I believe the internet-appropriate term is EPIC WIN.
This was on top of Friday night's show, which attracted 102 people - including the Burgers Uamada, Moko (with his lovely wife) and Drej (all the way from Broome! Broome, people!), entertainment writer Brett Debritz and some random dude from the ABC. Our merchandise continues to sell well, takings at the bar are plentiful - this show has been an absolute boon to the theatre. Everyone with any significant involvement in the theatre knows it, and my cast and crew are being lauded with appropriate compliments.
Do you sense a "but" marching steadily but surely towards this conversation?
Well, be not afeard. It's actually very amusing - I got my first proper complaint!
I got this in my inbox after Friday night's show:
My companions and I left the Arts Theatre at the interval during the play on Tuesday [editor's note: he means Thursday] wondering what gratuitous obscenity and pornography had to do with Art and Culture. We have been members of the theatre for many years but now must re-consider our support for the sadly perverted production staff who foisted their idiosyncratic concept of culture us. We note that our objection to obscenity, paraded in the guise of culture, seems to be a sentiment shared by many other members of the theatre.
I note that in the ‘On-line Cues’ Natalie feels obliged to commend to us a meeting with the author of the play, I presume to provide him with an opportunity to explain his perverted concept of culture to us. Little man, get educated. Natalie, try and persuade him to read the great literature of the world. Try and help him discover Hemingway, Camus, Satre to name a few, and to reat and local literates like Nick Earle. Natalie. read and educate yourself, find out what language and its power really are. Natalie, your production and your use of 4BC to advertise the obscene diminishes any nascent reputation that you may have had. It is time that you grew up and became educated."
You know sometimes in life, you just have to sit back, accept the honest emotional feedback from others, and feel secure in your own self about your efforts on a particular project, criticism notwithstanding - and just let it go.
This, however, was not one of those times.
I fired off the email to John Birmingham and playwright Squire Bedak (because I know how much they enjoy a laugh), and set about composing a reply. You wanna fight with intellectual art wankery? Come and lay down, my friend:
Thank you for taking the time to email me about your experience at “He Died with a Felafel in His Hand”. I would like to address some of the key points in your email, in the hope that we might foster better communication and understanding among members of the theatre. I, too, am a long-standing member of the BAT (10 years now – that’s more than one-third of my life). It is like a second-home to me – I’m sure you have a similar fondness for the place.
You say you are an active supporter of the theatre; you would know then from the emergency AGM last November and the AGM in March this year just how difficult a financial situation the theatre faces. You would know, I’m sure, of my pledge at that meeting last November to put my all into doing everything I can to help keep the theatre going. Since then, I have organised a highly successful garage and memorabilia sale that raised over $4500 for the theatre. As President of Impro Mafia, the BAT’s resident improvised comedy company, I produced and performed in “Prognosis: Death!”, a show that provided a much-needed cash injection of over $2500 for the theatre. Both events also brought widespread publicity to the theatre’s plight.
I am sorry “He Died with a Felafel in His Hand” was not your cup of tea. I did place a large red banner on the poster (and on all publicity material) that warned “Contains Explicit Content and Adult Themes”. The BAT staff who took bookings regularly let inquirers know about the nature of the show. The book itself has been in print since 1994 – a simple Google search will turn up many reviews, including details of some of its more graphic content.
As far as involving my employer, 4BC: I am relatively well-versed in the area of marketing/demographics, and was well aware that the average 4BC listener is not my target audience member. The two times I have discussed the show on-air were in response to requests from announcers. The first was part of Ian Maurice’s regular Arts/What’s On segment. The second was on Peter Dick’s program, in which he mostly talked about the theatre itself in response to a profile article about me featured in that day’s Courier-Mail. I specifically mentioned during that interview that the current show is probably not one that would appeal to 4BC listeners. But I stressed that it’s important to provide a variety of shows to cater to the entire community.
