INTERVIEW WITH LEE LEWIS

LEE LEWIS

LEE

 

M:

I was really curious about your perspective working within an institution, heading up Griffen. It’s not something that happens a lot in Ireland – the first appointment of a female director to The Gate

happened just last week. But am I right in thinking, did you begin as an actor?

 

L:

Way back, but not in Australia, I moved over to New York to go to drama school and then I stayed there for about 10 years. Which is the left over ‘er’ sound in my accent. And when I came back to Australia there wasn’t actually that much work relative to the amount of work in new york obviously. I’d begun directing a little bit over there but only a tiny bit and only with people that i knew. I was becoming the outside eye in the room. And then it was really a question of – I think something that happened was a director pulled out or something and I thought “well I can do that”. There was a lot more opportunity as a younger director here than there was in New York. I just kept doing it and at some point I was directing so much more than I was directing so much more than I was acting and it got to the point that I didn’t have the time to keep myself in shape physically and vocally. At one point my dad said “Hey are you ever going to act again” and I said “You know dad I think I’m a director”. And he said “thank god you finally realised. You always have been it’s just taken you a while to realise that”.

 

M:

So the eco-system was supportive of young female directors?

 

L:

I don’t know if it was young female so much as just young. There was a lot of opportunity. If you want to make a lot of work and say yes to everything I think there’s a lot of opportunity for growth as a young director. I think it’s harder to develop mid career I suppose. How do you make yourself better? Because there’s not a lot of professional work. There aren’t a lot of theatres in Ausltraia so the opportunities that you have to make work, work of scale, are limited. And that’s just across the country. You look at America and the sheer number of theatres means that as you’re growing and as you’re figuring out how to make work for bigger spaces theres’s a lot of regional theatres that can give you that. Whereas here there’s just not that much. So the first ten years are amazing, the unpaid years are extraordinary. It’s the reverse in NYC, those unpaid years the possibility of putting on full works are actually few and far between. The first few years. You can assist. But getting your own work up is a different story. Here, you kill yourself, produce it, do the lot, there are spaces and the indie spaces are available. If you want to work you can. If you want to be paid for it that’s different.

 

M:

Where do you see people breaking through that barrier?

 

L:

Look, I think breaking through into consistent paid work is hard in every freelancing creative profession. How long can you keep doing so that there’s enough work that the transition will become inevitable? I don’t think there is a formula for that apart from how long can you keep going, how long can you sustain yourself before someone goes “Oh yeah, she could do it!”. And I don’t think that’s a gender thing. It has been in the past but I think theres been a lot of politicisation about it in the past six or seven years and that’s helped. It’s just that thing of keeping going. Even when it’s paid work it’s not a lot of money so how do you work your life so that you don’t need a lot of money. At a certain point you start measuring yourself against friends who aren’t in theatre and you see what they’ve done. It makes you ask well if I want to have a family or some form of stability, can I do that still doing theatre? And I think those are the questions that become more socially complicated here. There’s such a tradition of leading a poor life in theatre in places like London or New York I think it helps you to see a path through. They’re older models. Here is harder.

 

M:

I’m interested in that idea of older models and in particular that aphorism that it’s hard to be what you can’t see.

 

L:

Yeah, it’s true. But it’s also a very young industry here. It was only in the late 70s early 80s that actors started being paid for rehearsals here.

 

M:

What?!

 

L:

Yeah, it wasn’t a local professional industry here. It was a lot of imported work and a lot of touring work from overseas and then one off big commercial things but not actually a consistent professional industry. A lot of the infrastructure – all of the state companies – have all been invented in the last fifty years. So the next companies after that; Griffin – Nimrod – which is the home in Sydney of Australian theatre making, we will make Australian plays and continue make Australian plays in the Australian voice, it’s coming up on fifty years in 2020. There was one down in Melbourne around the same time. Belvoir came from here. It was Nimrod and moved to Belvoir and Griffin grew up in the space they left, and Sydney Theatre Company come up in the same way. It was one group of people who decided to stay here and make work instead of moving overseas and from that group they built all of the theatres essentially. There was another group down in Melbourne doing the same thing at the same time. All of that’s in living memory.

 

M:

It’s a baby!

