This interview originally appeared on the Meanjin blog on July 6 2012
‘Does anyone want to tell stories, and do you want to tell them in this particular way? Well we’ve got expertise, and we can show you how to do it.’
Chris Mead is one of three new appointees to the Melbourne Theatre Company, along with Sam Strong and Leticia Cáceres; a new ‘brains trust’, as Mead puts it, to assist the incoming Artistic Director Brett Sheehy.
What is a Literary Director, you ask? Well I asked first, and in fact overcame my natural fear of appearing ignorant to ask Mead himself over the phone. Part of his job, as I now understand it and perhaps also extrapolate romantically upon, is to be a repository of theatre lore and expertise, a keeper of the flame, the bearer of ‘the heavy hand of history’, as Mead put it.
Or, as he explained quite patiently to me, a ‘Literary Director is someone who advises on the repertoire. Somebody with the knowledge dating back to the Greeks, and the Romans, and Caroline plays and Restoration plays and Shakespeare, of course, and 19th century German plays and everything that exists. And also someone who keeps abreast of what’s happening in all the key theatre centres around the world, London, New York, across Europe and South America, right through Asia.’
Mead’s particular expertise is in working with playwrights to develop new works (he was the recipient of the inaugural Dramaturgy Fellowship from the Australia Council for the Arts in 2004). In bringing his knowledge of theatre history and form to bear on developing works, Mead is, as he says, ‘there to give (writers) the tools to solve their kind of story problem. It might be a character thing, it might be a structural question. Writing a play is a very difficult proposition. It’s a very difficult art-form to get right. You’re trying to entertain real people in real time, with lots of complex competing voices. You’re trying to get the right role for actors, and you want to get the tone right. There’s lots of things that can go wrong.’
The other side of the role, the more semi-political and less wise-old-mentor side, is that a Literary Director, as the conduit through which developing works will pass, is in a special position to have their say on the kinds of theatre that can and will be produced. Which is not to say that Mead sees himself as a gatekeeper (‘One has to be very catholic in this role, to the extent that you’re all embracing’, he says). But he is conscious of the effort that must be made to ensure that the theatre is properly culturally representative and inclusive. Mead is also the Artistic Director of PlayWriting Australia, a national body with the explicit goal of developing and promoting new Australian works. He sees the relative paucity of new Australian plays under production by the major Australian companies as disparity in need of attention. ‘Overall, across Australia it somewhere between 15-20% of new Australian works in the repertoire. And it’s almost criminal that it’s such a low figure.’
But the issue is not only the under-representation of Australian culture per se, but the under-representation of the diversity of that culture:
‘There are two fault lines in theatre at the moment. One is about gender disparity. And just how it is that so many more men than women are programmed at the major theatre companies. That’s the key area of interest. The other one is to look at whether or not the theatre we’re making reflects the kind of people that you meet as you walk down the street. It’s fairly clear from the statistics that we’ve done over a couple of years at Playwriting Australia that it doesn’t reflect at all the kind of diversity that exists in the community. And it’s incumbent on us, people working in industry, to make sure we’re giving the tools over to anyone who wants to write plays.’
‘And we’ve been working, at Playwriting Australia, in the west of Sydney and the west of Melbourne, and up in Broome, in looking to find writers. We’re not trying to be social workers, not trying to be do-gooders at all, but just saying, “Does anyone want to tell stories, and do you want to tell them in this particular way?. Well we’ve got expertise, and we can show you how to do it.” And of course they absolutely transform the form itself.’
‘As fantastic evidence of that, with the writers we’ve been working with up in Broome, we showed those plays, or excerpts, recently in Melbourne at the Malthouse. We bring international producers to Australia to see the works, because often people don’t necessarily think of Australia as a cultural exporter of new play texts. But we do what we can. We had the Literary Director of the National, as well as the Head of Audio Drama for the BBC, and the plays they adored were the plays we had from Broome. Because it gave them a completely new insight into Australia. Not simply just the descriptions of place, but the way of viewing the world, and the kind of voices that it generates.’
‘So Australian work is good and I’d like to see more on our stages, and I think it’s very possible. Part of the work is pedagogical. It’s about an audience trusting us that we’re going to put on work that is of quality, and intriguing, and thrilling, and very good. But it’s also about bringing artists across to different stages, so that they’re getting used to and familiar with that audience. And about the conversations that happens between an audience, a writer, and the actors who are performing it.’
The notion of a Literary Director is a role that seems like a miraculous synthesis of a whole bunch of nebulous stuff that would usually be dispersed over any number of other managerial roles in some other organisation. It is comforting to know that there are professional positions outside of universities whose key selection criteria may include “Candidate must be knowledgeable about Art and Culture, and be able to impart said knowledge”. Any job that sounds like a combination of manager, editor and Tribal Elder is a job which any right-thinking person can appeciate.