Updated: Jun 20, 2020

Why theatre practitioners might be better off thinking of themselves as a despised species

Theatre practitioners don't normally think of themselves as a despised species. But it might just be more useful if they did.

This article was first posted in MUSE Magazine in Canberra in November 1995 when I first coined the phrase "Cockroach Theatre". Since then, the term has been used in a number of contexts. Vegas Theatre Company in Las Vegas began as Cockroach Theatre Company in 2003.

If we think of the commotion caused by a cockroach casually appearing on a dinner plate during an exclusive dinner party or at a particularly refined and expensive restaurant we can see that its effect is in no way diminished by the creature being despised. The cockroach has a penchant for surviving and drawing attention to itself. It appears between the cracks paying little attention to the concerns of the dinner guests and just IS. The cockroach at the dinner table soon reduces the illusion of a disinfected universe to a more basic proposition. It draws attention to the cracks in the guests' universe and the brittle veneer over daily experience. And in a world where some would suggest art should follow market research, the cockroach might just provide an alternative positive model for theatre ... all be it: a cockroach theatre.

Key features of cockroach theatre might include: smallness, flexibility, multi-skilled across media, efficiency, burnt bridges, clarity of purpose, ideas driven, creative use of resources, playfulness, adventurous, risk taking, independence, compelling performance, total commitment to the art, tenacity, abrasive yet symbiotic with its audience ... etc. We see these features in bands and comedy acts: and we might see it more often in theatre of the future. We might also have observed these characteristics in theatre groups which later mutated into dinosaurs and disappeared.

The dinosaur theatre features specialisation of labour and is very comfortable with the guests at the official dinner table. Dinosaur theatre revels in role demarcation with each role jealously guarded. It is very proficient at lobbying where much of its creative energy is channelled. It is expensive. And demands high levels of Government intervention and support. Practitioners lament the growing crises in theatre and seek to turn back time to previous workable models of theatre organization and practice. It paradoxically looks to amateur theatre with a kind of envy as if to say, give us more funding and we could do that too ...

Cockroach theatre takes a different view. Problems become opportunities. Change is a tool: and asset. The essential differences between theatre and other media are exploited. Like the band or comedy act which writes and performs its own material, cockroach theatre does likewise: the creative focus for the work being the heart of everything that is done. Cockroach theatre operates as a team to produce original work that grows from within the observations, talents, desires, and contradictions of the individual members. Work is tested with audiences. No matter how complex, cockroach theatre uses the creative tension between writing material and performance in front of audiences to grow and develop its uniqueness. Rather than relying on market research, the cockroach theatre is constantly testing the ground with its own work feeding off success and learning from its failures. Like the busker, it seeks avenues to exploit its need to BE what it IS ...

As theatre becomes polarized into dinosaur and cockroach, the dinosaur has become so dependent on the government and big business benefactors for its funding: so much power of life or death has been placed in the hands of bureaucracies, academia, corporations and the many interests being served by government and community infra-structure ... no wonder that so much skill and attention has been placed on the whole mechanisms of lobbying and public relations. While the cockroach will accept government funding, it is not dependent on it ... the government may be accepted as one of its many purchasers or investors.

Theatre practitioners in the Australia might well use cockroach theatre strategies in place of the rationalist / lobbying and committee modes so observable and currently employed with disastrous results. I doubt that any amount of policy making, research or review of practices etc. is going to make any difference to the well being of theatre unless theatre BECOMES, and like the cockroach, simply IS. What we are seeing now is an art form being bled by a thousand pin pricks. And the more it is being discussed, written about (like me pontificating in this article), and subjected to rationalist (economic or otherwise) debate devoid of reference to issues contained within the art form, then the more it will be sapped and leeched of its essential life force; the more practitioners will be placating each other: seeking reasons for obvious failures while not wanting to be left behind ... left off the invitation list.

Joe Woodward a version of this article was first published in MUSE magazine Nov 1995

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Updated: Jun 20, 2020

Theatre's ephemeral texts into reality ...

Edward de Bono coined the phrase "Water Logic". How we think and make judgements is too often based on being right or wrong. De Bono speaks of this kind of logic as "rock logic". It contains the truth as an object that is fixed. Water Logic, however, sees judgements been made according to how the concept or focus fits and flows within given circumstances. It leads to different outcomes than those achieved by simply seeking what is right or wrong. So while de Bono never seemed to be a fan of art or theatre, for that matter, his Water Logic is a very apt description of what is essentially taking place within a theatre event.

And so to a river of uncertainty; the water logic of theatre's ephemeral texts into reality!

The Act and the Context

In developing theatre as a worthwhile and valuable part of our social and personal existence, we need to consider presentation as part of a larger picture. Using the river metaphor, theatre is a river of ideas, crafts, expectations, torrents, movement, resolutions, conflicts, tensions, cultures and ... whatever! However, like all rivers, it needs bracing and boundaries that shape its very fit and flow; forming from somewhere and resolving somewhere else.

Writing articles like this have a purpose in lending weight to the contexts and shaping of theatre practice and experience. But also, so does the historical tides that pull at different paces and energies. The terrain through which theatre flows is often constructed by circumstances that give rise to the selection of content and the form for its expansion and communication.

In my DTC production of "The Taming of the Shrew" by William Shakespeare, we designed it to feature the central character of Kate as battling a kind of glass ceiling literally built into the set. This fitted perfectly with the text. However, in Shakespeare's time there was no such thing or metaphor. The text, like a river, flowed easily within the boundaries of twenty-first century cultural contexts. It actually made sense and still had relevance for today.

The emergence of realism, surrealism, expressionism, naturalism, absurdism, epic theatre, symbolism, physical theatre and influences from Asian, Middle Easter, Native American and various forms of Indigenous dance and dramas had roots in discoveries and dissatisfaction with the current dominant modes of expression; or, were each finding appropriate forms to give meaning to cultural experiences of the time. No particular form or style simply was invented from no where. Each grew as either a reaction or as the only way to share meaning as defined in a particular social and/or cultural environment. Each form then flows in ways that morph either into developments of the various forms or into other forms or variants.

The Conservative Alternative View

Alternatively, it can be argued that any theatre expression needs to be true to its original development and presentation in a fundamental way. Any deviation from this could be seen as seriously problematic. "Play Shakespeare as written" goes the cry of conservative adherents to this view. Shakespeare's work is seen as "rock" solid and is in no need of "improving". The text, plots, characterisations, accents, designs and reference points need to be as close to the original as possible in order to have validity and due homage to the original.

As seen in my example above, to present the play strictly as it might have been presented in the sixteenth century would have museum value as providing a window into the past. However as theatre it would be deadly unless it inadvertently actually amended meanings to fit with audience understanding. Thus, is it really possible to present a play in an imaginary "as written" context?

I suggest this conservative and alternative view of play presentation is really conceptually lazy and is, at best, an amateur approach. Live theatre is nothing if not a relationship between the form, the acting presentation and audience. So the river metaphor stands.


Anyone presenting theatre should not be afraid to work on the flow and fit as in Water Logic. Paddle down the river and be aware of all the contours and rapids as you go. The navigation into a successful production will depend on it. Playing a seemingly safe production, moving the actors around and not bumping into the furniture, is really not an option. Nor is it an option to try emulating what some previous great production and great performers did. Theatre has no hard and fast truth that needs to be dragged out of the closet and put on to the stage. Rather it requires the surmising of vague and unformed intuitions and the willingness to find the flow and become aware of the contours.

Joe Woodward

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