 

L:

Yes! Exactly. So you see all of the questions of longevity are complicated by the fact that it’s all very new.

 

M:

One of the things that seems true from speaking to people is that gender doesn’t really pose any problems during eduction. But once you finish training things change.

 

L:

I think it was an issue until about six or seven years ago when the conversation exploded very publically because I think that the assistant positions were hard to get and it was more young men being invited into those positions. If you go back and look at who the A.Ds were in the 2000s, most were men. But now that’s definitely changed as off 2010 conversation all of the companies have hired young women as associates and assistants to build pathways. I actually think now it’s quite hard for young men to get those positions. But I think that’s just a balancing out.

 

M:

What was the prompt for the conversation in 2010?

 

L:

There was a moment – and the only reason I remember it so vividly is because I was kind of in the middle of it – Neil Armfield launched his final season and there was me and every other director in the season was male. Unfortunately when he was announcing it in Belvoir the set design was all grey. I was the first show in the year so I was first in the line. So I happened to be wearing a white shirt and every person after me was a young male wearing black skinny jeans and black shirts. You couldn’t have designed it worse. It made visible, in a really pointed way, something that had been brewing for a while. It became a flashpoint for a much bigger conversation. In that year, there were not a lot of women in the programs but weirdly I was in all of the seasons. I was doing a show with Belvoir, and at STC and at Bel. So it this weird thing where one woman was working a lot and nobody else was. It kicked off a much bigger conversation. From there people began to critique the companies more closely, looking at gender balance in the programming, looking at who was in the companies and start to ask those questions more publicly. From there all of the companies started to think about it a lot more.

 

M:

You were really in the epicenter.

 

L:

Just because of that one moment, yeah. And then I stayed in the conversation because a couple of years later I got this position. In that time there’s been a lot more conversation about women in the seasons, directing and writers and a much more visible position for it in the media also.

 

M:

I’m curious about these waves of public interest in feminism and how they correspond to what’s happening politically. Did Julia come to power around that time?

 

L:

There’s no question that she was quite significant. The other picture that was interesting at that moment was connected to her. There was Quentin Bryce who was governor general, Clover Moore was the mayor of sydney and Mary Bashir who was governor of NSW. The impact of having the three of them at the same time – of the whole structure being female was really interesting. Watching that play out was interesting. There was a male only club and for the first time it became very awkward for the members to have to invite the prime minister. She couldn’t be a member. So the impact that had on the business that happened at places like the Australia club I think was quite significant. There was this little window of time where in the newspaper there were women at the centre of a lot of images. In ways that were trickling down. I think the visual environment was changing, and you can include images from abroad of Condoleza Rice and Hilary Clinton so by the time you get Teresa May it’s not a problem. It feels quite normal.

 

M:

I was thinking, when Hilary gets into power it’ll be Hilary, Teresa May and Angela Merkel.

 

L:

The influence of Angela Merkel is kind of underestimated too. Suddenly it’s very possible to imagine a different future where the limitations of what you can imagine doing as a young girl are being reduced day by day. I met my first female director when I was at Columbia – it was Anne Bogart – she was one of my teachers. And it’s not that I hadn’t thought about being a director but in retrospect I hadn’t met one. So starting off as an actor was a little bit more normal. Interestingly when I came back STC was headed up by Robyn Nevin and she was the person who gave me my first work. I think I just caught the first wave of possibility. It felt very normal to me. And I find myself in a generation of women who have felt very normal about it even thought we’re the first generation of normalcy. I do not have radical politics. In the generation before me you had to be quite radical to be claiming that space. Whereas it feels very normal to me and for me and the women around me we can take it for granted – just. What does that mean? And what does that mean that I have to do for the next generation so that it doesn’t slip away?

 

M:

It’s interesting in such a new industry that you’ve kind of had the opportunity to write the rules a bit.

