About last week … May 7-13

Last week there was only one story …

Berlin has a population of about 3.5 million. Its three opera companies – Deutsche Oper Belin, Deutsche Staatsoper and Komische Oper – are funded quite well by the city. In 2014/2015 the combined subsidy was €123,481,000. (The German Government throws the Staatsoper a bit extra as well.) At today’s exchange rate that is $191,628,000. Yes – not that far off $200 million. For the opera companies alone. No wonder Barrie Kosky, Intendant of the Komische since 2012, isn’t interested in coming home to Australia.

I am very aware it can be a mug’s game trying to compare one place with another when it comes to culture. There are significant historical and social differences in play. Nevertheless, there are clues as to how a country – or city – values the arts when one looks at the amount of money it is prepared to spend to support it.

Obviously I’ve been thinking about this in light of last week’s funding announcement by the Australia Council, in which more than 60 previously funded small- to medium-sized organisations lost their annual support. The OzCo isn’t the only source of funding for Australian arts organisations but for many companies it is a crucial component, giving a solid base for multi-year planning in a way that project grants, sponsorship and philanthropy, no matter how necessary, cannot.

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A dancer flies in Puncture, a production between Legs on the Wall, FORM Dance Projects and VOX – Sydney Philharmonia Choirs for the 2015 Sydney Festival. Photo: Prudence Upton

While it’s true that no organisation can necessarily expect to receive government funding forever and that newer organisations have a right to expect they have a chance of getting support, the derisory amount of government funding for the arts means there has been a brutal throwing overboard of fine artists to make way for the new. What kind of mad thinking is that? That Force Majeure, Legs on the Wall, Brink Productions, KAGE Physical Theatre, Theatre Works and Slingsby among many more have been abandoned. And then, with the hideous logic that seems to prevail in such circumstances, if they go under without this funding it will prove they weren’t good enough to get it in the first place.

The OzCo has an annual $28 million to allocate to the small- to medium-sized sector over the next four years and has divvied that up between 128 organisations. About half the applicants (262 in total) were unsuccessful. Overall the OzCo has a budget of a bit less than $200 million a year. Yes, the same amount three opera companies share in Berlin (population 3.5 million). Over the past couple of years money has been given to the OzCo and then taken away – never a recipe for stability and certainty. Overall there is a bit more federal government funding for it to disburse. But while every dollar is precious to a small organisation (the larger ones are shielded from cuts – at the moment) the amount is, as I say, derisory.

As has been noted by many, the economic impact of the creative industries is far greater than the investment – read David Berthold’s excellent analysis on his blog Carving in Snow – even if artists shrink from putting hard numbers on their work. Nevertheless, these figures have to be hauled out: if politicians fail to understand the intrinsic value of art itself to a society then the economic argument must be brought into play.

Let’s remember that according to a Deloitte Economics study released when the Sydney Opera House celebrated its 40th anniversary, the Opera House contributed $775 million annually to the Australian economy. By the way, let’s also remember that 60 years ago this year, then NSW premier Joe Cahill called a committee to discuss the establishment of an opera house in Sydney. He said: “This State cannot go on without proper facilities for the expression of talent and the staging of the highest forms of artistic entertainment which add grace and charm to living and which help to develop and mould a better, more enlightened community …” That was leadership, at a time when there were quite a few people who thought the last thing Australia needed was an opera house.

Ah, leadership. In his commentary, Limelight editor Clive Paget writes that the arts needs champions. Indeed so. Wesley Enoch, quoted in a Limelight piece by Maxim Boon, gets trenchantly to the point when he says: “This is not the week the Arts died in this country. This is a week we will look back on and say it was the week we found our voice. It is the week we stepped up not down.”

A great deal has been written over the past few days, including Alison Croggon’s valuable longer-view piece for The Monthly. (It would be interesting to know, wouldn’t it, how much money has evaporated in the process of chopping and changing the funding process.) There was a strong and important statement from CAST – the Confederation of State Theatre Companies – that stressed the interconnectedness of the arts ecology and offered tangible backing: “Funding cuts at any level of the arts sector have a dramatic flow on effect throughout the industry – from independent artists to the major performing arts companies. In this sudden climate of uncertainty and upheaval amongst the sector, CAST is committed to supporting artists and small to medium companies to help sustain their future and that of Australia’s vibrant cultural landscape.”

