One of the true gems of the Australian arts scene is Griffin Theatre Company, an organisation devoted to locally-written plays that operates out of a historic 105-seat theatre high on a hill in Darlinghurst. It mightn’t be the biggest theatre company in the country, but it’s one of the most influential, and the person in charge of the company plays a big role in shaping the future of Australian playwriting.
Today the company announced playwright and director Declan Greene as its new artistic director. He takes over next January from Lee Lewis, who spent six years at the company's helm.
Greene first attracted the attention of theatre-goers as half of Sisters Grimm, a widely-loved queer theatre company he formed with Ash Flanders. They first made their shows in found spaces like backyard sheds and carparks across Melbourne, but went on to perform at some of the country’s biggest theatre companies, picking up Green Room Awards and Helpmann nominations. Greene also has a stellar solo career as a playwright and director, bringing a wide range of shows to the stage, and has been resident artist at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre since 2016.
We asked Greene a few questions about how he’s approaching the privilege of leading one of our favourite companies.
How does it feel knowing you’re stepping into the artistic director role at Australia’s leading theatre of new writing?
I really feel the responsibility of it. I think Griffin is one of the most, if not the most, important theatre companies in Australia, because I think new writing is the most important theatre in Australia.
What was it that inspired you to go for this job?
I thought it would be a really fantastic thing to see a playwright helming Griffin at the moment. I think that, in terms of my own artistic biases, one of the big existential threats that’s facing theatre at the moment is the rise of TV streaming platforms. It’s just increasingly hard to make an argument to get people to leave their houses. It’s harder to get people to leave their houses just for the sake of a good story or a narrative, because those narratives are available on Hulu and Stan and Netflix for much cheaper than a theatre ticket. The thing the theatre can really offer is an experience, or a really incredible live connection, and Griffin is perfectly placed to offer that. Every time you go into Griffin, it is an experience. The actors are so close to you and the space is so deeply unconventional. I guess that’s what I really want to bring to the company; I really want to maximise the use of that space and offer things that feel like a complete experience.
I think subscriber audiences are brave and will go to really interesting places if you’re doing it with a spirit of generosity, not a spirit of ‘this is your cultural medicine, take it!’ or ‘this is what they’re doing in Germany at the moment, you should like it!’
And I hope Griffin will be at the forefront of de-centring the white homogeneity of the mainstage in terms of programming and centring First Nations and Indigenous and POC or culturally diverse work, and building up a relationship with those artists – not only “here’s your first mainstage gig”, but “what’s the next play going to be?” I really want to see those artists deeply centred on Griffin’s stage; not in peripheral programming, but right there in a six-week mainstage season.
In 2016, Griffin lost around $120,000 in annual funding as a result of the federal government’s funding cuts and has had to find ways to continue operating with fewer resources. How do you approach that sort of challenge?
It’s something the company has been really incredible and agile in responding to. I don’t think, from the exterior, you see any difference in terms of the quality of the work or the ambition of the work that the company has been putting on stage, which is to Lee’s credit as artistic director. But behind the scenes, it is really thin and lean, and it is a real problem that Australia’s only dedicated mainstage new writing company doesn’t have commissioning capacity or development capacity for new writing. Those are two of my main priorities, finding additional funding, either via governmental channels or through private philanthropy, and I think it’s really important the company can resume commissioning.
What do you think the state of Australian playwriting is in 2019?
It’s a time of real austerity for the entire playwriting sector, in terms of what’s happening with Playwriting Australia – or not happening with Playwriting Australia – and intense funding austerity. There’s a lot of uncertainty and a lot of anxiety across the playwriting community at the moment.
I think Australia has an incredible community of playwrights who are really inventive, really curious and deeply resilient. It’s a testament to the inventiveness and resilience of Australian playwrights that I don’t think the quality and general output of new work in Australia has been affected by this rise of austerity and the shrinking of resources. Australia bats well above its average, or well above the resources that are afforded.
I think it’s awesome that there are more mainstage companies like Sydney Theatre Company and Belvoir who are upping their commissioning and development of new Australian writing. But mainstage theatre companies have a mandate around developing plays, not playwrights. And the playwrights that actually have work regularly on the mainstage, it’s the tip of the iceberg in terms of the quality and breadth of Australian playwriting. There’s so much incredible work that goes on on independent stages and fringe stages, and goes on outside metropolitan areas, and those are playwrights that mainstage companies aren’t mobile enough to be able to support.
I think Griffin can give more playwrights their first mainstage opportunities. That’s something that’s part of my relationship with Griffin. I moved from doing independent work with Griffin to doing mainstage work with Griffin, and that’s a pathway I want to be available to a lot of other independent artists as well.
You’re very much part of the fabric of Melbourne’s theatre community – on a personal level, how do you feel about moving up to Sydney?
I feel really good about it. This is the only reason I’m moving, which just goes to show how much I love Griffin. But I love Sydney and have lots of really good friends there, and that will be fun. It’s just sort of hard at the moment to look at all these horrific images of environmental degradation and a city covered in horrifying smoke and go, ‘That’s where I’m going to be going’. But realistically, under this government that’s probably where the rest of the country is going as well, so why not.
This conversation has been edited for length.