When a student complained about being “forced” to appear naked on stage, all hell broke loose. Flinders University academic and theatremaker Julian Meyrick peels back the madness to find the truth.
One moment you’re in the staff room wondering about that doughnut with your name on it, the next you’re in front of a bristle of television cameras fielding questions about your teaching, your values and your integrity.
There’s a reason it’s called a “media storm”, and, being caught up in one, you appreciate the aptness of the metaphor. Sense goes south as a range of ancillary concerns break off the original issue and run away with a life of their own. People phone up to hurl abuse, others to stiffen your resolve. Things get madder and madder. You find yourself defending what once happened, what might have happened, what could happen. You reach an Alice in Wonderland moment. In my case in the bathroom, toothbrush in hand, trying to remember if David Williamson’s Don’s Party, one of the most venerable plays in the Australian repertoire, has nudity in it. Could have nudity in it. Could be made to have nudity in it by a determined director.
Two weeks ago an anonymous complaint was made by the mother of one of the acting students in the first year drama program at Flinders University. Its substance was that her daughter felt pressured into appearing naked on stage through fear of losing the lead role for which she was being considered. Because the complaint was made in the media it was subject to the law of conjectural acceleration I have just outlined, quickly detaching itself from the facts and becoming an orgy of “somebody-told-mes” and “I-heard-the-same-things”. All anonymous, of course.
Flinders drama department was subject to a horrible and outrageous series of prurient allegations: that we coerce students into performing nude, especially the female ones; that we hold sex simulation classes in which they adopt a variety of positions and pretend to enjoy these; that we put on “depressing” plays that are an affront to good education and good taste.
As the latter includes Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths, Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening and a version of Euripides’ anti-war polemic The Trojan Women, all one can say is that the theatre reflects the world and the world is sometimes a gloomy place.
Flinders, as one of the oldest, most highly regarded drama programs in the country, stages a representative selection from the canon, and students make of it what they do. Some of these playwrights have been around a long time — in the case of Euripides for 2500 years.
The truth is that out of the 15 plays the department has staged in the last 18 months, three have involved fleeting glances of the unclothed human body: A Mouthful of Birds (topless female actor), Punk Rock (male costume change on stage) and Trojan Barbie (female actor in unbuttoned army tunic with no bra underneath). This is conservative even by conservative standards. In the profession, nudity is a common occurrence, and that this should be reflected in actor training programs is entirely appropriate. Any drama course equipping students with the skills they need to survive must strike a balance between a need to nurture and the need to build resilience, to acquaint them with the realities of a tough and demanding job.
It is possible to challenge this, of course, to ask whether the sexualisation of our society has gone too far; whether the theatre, often the front line in censorship battles, needs to re-examine its acceptance of contemporary mores. But making an anonymous complaint on radio — one embraced not only by the media but by three senior SA politicians — practically guarantees the issue will be treated in a gratuitous and ineffective way (most disgracefully in the pages of The Australian), a jumble of half-truths and no-truths that fatally confuse wider debate. Proportion goes out of the window, along with justice and reality.
“Acting isn’t parquetry, and learning to be an actor is an emotionally charged journey, full of ups and downs.”
From a university point of view, when student wellbeing is at stake, there is nothing else to discuss anyway. All the focus is on the student, their situation and feelings — what they might be going through. Acting isn’t parquetry, and learning to be an actor is an emotionally charged journey, full of ups and downs. That students feel under the pump from time to time is inevitable. The thing is to respond appropriately, to manage the situation sympathetically. Again, this was something the media storm scotched from the moment it started.
Blaming the media is pointless. For them, to borrow a line from the film The Godfather, it’s just business. But there are losers from the resulting turmoil. The first is the student herself. Don’s Party, like many of the department’s plays, has a number of larger roles in it and students are free under certain circumstances — a nudity requirement would be one of them — to refuse a part and take one of equal merit. No one is forced to perform a role, and there is room to negotiate the casting of most productions. But how can this happen when the atmosphere has been poisoned in the worst possible way? How can a student then step forward and have a reasonable conversation about her reasonable concerns?
A second loser is the university. It is unlikely that a furore of this nature will affect enrolments into the drama department directly. Stoushes over matters of principle have defined the discipline since the beginning, and controversy is the handmaiden of art. But the university itself has been wounded in a low way, and there is very little, beyond reviewing guidelines and procedures, it can do in response.
But this takes us to the real loser in all this: Adelaide. Talking with friends and colleagues interstate — and the phone calls and the emails have not stopped coming — it is invariably the same response: “that’s Adelaide”. Meaning, it’s a narrow, moralistic town, where Alan Seymour’s One Day of the Year was once refused production and Bobby Helpmann was spat on in the street for wearing suede shoes.
Having lived in Adelaide a year now, my view is the opposite. It’s an open, dynamic city with a rich and varied population and life. Culturally, it boxes well above its weight and Flinders drama department is one of the drivers of that, churning out a stream of successful actors, directors and writers, among them the current artistic director of the State Theatre Company, the CEO of the Festival Centre, and the last winner of the Patrick White Playwright Award.
Flinders is one of South Australia’s best assets. It is not beyond criticism — who is? — but it did not deserve trashing in a cruel and careless way. This kind of brouhaha, built on nothing and going nowhere, is a retrograde step, and whoever advised the student’s mother to go to the media in the first place did a disservice not only to her daughter and the university, but to the city and the state as well.
*Julian Meyrick is strategic professor of creative arts at Flinders University and was formerly associate director and literary manager at Melbourne Theatre Company for six years. This article was first published at InDaily.