AMPAG, the Australian Major Performing Arts Group, said: “Key small and medium arts organisations should not just rise and fall as projects allow. We value their capacity to keep their doors open, to experiment and develop new works to nurture artists and to facilitate collaborations over the longer term.” It also noted that many leaders in the major organisations emerged from the smaller ones. It didn’t specifically offer practical assistance to those smaller organisations. It needs to. If the larger arts organisations fail to help the smaller ones they laud so highly, how can they expect others to care?

As Enoch says, it’s time to step up. The majors have clout. They need to use it. And so do we all.

The festive season

THE last crumbs of Christmas cake have scarcely been brushed from the lips, the last Champagne bottles are not yet in the recycling bin and New Year’s resolutions are still full of shiny potential. ‘Tis the season for rest, recreation, family and friends. Or, for those of us whose calendars are ruled not by the earth’s rotation or religious observance but by cultural activity, it’s festival time.

And I don’t just mean in my hometown Sydney, where the annual festival – this year celebrating its 40th birthday – starts on January 7 and runs until Australia Day. The Perth International Arts Festival, with new artistic director Wendy Martin at the helm, starts on February 12 and goes into early March, overlapping with the Adelaide Festival, starting on February 26 and ending March 14.

I include the New Zealand Festival too – February 26-March 20 – because it’s about as easy for an east coast resident to get to Wellington as Perth (less flying time; more queuing for airport security).

That’s the first quarter of the year accounted for, right there.

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Paul White in Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch’s Nelken, to be performed at the Adelaide Festival. Photo: Alexandros Sarakasidis

There is, of course, a great deal of non-festival activity in every big Australian city. In Sydney, for instance, Sydney Theatre Company ran King Lear through the Christmas period and it closes on January 9. Belvoir opened Jasper Jones today, January 6, Melbourne Theatre Company hosts the transfer of Queensland Theatre Company’s new musical Ladies in Black from January 16 and so on. These companies provide year-round nourishment but the festival experience is something else: concentrated, distinctive and heightened.

Yes, there can be an element of déjà vu as old favourites return (I’m thinking Batsheva Dance Company, choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkoui and director Robert Wilson, for instance) but there are, almost by definition, performances and performers one would never otherwise see: The Giants in Perth last year and the Berliner Ensemble with The Threepenny Opera in 2013; Nature Theatre of Oklahoma’s Life and Times: Episodes 1-4 (2013) and the heart-stoppingly wonderful Trisha Brown retrospective (2014) in Melbourne; and Semele Walk (2013) and The Black Rider (2005) in Sydney to name very, very few.

Go further back and there’s Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota, which I saw in Perth but it also went to Adelaide, in 1998, and in the same year Belvoir’s theatrical adaptation of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet (Sydney and Perth). All these things are big and mostly far-from-mainstream events that wouldn’t be likely to happen outside a festival. In 2016 the equivalents are Thalia Theater Hamburg’s Woyzeck in Sydney (Robert Wilson is a co-creator), William Kentridge’s Refuse the Hour in Perth and Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch and The James Plays Trilogy in Adelaide.

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Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Fase, to be performed at the Sydney Festival. Photo: Anne Van Aerschot

The very small equally finds a festival footing. Leafing through some old programs I am reminded that in 2006 About an Hour, the powerfully affecting and effective (and very affordable) mini-festival within the Sydney Festival was deliciously devoted to contemporary dance from Australia and abroad, although there was one ring-in in the form of The Tiger Lillies, the anarchic British punk cabaret outfit who, as it happens, return to Sydney this year.

Events whack up against one another in fruitful or clashing combinations. There’s something about a festival that encourages viewers to take risks – risks our hometown arts organisations might perhaps eye a little enviously. But one has to remember that the festival material brought in from abroad comes to us well-honed, sometimes over years, and has survived the brutal winnowing process all new work goes through. So in some ways it’s not at all risky while having the potential to broaden the experience and perspective of viewers.

