Interview: Rowan McDonald

Rowan McDonald, an artist, writer, and arts marketer is now located on the NSW south coast town of Wollongong he spoke to State of the Arts about theatre, live performance, critical engagement and the importance of the arts to a community and within regional New South Wales.

As an artist, we often hear about innate passion and vision being motivators for being engaged in the arts, is that your experience? What first drew you to the arts?
I guess there are two side for this, when you say passion or vision; i feel like those are critical for sustaining a practise long-term.  But often it can take years to understand what it is at the core of this passion as an artist. So what drew me into it is not necessarily the same thing as what drives me now.
As a youth, it was weekend drama classes or whatever, Something to keep me off the streets during holidays. It was fun, and I enjoyed the thrill of attention, the social element.  It’s always been there in the background. I think my first memory of live theatre was my grandmother taking me to panto at David Jones in the city.  Or John Bell doing Shylock in some giant tent.  I had no idea what was going on.
But gradually I got a sense of the history and import of these works, some of them thousands of years old, and after a decade of messing about as an actor, began to mature into finding the specific voice and style of works which suit me.  So the youthful glory-seeking rush of blood is probably what got me started, but nowadays my vision for the arts is very different.  I still enjoy the spectacle but I’m much more selective about finding work that pushes audiences out of their comfort area.
Performance, theater, live art; they’re wonderful mediums with great potential for dense, critical subject matter. But there is also a wonderful element of fun. For you, in your practice, how much fun or play is a part of expressing the more serious subjects, is there a balance?
There’s a reason it’s called a “play” right?  I’m all about subverting expectations, and the fastest door to opening up an audience is by getting them to laugh out loud.  I can’t bear watching ‘serious theatre’- it’s a real problem in Australian playwriting, where a subject is taken on with such reverence no-one seems able to to dare cracking a joke about it.  There was a period at the STC years ago when all they did was stuff about War. And in ten shows about War there wasn’t a single joke to be had.  Talk about fuckin dreary.  I think it’s still symptomatic in a lot of our new works as well, a lot of stuff addressing some serious problems in the world like colonisation, refugee management, corporate governance etc…  it’s heavy stuff, but if i wanted a heavy night out I’d watch the news.  The best writers take this subject matter and rip it to shreds. Moliere, Gogol, Caryl Churchill, Dario Fo.  Historically satire has the most consistent form in terms of social change.  It’s obvious really because 100% of injustice is steeped in hypocrisy.
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Theatre and performance are clearly central to you. Why do you feel they’re such a wonderful medium for connecting with audiences in spreading ideas?
Because theatre offers a totally unique set of experiences.  The audience is right there with you, sharing an experience together, laughing together, crying out together.  It’s something you can only get in a theatre, and even then each show will have its unique nuances, mistakes, special moments. It’s what McLuhan describes as “hot media” – there’s no time for reflection or pause the way you might with a novel.  So this shared experience really accelerates how audiences will immerse in the work, because there’s a crowd around you experiencing the same thing – the stakes become more real.  Like a football match, when the crowd gets involved you feel like you’ve got some skin in the game.  Good theatre is exactly that, except it’s a battle of ideas, of events.  You can’t sit on the fence.
In your practice, how do you feel the elements of live performance engage your audiences and the greater community?
Lately I’ve been exploring immersive theatre a lot more. It’s something I’ve dabbled in for years, following the work of Augusto Boal who created live theatre forums in marginalised communities in Brazil and Europe, asking them to participate in the events instead of just watching. As an artist the notion of audience-driven work is really exciting. Because you’re saying to an audience: ” get up off your seat – be a part of the scene” … it’s a break from this idea of theatre being a passive viewing experience and allowing work to evolve on its own terms.  So often the scripts are minimal or non-existent, as an actor it’s a huge challenge but the rewards are immense for the audiences willing to risk.

It’s also breaking down this idea that performing or making theatre is something you have to be trained to be able to do, which is why I think a lot of established theatre makers resist it, it’s an anathema to the myth of theatre being a bourgeois, elitist club if just any passer-by can get involved. But ultimately this is the way to open doors and build our audiences.  You don’t have to be the world’s greatest actor to experience playing Hamlet. That’s never what it was about.

Performance is a fantastic means of activating viewers, and allows for immediate engagement, but can also perceived as sometimes being inaccessible. How do you feel about this, or how do you navigate to break down barriers of accessibility?
It comes down to the way we talk about theatre. That conversation begins with the artist, and the way the work is marketed.  So there is a massive problem with accessibility from the get-go. I often cite the major theatre companies as culpable in excluding huge sections of the population from the work. For example, a major theatre company producing Brecht, they will present and market the work as a bourgeois experience for their audience to see certain actors and directors doing something wonderful. They could go an entire season and never once mention that the play was written for the working class!
But you ask a single parent if they’re interested in going they’ll say “that’s not for me” – whereas the opposite is true. So we have this weird backwards situation where wealthy people are paying $85 to see “Mother Courage and her Children” while the working class are all sitting at home watching “The Bachelorette” which is unironically representing lifestyles of the rich and fatuous.  But there’s no conversation surrounding why these two things are kind of ridiculously opposite.
So for me, the biggest barrier to engaging audiences is the closed loop of the conversation which is based on a kind of elitist value-judgement surrounding the work. It starts out talking about how great the artists involved are, and ends up with some critic determining whether the play is “good”.  But there’s no in depth discussion around what the cultural value of the work is, why it’s important. Mainstream theatre has been reduced to a set of experiences you might like to purchase, and that’s it.
Being in Wollongong, how has this informed your view of the arts in New South Wales?
I moved here from Sydney a few years ago, and it’s opened my eyes as to the variety of work happening in the region. Sydney is like a bubble, with a set clique of established artists all holding hands and scratching each other’s back, whereas you see a lot more diverse artists in a smaller city like this.  At the same time NSW is always going to struggle with balancing the big end of town with the grassroots.  It’s been that way since 1788. The entire state was founded on the principle of hegemony, so there’s no surprise the arts would be any different.
Critical arts writing is an amazing resource, particularly in the digital age. How do you think your writing enables people to engage further with theatre and performance?
I try to respond to a work, rather than critique it. That is to say what i think about what i saw, to inform the reader about a different way to view the work.  Whether I enjoyed it or not is irrelevant, because everybody brings a different set of experiences to viewing live theatre.  but what I try to offer is a perspective from someone who has spent years learning and practising the craft, so i am going to see things an ordinary critic won’t, so I try to elucidate on that. It’s also often a learning experience for me, to reach into my training as an artist and really tease out what it was that I saw, and why it looked how it did. Even if I hated something it’s important to acknowledge that a team of artists has made a choice around why that is how it is, so rather than just write it off I use the critical medium to try and engage with a work on its own terms. Sometimes that can be its own success and reward, irrespective of the success of the work itself.
How can we find out more about you, your practice and your writing?
The past year or so I have been in development and taking a bit of hiatus, but I blog at 5thwall.wordpress.com and I also do freelance consulting for arts marketing via newaudiences.com.au . Keep an eye on those as I’m gearing up for a big year in 2017.