PWA review: Writers left out in the cold - a reflection by Emilie Collyer / by Dan Giovannoni

As many of you will be aware, on 25 June 2019, Playwriting Australia released an announcement, effectively casting doubt on the future of the organisation. 

The announcement was slipped into a regular eNews that had the winsome title: We're already half-way through the year! Here's what we've been up to this month

Then: An important announcement from the Board of Playwriting Australia. The Board shares on the future of Australian play and playwright development.

The announcement was opaque and took several reads to comprehend, with zingers like this:

“ .. we believe it’s in the best interests of Australian playwriting that we, too, pass the microphone and leave space for something different.”

What are you doing? Passing a microphone? To whom? Is this a euphemism for closing down? Who asked you to ‘leave space for something different’? It sure as hell wasn’t the playwrights whose professional interests you presumably serve. And this:

“In the interests of this renewal, all employment positions in PWA are now redundant.”

So that means you’re closing the organisation down – yes? With no employees there is no organisation. We are reassured that:

“While the Review is undertaken, PWA remains committed to delivering on its existing program for 2019.”

You can read the whole mysterious missive here and a summary of events written by Richard Watts on Arts Hub here.

At no point is there any explanation other than the above vagaries and other platitudes about “taking stock” and “sustainability”. Reading between the lines it looks as though there has been an irreparable rift between the Board and the current staff. Perhaps this is true. And of course if there are issues around confidentiality these must be respected. But it raises serious questions about the organisation’s governance policies and procedures that redundancies, a no doubt expensive review, and shutting up shop is the answer to any problem, whether it’s financial, operational or interpersonal.

The sector came out swinging with strong and often angry public missives from organisations including the Australian Writers Guild, a conglomerate of 22 Australian Artistic Directors of theatre companies and playwriting cooperatives such as Seven On.

In subsequent weeks, further emails from PWA included an update about the review from Richard Evans at REĂ Consulting who said:

“I look forward to engaging with the sector in an examination of how to best develop a healthy and productive Australian playwriting culture.”

The thing is, hundreds of playwrights around Australia already engaged in a feedback and review process with PWA earlier this year when then Artistic Director Lachlan Philpott travelled to every major city and held day-long interactive information sessions about his ideas for the organisation and how it could best serve playwrights. 

The sense that this was a waste of time for all concerned is unavoidable. And now, if we want to contribute, we have to write a submission to the review. This is a huge request of unpaid of labour for playwrights.

We already gave the feedback. We already did this work.

The review consultation paper was released on 8 August with a deadline of 6 September (less time than the 5 weeks originally indicated).

It seemed very odd phrasing for the PWA Board to say they were “pleased to announce” the paper was ready. From what I can gather nobody in the sector asked for the review and see it as a waste of money.

The paper mentions “a period of internal transition and consultation”. What are they are speaking about? The consultation process from earlier this year or something else? What was the consultation process earlier this year for if that info has not been used or considered?

The review calls for submissions from underrepresented voices but the format for submissions is written, the invite is via email, there is a hard deadline. It doesn’t open a broad range of access points for providing submissions. A four week turnaround is very tight, especially for writers who live remotely, have jobs, have disabilities, have families, have other things going in their lives, or have any access issues. Should there not be options for providing verbal and other responses? 

There is a heavy burden on playwrights to advocate, being asked to “please cite examples where appropriate.”

The three questions on the review itself were all discussed at length in the consultation sessions earlier this year. They are pressing questions and seeking responses from playwrights and other theatre industry stakeholders is a perfectly reasonable thing to ask. But not in this way.

I’d say most of in the sector still have no idea what the review is really about. Is making staff redundant and paying for a review really the best way to ascertain financial and operational viability?

The review also comes smack bang in the middle of the current Australia Council 4 year funding EOI process, the results of which are due to be announced the week beginning 12 August.

The existence of a national body to advocate for playwrights, new writing for the stage and play development is a no-brainer. There is scant support for this kind of development coming from the major theatre companies. 

One of the strangest things about how the PWA board responded to critics of the move was to assert that PWA has never been designed to represent playwrights. While PWA is not a membership-based organisation it has absolutely represented playwrights in that it has created programs and initiatives designed to support the development of both playwrights and plays. It's not been a perfect organisation. I'm not sure every playwright has felt specifically supported by it. I wrote last year about my reservations about the Play Festival and at times it has felt like a Sydney-centric rather than a national body.

But for better or worse, it has been the only peak body that centralises plays and playwriting when so few theatre companies are interested in doing that.

I’m not sure what impact the review will have or if decisions have already been made about PWA and this is all a bit of smoke and mirrors to make it look as though sector consultation was carried out. I might be wrong. The process so far has left a bitter taste in the mouths of all who have benefitted from PWA throughout its history and those keen to see where new priorities, programs and directions might take it.

The sector is craving some transparency and also a sense of responsibility around this issue. How did things get to this point and why are playwrights being both jettisoned in terms of support and asked to provide all the evidence as to why the organisation should continue to exist?

I suspect answers to these questions may never come and that it will be a long time before the sector has a robust and well-functioning peak body for plays and playwriting – if indeed anything can rise from the ashes of this disaster.