Unwelcome at the Theatre

For decades now, one of my most frequented professional stomping grounds has been La Mama theatre in Melbourne. La Mama has a wonderful history and reputation for the quality and variety of its productions. It is a place where professionals starting out get a go and veterans like myself may return, welcomed in.

In its youthful, callow years, La Mama had a reputation for a wide range of work, and sometimes controversy, such as occurred around the notorious Norm and Ahmed performance which resulted in some of those involved in the production being arrested for swearing, not simply for the fact that boong was the object to which the epithet fuckin’ referred at the climax of the play. A few years after that event, I happened to be teaching English to my matriculating class in Adelaide, and that text was in the curriculum. It was the 1970s, an era when everyone could speak their mind and debate any censuring response. We were able to read, discuss and respond to the feelings that the whole phrase elicited within us. Today we would likely be rendered a class of zombies with lips stitched and ears clogged with wooden plugs by the contemporary thought police, with a pile of copies of Alex Buzo’s text flaming in the quadrangle at the weekly school assembly for merely repeating at least one of the words.

Is once-brave theatre hobbling itself—a spiked little Oedipus waking up and howling for its Mama? Is the spotlight going out, switched off by those who manage or play in the darkness of illogicality?

The new-form arresting gendarmerie has managed to invade places of performance by osmosis. A growing list of trigger warnings must now be written down and declared by artists intending to mount a production at La Mama so that audiences might be armed, presumably for their “well-being”. Perhaps I should say “initially by osmosis”, for I suspect that there have come and gone sufficient woke disciples closer to or amongst the theatre’s decision-makers to hasten the tut-tutting and finger-wagging. I have yet to come across an artist who has worked at La Mama (or the kind of artists with whom I work) who has asked for this formal signalling.

To signal what is going to happen in drama seems to be a contradiction: “Dear Electors of Athens, please note …” These forewarnings have now infected the discourse in the management of all theatres, and infected play itself. The thought-police across all of our cultural playgrounds attempt to command and define the object of daring, risk, uncertainty and tension, which are the features of play, at least in the sporting sense of play according to Johan Huizinga. Sometimes you can just play for its own sake, but that too has its critics.

Let me qualify slightly. Loud noises and flashing lights might disturb some people, and we have had warnings about this sort of thing for some time. Now, ironically, some parents, concerned about the indoctrinating antics of the wokey-wakeys, positively seek out the wider catalogue of warnings to protect their children from the rampant mind-bending.

In May 2021 I was mounting my PhD production of Katyń at the Courthouse Theatre, which La Mama runs. Around opening night I had a word about something or other with the ticketing people at the bar, and noticed that someone had stuck up a hastily hand-written notice on A4 paper on a wall near the till. It announced, “We use he/she, him/her, and they”. The nonsense was not as rampant then as now, so I strained somewhat to understand what was going on. I felt for a moment that La Mama had a problem with language or that they had to remind themselves about something. It looked like a rudimentary chalk-and-talk lesson for primary school kids. Two years later the notice has gone. So too have the large, colourful posters in one of the toilets proclaiming the wonder of transgenderism and warning of its opponents—the hateful discriminant type. Seeing this poster (in situ for at least two years), along with a couple more celebrating similar wonders, was unavoidable, since the theatre had removed the first door into the toilet. The sign could not but hit you and everyone in the face.

You can, it seems, hit people in the face with propaganda but not with drama.

The posters have gone because I sneakily tore one down one night. Someone else got rid of the remainder. Like a tyro Red Guard of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and its propagandising wall newspapers, I graffitied with question marks and exclamation marks in fine-tipped blue biro on another similar poster which some enthusiast in another cast had stuck up on the dressing-room wall. It remained there for months, untouched by other casts. They were open-minded enough to have discontent displayed in front of them night after night; or maybe they were too focused on the work at hand or couldn’t have cared less, or thought the world gone mad, as I too am increasingly inclined to think. Eventually that poster, also, came down. I trust the administration did it, having truly woken up. It is fascinating that the present Chinese government has removed all mention of the Cultural Revolution wall newspapers from that heady, crazy period. There is indeed some hope in the thought that even Xi Jinping has got tired of nonsense.

