You are forgiven for not knowing that Next Wave — Melbourne’s biennial festival of new and edgy performance/art — has just finished. Chances are, you didn’t attend any of the shows. In all truth, it doesn’t matter. You didn’t miss anything.

Look, the emperor has no clothes, and yet the press keeps quiet, and regurgitates the same PR paroles over and over: ‘its great theme is risk’, ‘300 artists’, all incredible diverse/talented/accomplished/brave. In truth, I have been seeing, over and over, theatre shows underdone, underdeveloped, under-accomplished, and at times even, how to say… unnecessary. Shows where I wonder if anyone couldn’t have just stayed at home, doing their washing or some other more worthwhile pursuit. (I will refrain from naming names here; I don’t see the point.)

Some shows I have seen had a good initial idea, but looked like they had neither the time nor the creative input to develop them into meaningful theatre. (Here I ought to mention My Darling Patricia’s Hole in the Wall, which left me with a rare feeling of exuberant irritation: brilliant staging ideas were camouflaging a theatre that had nothing to say.)

Some shows, on the other hand, were accomplished — but the most accomplished were inevitably producing the same old, same old theatre we have been seeing in Australia for years. The highlights of this festival of the ’emerging’, the ‘risky’ and the ‘new’ were shows like Urban Theatre Projects’ The Folding Wife, or Matthew Day’s Thousands — and both, despite being reasonably mediatic and conceptual, were essentially working with ideas that have already been explored quite well. The best shows in the festival were traditional, in other words. What made them stand out was their proficient execution. They clearly had something to say.

My problem is not the treatment of animals, nor am I averse to experimentation. Quite the opposite. I have been following new forms of theatre for years, here and overseas, with great interest. Of my favourite theatre pieces in 2009, one was eight hours of Shakespeare mash-up, and the other had no set, no performers, no stage and an audience of one.

But the overall quality of experiment in Next Wave, a festival that bases its identity on its daringness, was disconcertingly low. What we saw, instead of innovation, was lack of experience: we saw young artists turn half-baked ideas into half-hearted productions. I regularly see more exciting theatre in the Melbourne Fringe festival. Yes, Fringe is much bigger, but it also prides itself on its lack of curatorial policy. Next Wave is quite literally run by curators, yet it seems to produce mainly a lot of fumbling in the dark.

The main problem is that someone hasn’t grasped that there is a difference between breaking new ground, or producing theatre that challenges theatre-so-far, and just any work done by inexperienced artists. The first can be done by artists of any age, and any amount of experience. The second, on the other hand, won’t necessarily be any more challenging or innovative just because it was made by a 19-year-old with no formal training. It may be so, but it may also be simply made without skill, craft, or awareness of the history of theatre.

And this, in fact, is what we have been seeing: works that are repeats. After seeing young artists invent the wheel evening after evening, before the audience made out of their family and friends, one occasionally feels the terrible need to interrupt the celebration screaming: don’t you realise this was first done in 1970? And better? Do you know why you’re doing this? Is it just to use the last technology at hand? Should you perhaps go away for three years and think about what your question really is?

As an example, we have now seen theatre that incorporates text messaging. (No Twitter yet, but I’m sure it won’t be missing from the next festival.) With what result? An event that could have been done by using slips of paper instead, and equally well. On the horizon, there seemed to be a vague hint of using text messaging to interrogate questions of collective and individual responsibility, of interaction and closeness, but it remained the vaguest hint.

At core, it is a misapplication of resources, also known as the ‘Hot Young Thing Ballistic Arts Program’ (copyright Lyn Wallis): identify a hot new artist, shower them with praise, money and exposure, but without teaching them a single thing (including humility in front of what they don’t know), without applying meaningful criticism, without ever giving them enough time to turn from emerging artists into mature artists. As Wallis notes, with all our enthusiasm to recognise them while young, we might be “trampling our prodigies to death in the process”.

There is excellent, innovative and courageous theatre in Melbourne, but most of it is too decent and self-respectful to wave a banner of cutting-edge in the same blatant way. I believe in experimentation, but I also worry that events like this year’s Next Wave give experimentation a bad name. What’s more, it teaches young artists that there is nothing there to learn. To break new ground, you just need to be young and unskilled.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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