“Drama and theatre in their content and style reflect the society from which they spring” – To what extent is this true of contemporary Australian theatre practice?
Theatre is a direct reflection of life and society. Any script is written, including their themes and genre, in the attempt to draw on and display our surrounding world to ultimately impact audiences. Our unit of drama including Matt Cameron’s Ruby Moon and Jane Harrison’s Stolen does exactly this, but more specifically reflects on contemporary Australian culture and events. This combined with our experiential learning proved that theatre indeed is a mirror to society.
Ruby Moon’s depiction of suburbia and its “dark underbelly that lurks beneath an idyllic, picture-perfect veneer” serves as the main content of the play and a powerful comment on Australian society. Growing up in suburban Melbourne, playwright Matt Cameron reflects his childhood experiences through contemporary theatre. This involves an abandonment of genre classification through a deliberate pastiche of styles, creating dramatic tension and stimulating audience. Non-realism, the fractured fairy tale, absurdism, horror, gothic, crime, humour, vaudeville and surrealism all combine to create ambiguity and therefore unpredictable tension. In addition, Ruby Moon is typically non-realist and non-traditional, and this ambiguity is evident in the unresolved ending of Ruby’s existence; “was there a child, Ray?…or are we just having the same nightmare?”
Leaving the audience with more questions than answers opts out of the traditional resolution and rather mirrors the confronting complexities of contemporary Australian society, we are not the “lucky” or “perfect” country, rather as Cameron quotes; “a picture-perfect veneer”, a paradox that the seemingly suburban proximity that defines Australia does not equal “intimacy, fraternity, community”. This is especially evident through experiential learning, the pair undertaking the final scenes tended towards Realism and believable Stanislavsky styled acting, which for audiences, conflicted against Cameron’s covert intent of ambiguity.
However, the opening scenes performed in our class took the opposite approach; Brechtian in style, especially in the “stripped back” manner of set; two chairs were the only props used, and alienation of audience through lighting and variation in pace and volume. Supporting this was the mixture of styles between heightened realism and absurdism contrasted within character – Ray was played as the ‘straight man’, realist and serious in nature, responding and contrasting to Dulcie’s eccentric, loud and absurdist representation. This only heightens her unpredictability, presenting the pastiche of genre and style through character and the ambiguity beneath the suburban façade.
Lighting again featured as a major theatre technique in my own performance of Ruby Moon. To consolidate for the harsh white lights of our theatre space, we made the choice to turn off ‘house lights’; using darkness and a warm-yellow glow lamp. This provided a non-realist, eerie and uneasy atmosphere, with up-lighting on our faces; a stereotypical “horror” visual to highlight the multi-facets of our character’s personas and emphasis on the sinister undertones in the surrounding darkness. The intimidating atmosphere heightened the intimacy of the actor-audience relationship as viewers themselves were enveloped in darkness and focus drawn to the only light source on stage. This also presented Brecht’s alienation technique through uncertainty and discomfort instilled into the perception of the fear of the unknown within darkness.
This certainly juxtaposes the idyllic and conventional nature of suburbia; lights always on inside; inviting and nothing to hide, reflecting Cameron’s ideals of theatre and Australian society; “that is the ingenious deceit of suburbia…it is as much about the surrounding darkness as it is about the light.” Stolen, whilst still in the realm of contemporary Australian theatre and non-realism, differs in its theatrical content, style and reflection of society. The theatre piece reflects a vital part in both our past and present Australian society; that of the Stolen Generation, dramatising the fear, agony and ongoing aftermath even in contemporary times. The style is far more overt than Cameron’s world of deceit; Harrison stresses the themes of identity, culture, hope and emotions of this event in a post-modern, extensive mix of performance styles and a non-linear narrative structure.
This episodic sequence allows for a merging of past and present, and was carried through in our own experiential learning. When witnessing the performances of Stolen, it is clear the focus both groups put on emotion, non-linear structure and effective use of props to convey style and content. For example, the use of a white sheet and spotlight to create silhouettes for storytelling was a powerful motif and use of a theatrical prop to not only portray the non-realist and narrative style of Stolen, but to enhance the content of family and fear. Dual scenes were simultaneously presented; one in dialogue, and the other in silhouetted visuals that emphasised and emotionalised the horrors of our Australian past. As Harrison quotes; “What I wanted was to make an emotional connection…I want them to think ‘that happened to people. How would I feel?”
The play also incorporates elements of Brecht’s ‘breaking of the fourth wall’ and Realism in both the scripted and our class performance of the final scene. As the original script’s stage directions dictate; “they line up diagonally…just like in the first scene. Then the actors break out of their roles and talk in turn about their own experiences.” The original production in 1998 did just this in relation to indigenous actors and their role in the stolen generation. However, for our class performance, students emulated the directions through their experiences in workshopping, characters, researching and performing Stolen.
This simple, stripped back and realist Brechtian ending was the perfect theatrical technique and choice to reflect the plays content and importance of personal connection and emotion, adding and a contemporary spin on Australian theatre. As an audience member, it was incredibly powerful hearing actors talk unscripted and bring a true sense of realism and conviction when recounting their own experience; strengthening the actor-audience relationship through understanding and empathy. One can only imagine the immense power of individuals exposed to the stolen generation and Australia’s dark past, and their re-telling of stories as actors on stage in Stolen. Witnessing our class performances, it was clear Harrison’s intent of emotional connection with the audience and an empowered empathy towards the story and our own traditional and contemporary society.
Theatre is simply a mirror to our society; a reflection of our past wrongs and future endeavours with the aim of social comment and audience engagement. Both Cameron’s ‘Ruby Moon’ and Harrison’s ‘Stolen’ address contemporary Australian society content: whether it is the warped world of suburbia or our country’s mistakes, both employ dramatic and theatrical techniques and style to reflect this and strengthen the actor-audience relationship. As Matt Cameron quotes, “theatre exists in the imagination of the beholder…it is not necessarily about the black hat. It is about the blind man in the dark room looking for it.”