On a pragmatic level, this first-quarter cluster of festivals enables some sharing of events, although there are fewer double-ups than you might think. The cities are far-flung enough that only the truly dedicated audience member will travel to each, but are sufficiently in the same neck of the woods for an international artist wanting to maximise travel time. This year Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, The Tiger Lillies, theatre pieces The Object Lesson, The Events and Every Brilliant Thing, circus spectacular La Verità and new cabaret show Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid will be seen in more than one festival city. Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs! was seen in several (non-festival) Australian cities leading up to the Sydney appearances.

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The Tiger Lillies Perform Hamlet, Perth International Arts Festival. Photo: Martin Tulinius

A comparison of programs reveals some very tempting changes of repertoire in two cases. For instance, in Sydney The Tiger Lillies gives us The Very Worst of the Tiger Lillies while Perth is treated to The Tiger Lillies Perform Hamlet, a mind-boggling prospect. I don’t think I can get to it unfortunately, which is a huge, huge regret.

I will, though, move heaven, earth and frequent flyer points to get to Wellington for Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch where, from March 17-20, the company performs a double bill of Café Muller and The Rite of Spring. Bausch’s Rite is considered one of the very best of the more than 100 (and counting) choreographies to one of the greatest of dance scores.

But before that, on March 9, the company performs the full-length Nelken (Carnations) in Adelaide. As a bonus, it offer the rare chance to see one of Australia’s most inspiring contemporary dancers, Paul White, who has been a member of the company since 2012. There are two other Australians with Pina Bausch – Julie Shanahan, a member since 1988, and Michael Carter, who joined last year.

An incomplete list of things I’d like to see, in no particular order:

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch (Adelaide, Wellington)

Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs! (Sydney)

Alan Cumminh Sappy

Actor and singer Alan Cumming 

Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid (Sydney and Perth festivals; also Melbourne and Auckland)

Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich and Vortex Temporum (Sydney)

Woyzeck (Sydney)

The Rabbits (Sydney; premiered in Perth in 2015)

The Tiger Lillies (Sydney, Perth)

The James Plays Trilogy (Adelaide)

Apocrifu, by Sidi Larbi Cherkoui

Every Brilliant Thing (Perth, Wellington)

Simon Stone and Belvoir’s The Wild Duck (Perth

Grey Gardens, with special reference to women in theatre

Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre, Seymour Centre, Sydney, November 20.

On Monday night I went to an inspiring meeting in Sydney organised by Women in Theatre and Screen – WITS – to discuss gender inequity in the arts and to plan a positive, sensible, achievable course of action. One of the greatest truths spoken was that discrimination against women can be so entrenched as to be virtually invisible.

Women are the primary decision-makers in buying theatre tickets, so why hasn’t the audience risen up and demanded greater visibility for women and their experiences? I was reminded of a conundrum posed to me when I was very young. It was probably in the late 1950s, and went something like this: A boy is badly injured, taken by his father to the hospital, and raced into surgery. The doctor emerges from the operating theatre and says: “I’ve saved my son.” This was a real head-scratcher. The father had brought his son to the hospital; how could he also have done the operation? The answer, of course, was that the surgeon was a woman. But it took a lot of cogitation in those days to come up with that solution. Surgeon. Woman. Gee, that doesn’t compute.

In Ireland there’s a similar push for visibility for women theatre-makers, hastened by the Abbey Theatre’s 2016 program announcement. The season is called Waking the Nation but half the nation wasn’t getting much of a look in. There was only one play by a woman and of the 10 directors, three are women. Enter the campaign Waking the Feminists.

The Abbey’s artistic director Fiach Mac Conghail didn’t get off to a brillilant start in reply to the outcry, Tweeting: “I don’t and haven’t programmed plays or productions on a gender basis. I took decisions based on who I admired and wanted to work with.” Who was admired? Who did Mac Conghail mostly want to work with? Mostly people like himself, it appeared. Men. Mac Conghail quickly retreated, realising how breathtakingly dismissive he sounded and the Abbey has acknowledged it has some work to do.

Sometimes it takes a lot of agitation, as well as cogitation, to change things.

As it happens, in the past couple of weeks I have seen three productions – all musicals – in which women have been central figures, the ones that drive the action. Visible. That doesn’t mean the problem is solved, of course. It’s like saying if there are one or two women on a company board everyone should think everything is just dandy. It was, however, a wonderful alignment of the stars.