Here I reach my own key point. The Brisbane Arts Theatre is a theatre for the community. That community includes young people (roughly 20 to 40 years), which is the key demographic for “He Died with a Felafel in His Hand.” This is a section of our community that has been under-represented at the theatre in recent years. The reason why it’s important to cater for this demographic is because they have jobs, and they have large disposable incomes. You will be pleased to know that “Felafel” is attracting an average audience of 70 people per show. At that rate, the show is on track to make $30,000 for the theatre. You have described John Birmingham as uneducated and perverted; I wonder if you might change your mind on hearing that both he and playwright Simon Bedak have not only donated their time to watch the play and speak about it, but are actually donating their share of the rights back to the theatre! They both want it to survive, and that action means most of that $30,000 will stay in the theatre.
John Birmingham certainly does not need me to defend him, but I would like to mention a few things about him to you. He is one of the most widely-read people I have ever met. He is in fact a fan of writers such as Hemingway, whom you mentioned in your email. Like Hemingway, John has used autobiographical details in his novels. Like Hemingway (a noted alcoholic), John has turned his own experiences with drugs into literature. And literature it is – “Felafel” is now commonly found on the reading lists of senior high school and university literature students, along with Brisbane contemporary Nick Earls. Literature is no longer reserved to the “dead white males” of the British imperial era – anything from Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs Dalloway” to Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” to Chuck Palaniuk’s “Fight Club” is studied with the same care as Shakespeare, Milton, Eliot or Tolkien.
You also brought up Jean Paul Satre - the English literature student in me (Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Journalism) finds it amusing to compare “Felafel” to one of his most famous quips. With the manic stream of bizarre and dysfunctional characters featured in our play, it truly embodies the idea that “hell is other people”.
The Brisbane Arts Theatre has been providing entertainment to our River City for 73 years. In order to continue operating for another 73 (and more!) it needs to focus on providing the community around it with the type of shows they want to see. The theatre sits in the electorate of Mt Coot-tha, and 47 per cent of all voters are aged between 18 and 44, and one in five people are between 18 and 24 (www.andrewfrasermp.com). “Felafel” is the kind of show we need to schedule regularly, to ensure our younger audiences are getting an introduction to theatre, and seeing shows they want to see.
Of course, there was never any plan to exclusively perform plays featuring, as you describe it, “gratuitous obscenity and pornography”. As I mentioned earlier, the theatre is for the community, and a range of shows are programmed each year to make sure all demographics are catered for. We have our renowned Children’s Theatre and our popular Seniors for Seniors program. Our next production, “A Hero’s Funeral”, is written by former High Court judge Ian Callinan, and is a family drama that reflects on the life of a former WW2 pilot and cricketer. Later in the year, we will be staging “Man of La Mancha”, a musical for the whole family. October will see “Maskerade”, our latest production of a Terry Pratchett novel adaptation, which always attracts a niche fantasy/comedy literary audience. And our final show is a farce comedy “Funny Money”, which will no doubt put audiences in the Christmas spirit.
Finally, I would put it to you that a theatre is not a “guardian of the public morality”. People are free to choose which shows they attend, and whether the subject matter is “good” or “bad” is completely subjective – just as whether it can be described as “Art” or “Culture” is subjective. I enjoy a lot of modern Art, but don’t particularly like Barnett Newman’s “Adam” at the Tate Modern in London. However, I wouldn’t declare it ‘rubbish’ just because I don’t like it.
I have a talented cast and a dedicated crew who have staged an incredible production that has delighted 99 per cent of people who’ve come along to see it. Surely this is a mark of success. Hopefully the financial boost “Felafel” gives to the theatre is more important than any argument between members over the “moral merits” of such a show. The majority of people are enjoying themselves, enjoying the theatre, buying drinks and merchandise (adding to our profit margin), and most importantly of all, spreading the word about the theatre.
At the end of the day, I do not care for my “nascent reputation”. I care about the Brisbane Arts Theatre, and doing all I can to help keep it going. If I can go to sleep each night, knowing that the theatre is still there, waiting for the next show, the next rehearsal, the next bunch of kids wanting to act, dance, sing and have fun – then that is enough for me.