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Image by Stefan Keller

Beauty in theatre is often found in the grotesque. Think of Beckett, Ionesco, Lyndsey Kemp, Butoh, Berkoff, Artaud and even Brecht and Shakespeare ... Let alone much contemporary theatre expression! Culture is at its basic core a closed system of repeated affirmation of myths and routine rituals that solidify all knowledge and all that could possibly be known and understood. It is the sanctification of the seemingly obvious and the cult of morality enforcement that accompanies all authority vested in the protectors and definers of cultural propriety. It is the grounding that human beings seem to need in order to face and negotiate the terror of oblivion and total disorder. It provides the structural straitjacketing of human desire, lust, ambition and delusion that forms one's identity. Theatre and culture are thus often at odds as theatre becomes the provocation operation (PO as de Bono suggests). Theatre is in fact, historically and logically, then a force for change and a challenge to stereotypical thinking and enforced cultural hegemony. In short, it is a vital component in the education and platforming for societal and cultural critical and creative thinking and action that goes back a long time: perhaps preceding even the Ancient Greek experience! So perhaps our educational and cultural managers need to embrace the grotesque that is often found in theatre as a reminder of the necessity of the Elizabethan "All Licensed Fool" that reminded Queen Elizabeth 1 of the illusion of her own power!

Political Drama from the Left and Right

The "New York Times" recently published "It’s Getting Hard to Stage a School Play Without Political Drama". (Michael Paulson, July 4, 2023 Updated July 5, 2023). You need to be a subscriber to read the full article. But it pointed to the growing use of agenda politics in the US to silence the voice of theatre expression. I might suggest it points to the silencing of the "all licensed fool" that might point to the delusional life within agendas of cultures and sub-cultures. The vested interests in the social constructions of various realities is becoming the cynical and a savage playground of the shapers of thought and viewpoints.

Social constructivism can be interpreted in many different ways. However, the recognition that belief and perceived reality is a social phenomena separated from normative considerations has a strong hold on twenty-first century thinking. So there is a tendency for controllers of public perception to go out of their way to restrict all forms of counter suggestions that might defer or deter people from deviating from the sanctioned agenda and correct viewpoints of thinking and attitude. Both the ultra-left and ultra-right recognize this need to shape and control the construction and advancement of particular realities. This effectively straitjackets people; preventing consideration and exploration of the unknown and of alternatives. So is this relevant for our theatre?

The Social Construction of Reality

Berger and Berger's "The Social Construction of Reality" (Berger, P. L. and T. Luckmann, 1966 Garden City, NY: Anchor Books) might well have taken unforeseen directions in the decades since publication. Lev Vigotsky's (Vygotsky, Lev, 1978 Mind in Society. London: Harvard University Press) advanced Piaget's theories of cognitive development pointing to the role context and social development had on cognitive growth. Perhaps, drawing on this idea and that of similar theorists, it isn't too large a leap to suggest then that personal belief systems and ways of interacting with the world are socially constructed. One's very cognitive development is thus interlaced with culture.

To greater understand and confirm how belief systems actually shape culture and one's interaction with it, have a look at this simple video: "How Belief Systems Work". Just click on the image.

Artaud and the Challenge for Theatre and Education

While some would argue that belief systems are not only necessary but are in fact inescapable facets of the human being, our programming is such that it is impossible to escape from some world view and some belief system without replacing it with another. Our very means for perceiving the world and ourselves depends on it. Antonin Artaud recognized this essential point and suggested a radical view that theatre could challenge one's very belief system with shocks to the personal perception that an audience might have.

While it is debatable whether Artaud's view ever was even partially realized, his "Theatre Of Cruelty" and the grotesque avenues it inspired has had a very significant influence on both stage and screen presentations. The ability to challenge and break through the straitjacket of conventional thinking and experience has certainly been a major part of Artaud's legacy.

The timid child being psychologically smothered by their parents into a frightened and self-conscious being with low self-esteem or, in reverse, with an over-bloated ego so devoid of the ability to engage, is at once shocked into leaping from the boiling water just as the boiling frog was forced to leap away when thrown into the death trap of 100 degree water that would have killed it. Yet most of life is in tepid territory protected by the straitjacket of cultural and familial certainty. Currently, our younger generations are being bled of their ability for resilience by the immersion into tepid social settings that shield them from any challenge to their cultural and social upbringing.

