Thursday, 5 July 2012

On Tuesday night I had the honour of hosting an event co-produced by the Australian Writers Guild and the Victorian Writers Centre. It was titled "Sticky Floors and Glass Ceilings" and was billed as a panel discussion with four female playwrights. The participants were Patricia Cornelius, Hannie Rayson, Lally Katz and Michele Lee. I was slightly apprehensive about this as I wondered what it said that a man was hosting such a discussion. Was this another glass ceiling not cracked or a sticky floor?Why didn't the organisers get a woman to host the panel? Fortunately none of the panellists seemed worried about this ( I was going to say "batted an eyelid" but...) and nor did the audience. Maybe being the only male member of 7ON has given me some cross gender credibility?
My other major concern was whether we would draw a crowd but this was also unfounded as we drew a full house to the Wheeler Centre. Thankfully people are interested in playwrighting and playwrights.
Apart from my hopelessly confusing "Next Wave" with "New Wave"(nerves/age?) and mis-reading the title of one of Michele's plays (inexcusable), it all seemed to go very well.
The discussion focussed on a range of issues. We began with a bit of an overview of the history of women playwrights in this country and the interesting observation that they were flourishing in the middle of the twentieth century. One might ask what has happened in the early part of C21st?
While it became clear that there was a certain level of frustration amongst some of the panel at the state of play in Australian theatre, the over-riding impression was that writing plays has always been an occupation that ebbed and flowed. For whatever reason, it was clear that everyone on the panel had experienced peaks and troughs in terms of their playwrighting careers. It was also agreed that sometimes playwrights are at the whim of forces beyond their control. Subjective forces that might determine whether a play sees the light of day or remains locked away in a computer.
This is not to suggest that there wasn't a feeling that gender issues were at play in Australian theatre. More that this panel discussion focussed on each writers personal journey as playwrights and their craft.
All four panelists began their writing careers when they were students. It points to the importance of an education system that encourages the arts. They each expressed a passion for writing plays with the caveat that at times it can be incredibly frustrating. The desire to see work spring to life off the page is a universal one amongst playwrights. So is the collaborative nature of the art form.
Interestingly being a woman didn't seem to influence either how any of the panelists wrote or what they wrote about. Nor did it affect the types of characters they created. It's not as if being a female playwright means you are going write lots of roles for women and none for men. Of more concern was cross cultural casting and the frustrations associated with writing characters from non English speaking backgrounds and then being told they were impossible to cast.
Even though each panelist brought a distinctive and particular perspective to the discussion of their craft there was a unity of purpose expressed that provided inspiration for the appreciative audience.
The Australian Writers Guild recorded the discussion and it is available on their website.
                                                                                                      Ned Manning

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