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Maggie Blinco and Beth Daly in Grey Gardens. Photo: Michael Francis

The musical Matilda has a pint-sized heroine who is brainy, gutsy and hugely imaginative; Queensland Theatre Company’s new musical Ladies in Black, based on the Madeleine St John novel with a book by Carolyn Burns and music by Tim Finn, has an overwhelmingly female cast and is set in the frock department of a big store; and Grey Gardens dares to be about two very difficult women –and what a no-no that is generally thought to be.

I’ve written about Matilda here and will write next week on Ladies in Black (both shows will be seen in Melbourne next year). Grey Gardens, which was given its Australian premiere by The Production Company in 2011, is having its first Sydney outing thanks to small independent company Squabbalogic.

When Albert and David Maysles made their celebrated 1975 documentary about former high society fixtures Little Edie Beale and her mother, Big Edie, you could perhaps say the women, performers manqué both, finally got the audience they had so long craved. The fascinating musical based on Grey Gardens suggests another way of looking at it. What happens when ambition, high spirits and individuality are stifled and thwarted?

Photographs of Little Edie show a remarkably beautiful young woman. She was American royalty, one of the well-to-do Beales whose summer home was the East Hamptons mansion Grey Gardens. As a gorgeous, rich, upper-crust gal in the 1930s and 1940s, Little Edie’s trajectory was apparently fixed: go to lots of parties, date eligible men (Howard Hughes and J. Paul Getty were said to be among her beaux), marry well like her mother and stay out of the newspapers.

There was little chance of the last once it was discovered, in the 1970s, that she and Big Edie were living in considerable squalor in their disintegrating house with perhaps 50 cats for company. The connection with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, their cousin and niece, assured wide publicity.

The 2006 musical by Doug Wright (book), Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics) looks to the past not so much for answers to this reversal of fortune as for clues. The set-up is perhaps over-extended but has its charms. In the first half we see a fictional rendering of the lively Beale establishment on an eventful afternoon in 1941, cunningly played in light musical-comedy style. Big Edie is presiding over preparations for a party at which Little Edie’s engagement to Joe Kennedy Jnr is to be announced. You might think Little Edie should be at the heart of proceedings but Big Edie has other ideas, having prepared a list of nine songs and arias she will present as the evening’s entertainment.

Her husband is expected to make a rare appearance, coming from New York by train – cue the jaunty The Five-Fifteen – and already present in the house are two little girls, the bride-to-be’s cousins Jackie (later Kennedy) and Lee (later Radziwill), Big Edie’s great chum George Strong Gould and her father, Major Bouvier. Naturally there’s a servant to answer the telephone, Brooks, who now would be called African-American but then would definitely have just been black.

The unnerving centrepiece of the first act is Big Edie’s undermining of Little Edie’s chances, delivered to Joe Kennedy Jnr as an anecdote supposed to illustrate Little Edie’s vivacity and wide appeal. Is Big Edie monstrous, stupid or self-sabotaging? Spoiling things for Little Edie turns out to be quite the own goal.

The second act leaps forward to 1973 and a situation that seems darkly surreal but is taken directly from the Maysles film. Mother and daughter are now indigent and irrevocably tied to one another, the Vladimir and Estragon of Suffolk County. They are not, however, lacking in wit and resilience as Frankel and Korie’s songs, now emotionally rich, establish.

Big Edie is indeed fantastically vain and controlling but there’s a mad kind of freedom in the way she lives, careless of rules and standards. In her palmier days she knew the rules of the Establishment all right but failed to be compliant enough and paid a big price, as women so frequently do. Big Edie ended up divorced, more or less disinherited and broke; Little Edie couldn’t make much of a splash in the wider world and came home to Grey Gardens and mother.

“It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present,” says Little Edie, a perception underlined by having one actress play Big Edie in the first half and Little Edie in the second. It’s a gift of an opportunity and Beth Daly grabs it avidly for Squabbalogic, playing Big Edie with self-absorption so grand as to be almost admirable and wonderfully capturing Little Edie’s glorious eccentricity and underlying melancholy, although over-egging the woman’s distinctive accent.

