Patricia Cornelius is one of Australia’s most awarded and celebrated playwrights, but unless you’re a theatre nut or a panellist for a literary prize, chances are you won’t have heard of her. That’s because, despite having written more than 20 plays, having her work consistently performed in theatres around the country, and having co-written the ground-breaking Who’s Afraid of the Working Class? with Andrew Bovell, Christos Tsiolkas and Melissa Reeves, she’s almost never had her work performed by a major theatre company.
That’s not to say that Cornelius doesn’t have experiences with those companies; she’s currently under commission from the Melbourne Theatre Company, was the Patrick White fellow at Sydney Theatre Company in 2012, and was dramaturg for Melbourne Theatre Company’s The Sapphires. It’s long been a question in theatre circles: why, given the great respect Cornelius commands, is she never produced by major companies?
“As nice as it is to win awards, I’d rather have my work produced. I think those companies think: ‘oh my god, she’s just won another fucking award,’” Cornelius says with a hearty laugh, in her most “cultured” voice. “’What are we going to do with her? We never do anything with her! She’s too vulgar, she’s too bleak, she’s too political.’”
In director and theatre historian Julian Meyrick’s recently released essay about the health and future of Australian drama, he asked why Cornelius’s play Do Not Go Gentle… wasn’t picked up by a major company. The play, which uses Scott of the Antarctic’s ill-fated expedition as a metaphor for five elderly people reaching the end of their lives, won, or was nominated for, every major playwriting prize in the country, starting with the Patrick White Playwrights’ Award in 2006. The combined prizes earned Cornelius a healthy $100,000. After all the state theatre companies passed on it, the play was eventually produced at Melbourne’s fortyfivedownstairs in 2010, directed by Meyrick. But at a public forum launching Meyrick’s essay last week, Cornelius declared that she’d written certain plays that she didn’t want produced by a major theatre company. In a frank and funny interview with Daily Review, Cornelius explained her comments and spoke about why we need to pay more attention to independent theatre.
“The major companies are far more industrial,” she says. “They work like a machine and it’s sometimes counter-productive. When you’re working with a smaller budget and a smaller group of people trying to put a play on, the thing is more organic. You think you’re going to use one set for a long time and then further down the track you can change when you’ve learned what the work needs. Those companies can’t work in that way.
“It’s not a culture of adventurousness. It’s sort of like controlled shock. They’re not going to take on a work that their subscription audiences will be offended by. And if they do, my fear is that they won’t meet it with honesty.”
In 1987, Cornelius co-founded the Melbourne Workers Theatre with Steve Payne and Michael White. The company began its life embedded in the union movement, creating theatre about workers’ issues and presenting it in workplaces. Melbourne Workers Theatre closed shop in 2012 when several bodies removed funding.
“The theatre industry is embattled,” Cornelius says. “The ecology is absolutely reduced. There’s no place for someone like me or Melissa Reeves, Andrew Bovell or Christos Tsiolkas, to do the apprenticeships we did with companies like Melbourne Workers Theatre, that actually put you in a company with a production that absolutely had to go on.”
And there are even greater forces to compete with if you’re a female playwright. An Australia Council report released in 2012 entitled Women in Theatre, showed that between 2001 and 2011, only 21 % of productions by companies of the major performing arts group were written by women. While the report gave theatre companies a major wake-up call, with companies launching programs aimed at supporting female writers and directors, Cornelius says it hasn’t necessarily translated to the stage.
“Women get commissioned and then we get development after development, because we supposedly need more work than male playwrights. We constantly get workshopped and there’s a point where you go, ‘for fuck’s sake, the play needs to go on’, with all its foibles and problems. Most works have problems that need to be settled in the space.”
It’s largely for these reasons that Cornelius has found her natural home more often in independent theatres than major companies over the course of her career. While much of the debate about Australian voices in the theatre focuses on what the major performing arts group companies are doing, independent theatre has been a constant source of dramatic innovation and imagination for decades. And it’s a source that’s currently under threat due to arts budget cuts.
“There’s no sense that there’s actually always been a tougher, more experimental and radical theatre; the work that mainstream companies, of course, aren’t going to look at, because their subscription audiences might baulk at. The homes for those sort of shows have become quite deprived.”
But Cornelius is encouraged by the fact that mainstream companies are now working more closely with independent artists and recognising the vibrancy that’s coming up from the sector. She points to artists like Lally Katz and Declan Greene, who began their careers in independent theatre and are rising to become major players in large companies. Greene is part of indie queer duo Sisters Grimm (with Ash Flanders), who have performed their work everywhere from a backyard shed in Thornbury to an underground Collingwood car park. His work with Sisters Grimm has been picked up by major companies, including Sydney Theatre Company, and his latest play Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography is currently being performed at Griffin Theatre.
“Declan still works with his own company and his own networks,” Cornelius says. “He keeps himself safe in a way. He’s also an amazingly observant playwright. He sees everything, he reads everything and he’s very learned. He uses craft in a wonderful, experimental way. You have to look after a playwright, and those companies aren’t really committed to nurturing and giving the work time and not putting the writers under undue pressure.”
Cornelius’s work has always been political, and she says the depletion of independent theatre is, in many ways, a reflection of broader political forces. Arts Minister George Brandis has said that he believes the federal budget is “generous” towards the arts, and that the major companies will be largely untouched.
“He’s happy with what [the major companies] produce. They’re not an affront to him. He wants to shut other voices down. They’re frightened of the voices being too critical. Don’t we need to be self-critical?”