I'm Not Rappaport, model (Playhouse, SOH)
Dates: 01/06/2012 - 01/06/2013
Location: Currency House
“Frocks and backdrops”: The evolution of Australian Scenography
by John Senczuk
Published by Currency House, 2013
As I write, Sydney-based designer Ralph Myers - along with STC designer-in-residence Alice Babidge - is collaborating with Berlin-based Australian director Benedict Andrews on the new ENO production of Detlev Glanert’s 2006 opera, Caligula; it opens at the London Coliseum on May 12. For Andrews, Myers and Babidge, it’s another forging link in the chain of their remarkable artistic collaboration. The trio has worked together on and off for several years, with productions at Belvoir, Sydney Theatre Company, Opera Australia, and a range of other British and European theatre houses.
Myers, who has just completed his first year as Belvoir’s artistic director, must be particularly chuffed by things at home given his Company’s posting of a net budget surplus of $302,630 for 2011, an improvement on the previous year’s surplus of $64,199. Under his stewardship, paid attendances for the year increased 35% and there were a record 8414 subscribers! The surplus was achieved despite the cost of a radical internal restructuring of the organisation and the abandoning of a long-standing parity pay structure. Myers’ appointment, taking over from Neil Armfied, was a surprise to many; how could ‘a designer’ replace Armfield? But Armfield himself was ‘’thrilled that Ralph has been entrusted with this great job ... It is a pleasure to collaborate with a designer who has such an innate understanding of how stories are told on a stage.’’ But also, as Brenna Hobson, Company B’s General Manager confirmed, as a candidate “Ralph stood out for his intelligence, humour, capacity for inspiring leadership and understanding of the theatrical process. His affinity with artists and audiences alike is wonderful to see.’’
While some commentators still tend to limit the usage to ‘theatre design’, the term ‘skenographia’ is detailed in Aristotle’s Poetics, and its Greek origin (skēnē, meaning ‘stage or scene building’; grapho, meaning ‘to describe’) has been incorporated into contemporary usage through the work of Modernist pioneers Adolphe Appia and Edward Gordon Craig who proposed that design within performance should be “considered an equal partner, alongside other elements such as literary texts and performance technique, within the construction and reception of meaning.” Scenography is not simply concerned with creating and presenting images to an audience; it is concerned with audience reception and engagement. It is a sensory as well as an intellectual experience, emotional as well as rational.
Ralph Myers is a scenographer. So too is Brian Thomson, arguably the country’s most distinguished scenographic elder, named by famed Sydney theatre critic Harry Kippax as being among the handful of the world’s greatest theatre designers. Thomson, whose early credits range from the original Australian and London productions of Jesus Christ Superstar and the original Melbourne season of Hair, to the 1975 cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show, still works regularly at a national and international level across all genres, pro actively exploiting new technologies and pushing the boundaries of the art form. Currently his work headlines the musical Priscilla Queen of the Desert (which opened in 2006 in Sydney before travelling to New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Canada, Brazil and is still playing on New York’s Broadway). A Tony award winner for his setting for The King And I, his major recent commissions also include Opera Australia’s Bliss, La Boheme, and La Traviata, the inaugural Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour extravaganza (he refers to it as “this mad, huge thing on the water”). In a rare public acknowledgement, he recently featured on the front cover of The Australian’s “Review”, wearing his signature Hawaiian shirt, under the banner headline: “Brian Thomson, superstar!”
Such acknowledgement brings to mind the acclaim received by Alexander Habbe, John Hennings, William Pitt Snr and WJ Wilson, immigrant scenic artists working in the Colonial theatre and during the nineteenth century, whose virtuosity elevated spectacle above text and performance. These eminent scene painters were often called before the curtain at the conclusion of the performance and afforded greater recognition than the performers! This ‘painterly’ tradition was to continue into the twentieth century, especially following the tours by Colonel de Basil’s Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, where local artists such as Loudon Sainthill became intoxicated by the scale and the colour in the grand aesthetic, and who relocated to London to more readily engage with the movement.
If our early theatrical history is otherwise dominated by imperialist incursions, the contemporary scenographer is taking the resultant, uniquely indigenous, legacy back to the world. Myers believes Australian theatre makers are currently popular in the industry internationally because they are multi-taskers: “There’s a great adaptability of Australian artists and an all-rounderey approach that is sort of unique ... there’s willingness and ability to muck in.” Catherine Martin, Roger Kirk, Richard Roberts, Peter England, Dan Potra and Gabriella Tylosova, amongst many others, are currently enjoying ‘mucking in’.