It’s also very difficult to depict the glamour and privilege of the Beales’ glory days when you don’t have a bean, which is pretty much the Squabbalogic situation. The company doesn’t usually let that defeat inspiration as productions of Carrie and Man of La Mancha proved. Grey Gardens presents the challenge of conveying the 28-room mansion’s glory days and alas Squabbalogic’s set looks far too cheap and wobbly in Act I before the rot sets in. It’s a big distraction.

Still, there’s a decent band of nine – luxury in these circumstances – led by Hayden Barltrop and director Jay James-Moody has his usual incisive hand at the helm. He has gathered a strong cast, pre-eminently Maggie Blinco in magisterial form as Big Edie in Act II. Caitlin Berry is a glowing first-half Little Edie although it’s difficult to see in her the woman she becomes (not her fault – there’s not enough in the book); Simon McLachlan doubles impressively as Little Edie’s intended groom Joe Kennedy Jnr and helpful teenager Jerry; and Blake Erickson is wryly amusing as Big Edie’s indispensible friend, hanger-on and enabler George Gould Strong.

Big Edie died in 1977, after which Little Edie went to live in Florida. When permission was sought to turn the documentary into a musical, Albert Maysles got in touch with Little Edie. In an interview, Frankel said Little Edie was delighted at the prospect, replying to Maysles: “I am thrilled by what you wrote about the musical g.g! My whole life was music and song! It made up for everything! With all that I didn’t have, my life was joyous!” Little Edie didn’t see the musical. She died in 2002.

Grey Gardens ends December 12.

On reading the draft guidelines for The National Program for Excellence in the Arts

I DO hope I’ve got this right. Senator George Brandis is appropriating about $100 million, give or take, from the Australia Council for the Arts so he can give it to applicants approved directly and personally by himself. It’s what the guidelines say, kind of. The language is not always as direct as one would wish, but the implications are there: “The final amount of any funding and length of funding term will be assessed by the Ministry for the Arts and independent assessors, subject to Program budgetary limits. Recommendations will then be made to the Minister for the Arts.”

The independent assessors will, of course, be selected by the Ministry for the Arts, which doesn’t sound incredibly independent, but perhaps that’s just me. The killer is that final sentence, classically expressed in the passive voice. After the assessments, who exactly makes the recommendations? Can’t tell, although presumably you’re supposed to take it on trust that it’s those members of Senator Brandis’s own ministry and the assessors chosen by that ministry. And then after those recommendations are received by the minister, who makes the final call? One must assume it’s the minister, even though a definite statement on that is delicately omitted.

It’s not a good look. What qualifications does Senator Brandis have, I might ask, to carry out such an important task? What are his arts credentials? What has he seen (when not carrying out his undoubtedly heavy duties as Commonwealth Attorney-General), where has he gone, what has he studied, what are his tastes? What, in short, does George Brandis find excellent? (Or, if he happened to get bored or promoted or rolled or whatever else can happen in politics, his successor?)

It’s possible to find some clues in what is an often vaguely expressed document. (“ … applicants should keep in mind that the program seeks to support projects that deliver national outcomes and deliver a diverse range of quality projects in each of the program streams.” Empty bureaucratic-speak at its finest.) It would appear the Senator thinks the Australia Council has been funding too much arty-farty navel-gazing stuff for his liking. One of the program’s objectives is to “strengthen Australia’s reputation as a sophisticated and artistic nation with a confident, outward-focused arts sector’’. It goes without saying the italics are mine.

Individuals need not apply. (Even if they are really excellent?) They are specifically excluded from the process, those mad experimental teat-sucking wierdos, and so, one assumes, must seek funds from the depleted Australia Council coffers, from whatever is left after all the major organisations have received their untouchable grants.

I particularly like the dot point in the Assessment Criteria under the Quality heading: Relevance and likely appeal to audiences and communities. Who the hell knows what will “likely appeal”? As William Goldman so famously and sagely wrote in his Adventures in the Screen Trade: “Nobody knows anything.” That was in 1983, and it remains true.

