The Killing of Astianax. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=528997

Why do some teachers fear the "Trojan Women" and embrace "Grease"?

If you type into the Google search engine "The Trojan Women in schools" you will find first up on the search list: https://unwomen.org.au/unw_events/the-trojan-women/ The production aligned itself with support for Afghan women's struggle against the Taliban. The women had some prominence after the initial Taliban victory. However, their story is now largely forgotten and ignored.

It was also notable that many teachers attended the performance of "The Trojan Women" by DTC in The Old Chapel Studio in Canberra. It was also apparent that they got a lot out of the production and expressed gratitude for the company's achievement.

Yet this is not typical. Schools will often proclaim a reason for theatre productions being the ability to offer their students a "lens" through which to see the world; or something similar. But then they offer trite American musicals of total distraction such as "Back to the Eighties" (a dated and sexist piece of tripe), "Grease" (a disturbing and disgraceful popular work that normalises date rape and male physical suppression of girls), "Barnam" and other sentimental works such as "Annie" that simply evoke nostalgia for a mythic American Dream. Why is it that the more prestigious the school, the more likely the blanding out of theatre to confirm the notion of theatre as simply a side issue and pleasant frill! This is possibly an oddity, given that the wealthy are more likely to be in tune with arts movements than patrons for school theatre in poorer neighbourhoods! However, they are also more likely to demand the suppression of students from challenging privileged and entrenched class positions and attitudes. And so if theatre even exists in such schools, the chances are that it will be suppressed and offered in sparse doses ... possibly biennially! The entrenched thinking is that the arts are somehow pleasant and beneficial yet benign additives to the main game.

And students, fed on diets of narcissistic American entertainments, constantly clamour and lobby for Performing Arts departments and community theatres to present works such as "Grease", "Heathers" and / or "High School Musical".

"Tell me more, tell me more, did she put up a fight?" (Grease)

Yet over the years, teachers have said to me that shows designed with such values as depicted uncritically in "Grease" and other shows designed for five-year-olds are far more their theatre "cup-o-tea" than the likes of "The Trojan Women". I have even had teachers lobby students in High School NOT to go and see the likes of Brecht's "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui"! So what is so frightening about theatre that challenges the stereotype and theatre that goes beyond distraction?


Part of the problem is an on-going misconception as to what Drama programs and theatre are all about.

Scratch an educational institution's administration thinking and one is likely to find enthusiastic support for the prestige and cultural artistry that theatre / musical presentation can bring. Lists of successful past student artists can be found adorning the walls and foyers of such places. Yet an examination of the programming of content and presentations may well provide a disturbing picture; a deceptive hologram of devotion to cultural distraction and pandering to American-centric affirmations of mythic proportions.

While community theatre and professional theatre has observable strands of more intensive cultural examination to some extent offering a balance to the kinds of Lyric Theatre presentations seen regularly in Australia, schools by and large are still locked into the "Look-at-me; Look-at-me".

And this has an effect on staff and the more artistically inclined teachers.

Teachers live with fear everyday. They are the meat in the cultural sandwich between social values, parental inadequacy, government bureaucracies, student thuggery, administrative limitations; between all this is their illusion of an idealistic ability to affect change and implement curriculums that might enhance the human condition. Teachers suck it in when some "experts" who got their Ph Ds in some area of education to escape the classroom and having to deal with real kids, now come to pontificate in schools about education necessity! Teachers basic fear of their own inadequacy prevents them from revolting and proclaiming what they essentially know to be true. And YES! This is an overstatement! There are lethargic teachers as well! But equally, there are very frustrated teachers who are being thwarted by systems of enforced mediocrity. One might just look at the new ACT curriculum being enforced by the ACT BSSS to witness mediocrity in action! And this is reflected in the arts.

For the teacher who simply loves musicals, it is not necessarily an issue which musical they choose to work on with students. But I question why there is a consistency in non-critical works that are simply culturally affirming of a particular world view and that provide little or no critical cultural values other than affirmation of the American Dream or some nostalgic English resonance of past sentimental journeys. The musical form is not the issue; rather it is the content. The same might also apply to the constant choosing of uncritical adaptations of the English theatre canon.

If teachers of the arts are trying to evoke a lens through which to see the world, then simply fabricating artificial and false dichotomies illustrated by so many chosen musicals is not going to do it. While acknowledging that in spite of the content of a musical, the student performer may rise above the content and still evoke something that is challenging, exciting and engaging, the point still stands. Pandering to lowest common denominator tastes from audiences and students alike is not going to provide any kind of lens for viewing and approaching life and the world. At best it provides a sense of team challenge and possible cooperative spirit; at worst it panders to narcissistic instincts and limited visions of social and personal reality! Schools are not community theatres.

