Putting Social Change Centre Stage


All theatre, whether produced by large flagship companies or at the fringe, is made in and with a community of some kind. A theatre practice may focus on the community and view it as an inspiration. Practitioners may view community as a hindrance, or largely ignore it. This relationship will deeply affect the kind of work made. In fact, for theatre companies, there are no single communities, rather there are layers of communities: those inside the company making the work; those geographically associated with the company; those historically involved; those portrayed in the subject matter — as well as the broader community who engage with the work as audience members, or through review and hearsay.

In Australia, the companies that engage least with their communities receive the most funding, and produce the dullest work, for the most privileged audiences. On the whole, our large flagship companies have little time to focus on innovative ideas and the development of the community. Instead, their reason for being requires them to focus on creating safe, relatively provincial presentations that won’t sour the taste-buds of their consumers, so as to keep their subscriber and tourist audiences happy.

Arguably, the main role of our flagship companies is to waylay the status anxiety of our cities and to provide large gala events in the urban social calendar — preferably linked to corporate logo placement and the social pages — so as to help fill the vacuum of meaning experienced by the hard working and diligent army of rotating board members who run our arts institutions. Although this is not particularly vital work, it still suggests a "community development" role for theatre in these niche urban communities. Whether it should draw so heavily on the taxpayer’s cultural dollar is another question.

In Australia, the theatre companies that receive the least arts funding are those that focus most diligently on meeting the priority areas of the Australia Council — such as remote, Indigenous, regional, and disadvantaged communities — and those who do the best research and development and produce the strongest innovations in contemporary theatre practice.

This is not altogether surprising because community development can be very threatening. High quality, innovative community cultural development (CCD) doesn’t just require change, it precipitates it on a number of levels: individual, community, policy. On the one hand, CCD often results in individuals changing their behavior and their social trajectory — and society is usually happy with this because it means "other people" have to change their behavior rather than us. However communities also develop as a result of CCD, through cultural shifts which drive change from the bottom up rather than the top down. These shifts often require "us" to change and can drive governments to make legislative change. They are therefore viewed warily, and are funded sparingly.

Theatre is a cultural activity and culture is society’s evolving and mostly pleasurable discussion of ideas. This discussion of ideas fertilises a country’s narratives about itself, and these narratives over time exclude and include chapters of our community’s experiences, morphing and solidifying them into a picture of nationhood that becomes tangible and can be rigorously communicated. This discussion is in principle always open to everyone, however there are many gatekeepers and some sections of the community require strong advocacy to be able to join in and be heard in the discussion.

Like many areas of the arts, certain kinds of theatre can provide a less mediated entry point into the discussion of the nation. Theatre is collaborative, ritualistic, and ephemeral; it needs to be continually remade by new people for new audiences. It is essentially a set of known rituals, made and remade in an evolving relationship with a changing audience who consume it. Audiences may begin to forget the experience as soon as they leave the theatre and yet still pass on aspects of what they remember to others in their peer group.

The majority of this making and forgetting in Australian theatre is put together by non-career artists, who do much of it voluntarily with and for their friends, either as part of their education or as a serious and community-minded hobby in the place that they live.

The rest of this making and forgetting happens in three main arenas. Firstly, and perhaps most visibly, it happens in the commercial showbiz and flagship arena as a commodity where the main focus is return to investors via strong box office takings — and there’s nothing wrong with that. Secondly, contemporary theatre practice in the small to medium sector undertakes a research and development approach to exploring ideas in new ways, refreshing our insights and striving to make theatre less easily forgotten. And there is nothing wrong with that either. Finally, theatre can be made and remade through the community approach, which aims to include larger groups of people with a variety of skill levels, in the process of making the theatre piece, as well as in the consumption and discussion of it.

The model for this third approach is by far the oldest and most established in Australia, having been continually practiced by different nations across the country for at least 50,000 years. It is more truly experimental, it is much more difficult to perfect technically and it requires more skill from the artist. At its best it is truly new and deeply poetic, avoiding insidious didacticism by placing the push for change within the process of making the work, rather than in the content of the work itself.

However this third model is also a magnet for mediocrity and as an approach it is often rightly criticised and rejected by literate theatre consumers who don’t want to be treated like intellectual peasants. Community theatre audiences often feel insulted by the poorly produced rubbish that is thrust upon them by artists who have been drawn to the practice by its ready acceptance of mediocrity.

A bright future is, however, possible. Arts funding bodies will, I’m sure, soon stop funding flagship companies who avoid innovation and suck funding away from true theatre research and development. They’ll recognise that creative leadership comes from responsive small to medium theatre companies, operating on new models, who place their faith in individual artistic directors rather than docile cautious boards. They’ll recognise too that the process of making the theatre is the iceberg and this is where true investment should be made. The showing of the work is the tip.

Therefore, in this bright future, the theatre companies who receive the vast majority of the funding pool will be the small to medium sized companies who engage deeply with communities, creating experimental high-end work as a result of these processes, for consumption by new audiences in innovative settings. Through this work, they will advocate for new communities to be included in society’s discussion of ideas.

In the meantime, if the structures that fund the arts can’t get this right, then perhaps the companies who make the art shouldn’t take the money.


Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.