I give you The New York Times, May 26, 2015, in which Michael Paulson wrote that while sales and attendance records were set in a bumper season, the resulting bounty was by no means divided equally. Indeed, “about three-quarters of shows fail financially”, and that’s not just in the season just gone. That’s every year. Let’s just say that again. In the most audience-aware, audience-friendly market in the universe, 75 per cent of all shows lose their entire investment. Does an investor set out to lose all that dough? Not likely. No, it’s just that no one knows anything. A musical about Mormons going to spread the word in Africa? A play about an autistic boy? A musical about a lesbian whose father was secretly gay? Who knew that The Book of Mormon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Fun Home would be so excellent? (I can say this definitively because I have seen all three.)

I fear that this likely audience appeal – a criterion repeated under Access as “audience appeal and demand” – means that work that has already proved itself popular will be favoured. But surely something that already possesses audience appeal and demand isn’t so much in need of public funding? Just thinking out loud here.

And on we go. The guidelines make fascinating – if dolorous – reading from the heading onwards. What is this excellence? I go to the theatre constantly and have done so for more than three decades, and see good and often great work at all levels and in many different and often surprising places. Under Senator Brandis’s plan many of the companies responsible for this work will be forced to vie for funds from the reduced Australia Council budget or apply to the NPEA and put themselves at the mercy of one man. This, before any work has had a chance of proving itself in the one place it counts: before an audience.

Culture isn’t neat and tidy, nor should it be. Things will fail. Work will enrage. It will also teach, enlarge, embolden, inspire and alter thinking. It’s just that we can’t tell before the event which things will do what. We have to take the plunge.

In her recent Platform Paper The Arts and the Common Good, published in May, Katharine Brisbane wrote: “No amount of calculation or modelling can guarantee success and it is arrogant of us to claim it.” Senator Brandis proposes to take $100 million-plus of our money – not his money, our money – and dole it out at his sole discretion in the name of some untested vision of excellence, whatever that word means to the minister. Arrogant. Yes, that’s the appropriate word. Arrogant beyond belief.

Submissions to the Senate inquiry into the NPEA closed on Friday but feedback is invited by the Ministry for the Arts until 5pm (AEST) on July 31. You might want to let Senator Brandis know what you think.

nationalexcellenceprogram@arts.gov.au

No such thing as a free lunch?

Volatile personalities, free speech, free tickets and the free language almost obligatory when publishing online – look at me, please!! – tangled at the weekend when a dispute between Opera Australia – always a lightning rod! – and two arts commentators became public. Of course it became public. It seems there are no quiet corners in which private conversations leading to cooler heads and satisfactory resolutions can happen. Read on …

MANY years ago, when arts editor of The Australian, I was invited to Israel to experience aspects of its cultural life. I was part of a large group of journalists from around the world, which was fascinating in itself. There was a young Turkish woman who had never before met a Greek person (the two got on superbly) and a worldly Chinese man whose irreverence on matters political was refreshing and who, if I recall correctly, spoke Arabic. There was the very junior reporter – possibly the Turkish woman – who had to ask at the Jerusalem memorial Yad Vashem what the Holocaust was (she was treated very kindly).

Then there was a representative of The New York Times, who stood out for another reason: at every point at which money had been spent on our group, he required an estimation of what his portion of the cost would have been, even at the most insignificant food stall. His company would pay. The separation of the reporter and the reported-upon was absolute.

The New York Times doesn’t, however, pay for everything. According to its code of ethics, reviewers of “artistic performances” may accept “the press passes or tickets customarily made available”. However, editors or other staff members may not.

So, even the mighty NYT can’t cover the cost of its reviewers’ tickets. Can’t, or won’t. Every news organisation has budget priorities and it appears that in New York, as here, the taking of a free ticket is an acceptable part of doing business. Or – as is the case in Australia – more than one ticket.

Not only is it customary for reviewers here to accept tickets – so do senior managers, editors and writers, not necessarily all of them directly involved in the organisation’s cultural coverage. In the good old days arts organisations’ largesse was sometimes extended to administrative staff. So what? It’s always been this way.

