Man, crappy families get a lot of publicity. Why doesn’t anyone ever look at the positive side of having a bad clan? Without dysfunctional families we’d be starved of so much great literature, sensational news headlines and 80s sitcoms. Not only that, we’d have no need of such things to help take our mind off our own domestic life and its disappointments. Hurray for emotionally-scarring families!
Drama schools are a bit of a family. I’d like to scold whatever parental authority decided to program the latest round of VCAM Masters showings the way they did – not for the inadequacies of their children but for the way they were all presented simultaneously in the same time slot. You had to choose which of the three shows you wanted to see and if another piqued your interest you had to come back another night. It’s like lining up your beloved offspring and telling them that only one can be your favourite so they better start selling themselves. It’s not a lot like that, but when two of this year’s offerings are 40 minutes or less it would have been pretty easy to give punters the chance to see a few or all in one night. It’s not like VCAM shows are fighting off hordes of eager theatregoers with sticks.
I saw Rinske Ginsberg’s Kin last week, and if it was anything to go by I’d gladly have walked straight into another show by one of her VCAM peers afterwards. It’s an unusually clever piece of theatre with some very impressive elements – great performances, a terribly effective lighting design and, most of all, a careful balance of experiment and entertainment. Ginsberg shows a commitment to formal innovation, emphasising movement and image-based techniques and the creation of an almost chiaroscuro effect, while maintaining a clear focus on narrative and developed characters that give you a reason to actually be interested in all the playful guff going on.
The work portrays the relationship between a mother and her grown son, with the matriarch sometimes split into three bodies. He visits her for dinner and it’s immediately clear from her disapproving, distracted insistence on particular dining rituals (where the cutlery is placed, how it’s held) that she’s had an awful effect on the development of this fella. Later, she visits him at his home and the anxious monster she’s created wreaks a reluctant but inevitable revenge. The whole thing gestures towards the gothic, towards myth, Freudian thought, child psychology, religious iconography, irony and penny dreadfuls. All of these are only blinkingly hinted at, and at no time does the piece do any roosterly strutting. It’s accessible on a very surface level without being reductive or condescending.
The dynamic between parent and child here got me thinking about an old notion I’d had of the family dynamics of Australian theatre. This is just rambling stuff and the review is basically over so feel free to tune out and admire the wallpaper, but here’s what I was musing on:
In classic attachment theory, how a caregiver responds to a child’s concerns establishes the foundations of their future development. If a kid is distressed by new situations and the caregiver acknowledges that fear before going on to reassure them that they’ll be safe, the child will develop the strength to be confident in exploring their world. If the caregiver responds by trying to quiet the kid down without acknowledging the validity of their concern, the child learns to internalise their worry. If the caregiver is more preoccupied with their own problems, or worse, provides erratic and confused responses to the child’s pleas, the child will develop a generally chaotic sense of the world that they live in.
In all but the first of these cases, the result is an anxious person. This can take different forms – anxious-avoidant (unable to make connections with others), ambivalent (seeking validation but anxious when it’s offered) or disorganised (confused and inexplicable responses). Looking at the arts scene in Melbourne today, I can’t help but characterise it as a State of Anxiety.
This is totally metaphorical and it’s cheap pop psychology, but it seems like a slightly fruitful analogy. It rests on the idea that emerging artists have a relationship with various higher-ups – funding bodies, curators, administrators, programmers, directors etc – that puts the latter in the role of caregiver. The responses provided during years (or even decades) of awkward first steps will shape the later artist in fundamental ways. It’s for this reason that even hugely established and respected artists that I’ve met have spoken in ways that suggest a not personal anxiety but a professional anxiety that runs deep. It’s as if they can never feel secure in their practice, even after winning countless awards, earning frequent public praise and building up an enduring and well-paid career.
You could argue that this is because so much of artist’s life early on is defined by rejection – applying for jobs, auditioning for roles, putting in grant applications that go nowhere. That’s fine, and of course it can’t change.
But I think that what this attachment-theory-lite perspective can offer is an alternative vision of an arts caregiver’s responsibility. Of course artists will be rejected, but the way in which that rejection is framed is crucial to their later development.
If your submissions are met with resounding silence, with pro forma apologies and lack of direct attention, it’s no surprise that you may well become avoidant (giving up on funding and treating yourself as an outsider) or ambivalent (desperate for attention but feeling unsatisfied if it ever arrives). And too many artists have a disorganised relationship with their caregivers, simply not having a clue how it all works.
Part of this is due to the cold and impersonal vision these caregivers have – even using the term ‘caregiver’ is very likely causing a few readers to don an ill-tempered sneer. It’s a fluffy huggable word that couldn’t really have a place in business, in industry.
But the terminology we use in that industry shapes the culture itself: if you demand ‘transparency’ you are implying someone’s desire to obfuscate; when you demand ‘accountability’ you are implying someone has done something wrong. Nobody asks who is accountable for an act of wonder or charity. You might ask who is responsible, but that word’s lost some currency. Suspicion defines the economic mindset of today. (And re. the ongoing gender-inequity-in-theatre debate: there’s a huge difference between saying ‘this is something that needs addressing’ and saying ‘this is something I want to address.’)
I don’t mean to slight Brett Sheehy here (some think I have a beef with him but he’s done plenty of laudable things with MIAF) but his definition of the caregivers I’m discussing as ‘gatekeepers’ is exactly what I’m talking about. ‘Gatekeeper’ isn’t a title I would ever want, since it implies a chill and impartial authority with little responsibility for those prevented from passing through the gate. Using a term such as caregiver instead is precisely unacceptable because it implies that responsibility, which no gatekeeper wants.
I’m not saying that gatekeepers need to fling open the gates and let everyone into their boardroom/festival/venue, or that funding bodies need to just start flinging dollars off the top of the battlements to the assembled throng below. One of a caregiver’s primary roles is to say no.
But it takes real talent to be able to tell someone that their art is really dreadful and undeserving of a few of your pennies. And it’s a truism that as long as there are humans on the face of this planet there will be some who exist with deluded fantasies of artistic genius inversely proportionate to their abilities. Most of them live hand to mouth and contribute a fair whack of CO2 by gasbagging on about how hard it is to get the attention of the higher-ups. The deleterious effects on our atmosphere are about the only real harm such bloviators cause, however, so it’s hard to see why people get worked up about artists whose only crime is overestimating themselves.
If sub-par artists actually received responsible attention from caregivers – explaining that their anxieties are understandable and valid, but that there are artistic problems they need addressing – then surely the result would be artists who actually improve instead of developing a sense of mistrust and fear towards the industry at large.
But is it a revolutionary idea to suggest that an average artist could actually become something else if they were provided with the right guidance? Sure, nobody wants to take on that responsibility, and most of us would respond that these artists are best off either enrolling in a course or just slogging away at their practice and getting back to us when they have something decent to show for it.
Fair enough. It’s worked that way forever. It’s how society operates, and not just in the arts sector. It’s called capitalism. We don’t want to be responsible for anyone beyond our own nearest and dearest. Industries may talk about themselves as families, but any real family that treated its members the way industries do would result in massively damaged offspring. What’s the alternative?
Well, we could start with the famous line from Eugene Debs, who was otherwise a bit of a doofus. “While there is a lower class I am in it; while there is a criminal element I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” How about this: while there is shitty art in Melbourne, I am responsible for it. And while there are anxious artists in Melbourne, I will blame myself.