MTC is a beacon for craftspeople. Its halls, workshops and workrooms are filled with artisans of the highest order: wig makers, milliners, tailors, mechanists, technicians, producers, tour managers, speech pathologists and so on. Another band of guild dwellers also toil away in back rooms at MTC with tight deadlines and seemingly impossible tasks.1 They bend and rend story, metaphor, character, diction, time, disbelief and emotion, and it is in a theatre company’s Literary Office that they balance, on a good day, talent and ingenuity with skill and experience.
MTC has a stellar record for working with, and producing new Australian plays – indeed since 1953 between one quarter and a third of the MTC repertoire has consisted of the work of local playwrights many of them then touring the country and later filling library and classroom shelves. And the engine room for this meeting of ambition and opportunity is the Literary Office.
Calling it the Literary Office, which is customary, makes it sound a pompous, arcane, abstract place concerned only with old texts, distant from the hustle and bustle of everyday, practical life in the theatre. Nothing could be further from the truth, and we are grateful to The Vizard Foundation for keeping it sustained and well-resourced.
We asked writer Steve Vizard (Last Man Standing) why the Vizard Foundation got behind the Literary Office in 2016 and also about his time up on the second floor at HQ surrounded by fat tomes, bulldog clips and more first drafts than you can poke an actor at. For Steve it is “just plain common sense that a Literary Office, or whatever you want to call it – a dramaturg who provokes, excite cajoles playwrights into creating brave new works – is essential to the art of making vibrant theatre.”
Indeed he connects the Literary Office with a bigger social responsibility:
“If the role of a major theatre company is to constantly excite, inspire, challenge and provoke the audiences, the people it serves, it can only do so with a constant flow of courageous and imaginative works on which the theatrical performance can be breathed into life… the brilliant event of live theatre needs the brilliant text of the playwright. In every other sphere of life we take this for granted – in science this is R and D, in business this is product development, in service industries, based on people, it’s training and development… it’s investing in the very future of your own business… [in this case] our culture.”
Steve remarks that it is surprising “that so few of our artistic and cultural organisations adequately invest in or foster writers and the creation of new works.” Because of his experience at MTC he saw first-hand the significance and utility of dramaturgy and the Literary Office: “[they] play a fundamental role in transforming the reckless, instinctive meanderings of a first draft into a honed, crafted text upon which can be balanced the precarious magic of the live performance.”
In a company where the day-to-day business is mostly concerned with shows in rehearsal or performance, a playtexts literary or dramatic possibilities can sometimes seem remote, discretionary, almost a rococo flourish. Not, however, for Steve; “This is not an optional theatrical activity. It’s as essential to the lifeblood of a theatre company as having actors on stage or pulling up a curtain.”
Steve goes further: “No great new plays, no great new theatre”. It is this mantra that has supercharged the Literary Office, thanks to the Vizard Foundation, allowing us to spend more time with writers, see more plays read, and bring playwrights together with actors and directors. And this, as Steve emphatically believes, sustains and is the very lifeblood of theatre itself.
1 – Playwright and dramaturg, like the words wheelwright or metallurgist, are compound nouns derived from archaic – old English and Ancient Greek suffixes respectively – terms for craftspeople. It is intriguing and more than appropriate that those of us who work with words in the theatre continue to be named after tradies who work with, and fashion, wood and metal.