A year later I was performing again at the theatre in a production of Rosie Johns’s Birthday Book of Storms, a play about the forgotten love-child of Ted Hughes and Assia Wevill. I played Ted’s father, Billie, whom some might say bears some responsibility for Ted’s wayward member. Along with other cast members, I was presented with a theatre-generated form mandatorily asking which pronoun I would prefer for the bio in the program. No choice was offered. Realising this was not a “Language for Dummies” exercise, I produced—for the team’s eyes only—a polemic debunking the whole thing. Although they laughed at my non-conformity and thought it perfectly reasonable, I could not ignore the unsettling, unexpressed feeling (including mainly my own) that it might “hurt my career” in the way acting coaches (also known as failed actors) advise. I could only say (Buzo-like to myself), “Fucking career!?” Rosie Johns, as producer, made sure there were no pronouns in brackets after my name. I doubt that a single member of the audience, upon reading the bio and seeing no pronouns after my name, thought, “Doesn’t he know who he is?” But they may have thought, “Do the other actors have to make sure audiences know who they are?”

I cannot recall whether any choice was offered on the form, whether it was of the type in which you must put all details to make it work for submission by computer. If so, La Mama is far from alone in this respect. It has now become customary on forms sent, for example, by casting directors, where you put in your vital statistics—height, dress size and the rest—that you include the gender thing. Most of these casting outfits now include the “Prefer not to say” option—I guess they, too, have been copping a bit of flak of late. You do have to fill all the blanks on the form now, or it won’t upload.

There are people out there who feel as I do, that the declaration of sex/gender is all nonsense; in fact, I have concluded that most people do feel so, including the huge numbers of immigrants in my suburb of Craigieburn in outer Melbourne: a swathe of electors quite different from the inner-city elites and their woke agendas. My Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Pasifika neighbours try to have some charity and wink at the blanks thrown at them like an “I prefer not to say” Bartleby at his desk in Herman Melville’s story. However, the “Prefer not to say” escape-tunnel in the verbal morass only imbricates your self-revelation in form-filling for the casting people. Does it leave them asking, “Is Jim Daly genderless? Is he gutless? Is he a rebel?” and, therefore, unlikely to be compliant on set, perhaps in their terms “difficult”? Do I perhaps “not know myself” (as in the Greek “Know thyself”)?

When I am confronted with these options on the form, I have taken to filling the blanks with something like “Figure it out for yourself”, or “It’s pretty easy to work out, mate”, or “Just have a look” or “Whaddya reckon?” or “It’s pretty easy to tell.” I dare not and would not say, à la Ted Hughes, “I’ll flash my dick on the day,” although anything typed in the amoral, insensitive, non-judgmental blank will facilitate submission of the form.

So far my cynicism has not stopped me from being invited to audition. Whether it has cost me a job or not I cannot tell, mainly because they never tell you why you didn’t get the gig, and it’s not cool to ask. So they’ve got a good cover for their reluctance to deliver the reasons for your failure to make it, especially if they belong to the virtuous crowd; and if they don’t, they have to pretend they do, so that none of the well-being of any of the performers and creatives in Australia can be a cause for scandal or litigation or loss of a dollar.

On the opening night of The Birthday Book of Storms at La Mama, whilst getting ready fifteen minutes before opening in the small dressing-room adjoining the stage, I was suddenly invited to a smoking-ceremony about to get under way onstage just the other side of the door. I had no idea it was going to occur. I had previously been in Coranderrk (an important play about the forced assimilation of Aborigines) across seven seasons, and never experienced anything like this. I was shocked to find that the action was instigated and conducted by the play’s dramaturg, Sue Ingleton, who had suddenly rocked up. I refused the invitation, and muttered something like, “I don’t want to be part of that oogah-boogah.” I am a blasphemer, no doubt, having read too many Phantom or Tarzan comics as a kid. I have also, over time, developed a cynicism about incense in religious ceremonies. It smells nice, and is a cute symbol; it will inspire and comfort some and is an easy target attacked most likely by those dismissive of traditional liturgy (Catholic) but heavily into oils, crystals and dreamy vibrations, and eucalyptus (which I admittedly love with intensity).