This international standing comes half a century after scenography as a profession in Australia began with the appointment of Anne Fraser as resident designer at the Union Theatre Repertory Company (now MTC) in 1955. Two decades later, this elevation of the craft was ratified when, in 1974, NIDA interviewed for its first intake into a new course in “Theatrical Design”. Scenography was now an academic discipline and I gained a highly competitive place in the course in 1980 under director/designer Robin Lovejoy (who had replaced Alan Lees).
My entry into the industry came at an extraordinary time in the history of the theatre generally; the radical alternative companies like Nimrod and the Pram Factor had established themselves in opposition to the conservative mainstream subsidised institutions, the Old Tote and the Melbourne Theatre Company, and by 1984 in Sydney Richard Wherrett, as artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company, was spearheading a buoyant theatricalism, exploiting the newly equipped construction workshops built into the Sydney Theatre Company’s home on a finger wharf at Walsh Bay. New writing, more aggressively parochial directorial concepts and a liberating experience building new repertoire, conventions and audiences in non-traditional, non-proscenium arch spaces - converted boat sheds, stables, salt and pram factories, church halls and wharves - evolved a new dramaturgy and a surprisingly original and distinctly Australian scenography.
My studies at NIDA made me very aware of this evolving ‘discipline’: I worked as a model maker for Brian Thomson; did my secondments with Jim Sharman’s Lighthouse Company in Adelaide, and with the Academy Award winner John Truscott at VSO; all the while earning my rent by working in the wardrobe departments of the Australian Ballet and the (then) Australian Opera, where the best of international design was being translated onto Australian stages through the imported craft of Henry Bardon, Michael Stennett, John and Elizabeth Bury, the iconoclastic Stephanos Lazaridis, Michael Yeargan, Carl Friedrich Oberle, and Peter Farmer all setting (and demanding) high standards in the fledgling props and scenic workshop and wardrobes. Australian designers were rarely represented at this national level during this time.
Meanwhile, in the local industry Gale Ewards, Nick Enright, Neil Armfield and other emerging yet-to-be influential practitioners were beginning to establish their theatrical raison d’etre. Around this time too, the massive technical design spectacles, then in vogue in Britain, were introduced to local audiences with the arrival of a convoy of Cameron Mackintosh ‘juggernaut’ productions (beginning with Cats), and the massive marketing campaigns developed to accompany their tours. The industry was changing and, more than ever, Australia was an established destination in a ‘global market’; and audiences were quick to be impressed and apportion loyalty or, more provocatively, their valuable and available entertainment dollar. My own particular response to this international attack on our local industry, that became a political hot potato, was to engage with new Australian writing, and I became chair of the Griffin Theatre Company in 1985, appointing its first artistic director Peter Kingston.
Within a decade of my graduation from NIDA, and as a result of a full and diverse career - including work in Norway, Japan and London’s West End - I was invited by composer Barry Conyingham to join the staff at the University of Wollongong and to establish a new Faculty of Creative Arts; in an environment of artistic decentralization, I created courses in Performance Design and Dramaturgy, Visual Arts and Creative Writing in a regional university, as well as contributing as a guest lecturer in the Department of English, creating courses in Australian and Renaissance Drama. I have since consulted on the development of degree courses in Scenography nationally and internationally. I was also one of the few academics, along with Derek Nicholson and Pamela Zeplin, who, during the late eighties and beyond, pursued the history and theory of scenography, and contributed conference papers on the discipline and the integral relationship between the art, the craft and theatre architecture. One significant long term example of the interface - performance as research - was collaborating with Dr Philip Parsons and Wayne Harrison on what became known as the DSI Shakespeare Experiment series [five productions in as many years; and an Elizabethan dramaturgy and scenographic approach that was introduced into mainstream productions, including the premiere of David Williamson’s Dead White Males).
In the absence of any significant British or American study on the subject, “Frocks and backdrops” The evolution of Australian Scenography is the first comprehensive analysis of the history and impact of scenography in the Western tradition. Exploring the relationship between text, theatre architecture, convention, aesthetics (visual and performing arts) and society; the monograph argues the unique antipodean experience as one of ‘larrickinism’ and rebellion, highlighting the scenographer’s influence as a consistent artistic liberator to prevailing theatrical methodologies; its influence internationally is now ubiquitous in both theatre and film.
In a personal note, Ralph Myers acknowledged my career and its influence as laying the foundation for his appointment as the artistic director of Belvoir; I look forward to telling the story of the near quarter of a millennium that led to its possibility.
John Senczuk, May, 2012