned.
The project was inspired by US playwright and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Suzan-Lori Parks’s book 100 Plays for the First Hundred Days. “It’s an example,” said Ellis, “of how dramatists can not only respond to the times but be a vital part of the conversation and the imagining of the times’ boundaries, emotional, behavioural and political.” Parks’s short book is all Trump hate—a collection of one hundred brief, obsessive, daily POTUS-loathing rants: one for each of the hundred days after his election: “Even if you’re woke, wake up again, People!” Many are trivial, most are very silly. On one day she polished a small text concerning a Trump tweet which contained a spelling error. When the error was seen it had simply been cancelled, corrected and republished. Someone, the name of a character in her mini-texts, points this out—“2 Goons rush in and remove Someone”. Play ends.
The first of the Australian election texts, an untitled play by Angus Cameron, was published on April 24. A man and woman are worried about losing their jobs—“if they win”. After three minutes of conversation the punchline arrives and we learn what their jobs are: “I can’t imagine a world without gay conversion therapy.” It’s funny: it has nothing to do with our election. Recently the country adopted same-sex marriage, and gay and lesbian politicians are as much limelight-hoggers as their colleagues. The joke seems a leftover souvenir of the Melbourne Comedy Festival. The same political irrelevance lingers over the project and creates an unintended narrative for readers—a losers’ dramatic society is writing about an election they don’t understand.
The playwrights are unaware, as we all were, that they are heading towards a historic and unexpected political defeat and when it occurs they indulge in blissful tantrums. Needless to say, in this exercise of progressive privilege, no non-Left contributors have been included. There is no one to point out that over half the Australian population was pleased by the election result.
Keziah Warner, in an untitled piece, places two women in an olive grove—Sara, an MP, and Annie, her assistant. They talk about a club, and olive oil. This puzzling text was published on Anzac Day.
Running on Empty by Ross Mueller, who has a skill for dealing out realistic, empty-headed Anywhere dialogue: “He’s not a Prime Minister he’s a Jillaroo”; “Morrison demanded his department use the term ‘ILLEGALS’. That is sick”; “Should we record Insiders?” The playwrights, in general, have problems depicting Australians unlike themselves and when this is necessary the results are artificial and disdainful. Like the references to Leunig and his sister in the baby play, and there is another one coming, the cultural references indicate the intended theatre audience—limp hipsters, wilted vegans, and stale but progressive school teachers.
Appealing directly to this audience the writing project was publicised in the Age, on Radio National and through social media. In the Age Ben Ellis sketched bold intentions: “I thought it would be great … to offer a different take from the usual froth of politics—to try and get into the humanity and drama of it.” Perhaps he meant the two-minute text by Vidya Rajan which takes us to a pet store in Dubbo where a dog is being selected for a photo with the Prime Minister. Or his own one-minute play called On the Release of New Figures, set in a classroom. A student disputes a mark given by a teacher: “Sketchley is the teacher. Bobbi is the student. Choose your own genders and class.” Beneath this incomprehensible text is one of the few reader comments the series attracts: “Hi Ben. Just read the article in The Age today and love the idea of this daily playwriting treat! Looking forward to reading them all. I hope you and the family are well.”
Keziah Warner’s second text opens with candidate Sara talking on the telephone. We are told “there are fifteen or so cases of olive oil piled around the room. She is resting her feet on one as she talks.” Annie enters carrying a case of olive oil. They talk about the campaign and a stage direction specifies that there is a bottle of olive oil sticking out of Sara’s bag. The final lines are as mystifying as everything else. Annie says, “My feet hurt.” Sara replies, “Yes. I expect those boxes were heavy.” I usually blame Beckett but maybe it’s an Ionesco moment.
In Rapture by Emilie Collyer, a stranger named Stranger arrives in a deserted parliamentary chamber and talks with the only other person, a cleaner named Cleaner. Stranger asks what happened to the previous occupants. “Nobody knows for sure,” says Cleaner. “Best guess is that it was a kind of rapture. All who sat in here or were eligible to sit in here just … disappeared. Some say they were eaten by the ghosts of their own pasts.” Cleaner exits and after a long Sam Beckett pause Stranger begins cleaning the chamber. And out in the real world an interesting political contest is taking place which the playwrights ignore.
Vidya Rajan sets the scene for an unenlightening conversation with “Two whitemen on chairs”, and the casual racism raises questions of why the quiet majority is excluded from the performance pieces—and conservative voices—and legal-migrant voices.