My first thought was, “Why is a non-Aboriginal person doing this? Perhaps she is Aboriginal? More are making claims to that identity. Should I check? How do I do that? Does she have permission from Aborigines to do this?” Maybe she did. I knew Sue was an actor and writer. I had not realised she was a “comedian, architect, and celebrant” who “comes from a tradition of theatre, sacred ritual and spiritual shamanism”, according to her entry in The Australian Women’s Register. Perhaps as a celebrant and shaman, she has a legislated or de facto “right” to do this sort of thing, or has indeed sought permission from the custodians. She has, I have discovered, also been a long-time activist for Aboriginal causes, and I applaud her for that. At the same time, be aware that naked flames are forbidden in theatres in Victoria, according to fire regulations. I remember when that rule came in around three decades ago, and we had to make some rapid adjustments in a show we were about to open. Perhaps there are exceptions for certain groups or activities and tinder and cinder of a certain size, and eucalyptus smoke lingering in small spaces may be good for the lungs of some spectators, so no trigger warnings are necessary in that case. Indeed, the University of Melbourne’s Indigenous Knowledge Institute claims that a smoking ceremony offers protection. Sue has some sexist, Manichaean comfort to add: “I believe the dark energies are here to help us move to the light. I believe the earth will ultimately survive—after all, she is female.” Mummy will help me.

I have seen and heard other claims made with a similar certainty in the “acknowledgment of country” speeches made at La Mama. It is hard not to squirm when, waiting to begin your performance, which you hope will be truthful, you hear a young front-of-house manager confidently say in the welcoming speech that the Aboriginal people have been here for “hundreds of thousands of years”. Of late there seem to be fewer bloopers like that one, as the welcomers produce a rather fixed form of words, an obligatory etiquette which only a few years ago was optional, something you might want to do.

When I produced a video of a phase of my performance of Katyń in 2017, I included on its opening title frame a short acknowledgment of the country on which Monash University out at Clayton sits—Bunurong country. This complex was a place which I had got to know over the nine years I roamed around there and felt some connection with the trees that remained amongst the concrete and the birds that sang there. On reflection there arose in me vague images of long-ago buried or burnt remains of Aborigines in the earth there, just as there sometimes comes to me an awareness of those under my feet, in the ground, as I sit in my study writing stuff such as this. I wanted to acknowledge the place. I sought some connection. I did not feel I had to do it. When the earth demands that we bow and scrape, we are already dead and in the dark.

The longest welcome I have experienced was at the Malthouse Theatre’s recent announcement of their upcoming season. I enjoyed being invited to be part of the cast of their Macbeth (An Undoing) in July 2024, and so to be part of this night. I felt I was not alone, however, in trying to sit still through a welcome by a young woman who was, she claimed, Aboriginal. Is a welcome lasting fifteen minutes really a welcome? Imagine someone doing that to you on their doorstep. It could be like the reverse of Mormons arriving at your front door. Those folk do that less these days, and are usually polite and leave rather promptly anyway, if you show disinterest or discomfort.

For these acolytes of my still beloved theatre I can only recommend some study rather than unbridled enthusiasm. By “acolytes” I mean the welcomers, not the Mormons—believers who did not attack that musical The Book of Mormon. As for myself, I hope to be still welcomed in to my kind of theatre (I hate musicals), not running around a spike in circles, hobbled by the mother theatres who feed me, and should feed me, and you, unconditionally.

Jim Daly is a Melbourne-based professional actor, teacher and academic. He holds a PhD in Theatre and Performance from Monash University and has appeared in over 100 plays and almost 100 films and television productions

7 thoughts on “Unwelcome at the Theatre

  • Lonsdale says:

    Brilliant. Thank you

  • call it out says:

    Sad to say my nights out at the theatre have diminished from several times a year to barely once, if that. The problem is the programme of politically correct nonsense served up by the SA State Theatre.

  • John Daniels says:

    At least if you are watching a Welcome to Country on Television it gives you an opportunity to put the kettle on or get a beer from the fridge before the game starts .

  • Garry Donnelly says:

    Wokeness can only survive and thrive, as it has, because of people’s gullibility and willingness to say nothing or challenge the stupidity of it……..”The King has no clothes.”


    It is “Welcome To God’s Country” at our place. The beauty of that greeting is that God is not racist.

  • David Isaac says:

    As deliciously virtuous as it might feel, any acknowledgment of country or what have you is a tacit admission of guilt for a non-existent crime of which every Australian (1939 definition) stands accused. It exists to delegitimise the founding European stock of Australia and replace its king with the aborigines as sovereign. Those formerly known as Australians have been usurped and rhetorically dumped at the back of the boat whence they may well soon be kicked overboard. The reality distortion having breached his limits of comfort, I hope the author re-evaluates his liberalism and comes to the realisation that for the duration of his working life the theatre has been nothing but a mechanism for subversion.

  • Macspee says:

    Well said.
    But surely 26 January 1949 (not 1939).

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