Wesley Enoch asks, “Is it just me or are we seeing more homophobia, racism, sexism on our stages?”
The National Play Fest began with Wesley Enoch, an indigenous director and playwright, delivering the Inaugural Nick Enright Keynote Address. Wes made just a few waves when he suggested mid-way through his speech that we all stop creating plays that make race and gender issues into pop-culture satirical entertainment. More recently there have been a few shows, popular shows at that, created by non-White or Queer writers wherein race and gender politics are made into laugh-out-loud comic affairs.
He spoke about how racist name-calling, gender-shaming and homophobic attitude are hardly funny, and he fears it runs the risk of normalising such behaviour. He has a point. But clearly a contentious one. No sooner had Wesley bundled up his notes and left the podium, than playwright Declan Greene had several thousand words to say in response. Well, yeah, because Wesley had levelled his criticism Declan’s direction for his satirical work The Homosexuals- or Faggots. Yes, that show is a tad provocative right from the get-go of the title, so you can guess the general banter of the dialogue. Potentially offensive material abounded there. Just so happens it was deemed hilarious and was a huge hit. There are at least five more like it- smash hits that deal with race and gender issues in a light-hearted fashion designed to make millennials spill their Kombucha and barf up their smashed avo because it’s just too effen funny and satirical.
Wesley’s point being that audiences are not only made up of those educated enough to know satire when they see it.
Declan’s point being, don’t be so sure, old man.
And I do believe this is about age. Declan contends that the type of comic, outrageous and irreverent satire that shoots sacred cows on sight and rams the establishment up the jacksey with the carcasses is the very thing that is bringing young audiences (sigh: millennials) back into theatre auditoriums. This is about the 18~30-year-olds who are wanting to poke fun loudly and with sharp implements. They abhor the serious moment. They like their theatre slick, loud, offensive and hilarious. Got something important to say to people in this age bracket? Then you better make it vulgar and quick or they just won’t turn up to see it. He points to playwrights and theatre-makers like Hot Brown Honey, Nakkiah Lui and many more who are chewing it up.
So much so that some of the biggest most celebrated theatre hits around are complete shock fests. It’s not just the Non-White and Queer playwrights at this game. More and more I am noticing theatre that is comically and insensitively dealing with otherwise incredibly serious and sensitive matters. And Declan Greene is not alone in thinking satire is the most effective weapon against the ills of the world.
Is this really true? I struggle with the idea. One influential theatre promoter at the conference told me categorically it was true. He felt that Wesley’s age of serious theatre was over. Nobody wants to be serious anymore. And they certainly don’t want to pay $100 for a theatre ticket to see a play that leaves you feeling despondent, guilty or oppressed. This is the generation who shuns commercial telly, understands life through the prism of a comically sneering, jaded and algorithm-laden social media and whose attention span is about the length of the average youtube vlog episode- if that. Their highly filtered world, Declan claims, allows them to be super eclectic, woke and well attuned to satire. (contentious)
So, is it out with the old guard and in the with new? Is this the future of theatre? For the moment it is only described by the likes of Declan Greene as a subset of our audiences, but an important one that should not be ignored or denigrated. He still believes there is a place for raw and ‘serious’ political theatre such as offered by Patricia Cornelius or Stephen Sewell. Isn’t theatre big enough and ugly enough to tolerate all forms of stories?
My trip to Sydney to attend this event was largely supported by Cairns Regional Council and Queensland Government RADF program. The Regional Arts Development Fund (RADF) is a partnership between the Queensland Government and Cairns Regional Council to support local arts and culture in regional Queensland. It was also sponsored in part by JUTE Theatre Company.