The theatre, both as presentation and as a process for participants, is one area of experiential engagement that offers a challenge to this impending destruction. So when the controllers of social construction use their power to censor and restrict theatrical exploration and presentation, we need to recognize it for what it is: ie. nullification of what it is to be human; a blanketing of curiosity, empathy and challenge!

Nullification of Challenge and Growth

Without the Licensed Fool of theatre being able to express unfettered observations, reflections and responses from within the closed system of culture, one's very reality is likely to implode or be obliterated from existence. The neurotic adherence to delusions and the whims of charlatans from the political and social domains means that the limitations of restricted experience and opportunities for thinking will result in personal stagnation and social restriction.

The NAZI extolling of the beautiful in art and culture was a lie and a façade covering the most hideous of sanctified action by a ruling elite. Such art practice tolerated no challenge to its aesthetic. Today, there is a growing tendency in Western cultures to limit and destroy artistic practice in theatre that counters the bland art of distraction. This is particularly evident in education. The New York Times article reflects just the tip of the ice berg. Self-censorship and the slide into shying away from sensitive and essentially challenging theatre subjects in schools is ensuring the strengthening of the hold cultural straitjacketing has on its subjects.

As teachers, directors, writers and artists of all kinds, there is an onus on us to lead by example in a mission to rejuvenate cultural connection, artistic courage and life-long engagement with processes of creativity and design. The grotesque must be embraced; there lies the seeds of beauty. With the challenges offered by mind-numbing social media propaganda, the task of becoming the licensed fool is ever more necessary for both individual and societal sanity. We live in a mirror maze of narcissistic obsession. The real question for our theatre is how to break out from it! The actions of state and self censorship as indicated in the New York Times article makes this ability to escape so much more difficult. This then is the prime task of our arts and theatre in this country to ensure nothing of that scale ever is encountered on our shores.

Joe Woodward

See other essays on similar topics:

Theatre Songs of Protest

The Blistering Cold of Left-over Tears

Exploring Oceans or Just Following Drain Pimes in Teaching Drama

See the movie: "Under the Light"

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  • Writer's pictureJOE WOODWARD

Image by Stefan Keller

When we hear that a strange growth on our skin or a lump somewhere or other on our body is "benign" and not "cancerous" we feel a relief. Ah ... It won't kill us. So we go on our way and keep doing all the things that might in fact bring about the malignant form to a growth or lump or whatever in our system. Theatre raises significant points and issues that might seem at first viewing as simply benign fringe hysteria. Much of society only sees the results of disasters and even then views such results as "crap" to quote a recent Liberal Party Prime Minister. Belvoir Theatre in Sydney provided a powerful challenge to all such benign thinking with its production of David Finnigan's "Scenes From the Climate Era".

I have loved the work of Belvoir. I also loved the previous company, Nimrod Theatre Company that occupied the same space prior to Belvoir. The work of John Bell, Richard Wherrett and the remarkable Ken Horler stand out as seminal in the Australian history of theatre. I remember the late Ralph Wilson describing Ken Horler as the unsung hero of the advent of Australian Theatre's renaissance. The early NIMROD was never benign. It was an aggressive, exciting and skilled arrow shot from a targeted bow aimed as a defiance into the heart of lethargic and arse-licking conformity. Belvoir benefitted from the work and insight of Ken Horler who purchased the space for a dollar. I noted that Nimrod Theatre Company productions are still featured on posters on the walls of Belvoir Theatre Company.

David Finnigan's early work was in Canberra, before he embarked on an amazing artistic creative venture internationally. I couldn't miss driving up to Sydney to see "Scenes From the Climate Era" and it didn't disappoint. Brilliant and incisive writing and directing meant this intelligent exercise in dialectics opened discussion and pointed out the weakness in momentary zeal. This was really engaging theatre of serious intent but not presented as a catch all "you better believe it" style work. Finnigan's theatre touched the very heart of people trying to survive and make sense of an ever increasingly complex universe. The brilliance of its construction meant it worked and people left discussing and nagged by doubts of their own contributions while not feeling hopeless or defiant of the issues.

