Where do the writers come from?

This entry is part 1 of 11 in the series Facts & Figures

As promised in the last post, here are the first of some stats as they relate to the 2011 programmed seasons of both Brisbane’s subsidised, professional theatre companies. This post is the first in a series for Greenroom’s readers, and forms part of my ongoing research into professional theatre in Queensland. I have used data relating to both company’s programmed works as it appears in published brochures or online: mainstage, education, studio, and ‘indie’ presenting partnerships. This work picks up on some research I did last year which related to the first 10 and the last 10 years of the repertoire for Queensland Theatre Company. You can check that out here and here on my personal blog. From this year I’ve included La Boite’s programming under current AD David Berthold.

I have to say at the outset that there’s a minor complication which emerges when you begin asking where the writer of a play comes from. There are collaborative partnerships out of which texts emerge; take for example La Boite’s Boy Girl Wall and Statespeare (both of which originated from independent companies) or QTC’s I Feel Awful. Who wrote these? It would appear the ensemble: the Escapists, Shake and Stir and Black Lung respectively. Whilst, presumably, someone or other scribed the words at some time in the process, it it is the collective that gets the credit; these are local Australian works ‘wrought’ by a group which may or may not have included the performers and director, a not-untypical way of developing work right now. (Ed: Boy Girl Wall is co-written by Lucas Stibbard and Matthew Ryan; Statespeare is another co-written effort with credits to Nelle Lee and Shakespeare).

But who should be credited as the play-wright in the case of – again, for example – QTC’s Sacré Bleu or Faust or Treasure Island?  All of these works have a local credit for translation and/or adaptation even though the original author is non-Australian. Are the newly minted versions of these works Australian, then? The productions are, and you can bet they will have an Australian flavour. Cavilling on the ninth part of a hair? Well maybe, but  it’s important to get it clear up front. I have to say though that, in the collaborative enterprise of theatre production, the other authorial wrights in the process can be just as if not more important than the creator/author of the original text. Heresy, perhaps, and cause for many punch ups literal and verbal over the years – anyway …

For this project and to draw my conclusions, I’ve used the originating text as the criterion. In other words, Sacré Bleu is credited as European as is Faust. Treasure Island by R L Stevenson hails from the UK, which gets the originating credit. Boy Girl Wall, Statespeare and I Feel Awful are, naturally, Australian and two are Queensland in origin. I could have developed an entirely different category or sub-category of course, the way they do for some of those awards – best adapted script or some such. I’ll leave that for another time, perhaps.

Queensland Theatre Company

In 2011 Queensland Theatre Company’s season of works reveals a program fairly consistent with those of the past few years. This makes sense in terms of programs developed under the aesthetic guidance of  the one Artistic Director – Michael Gow in this case – and at a particular time. To a certain extent – and this relates to both season programs by both companies –  these snapshots reveal something of the wider priorities of then-current state and federal arts policies.

La Boite Theatre Company

Perhaps these figures are skewed a little by La Boite’s Indie season which is a presenting partnership with local independent groups. My assumption so far – and I don’t have all the information yet – is that these indie works will be new, and could therefore be following an emerging pattern of self-devised works by local ensembles. Under the former Artistic Directorship of Sean Mee, La Boite led the way in Queensland with its commitment to Australian – and often new Australian plays – so it’s not really surprising to find its artistic pedigree reflected so strongly in this year’s season.

2011 Season Comparison – Plays by Origin: Queensland Theatre Company and La Boite Theatre Company

The Season by Play Origin chart (right) shows that most plays being produced in the 2011 season by Queensland’s two subsidised theatre companies originate in the UK/Eire (8). Queensland’s next (7) followed by the rest of Australia (4) then Europe (3) and with the US at the bottom of the list (1) – QTC’s production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Queensland fans of US drama are going to have to go elsewhere to enjoy their American theatrical fixes in 2011.

Put Queensland and the rest of the country together, and you can see that works by Australian playwrights dominate the seasons of Queensland’s two subsidised companies in 2011. La Boite is way ahead of QTC with 70% of its total programming being Australian – QTC’s is 31%. This latter figure for QTC is down a bit from the 36% average Australian programming for the years 2000-2009 and back (almost) to the 30% which was the average for the Company’s first 10 years.

The next post will look at the historical origins of works in the 2011 season from both Queensland Theatre Company and La Boite Theatre.

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14 thoughts on “Where do the writers come from?”

  1. Thanks Matthew. I was aware of this. You and Morgan stay in the Trans/Adapts shoebox in the spreadsheet! I was interested to read recently about the way Andrew Upton worked with his translator Alex Menglet on the text for STC’s recent production of Uncle Vanya. Upton doesn’t speak Russian and asked for a line by line translation which he then adapted. Did you work in a smilar way in your ‘two step approach’?

  2. Cheers Kate.

    The official billing is –

    Adaptation by Matthew Ryan
    From a translation by Morgan Dowsett

    (It was a two step approach. The artistic liberties are all my fault, and I don’t speak French)

  3. Matthew and Anna. The elves are rummaging in the shoe-boxes right now. I see a new one labelled ‘Trans/Adapts.’ They must have been reading the comments. Good elves! I guess ‘Other’ has been rejected this time round.
    Anna: The two long-dead white, French guys get the originating authorial credit for “Sacré Bleu” with Messrs Ryan and Dowsett as ‘Trans/Adapts’ with the ‘new’ play being labelled ‘Contemporary.’ Come to think of it, all productions of any play must, by definition, be ‘contemporary.’

