Australian theatre audiences accused of being ‘latte-sipping, avocado-eating snowflakes’ – RN
Belarus Free Theatre uses performance as a tool of dissent — but is there a place for similar art in Australia? (Getty: Wendell Teodoro)
“There is no meaning in art under democracy.”
So says performance artist and activist Natalia Kaliada, who believes much modern theatre is so safe, it’s basically pointless.
She works with the Belarus Free Theatre, which takes on taboo subjects in experimental, combative-style performances.
In 2011, the company was expelled from Belarus for its oppositional stance to the Lukashenko and Putin regimes.
Kaliada was accused of being a foreign spy; other artists were censored and even jailed over their craft.
Now based in London, Kaliada thinks dissent is at the core of performing arts — and warns that if we don’t challenge our society and fight for our freedoms, they will slowly disappear.
“When you live under a dictatorship, you just live,” she says.
“[In Belarus] it started to happen pretty slowly and human rights started to disappear. In 1999, our colleagues and friends, four of them, were kidnapped.
“At that particular moment you understand that it’s not possible for you to continue to stay above the fight in order to observe everything subjectively.”
Art has long been used to express political and moral opposition, particularly in countries where open criticism can lead to arrest and even execution.
But when citizens have nothing to fight for, Kaliada says, the importance of theatre wanes.
“We are campaigning theatre — we are not just a performing arts group, we bring our bodies to the streets,” Kaliada says.
“But if I go to Trafalgar Square and put my body on fire, will the world talk about Belarusian political prisoners?
“My husband said ‘maybe for three days I will receive letters of condolences, and after that everyone will forget’.”
‘We’re all latte-sipping snowflakes’
So how do you make theatre meaningful in a comfortable society like Australia?
“I think it is difficult to find a combative style in a relaxed and comfortable Australia,” says Jane Montgomery Griffiths, a professor of theatre and performance at Monash University.
“We are all latte-sipping, avocado-eating snowflakes … and that’s a real problem.”
Professor Griffiths says political apathy has, in part, led to an indifference to political theatre.
It’s also suffering, she says, because audiences are increasingly attracted to high-budget musicals and lavish operas.
“The audience that goes to the theatre tends to be privileged, tends to be white, tends to be of high socio-economic and educated background. And so really where is the political content anymore?” she says.
“Predominately theatre is run by educated, privileged, white men, and they are the gatekeepers.”
Some experts link political apathy to a declining interest in political theatre. (Unsplash: Hailey Kean)
Niche, “ground breaking” theatre groups now play to an already shrinking audience.
“We have wonderful companies which [have] really changed the way audiences perceive disability and also changed the way we perceive theatre,” Professor Griffiths says.
“But they play in the fringe. And even within that they are playing to a base of 20, 30, 40-somethings who are already knowledgeable about this.”
A mouthpiece to the people
Political theatre is far from new. From Shakespeare to Marlowe, Ibsen to Brecht — history is steeped in combative performances.
Originally rooted in Greek tragedy, performing arts were once a mouthpiece to the people and considered a means of social and religious expression.
“In ancient Athens people were paid to go to the theatre. It was a civic responsibility because in front of that audience of citizens, there was a shared experience that held the mirror up to their own behaviour,” Professor Griffiths says.
Dr Alessandro Achilli, professor of Ukrainian Studies at Monash University agrees, and notes art has long been a “form of dissent” against power-hungry governments.
“In the 1930s an official aesthetic was imposed [on] writers, artists and intellectuals in the Soviet Union … it was called Socialist realism,” he explains.
“Artists and writers had to cope with these official aesthetics if they wanted their outputs to be published … and if they wanted to live a safe life.”
Artists and performers who continued their crafts were praised as local heroes but were inevitably persecuted by their governments.
“Authentic art, real art in the Soviet Union was an act of dissent itself,” Dr Achilli says.
Performance art has long been tied to the real-life struggles of citizens, says Gloria Davies from Monash University.
“Oppositional art, I think certainly on the left, emerged out of this process of people sharing the hardships of the people but then also recognising that the party leadership was corrupt and speaking out against that,” she says.
“That certainly happened in China in the 1940s where there were dissenting intellectuals and artisan writers who saw what was going on in the Communist party [and] spoke out.
“Oppositional art everywhere tries to say to people that, no, you don’t have to put up with this, there is a way of thinking, a way through the present difficulties to get something better.”
Professor Griffiths believes such performance art could help revive the role of political theatre.
“If we want to move on to a more radical form of theatre as a political discourse, maybe we have to jettison theatre and move more into performance,” she says.
She also believes it’s up to each individual to really think about what is worth fighting for.
“There could be a fair bit of potential in performance being political if we could only work out what political means in this country,” she says.