This was in sharp contrast to another production on the same issue seen recently where the proposed choice for action centered around a Pol Pot style genocide solution of all knowing and unknowing contributors to climate disaster.

The maturity and research tinged with comedy and brilliant stage writing set Finnigan's work apart and hopefully will be a source for people's consciousness raising. At present, use of plastics, for example, might be seen as a benign action bearing a benign though noticeable result; but one wonders for how much longer before the true malignancy becomes obvious and a killer.

Joe Woodward

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  • Writer's pictureJOE WOODWARD

Jessie in "Cathedral Song" Canberra 2002

The school principal died the day after the opening of "Cathedral Song" presented by DTC at The Street Theatre in Canberra in 2002.

A truly visionary man, Frank Fulton evoked a totally silent procession from nearly 1500 students down Cowper Street in the Canberra suburb of Dickson in a procession leading to his funeral. Nothing like it had been seen at the school. Total silence! Frank Fulton's idiosyncratic style as a Principal somehow took hold on the body of students at a school that had only recently become totally integrated as a co-educational institution. Frank Fulton's hand had opened the doors to a whole universe of academic, cultural and ecumenical paradigms unique to Daramalan College in Canberra. Not the least of these was the opening of radical potentially critical and creative adventures within Arts practices within an Educational context. This was most evident in the production of Daramalan's fledgling Daramalan Theatre Company (DTC) production of "Cathedral Song" at The Street Theatre.

I had seen the school's administration being chastised by the Catholic Arch Bishop for inviting Family Planning speakers to the school. Some teacher had complained to the Bishop. Frank was really upset that someone on his staff took it upon themself to go behind his back and complain to the Arch Bishop. I certainly noted this and when writing "Cathedral Song" I didn't want to be behind anyone's back or seem to betray the good-will of the school. Rarely could one see an institution so totally focused on the concept of love and support of even the lowliest of people. And yes, there would be some who would point to its obvious shortcomings over the decades. But what I found was an ideal that was beginning to take shape. So I asked Frank to have a look at the script I was presenting for DTC to produce on the stage. I also had Father Jim Littleton (a former Principal) to look over the rough drafts and even attend rehearsals and later David Garratt to give feedback. All three men were at various points Principals of Daramalan College.

My dear friend Brother James Maher found the work baffling and even confusing on first reading. Yet we discussed the element of the Cathedral as being a source of emptiness for the soul. He provided the context of the Buddhist ideal of emptiness which I found really powerful. This injected new elements into the script which made it more powerful. James was one of the most beautiful people I had ever known and I was incredibly affected by his death many years later. James wrote the Daramalan song that is still sung and endowed with great energy in its final phrases by the Daramalan students.

I needed to know that the MSCs who owned the school would not be in any way offended or disgraced by us putting on the production. I remember Frank, having read the script, asking what was my problem with it and why was I asking for his support. I itemised four areas: the young people taking drugs, the teenage sex, church politics and then ... (and Frank hesitated in his response) ... the slaughter on the Altar. He suggested no problems but did have to think before responding to the fourth point. Then he suggested there were precedents and that while there would probably be someone who would find offence to something in the work, the MSCs would back me. He suggested anyone who objected would be "a nark" and unaware of what is happening in the real world and even with their own kids. He further suggested "perhaps, they should look into themselves"!

On the opening night of the show, the night before Frank's tragic death, there was a celebration after the performance in the foyer of The Street Theatre. I cherish the memory of Frank's daughter Kate, walking through the crowded space with a glass of red wine which she gave to me and said "this is from dad". I looked up and saw Frank on the other side of the room raise his glass as he looked across to me with a smile. I never saw Frank again. He died the following day.

"Cathedral Song" probably couldn't be presented in a Government school because of it's religious connotations. It was generally very well received by the nearly 1000 people who saw it at The Street Theatre. But there was one reviewer who found the Catholic imagery so painful to watch that he left for the bar on a number of moments during the show. Afterwards he cornered me and reviled me for such bad acting and horrible scenarios. Previously, this person had been a friend of mine.

Some weeks later he came to a performance that I was giving as a one-man show at The Street Theatre.

He apologized for those comments he made late after the show on the opening night. He said "you know my surname"? I said yes. He then suggested I might know of a certain Reverend in Northern Ireland who was totally anti-Catholic! He then stated "I am his cousin".


