October 01, 1986

The State of Play

John Gaden, Artistic Director of the State Theatre Company of South Australia, reflects in midseason.

I first met John Gaden in October last year when the State Theatre Company was announcing his appointment as its new AD. 1985 had been a troubled year for State with a number of productions in succession hitting the wall as the local press grew more toxic and audiences more disheartened .

So Gaden’s appointment was greeted warmly from all sides. As a popular actor and director with close associations with State dating back to its beginnings he was seen as both a friend of the family and a soothing presence with impeccable credentials.

In the usual flurry of press and radio interviews John Gaden radiated his ready wit and good-natured ease. He was ushered into Adelaide’s theatre circles with high teas and scones – at the time he drolly remarked that he’d never eaten so many scones in his life! It is safe for State to emerge from the bunker.

But the diplomacy worked. State settled down, the feuding with press abated and the 1986 season promised an end to stormy weather. Gad en has undoubtedly been a successful choice. The company is no longer besieged – he has made it safe for State to emerge from the bunker. But the experience has been a cautionary one nevertheless. He is the first to admit that the problems in refloating the ship of State very much reflect the parlous conditions that theatre companies are facing throughout the country.

When he first arrived there was much talk about the subscription base – getting the rumps of Adelaide back in the Playhouse seats, and paying for them well in advance. It is a slow process and it is not just a matter of consumer confidence with so many entertainment fixtures vying for customers. State’s promotion team is busy organising coach concessions, four-shows-for-three deals and cheapo nights for students and pensioners, but it .is still fairly small beer so far.

.Gaden is now six productions down the track – not counting his appearance in Robyn Archer’s cabaret Scandals which played in Adelaide last summer. Stephen Sewell’s Dreams in an Empty City premiered at the Adelaide Festival followed by John Bell’s production of The Recruiting Officer. Gaden, in .the best tradition of war and cricket, led from the front in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing and took a breather when Aarne Neeme’s production of Essington Lewis: I Am Work shipped in from Sydney. Most recently he directed David Hare and Howard Brenton’s Pravda, which ran parallel with Hannie Rayson’s Room to Move.

It has been a season of mixed fortunes but as Gaden drily observed – “once you’re in the hot seat, nothing sharpens the decision-making processes quicker than that kind of pressure. Feeling a show failing under you is an awful feeling – like losing the brakes in the car. I don ‘t mean in the rehearsal room, I mean once it has opened, and you realise what the pattern is going to be. You have to be very clinical about what it is that brought that about.

“Some things you have to continue to fight against if it’s a play that people aren’t liking, or coming to for the right kinds of reasons . . . like because it is ahead of its time, or very forthright or unpopular in its politics. You just have to say, well, that’s a chance we took. You also have to start understanding that some of the things you do hadn’t been thoroughly researched in terms of what the audience was going to be feeling. You took the risk unwittingly.

You stop doing that, which is something I don ‘t like much, because you do find , particularly in these times when viability is the word, that you do have to think about what is going to work and what is going to make money – or at least go somewhere towards covering its costs. So to that extent, I already’ have become much more pragmatic.”

Paradoxically, when discussing the season in prospect his sense of its pragmatism was made quite clear. But the outcome has been otherwise – “When I planned, I saw the successes as being The Recruiting Officer and certainly Pravda, which hasn’t proved popular with the public; this last week has not been good. Maybe playing Mondays and four weeks is too long- it may be a mistake but I think it’s worth trying.”

Pravda’s lack of success has caused Gaden some consternation: “to some extent I think I misjudged the play. From my preliminary reading and what I’d heard, I thought it would be a good sort of not-very-penetrating play which will make people laugh. What I underestimated was the seriousness and power of the piece. It is very black writing, and I do think it works better in Thatcher’s England. We can still tell ourselves we are the Lucky Country, that these matters of principle, are not a battle we have lost. I don’t know why we think that, but because we live better, because life is better, because the sun comes out, it doesn’t matter so much. I’m not trying to play some stern Savonarola role. I’m not trying to inject some moral fear into the public – but maybe in three years time the play will have more to say than now.”

The experience is not new to Gaden. Some five or six years ago he directed a splendid production of Howard Baker’s No End Of Blame, starring Geoffrey Rush. It was a memorable event but attendances were so poor that the audience could meet in a phone box to reminisce about it. John now stalks his audience more circumspectly – “I had the fairly simplistic belief that if the programme was good then the audience would follow . It isn’t like that. Establishing an audience is a process that takes years. What I’ve learnt is that you do have to encourage a fairly broad spectrum of the public to feel that when they come to theatre, at least they won’t be bored and wishing that they weren’t there. Then they will allow you the odd play which stretches them well beyond their normal expectations. That doesn’t mean we are going to have safe seasons- next year’s season is anything but safe. But what it has got going for it is an enormous amount of life I think.”