 

L:

And we still do. The interesting thing is that we don’t have great depth in the structures so that, as they’re not working we can restructure them quite easily. It’s not like there’s 350 years of tradition about how you do things. There’s not that. And there probably is for men in Australia in terms of success paths. But not for women and that seems to suit the new time anyway. Men are being asked to think quite differently but women are quite used to that. We’ve not have paths to follow whereas men are trying to break out of those paths. It’s actually strangely flexible here still. I think it’s visible in the work and in the ways it’s made. And in audience expectation of work. Audiences here are much less conservative than they are overseas. Because there’s less choice in theaters, the diversity of work programmed in those spaces is far greater than you would find in the bigger conventional theaters in London or NYC. The audience don’t know that they’re that diverse. They think they’re conservative but their taste is quite wide. They’re the same people that go to modern dance, they go to Sydney dance company, they go to bangara, Sydney chamber opera. The art they support is much more contemporary than the conservative mainstream audiences of London NYC. They’re educated but they don’t know they are. Friends of mine coming from the US or UK are so surprised by what’s on the main stage. There’s an extraordinary freedom here but only if you don’t talk about it that way. Our over 55s – especially at Griffin – are actually quite radical. They’re a bunch of rat bags. One of the reasons I came back to Australia is because there’s still a real link between new writing and government and education and legislation. The people who are sitting in that audience are judges and legislators and educators and they’re sitting in that audience regularly. So they’re in touch with the new writing. And we don’t have the same level of radical form in the work here. The guys in the RABBLE are probably the most extreme functional theatre collective. And they’re not working in text. Not really. Not in a way that foreman has publishable texts. It doesn’t disseminate in the same way.

 

M:

One of the ideas that has repeated in the conversations I’ve been having is this idea of the collective as a female model.

 

L:

Maybe. Maybe not. Not necessarily, you look at Peter Brook and the group that he has around him has been more male. I don’t think so. I think there have been very strong female theatre makers who have dispersed into community making through the 1980s 90s and thats probably because some of those community groups have had funding. And there’s a questions about sustainable practice as a female if you want to have family. But it’s also a question about sustainable practice if you’re male and have a family too. There have been some very interesting makers who have gone out into regional practice or community practice because they’ve wanted to have families. And those are collectives. It’s interesting, that question of how do you have kids in theatre. It’s a male thing too. It used to be a female issue but men have the same problem too. How do you run a company and see your kids? But that’s the same question Mary Potts had. If you want to be around for your kids how do you have such a full on role?

 

M:

Do you have kids?

 

L:

No. And that does allow me more time in the day. There’s no question. It was interesting seeing Kate and Andrew splitting the roles so that they could acutally spend time with their kids and what the impact on the company means.

 

M:

How did it impact?

 

L:

It’s not so straight forward with them. Marian Potts is a little bit more realistic and the fact that her partner, when they moved down to Melbourne was willing to work part time so that allowed her to work. I think she enjoys a job now where she can actually get home and see her family from time to time. That was a particular five years where she was running a company and he was willing to be part time. It’s a question of the partnership.

 

M:

Have you seen makers disappear into family life?

 

L:

Yes. And into companies that allow more flexibility. People starting to identify that at certain times family becomes more important – your kids need you more – so for a period they’ll take a smaller role. But after that they come back. How do you sustain your connections within the industry during that time is really important. It’s interesting looking at the General Managers. We’ve got quite a few general managers who are female in this country which is quite interesting. There’s a lot of language that we pull out of business because business is so dominant and I think it’s important that we keep the theatre-ness in theatre. It’s that thing of acknowledging that we are the night people, that’s when theatre happens. It just does. But how do we take the concerns but how do we make it for theatre’s world and how do we explain it to the rest of the world. Take from the bigger community concerns but actually put it into theatre world. For example with actors who have kids we make sure the actors know we are an emergency network. We’re a big company and someone can come in and babysit for a couple of hours if they’re stuck. It’s not a service. It’s just one of the ways to support them to make sure the show goes on. Yes I can take the kids, yes I have working with children clearance, no it’s not a formal thing, it’s a person thing. If you try to make it formal it becomes really hard but if you keep it a human conversation it’s easier. Letting it be in the history of how theatre has always functioned.

 

M:

It’s another flexibility.

 

L:

Yeah, we’re a small group. We’re more like a family than a company.

 

M:

The other thing I’m curious about is if you’ve been following the news about Emma Rice this week?

 

L:

Oh my god. No matter how shit my week’s been she’s having a shitter one. I can’t imagine the rage in her. I hope they have to pay her an enormous amount to be pleasant about it and I hope that they’re beginning to realise how stupid they’re being. The only thing I can think of it’s come back to a couple of donors. Who have gone “No we don’t want this tech and we will remove our money”. And given the stability of where money comes from at the moment, if you lose a couple of backers in the current environment it’s very bad. But the lack of responsibility in the board of protecting the artist they have hired is just reprehensible. You take on someone and you take on their artistic practice. She will be fine. She has all of those markers that point to the fact that it has nothing to do with her success on an audience level. There’s just a lack of care for the artist at the centre of that enterprise. Take care of that person. She’s putting herself and her work out on a limb for you. The artistic damage that does- if she had been failing badly that would be one thing- but she was experimenting successfully. They cut the conversation short. I saw her Midsummer screened and looking at the joy in that production, how drawn into the world the audience were, it was incredible. When you talk about breaking open theatre experience to let more people in, accessibility and diversity. She was doing it so well! When you’ve got someone right in the heart of that who’s putting in the work step by step – there’s no magic bullet – that’s special. And that’s what they have turned their backs on. The person who was doing that for them. It’s just wrong. She will be fine. She’s probably the most famous director in the world this week. Even so, to be doing so well, with all of the inherent worry and fear of running a company, she was blindsided. To have them say “for whatever reason we’re going to have to do this” that would just be devastating. Publicly she’s been incredibly gracious. I hope she’s got enough to buy a really nice house out of this. There’s something deeply threatening to the same model of thinking that’s resulted in Brexit.

 

M:

It’s a museum. And the idea of bringing in so much new thinking and creativity with her programming and approach was too much maybe.

 

L:

Yes. It’s deeply threatening. It’s a piece of territory that is owned by a certain group. It’s the heart of dead old white man.

 

M:

It’s a classic territory. You’re taking history and cracking it open. It’s kind of lovely that it’s been so forcibly taken back. Things are getting quite exciting. There’s a writer, in his 40s here and he’s just so angry that the world as he knows it is being taken away. Someone called his work “ a cry from the crumbling heart of the old male patriarchy”. He’s not quite smart to know that that’s what’s happening and his anger is so hard to deal with. I know what it is but I can’t say it to him. He’s going to have to figure his own way. It’s similar to some of the older female writers who only write from rage and it’s not that interesting. It’s an anger of seeing that the next thirty years are going to be awesome but you’re old now and you missed it. It’s that feeling of thinking “I wish I were 30 now” but you’re not and there’s no way of making that up. So their rage speaks to a particular generation but it doesn’t cross the generations.

 

M:

Where do the female voices sit now though?

 

L:

I think the strongest voices are the ones that stay in conversation. Putting yourself in that situation and surviving makes them so strong. Q&A which is a programme on ABC has a really hard time getting women to go on the panels because they have so little experience of being in there and speaking and failing and going again. I know a few people who have been asked to go on it and have just said “nah, not ready”. There’s been a couple of friends who have been on it and have found it so full on. It’s usually a mix of politicians and public speakers and sometimes someone fromt the creative industry. It’s almost always about politics though, and people from that world are used to that, and being in the cut and thrust of that. The people in the arts world don’t fight quite so much. That combative thing is less applicable. The way we fight is through story, not through debate. The differnce between making a work about something and the slowness of that process, and the quickness of debate. Your voice in saying something and committing to it, owning it, letting it come out of your body, it’s hard! To own the backlash of what you say, no matter what you’re trying to say you’re going to face people who disagree.

 

M:

It’s so true. It’s like those debate panels are trying to create a truth, to wring it out of words. But the process of making art is a process of questioning, trying to find truth, not trying to fashion it out of anything.

 

L:

We’re trying to ask a lot of questions to provoke an answer within the audience.

 

M:

How much of your experience and time in New York do you still feel in the fabric of how you work and think?

 

L:

A huge amount. In that thing of relativity. Knowing what we’re not doing. Loving American work as a tool, there are provocations that are useful in the bigger converstion about what we’re making here. We can’t ever own them. It’s about the rest of the world and they’re useful in that you’re not subject to the accusation in the play because it’s happening over there. But you’re not caught in the headlights, you can maybe see it within your own life without the implication of your complicity.

 

 

 

 

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