There are many community organisations that can provide the cultural ego based experiences for talented yet uncritical young people with little interest in viewing theatre as cultural challenge and even necessity! It is not up to the education system and schools to be ego pampering vehicles for the non-discerning!

A Concoction of Pretty Gargoyles

But the American musical form can provide a safe retreat for staff and students creating occasional performing arts works in schools. Having rows of doll-like and very talented girls and some boys smiling for the benefit of their audience is very reassuring that our conservative values of European and American origin are well and truly being adhered to. The beguiling exaggerated smile with a welcoming and slave-like facial expression to placate the audience's control and demand over the performer is part and partial of so many musicals. By their very nature, the performer is made subservient to the world-view of the establishment. It follows in the tradition of the artist paying tribute to the upholders of the state with the high ticket pricing to weed out the lower income classes. The musical can simply be a concoction of pretty gargoyles smiling hideously for the gratification of the powers-that-be. It is purposed with making somnambulistic audiences "feel good".

Certainly NOT all musicals follow this pattern. Schools with varied programs mixing musicals with plays and other performance style offerings can legitimately claim to be proffering high educational values with the musical vehicle for enhancing cooperation and even a lens through which to see the world.

I am proud to be producing such works with very talented and committed teachers with DTC!

The Greeks and the Sacrifice

The ancient Greeks offered up a theatre in communion with cultural expression, a kind of spiritual adherence in recognition of that invisible connection with aspects of the universe that cannot be easily explained; those events in human experience that sought explanation beyond the observable world yet seemed to have a hold over all humanity! While virtually all traditional societies had and still have the physical means to express the hidden inclinations and human/social gravitations, the Greeks paved the way for a secular theatre that touched on the spiritual; what the late Peter Brook called "theatre of the invisible made visible"! At some point the religious significance of "sacrifice" can transform theatre.

"Sacrifice is a celebration of life, a recognition of its divine and imperishable nature. In the sacrifice the consecrated life of an offering is liberated as a sacred potency that establishes a bond between the sacrificer and the sacred power." (https://www.britannica.com/topic/sacrifice-religion, Accessed 04/07/2022)

While the separation of theatre from religious ceremony might seem a natural outcome of secular progress there is a downside in that the techniques are very similar to advertising and marketing processes. The removal of the actor from that of buffoon or prostitute also might seem a progressive act. Yet perhaps, the equation of the performer/writer/theatre practitioner with the "All Licensed Fool" might provide a better discussion. The All Licensed Fool of Elizabethan times was a speaker of truth when speaking the truth was otherwise likely to get you decapitated! The very techniques of presentation that derived from the ancient world and traditional societies have been trivialised and appropriated in the crassest demonstration of American theatrical tradition that barters sex, base instinct and consumerist abstraction for a fabricated artistic form that panders to lowest common denominator tastes and inklings; while in denial of both!

If we must appropriate from the ancients and the traditional means of theatrical presentation, we might adopt the idea of the artist as a kind of fool or Shaman. The audience then is that of seekers of truths and possibilities and not simply as seekers of distraction and evasion. They are more than narcissists in need of justification or affirmation of their cultural and social beliefs and certainties. They are in fact part of a spiritual tradition that questions the possibilities and the seemingly obvious. I suggest a theatre that respects its audience as having these qualities is more likely to engender a strong artistic and even spiritual sense within its own cohort and thus reinforce possibilities for cultural examination and personally deep explorations.

Such work requires more than professional competence. Rather it requires an acknowledgement of one's fears and a willingness to step up and be vulnerable as teachers, artists and as citizens. The real women of Troy at the end of that mythic war still exist today. They are still the silenced voices of people defeated by the ignorance, violence and short memories of perpetrators and descendents. As practitioners of theatre, our ego and natural neurosis needs to be held in check so that an open attitude of venturing and investigation can flourish and, like that pebble in the puddle, create ripples of cultural respect and introspection; creating and flourishing in a cluttered fluorescent forest of our own making ...

Joe Woodward

(13 Aug 2022)

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Stefan Keller, Desert Phenomenon, Pixabay

Art and theatre have for over a century generally been anti-authoritarian and anti-establishment. Religion has been, for the most part, pro established-orders and pro-authority over the same period. No matter what culture, these observations seem to apply! In some cases, such as in Iran, religion and establishment are intertwined just as in medieval European cultures and in the US today where every political persuasion needs approval from the god-fearing masses. Over the century, art and theatre have diverged from religious fervour in many ways. Yet it is surprising how much they converge. And how both religion and the arts ironically have basically similar premises.

The Abomination that is the movie "Jesus of Nazareth"

To begin this discussion, let us look at how contemporary artistic expression has depicted religious themes in the Western tradition. We might consider cinema, art and theatre.