In other words, there is an entrenched and rather touching belief on our part that disinterested media coverage plus freebies doesn’t equal oxymoron. Although it is a far from satisfactory state of affairs the system continues because it is mutually beneficial. Mostly. We media types scarcely think about the fact that, almost always, reviewers are given not one but two tickets so they can bring a friend along to work, and that drinks are almost always laid on at the premiere. What could be regarded as career-ending inducements in other fields of endeavour are part of the landscape. They don’t stop us from writing a swingeing review if we see fit. We trust ourselves, of course we do. It is insulting to suggest anything else. (Which does raise the matter of quis custodiet ipsos custodes, but let’s move on …)

The situation is scarcely remarked upon unless, as happened at the weekend, something happens to disturb the status quo. There was a flare-up involving Opera Australia and the withdrawal of complimentary tickets to writer Diana Simmonds, who has been accustomed to being invited to Sydney performances. She has recently been highly critical about OA on her website. This brought to light a communication between a contributor to The Sydney Morning Herald, Harriet Cunningham, and OA. On December 8 Cunningham wrote an interesting piece of commentary for crikey.com.au’s Daily Review that bore the heading: Why I’m not going to the opera next year. Cunningham also, it appears, is now off the free list.

Not surprisingly, glee erupted on Twitter, and also not surprisingly the argument was essentially that it’s not about the free tickets, it’s about free speech. This is disingenuous. It is, in fact, very much about the free tickets, and about free speech, and about the fact that we yoke the two together.

By the way, OA wasn’t objecting to reviews in this instance. It got hot under the collar about commentary that criticised the company’s direction rather than the merits of a specific production, although a report online in the SMH on Saturday conflated the two. I think it’s important to use language very precisely in these situations.

The word ‘’ban” was bandied about but of course Simmonds and Cunningham are still perfectly free to go to the opera and write what they like about it, just not on OA’s dime. If the SMH needs Cunningham to review OA from time to time (she is the second-string opera critic), it will undoubtedly pony up for a ticket. Fairfax can probably still afford that much. Cunningham is a fine critic who would review fairly what she saw no matter who paid for the seat. (She Tweeted that she would indeed go to the opera no matter what, loving it as she does.)

In the case of Simmonds, she has long written about cultural matters for a variety of mainstream publications. Now she mostly edits and writes for an online site, Stagenoise.com, reviewing and commenting. Could she afford to buy a ticket to every performance she wished to review? I don’t know. Theoretically she can still go, and if her recent attendance at The Magic Flute is a guide she has friends who are happy to take her as their guest. If all else fails there are seats to be bought from $44 (restricted view).

Is it OA’s responsibility to ensure Simmonds, and by extension anyone with a history of arts journalism, can see every opera it stages and they want to see? That’s the box of worms we peer into in this world of proliferating online arts sites . By what right do any of us get on to – and stay on – that wondrous free list?

In the mainstream media world – and who knows how much longer that will survive – there are arts editors between the critic and the organisation to do the selecting. In the age of blogging it’s increasingly common for writers to publish material on cultural matters for no pay, with no commercial backing and with no heavyweight media organisation to exert some muscle for them – or to pay for a ticket if they fall foul of an artistic director. And while it would be pleasant to think companies have nothing but the greater cultural good of the nation in mind, pragmatism would suggest they also want to sell tickets and stay in business, and that they see positive media coverage as part of the deal.

The situation is made murkier by that fact that many (most) critics – including myself – have written advance articles in praise of forthcoming attractions or have undertaken corporate work on behalf of the relevant organisation. I don’t accept commissions about work I’m going to review, but I’m very aware of the conflict nevertheless and of the fine line being drawn. Caesar’s wife and all that.

It’s all very well to cite the maxim attributed to George Orwell that journalism is what people don’t want to see printed; all the rest is advertising. If you take that line, most of us working in this little pond are paid-up members of the arts advertising business. Organisations can’t get enough of these inevitably positive pre-show pieces and freelance writers have to make a living, but we also need to be clear-eyed about the circumstances and the potential for lines to become quite blurred.

OA has its knickers in a twist about giving tickets to people who have stated strong objections to its current direction. Mostly, though, I suspect OA, and specifically its artistic director Lyndon Terracini, object to the tone of the commentary. Simmonds, and to a lesser extent Cunningham, used the robust and colourful language that is the lingua franca of the online environment. It’s more direct and personal – more likely to sting? – than we are used to historically. The language of the mainstream media is still to a large degree more formal, mediated by a greater number (albeit diminishing) number of editors, sub-editors and lawyers.

Possibly OA inferred that poor reviews of upcoming productions would necessarily follow the commentary and reckoned it’s buggered if it’s going to facilitate that but I think the reason is more simple. The bear – Terracini – got poked hard with a sharp stick and roared.

As a result, OA has decided not to aid the enemy. This is a courageous move, in the Sir Humphrey Appleby sense. OA must know that these days there is no way of silencing a voice, no matter how excited people get about what looks like an attempt to do so. Well – the silencing will take place only if critics reckon the only way they will see a show is if OA provides them with a free ticket. Are we really that pathetically hobbled?

It goes without saying OA’s response has been incredibly shortsighted, not the least because it’s always an own goal when the media is taken on. I must say, though, had I been Cunningham I would have expected to be taken off the list for a bit – logic indeed demanded it. A pity about that heading. It was unequivocal. The thing is, Cunningham’s piece was very astute, even if written in a combative tone. Perhaps nothing would have happened, or at least not publicly, if not for a heading that got up on its hind legs and begged OA to reassign Cunningham’s tickets. OA should have resisted. Own goal.

As for Simmonds, well, she has an invigorating turn of phrase and doesn’t mind dishing it out. But is OA breaking a butterfly on a wheel?

I devoutly wish the cost of theatre tickets were considered as necessary a part of media budgets as is trailing after politicians and sending cricket writers around the nation. I wish that the arts were funded so lavishly that opera tickets cost just a few dollars and repertoire could be much, much riskier; that the whole business of cost was irrelevant, leaving only artistic merit to be argued over.

But we don’t live in that world. So we accept the freebies while asserting our independence from what that implies. It doesn’t surprise me at all that every now and then the inherent contradiction gives rise to some fractiousness.

Coming up, Stephen Page and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui

I AM back from London and resuming normal transmission from next week, starting with reviews of Bangarra’s Patyegarang and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Milonga – both, rather vexingly, on at the Sydney Opera House at the very same time. Reports will appear first in The Australian and then at greater length here. You may notice I’ve changed the look – there are so many wonderful images provided by performing arts companies that I’ve decided to showcase them more prominently. Enjoy!

The critics decide …

THE February/March issue of Dance Australia has the magazine’s annual survey of dance during the past year. It takes the temperature nationally by asking critics – 18 this year, of which I am one – to name their best, worst and most promising people and events. It’s always a good read, highlighting artists and events that may not otherwise get much or any attention outside their own city. I travel a lot, and yet it’s impossible to see anything but a small slice of all the work, particularly in the contemporary sphere where seasons may be very short.

The survey is also a good reminder, if one were needed, that critics, like audience members, see things differently. It’s always amusing when outraged readers demand to know if a critic was at the same performance they were at. Well, yes and no. A certain number of people will be in the auditorium at a certain performance but see it in different ways through the lens of individual experience, knowledge, tastes, favoured or not-so-favoured performers and, yes, mood. And we are in a sense all at our own individual performance too – not all sitting in the same seat with the same perspective on the stage, not all directing our attention to exactly the same person or place on the stage at the same instant, hearing the music differently depending on our interests and predilections and so on.

One critic’s highlight can be another’s lowlight, a cause for interest rather than anguish. Unless, of course, you’re the person or company designated someone’s lowlight.

For my 2013 highlight I chose the Bolshoi (seen in Brisbane) because apart from their very individual impact, the company performed as if it didn’t have a care in the world. This was in the middle of the appalling damage done to the Bolshoi’s reputation after the acid attack on artistic director Sergei Filin. I could have chosen Paris Opera Ballet for its sublime season of Giselle in Sydney, but you have to make choices. Or Sylvie Guillem.

Do these superstar visits make it hard for local companies to get a look-in? Not necessarily. Bigger is not always better. But that was my pick for the year. If you want to know about the others you’ll have to buy the magazine …

But here’s a sneak peek:

http://www.danceaustralia.com.au/news/who-were-the-most-outstanding-dancers-of-2013