Australian Theatre Forum: What’s this innovation thing about, anyway?

by Jane

Innovation.  It’s a curious beast, isn’t it?  It seems to have become the catch-all cry for something “different” in theatre.  In Adelaide there is an interesting relationship to the word in relationship to the arts, because the Adelaide Critics Circle Awards presents the Independent Arts Foundation Award for Innovation.

Last year, the nominees were:

• Steve Sheehan, Stevl Shefn and His Translator Fatima
• The Border Project/Sydney Theatre Company, vs Macbeth
• Brink Productions, Harbinger

 Of which wouldn’t define any as being particularly innovative, which, to play the dictionary game, my computer tells me is “featuring new methods, advanced and original; introducing new ideas; original and creative in thinking”.   So I’m certainly in the call of people to stop using the word innovative.  Facilitated by Janenne Willis (Undercurrent/Next Wave), the Ideas In Motion panel put to four respondents:

 Are we thinking for innovation? Or are our organisations and practices entrenching old habits? What do we need to hold onto and what do we need to leave behind to negotiate our ever- evolving worlds?

Janenne introduced us with the story of the four-minute mile: it was once seen as an impossible barrier, no man could possibly run that fast.  When it was broken once, it was broken again, and again, and again in quick succession. What barriers are real, and what barriers are perceived?

Four different speakers from four different backgrounds, and what you are going to get are four different responses to the questions.  But what was a striking similarity from all panellists was: in order to look to the future, to create work that is innovative in a modern Australian context, and to create work which can look into the future we need to look into our past.

Alison Croggon told us “the new is only recognisable in knowing what is old”; Amitesh Grover spoke of theatre that is happening in India where “the past is made to talk with the presence, and look into the future”; Cathy Hunt asked us to look towards the UK, how funding has being affected, and what we can take from this in our healthier finical climate; Sandra Phillips spoke of Indigenous authors, and bodies of works which took years to create.

As someone who never studied theatre post high school (and so probably never had a proper chance to hate this): I have found self-study of Australian theatre history (and greater theatre history) incredibly important.  And getting back to the idea of innovation (although all four panellists really sprung off this topic in different ways): how do you know if you’re original if you don’t know what came before you?

In the Rest Area at Metro Arts on Sunday talking about critics, someone said one of the best roles theatre critics can have is to tell you “ah yes, you’re doing the same work which such and such made in the 70s.”  I’m clearly nowhere near that stage, but I love critics that have the ability to frame work and artists within a broader context, and then pass that knowledge on.

Looking to the future, Alison said, “Resources in every direction are under critical pressures.  One resource is infinite, and that’s our imagination.”; Amitesh looked at a state of theatre where “innovation is not just in front of us, it is between us.”  Cathy questioned if “we as a sector are as resilient as we need to be to challenge what is coming to us in the future”, and Sandra wants us to find a more diverse Australia on screens (and on stage): “the Australian imagination needs some reimagining.”

Rather than innovation, perhaps all we need to ask for is imagination: as simple and complex as whatever than word means.

For more on the Australian Theatre Forum, follow #ATF_2011 and my excessive micro-blogging on twitter, and read the blogs of Augusta Supple and Cameron Woodhead.