One thing Gaden is mindful of, though, is the hazard of commissioned work. State had had its excruciations with them in 1985, and so this year John Romeril ‘s Jonah Jones went overboard: ” I had to make a decision given the reaction in Sydney. No doubt about it, it had a very adverse press and public reaction. I saw an early preview but it seemed to me it was not wise to programme at that stage. The only thing we could have done was to do our own production to give a chance to reshape and reform the show, but there wasn’t time to do that and do it justice.”

Scratching Nick Enright and Alan John’s Strange Harvest, on the other hand, was purely a matter of cost. “I still have the greatest faith in it, ‘ ‘ Gaden noted, “but it was way over budget and its potential to blow out was enormous. My sadness was that Nick and Alan had put three years work into it.”

Given that his predecessor, Keith Gallasch, had suffered a vituperative attack from the media, and that theatre reviewing is often seen as glib and damaging, what are Gaden’s views on the role of criticism ?

” It is a terrible dichotomy really. There is no doubt that there must be criticism and it must be independent and it must be objective, and it must, if necessary , be harsh to point out what we, because of our emotional involvement and in the little enclaves that we form, don’t see. To some extent I think that some critics are too involved in the process of having to write good copy rather than make sound judgements. So you get a headline in The Advertiser about Voss which read ‘Sitting Ovation’ – you know what I mean. It was a smart line at the expense of any real evaluation of what was going on.”

”The adverse reviews that have hurt me most recently have been for Dreams in an Empty City, because we put an enormous emotional involvement in that. Anything that Stephen Sewell is involved in is very passionate , and we were all really locked in to getting this thing going. We all worked incredibly hard on it and of course, in the final analysis that can’t matter. The public can’t know that, they don’t have to know that. All they know is that the three hours ‘ traffic on the stage of the theatre is what they’ve paid for. It’s no good telling them that we’ve poured our hearts and souls into it. But it did hurt because I thought, if only they knew what we’d been through and what we’d done.”

”One of the things that did bug me was that it was reviewed for the Sydney papers very unfavourably, very unfavourably indeed, and there’s a whole audience that has no chance to make up its mind. Now that’s not what criticism is all about. It must be one voice in a public debate. I must say that the review that went to Melbourne was favourable in the other direction and equally there was no chance – you can’t have it both ways. You either have interstate assessment or you don ‘t.”

“We’ve got to co-exist without compromising each other, that’s what it amounts to. No actor who gets up on stage and puts his or her head on the block wants to be criticised, and so it is utterly understandable that their reaction to adverse criticism is going to be hostile and often unreasonable. It is a nasty feeling and people react in different ways. Some people get very angry and some just completely crumple. If you’ve been panned in something and you have to do a four week season, it is actually quite hard to go on each night. But again , finally, that can’t matter unless the reviewer is simply silly or whimsical, which sometimes they are.”

And so is John Gaden enjoying being a minder of matters of State?

“Very much, but there are days when I don’t. A woman rang me yesterday, first thing, and complained about bad language and I thought she was talking Pravda but it suddenly became clear to me that she was talking about Room to Move. So I said – what are the words you are objecting to because I can’t remember any. And she said I’m not going to repeat them, I refuse to say them. So I had to guess them. She said it’s just terrible, the world is falling apart, we’re trying to bring up our children and you put on these plays. And I got awfully depressed. You shouldn’t, of course. It doesn’t represent anything – except a body of opinion that doesn’t like bad language on the stage. I don’t actually, unless it’s necessary and then I don’t notice it.”

“Then shortly after, I got a phone call from someone who said – we took a poll of our members and they all thought that what you did wasn’t any good and what someone else did was really good – and by that time I was feeling really suicidal and I thought – what! Why am I here? Why do I bother?”

“But acting offsets that. And first nights like Room to Move and having people like Hanny (Rayson) and Lindy Davies about. There is a good feeling in the company at the moment that this is a good place to work. I’d like to be seeing more tangible results like better box office – we are turning it round slowly , but it is very slow.”

What impresses about Gaden is his belief in the theatre – “there is a sense of occasion that is unique to the theatre. I’m very interested in the work of Michael Gow; he’s very concerned to look at the way things can happen, where magic and the unexpected can happen and that ‘s what theatre ‘s about. You think you know what’s going to happen and then suddenly the statue moves.”

But in the face of dwindling and aging audiences are there darker concerns for the future of theatre? ” Yes, but then theatre is such a street thing, with street wisdom. Finally it survives because companies have a sufficiently wide spectrum to survive – if they only have a following among theatre buffs, devotees of the radical Left or whatever, they don’t survive. It’s a terrible pity, but it’s a fact- they may go into cold storage and await their time . . . if they are lucky.”

John Gaden remains essentially the actor, with an actor’s acceptance of, and resignation, perhaps, to the immediacy of the theatrical experience – ‘ ‘Theatre is presented to the public for their instant decision on the night – there’s not much time for reflection . And that,” he wryly concedes with his characteristic half-smile, ” is one of its joys and one of its eternal sorrows.”

Murray Bramwell

CentreStage Australia (Cover Story) October, 1986, pp.4-5.

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment