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  • Kate Gaul

An Unforgivably Brief History of Australian Theatre online 2022



Dr Robert Reid – A.K.A Dr Rob - is a writer, director, critic, historian, and game designer; Artistic Director and founder of Theatre in Decay and the Australian live games company Pop Up Playground; co-editor and co-founder of Witness Performance with Alison Croggon and Rob’s current critiques and interviews can now be found on the YouTube channel, Television is Furniture.


Robert Reid’s plays “The Joy of Text” and “On The Production of Monsters”, were produced by MTC; “The New Black” shortlisted for the Kit Denton Award, presented at the PWA National Play Festival and workshopped by the High Tide Festival in the UK; “Portraits of Modern Evil” shortlisted for both the Wal Cherry Award and Griffin Award and produced by Black Swan; “Eating Alone” also shortlisted for a Griffin Award; Rob received the R.E. Ross Trust Playwright Development Award for the play “A Mile in her Shadow” …. There is a bunch of other stuff too – but you get the picture, right? – Dr Rob knows his way around a theatre. He’s an academic (hence the Dr in the title) and Australian theatre historian. He’d done the work. He has an opinion, and a great sense of humour.


And now this, a performance lecture – “An Unforgivably Brief History of Australian Theatre”: Aussie theatre from pre-invasion to now for the theatre buff and novice alike. Best described as an eccentric production – fittingly presented - at Carlton’s historic and recently re-built La Mama theatre. I caught this in Sydney on a live stream from the theatre. All hail digital technology and its impact on post-pandemic performance!


The solo show is delivered from a laptop behind a lectern. A paper paste-up becomes a projection screen for a PowerPoint of photos, phrases, and witty remarks; a guitar propped nearby suggests that we may get a musical number! The audience is an informed, in-the-know lot - judging from the recognition laughter at topical references and the odd theatre joke. As delightful, are the responses to things learnt and a feeling that Dr Rob’s lecture is joining the dots, unearthing historical and theatrical treasure in same measure.


He talks fast – there’s no time to lose in 90 minutes. Previously omitted and unknown facts, names, theatrical triumphs and disasters are ebulliently revealed inside the eras of Australian theatre history according to Dr. Rob:


1. First Nations – pre-colonisation

2. Convict – from behind bars to the boards - performance by convicts

3. Actor Manager – theatres are built. Huzzah!

4. Professional Commercial – JC Williamson et al.

5. Government subsidised – where we are now (and where to next?)

You (like me) may not have delved into or even thought much about the first two categories – pre-colonisation First Nations and Convict: histories squashed or lost. Startling stories give way to the evolution of theatre based on the imported English model. Australian Theatre as we know it had not an easy birth!


In 90 minutes, Dr Rob wittily dances on the surface of history. As he gets closer to our times the focus becomes more Melbourne-centric. Dr Rob apologises for omitting anything west or north of Melbourne (and parts of Sydney). He offers more than once to tailor the show to your town, region, state, or territory should you send the invite!!


The freight train of history is moving fast. The first wave, the foundation of NIDA, the Australia Council, and the glory of significant government funding across Australia; the second wave; a nostalgic walk down memory lane - but no time to mourn the passing of companies such as Anthill. We swing past the surfacing of vital independent theatre, Australia on the world stage, the emergence of contemporary indigenous and diverse women’s voices – all windows into what we have achieved and stand to lose as this production reaches its conclusion: our decimated industry in the wake of savage funding cuts (thanks Brandis and your raid on Australia Council funds!), and closed theatres for almost two years of the Pandemic. From my own practitioner’s point of view we are in a world with ever increasing conservatism in mainstream programming, diminishing opportunities to produce independent work, the disappearance of performance spaces, the closure of institutions and the slow wheel of change when it comes to inclusion - I fear the show will end in a dark bitch-fest.


But hey, there isn’t time for a deep analysis of where we might be heading. Dr Rob has lifted his eyebrow at the well-meaning colonialists who believed Australia wasn’t a place that needed theatre through to a poke at po-faced postmodernists. Dr Rob picks up that guitar and ends with a rendition of “The Light on the Hill” from Keating (the musical). Ever the optimist.


An inclusive and wide-ranging conversation followed in the form of a post-show Q & A. Sitting atop a milk crate on the resonant La Mama stage I wondered was there an end to Dr Rob’s knowledge, generosity, and belief? Seriously, this show has everything a theatre nerd could want!!!


Hopefully, coming soon to a town near you.


Written, directed, and performed by Robert Reid

La Mama HQ, Carlton Victoria

Livestream Friday Feb 18, 2022


Kate Gaul



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