During the election I catch a crowded Sydney suburban train and make my way to the upper level. The only free seat is in the very front of the forward section and I sit facing all the other passengers. Apart from myself there are very few of Rajan’s whitemen. I can pick the clear ethnic origins of some of my fellow Australians but most elude me. Not one of these plays seriously explains the election campaign from the point of view of our huge immigrant population. And if these people I see before me were seated in a theatre facing a stage and forced, after you made them shut down phones and tablets, to watch these texts performed, would they find them at all interesting? Would they, unlike me, find the texts connect with the election campaign? But I might be wrong, for another comment on the plays is received: “These plays are making me curious about the election campaigns. For the first time in years! I think that’s a good sign.”
When the writers bring the Prime Minister forward it may be in religious mockery, as when Scott—the playwrights seem to be on first-name terms—is discovered “in a moment of Pentecostal prayer”, or treated as culturally inferior as in a piece which has him learning these plays are being written about him. The latter text gives him a fairly weak last line: “The play’s the thing, hey. The play’s the thing.”
Over the weeks the plays are being written the playwrights do not take the opportunity they have given themselves to touch on serious topics or even on matters that concern them personally. Neither political party came to the election with an arts policy. Arts funding is a Left slush fund and the writers were not at all concerned to draw democracy-time attention to their own little world of jealousies, feuds and peer reviewers or change gear and take a stage-worthy look at election time bias at the ABC.
Odd issues, however, do rise to the surface and disappear and one short piece which has something to do with pill testing seems to have sampled the wares:
Sam: Vote Labor, and Bill will be off his face all over the place.
Jackie: Take away your ute.
Sam: Off his face, and your ute will be gone, and only Bill’s grinning face in your parking space.
Jackie: That’s why we’re preferencing Clive.
One text offers a reference, inexplicable to the un-woke, to a recent theory of environmental calamity, with a headphone-wearing actor listening to “the sounds of the sixth extinction”. The stage direction evokes a response, “Who the hell wants to listen to that on a Friday night?” The script ends with a marvellous author’s note for a final aural effect: “The sounds of trees crying fills the space.” I wasn’t expecting that.
Then bang, the election happens, the trees stop crying and the playwrights start wailing—it makes it all so worthwhile. None of the writers had the humanity to explore the drama we were all part of as two men began a day in which their lives seemed solidly fixed for failure or success and then had their, and our, futures miraculously reversed over a few hours as the Somewhere votes were counted. As most of the nation celebrated, the writers went a different, elitist direction.
In The Promise of Australia it is election night and characters named A and B are not watching the televised count but have chosen to watch football. As they watch they are drinking beer and eating pizza. A supports the Coalition, B doesn’t. At the end, “B looks away and A smothers B with a pizza box. B is dead. A watches the footy and munches pizza. Drinks B’s beer.” Published the same day, Elsewhere had an “old white woman” and her granddaughter as survivors in a post-election, post-apocalypse world.
At the beginning of the writing spree the Age Arts Editor had said that “the group is hoping to cut through the repetitive slogans and social media pile-ons with language that is a little more considered and nuanced”. However, as they climbed out of the smoking ruins of their campaign bus after a head-on collision with reality, the playwrights’ better-than-thou language baggage seemed to have gone missing. Presumably in the accident one author either lost or mislaid the assembly instructions when she came to put together a sex scene at the beginning of her post-election play: “In a motel room, the morning after an intense sex session between two people—74 and 65 [their names, not their ages, and a reference to the state of the vote when writing]. They can be any gender, sexual orientation, with any variety of genitals, any age, skin colour, they might [be] disabled, they might be deaf or not.” Progressive playwrights have stopped creating real characters and telling stories. They now offer choose-your-own character representations, for they are afraid of offending audience sensitivities and becoming pariahs on social media for the sins of cultural appropriation. The result, like this stage direction, is ridiculous.
Time passes, we may be still smiling, but onstage things are getting even more heated. Angus Cameron made a joke at the beginning of the project but now he is, literally, burning mad. His actors come on stage bearing sticks which they make into a pyre. A child—this may be meaningful—repeats the text’s only dialogue, “I will burn for you.” He is attached to a stake and the pyre is set alight. With incorrect voters as the election-barbecuing, boy-burning bad guys, the author’s final stage direction is American Psycho macabre: “A slight smile creeps onto one actor’s face.” It’s an interesting take on Australian democracy. By sheer chance the day I am writing this is the anniversary of the death of Joan of Arc; it does not make me feel any better.