In 2012, "Cathedral Song" was presented in Northern Ireland. The land of Ian Paisley! It was presented at Moate, County Westmeath in Northern Ireland.

a scene from the Moate Ireland production

The land of Ian Paisley was later to be united with both Catholic and Protestant groups united in forming a government after nearly a century of hated warfare and thousands of deaths. And here was "Cathedral Song" presented with full knowledge of its traditions and imagery that related to a whole population. So much of Australian culture has also been formed by the Irish tradition. My grand parents were born in Ireland well before the partition into North and Sound. How ironic that his play should be produced in the vicinity of where my grand parents were born in what is now Northern Ireland! How ironic that the work also had resonance for a similar number of people that saw it in far away Canberra in Australia!

Mrs Maculachy and Bishop Cole in the Moate production in Northern Irelandd

The play developed out of an acting exercise that intended to clearly show Stanislavski's "objectives" and "actions" very clearly. Each scene had clearly shown wants from each character so that student actors could very easily identify where they were going.

Then for the next twenty years or so after the play's first Canberra season in 2002, students in Year 9 Drama were able to use the text to very simply identify Stanislavski's Given Circumstances. The script is in no way platitudinous or patronising. So over the years, students have used scenes to practice and discover the elements of their character's objectives and strategies to achieve these objectives. Over the years students have shared with past and upcoming students how they played the various characters.


"Cathedral Song" is a protest against the bland passive violence that is enforced on our children by a society that blocks their experience and the innate need to explore and discover for themselves.

The trigger warning syndrome and the fear of all disturbance creates its own violence that becomes manifest in the hands of the least educated who then brutalize those about them so as to enhance their broken egos. The Church itself falls victim to this violence as it succumbs to the inertia of those that would use it to control populations and ensure people's straitjacketing to shield them from the tree of knowledge.

Whilst Daramalan embraced "Cathedral Song" with its abrasive themes underpinned by a strong sense of spirituality, one could not assume everyone would. When Sister Mary Hamilton said she felt the need to call out to the character of Jessie as she ran through the streets and her past history, she was indicating where the strength of the work lay. Mary felt the compulsion to reach out to the young person and assure her of ways out. But the character of Jessie lay on the altar dying when she looked up at the image of Christ above her and uttered the words "Would you fore-sake me too?"

She had no one ...

The play changed nothing in attitudes towards young people's struggle to fight and shape reality. It did nothing to curb the violence of bland passivity enforced upon them. But it did forge a strong basis and substance on which the Daramalan Theatre Company would build and venture. Lyndal Judges, who played Jessie, created a flawed character who nevertheless challenged a whole edifice and social structure in affluent Canberra. Her character was echoed in Moet, Ireland some years later where the Irish / Catholic connection within Australia was made evident in a production light years away from our Street Theatre production. The singing of "Hail Queen of Heaven" badly by the manipulative assistant to the Bishop (played by Richard Bosci) epitomized the loss of fundamental connection by the Church needing to deal with the corporate world in order to survive. And Lucy Zelic's young radical Nun brought to the fore the paradoxical traditional values that needed re-imaging for contemporary relevance.

"Cathedral Song" has been presented in unexpected parts of the world as a workshop production (ie. no royalties paid) and used as a teaching tool at Daramalan College. Its history owes a lot to the Principal at the time, Frank Fulton and also to a previous Principal, Jim Littleton, and to a later Principal, David Garratt. It also owes much to the efforts of Tracey Roberts who worked on the challenging Media aspects and costuming. A thank you to Jennifer Wright who stage managed and kept up people's confidence as they were fainting during the tech runs! I owe a personal debt to Brother James Maher who provided such gentle and yet critical prodding for the work to survive.

"Cathedral Song" is twenty one years old this year.

A number of cast members have requested a copy of the video. I can send a link to anyone interested. I can only express extreme gratitude for those who made this work possible and establish the Daramalan Theatre Company as a unique entity that was later to attract students to Daramalan and then encourage the genuinely critical and creative approach evident in the DTC work over more than two decades.

Joe Woodward

PS: you can read the script by purchasing here:

for a copy of the original video if you were a cast member, contact me at

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