A most sickening and soul-destroying theatrical screen work one could contemplate watching is Franco Zeffirelli's "Jesus of Nazareth". Seeing famous actors using their cynical tricks over six hours to fake any semblance of authenticity in portraying potentially psychotic characters is a lesson in artistic charlatanism. Zeffirelli might have gained considerable credit as a director and innovator for some of his movies, but this piece of rubbish loses him all credibility. It is an abomination in terms of both religion and the arts. It unashamedly seeks a euro-centric Christian distortion using imagery, context and sentimental performances worthy of high-school kids at the Christmas pageant. It is art that extols a particular cultural hegemony that, at best is an affirmation of our romantic past, and at worst is a recipe for fascism.

In support of this statement, just note Robert Powell's sultry eyes and smug expressions when confronted with questioning. The director has him conforming to renaissance era painting imagery as if in a music video clip. You almost can hear REM doing "Losing My Religion" with every scene. You almost want to smack him in the face for his glib responses. There is nothing real in Powell's performance. Instead at every turn he is responding to a renaissance painting image! And if this isn't enough, then squirm at the apologetic performances of Rod Steiger, Anne Bancroft, Laurence Olivier, Michael York and James Mason as they struggle to make something of the pithy script. Pathetic! And I wonder if they ever lived it down ... though probably it was never an issue as few dared attack the Jesus of the TV series ...

Zeffirelli may not be a charlatan of film. He had genuine successes. Fortunately he had personal failures as well.

For instance he never did get to see women get the death penalty for having abortions in Italy. As a member of the Italian Parliament, Zeffirelli called for the death penalty to be applied to women who had abortions. He never got to see women being killed for this reason and no doubt this was a life's disappointment for him.

The Critical Quandary Emanating from "Jesus of Nazareth"

Firstly, Zeffirelli's desire to see women executed for wanting control of their bodies is not unique. It is not essentially a religious thing. Yet it points to deeper issues that relate to the energies that give rise to both religion and art. Zeffirelli's portrayal of Jesus as a mimetic image from renaissance paintings rather than as a human figure that had enormous impact probably results from that same sub-conscious yearning that causes religion and art to seek an alignment of observed reality and lived experience with an imagined over-arching possibility that one can never fully know nor achieve. It is that same premises that draws together equally abstract knowledge to make metaphorical understandings into concrete intellectual sculptures and literature; as in religion.

"Jesus of Nazareth" might have provided a powerful vehicle for exploration into deep faith and the spirit of creative invention and reinvention. For instance there is much in the gospels that might have thrown a more real and more relevant exploration of why religion has a place at all; why spirituality tries to make invisible and significant holds over human endeavour!

Let us consider the Gospel according to Matthew 34 or Luke 12. In these chapters Jesus is quoted to the effect:

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law— a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household."

The power of regeneration and creative struggle is an element in religious practice and thinking. And we find it in religious writing. This suggestion of creative struggle and the need to overturn all one's upbringing, culture and past allegiance is not peculiar to religion. Art has been through many such transformative phases and creative struggle is an essential part of artistic practice in theatre and art. While not directly attacking the Old Testament, the sword required in the above statement expressed warfare of an internal and relational struggle necessary to adopt new thinking that contradicted the past. Later Islamic traditions of Jihad might represent similar such elements.

Religion begins in abstraction as does art. Whether it requires sacrifice of a goat or a virgin girl to placate some unseen power that potentially brings terror or sustenance! Or whether it requires some form of sacrament or prayer to create an equilibrium in the observable universe! In the case of art and theatre, there is an artifice created that is representative or presenting of a physical manifestation of an idea, an ideal, a relationship or a sequence of events derived from imagination or real experience.

Yet the terror resulting from the unknown causes the seeking of solace in one's own image; an image that places the personal at the centre of the universe! Thus god is a reflection of our own image. The seemingly inexplicable becomes manageable as "enlightened" individuals provide concrete depictions of existence beyond the observable and lived experience. Narcissus becomes religion and religion becomes Narcissus almost denying any sense of spirituality beyond mirror images of one's limited imaginative conceptions.

The quandary for the artist creating within the religious and religious art traditions is one of how to broach the boundaries of cultural conceptions while being able to truly penetrate the origins of dogmas and moral codes. Zeffirelli opted for an extreme form of Eurocentric narcissism in order to shape his six hour long screen precis of the biblical story of Jesus. His conforming to unexamined mental and painted imagery as an adjunct to a precis of biblical referencing meant this work denied any form of spirituality or mystery!

This said, one must question as to whether any form of artistic expression that aims to affirm a particular cultural view of abstracted belief systems can do anything different! Culture, art and religion are ultimately progressions into various degrees of narcissism. To penetrate such gravitation within culture, art and religion requires the motivation and jolting prescription to jar and cut through the encasing mirrors of perception that surround the personal consumption or practice. Or perhaps it requires a process of stepping back from the equilibrium and allow for a kind of time-out or distance from such every-day experience.