  4. Great discussion.

    And yes, Anna. Labiche and Feydeau are indeed dead and gone. The two original works are from the 1800s. Perhaps we need a separate category for Adaptions. Or just “Other” (my personal favourite in all graphs and statistics).

    Compared to Shakespeare, hey?
    Great discussion, indeed.

  5. Arrgh I just accidentally deleted a whole paragraph! But basically I said that I can see it from Matthew’s perspective as well, and then I compared him to William Shakespeare who also adapted the work of others. Except copyright law didn’t exist back then so they couldn’t ensure they were acknowledged. I think the two separate plays by Labiche and Feydeau could be said to be French, but Sacre Bleu as a whole can be referred to as an Australian work by Matthew adapted from those by Laibiche and Feydeau.

    Again I don’t know much about Sacre Bleu and even if Labiche and Feydeau are still alive. But I also don’t think it would just be the QTC marketing department who decided to mark it as a French work; likely the agents for Labiche and Feydeau also had a say when the contracts were negotiated. The French are notoriously nationalistic, and the French Society of Dramatic Authors and Composers are fierce in promoting and defending authors’ rights. Just as Matthew is justified to ensure he is acknowledged correctly as well.

    Can’t we call it a French-Australian work? And say that Matthew is like Shakespeare? My head is spinning around from confusion and all this talk about French stuff is making me hungry for croissants.

  6. I’d say it would absolutely be a new Australian work. However, if I were a canny marketer I would probably want 5 bob each way. I’d be certain to refer to its literary origins as well as its contemporary nature and let people make up their own minds. PS Could be a winner with that pedigree! 🙂

  7. Thanks Kate.
    And very good points Anna.
    And you raise very interesting questions (that Kate also touches on).

    Should a play be categorised based on the marketing? Do they define a play’s origins?

    No one has seen “Sacre Bleu” yet. So time will tell how it is categorised. And truth be told, many liberties can be taken by an adaptor in the spirit of the original authors (but not in loyalty to them). But Anna clearly has the upper hand here, as she has the ability to be far more objective than me.

    However, as another example (and solely to contribute to the discussion), I have also written a play set in ancient Crete, based on Greek myth. It is based on the original mythical story, but not on any particular work by another writer. As far as I know, no writer has ever attempted it before. Would that then fall under the category of Greek Theatre? Or classics? Or would it be a new Australian work?

    Or shall we simply wait to see what a marketing department tells us to think?

    Food for thought.

  8. My apologies if I am pointing out something already factored in, but if you go to the La Boite website and look at the Cast and Creatives tab on each production’s page, most of them give more precise information about who are the authors of the works. For example, as Matthew says, Boy Girl Wall is written by himself and Lucas Stibbard, and Statespeare is written by Nelle Lee (& William Shakespeare). Each production also credit other collaborators as realisers and creators respectively.

    As for adaptations: in the case of Sacre Bleu, I personally would find it strange to count it as Australian, since QTC are clearly promoting the two plays in the production as French farces, not Australian comedies. Not to discount the important contribution of both Matthew and Morgan Dowsett to the creation of the work, but QTC appears to have made the decision on the country of origin for us.

  9. Thanks Matthew. Of course – ‘Boy Girl Wall’ is mainhouse – my error, and my use of the word ‘indie’ as a qualifier here was meant to refer to the nature of the original production. Thanks for pointing this out – a hangover in my head from the !Metro Arts season in 2010.

    I agree about adaptations being odd creatures – something which prompted my mulling in the post about who has authorial rights. Any adaptation is going to be more than its original in translation – granted. For the sake of this research project I’m sticking with originating text as the criterion if only because without it there would be no adaptation. The choice of a particular originating text also something of a pointer towards the canon/aesthetic that informs a particular artistic director’s thinking when a season is being prepped. Glad that there is some specific billing for the authors of ‘Boy Girl Wall.’ I will adjust the database accordingly to reflect this.

  10. For the sake of clarity…

    “Sacre Bleu” is my adaptation of two one-act plays- “The Lourcine Street Affair” by Eugene Labiche and “Gallows Bird” by Georges Feydeau. My adaptation of these two French works is based on a literal translation by Morgan Dowsett who (unlike myself) speaks French. But what will appear on the QTC stage is an Australian adaptation, not just translated French plays. Adaptations are funny things, and not as close to the originals as some might think.

    Also…
    “Boy Girl Wall” is not in La Boite Indie. It’s in La Boite’s Mainhouse Season. It was written by Lucas Stibbard and myself and has been credited as such in all cast/creative lists. We (The Escapists) decided to create a group billing under the title of the show to reflect the collaborative nature of its inception/development. We won’t necessarily do this for every Escapists show but we thought it was suitable for this one.

    (In fact Hothouse theatre chose the traditional writerly billing for our season down there… http://www.hothousetheatre.com.au/boy_girl_wall)

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