In practice though, even with this jolt and stepping out, the result is likely to be the replacement of one such narcissistic imagery with another; such imagery to inform the trajectory of beliefs then formed into cultural precepts! It is a mistake to see religion and art as essentially irrational. From the point of view of narcissistic perceptions, they are perfectly rational. If god is within us, then it is perfectly reasonable to paint and picture god as looking like us. If art is an expression of how we feel and what we sense of the universe around us, no doubt the product will be like our reflection in the water. If such reality is shared within a culture then it is rational to enforce the view and see it reinforced through image representation and through social semiology and ritual.

When culture, art and religion engage even minimal processes for challenging and jarring this narcissistic tendency they each may hold the key to seeing and opening up the wider universe of existence. The concern is that those who hold the potential for doing just this, are in many, if not most, instances the prime controllers of the status quo and the guardians of smoke and mirrors that exemplify the narcissism of art, religion and ultimately of culture.

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Memory of Me by agsandrew shutterstock_621487832 .jpg

In 1972 I was organising the Orientation Week at Brisbane's Mount Gravatt Teachers' College which later merged into Griffith University. But in 1972 it was a small minion for the Bjelke-Peterson Government in Queensland. I had organised to bring in three special guest speakers: Zelman Cowen (then Vice Chancellor of University of Queensland), Ray Whitrod (Qld Police Commissioner) and Qld Liberal Senator Neville Bonner. Hardly radical speakers who might upset the conservative apple-cart! Yet I, and my student organising colleague, were brought in to meet with the College Principal Mr Nimmo to "explain". His eyes were blazing and the anger was palpable. He raged at us. "How dare you?" he snaked at us. "How dare you". Now I am not sure how many times this phrase was repeated. But then it came: "How dare you put on the same platform as the distinguished Zelma Cowen and Ray Whitrod ... a 'BLACK MAN': Neville Bonner?"

I can assure you I have never forgotten this moment and how it crystalized so much for me as a future educator and artistic activist. Here was a person of power and influence expressing such a reactionary and racist thought. But this wasn't the only incident that helped shape a life-long attitude for me.

Some time later in the year, I wanted to bring out a speaker to address issues of "self-management" as a social and political movement; particularly in relation to Aboriginal rights in light of the newly formed "Tent Embassy" in Canberra. Initially I wanted to do it legitimately with an administration sanctioned event. However, once again, I was brought in to meet Mr Nimmo; only this time, Mr Walker, the Deputy, was also present. The tone was different. I was treated well; even offered a nice small glass of port liquor. I put my case to bring out radical activist, Brian Laver, as a speaker. Mr Nimmo smiled and with a wry expression pointed out to me: "Joe, you and I can discuss these issues but you can't expect seventeen year olds straight out of school to ..."

So there it was. Laid out clearly to me was the need for authority to hide information and to restrain critical thinking and action where it crossed the often hidden agendas of power elites. The semantics of "free speech" and developing "critical and creative thinking" become weapons to disguise and hide the real powers and structures that aim to do just the opposite. Those two moments I experienced as a twenty-year old student at Mt Gravatt Teacher's College did more to clarify and shape my work as a teacher, artist, director than virtually all that followed.

And so now I direct "The Trojan Women" by Euripides and adapted by the cast from DTC. The cluttered visions and the cacophonous noise of twenty-first century narcissism negates the critical silence needed to stop and feel the weight of manufactured realities that deceive and destroy. The Taliban in Afghanistan have banned girls from schools; blatantly consolidating the dehumanising of women and reducing humanity to bargaining objects. Nimmo's rage at a Black Man speaking on a podium with "distinguished" white men distilled that white supremacist rage at being challenged; then to bar students from being able to see the arguments and discuss the social dimensions of such thinking only reinforced the lie of education being for the well-being of all society.

Euripides knew these same things over two thousand years ago. A year 11 student from last year, Amy Goedecke, suggested we put on "The Trojan Women" as a wake-up call. So here it is. With students doing all their own interpreting, research and adapting to today's world and seeking comparisons in the play's content with the situation in Afghanistan, the production exhibits an organic response that theatre creation rarely sees. Seventeen year old students and younger well and truly were able to discuss and process this information and the world views on display. Wynter Grainger took on the role of Dramaturg while supported by Amy, and fellow past student members, Tilly Watson, Lillia Bank, Georgie Wiley and Jack Curry. While my role has been to shape the work and provide artistic direction and facilitation and challenge, I hope that in this instance and in all my work I have never been a Nimmo and hopefully, never will be a Nimmo!

After all our efforts, I know the audience will feel the critical silence of The Old Chapel Studio space that makes room for critical and creative reflection and future thinking ...

My gratitude goes out to all members of the DTC staff, Daramalan staff,

cast and crew. Special thanks also to Michael Castrission, Ayaz Pazhohish and Helen Musa.

Joe Woodward

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