21 December 11:32 am

A Note from Lee, 21 December

2017! A Strategic Plan, The Homosexuals orFaggots, Rice, Diving For Pearls. A big year of stories wasn’t it? I hope you found in these plays ideas to challenge you, to entertain you, to create new conversations with friends and totally inspire you to come back to Griffin in 2018. Have you subscribed yet? Better still, have you made your friends subscribe? And gift subscriptions… how good are they!?!

Seriously though, thank you for supporting new Australian plays and the artists who make them. Griffin employed 52 artists this year, and gave a home to 63 independent artists. We put on 451 performances and over 25,000 people sat in the Stables to see new work.

Thank you to all the playwrights who put the words on paper. Katherine Thomson, Michele Lee, Declan Greene, Ross Mueller, Morgan Rose, Dan Giovanonni, Patrick White, Suzie Miller, Robyn Archer, David Williams, Sheridan Harbridge, Tommy Bradson, all the playwrights who created works in the Griffin Studio, all the playwrights who sent us plays for the Lysicrates Prizes and for the Griffin Award (next deadline 31st December!). You are all extraordinary. I hope we took good care of your work and that you loved your play being here at Griffin as much as we loved having it on the SBW Stables stage.

Against the odds we have had a great big successful year, thanks to you. Thanks for coming, thanks for donating, thanks for reading our newsletter, thanks for being the best audience in the country. Enjoy your break if you get one, enjoy the lack of traffic in the city for the next month, enjoy a good book, and I will see you back at the Stables in 2018 for new adventures.


Lee Lewis
Artistic Director

11 December 5:18 pm

Griffin Podcast: State of Play

Why do we need theatre in Australia? Angela Catterns interviews a panel of theatre professionals—including Fred Copperwaite, Lee Lewis, Chris Mead and Alana Valentine—about the state of Australian theatre, now.

Produced by Angela Catterns
Music by Charlie Chan
Sound by Tony David Cray

State of Play Transcription

Angela Catterns: What’s the state of theatre in Australia? Why do we need theatre in Australia? What’s the good of it? And in a world of KPI’s, performance reviews and justifying every dollar spent, who should foot the bill? I’m Angela Catterns and right now these big issues are being debated between four experienced theatre professionals.

So how would you describe the state of Australian theatre—Lee Lewis, Artistic Director at Griffin Theatre Company?

Lee Lewis: Well I think the writing is amazing, the actors are incredible, directors are exploring things that we’re not seeing on stages overseas. But the funding is abysmal.

Angela: Fred Copperwaite—actor, director and co-founder of Moogahlin, the Aboriginal theatre company.

Fred Copperwaite: Yeah I agree with that, I think the funding is abysmal. Particularly since last year when all those—a lot of the smaller-to-medium companies were cut. And that’s the grassroots level for the bigger companies, and that kind of thing; that was abysmal and that was outrageous, because that’s where a lot of new artists come from and you draw from that, and if you don’t have that, then there’s no trickle effect up or sideways.

Angela: But Fred, didn’t you say earlier that your funding was ok at Moogahlin?

Fred: Our funding was ok, yeah, we did very well. We actually scored big-time. But, at the same time, this is our tenth year and before, last year, we’d been working project to project and none of us were paid for nine years so…This is a bonus but we’re not complacent because it allows us, for the very first time, to develop a program—a four-year program—which is fantastic and we’ve just done a project and, for the very first time, we had the money upfront. But, you know, within the climate, that money could go in four years. I think the thing is, in terms of longevity, you’re never really secure. 

Angela: Chris Mead—theatre Director at Griffin and Literary Director at Melbourne Theatre Company—do you feel secure?

Chris Mead: We’re secure to the extent that theatre has been one of the, you know, mainstays of human civilisation since the year dot. Since we put a hand against a wall and recorded the fact that we were there. I think that we kind of forget so often that performing with people is, a kind of, is what develops our brain and is a way that, as a species, we survive and communicate. And it’s non-zero sum game. You know? We’re thrilled by theatre. It doesn’t do anything necessarily…we want it to do things— 

Lee: Oh, it does do things!

Chris: No I’m not saying it doesn’t do things, what I’m saying is that it doesn’t have to do anything—it can be fun, it can be educative, it can be pedagogical, it can be just silly.

Lee: It is the thing that ensures that we have empathy as humans. It is our empathy machine. And I think, if you cut away the theatre, you cut away our way of speaking to people non-journalistically in ways that make us care.      

Angela: Alana Valentine—award-winning playwright and board member of the Australian Writers Guild.

Alana: I mean, I’ve been doing a lot of work regionally and it’s always really high stakes because they don’t get a lot of funding so, every time they produce a new Australian play, they want it to work. But their audiences are being taught about what that looks like, what a culture in the regions looks like. And I think it could be an interesting model for all of us to keep in mind—that you can grow audiences, as long as you bring them along with you.

Chris: I think that’s great. Actually, that’s a really good point—I’ve been working in Dubbo for the last eighteen months or so, with the community and just in town, and there’s an incredible energy up there.

Angela: Alana, do artists have to subsidise culture themselves in Australia?

Alana: Well yes, I mean, the truth is the Guild has just fought for a small increase in the writers’ commission fee—it’s taken us 4 years to do that. And when you look at the inflation and the cost of living—Sydney, for me, the second most expensive city in the world—you know, a small incremental increase, the Guild has fought for that. So, in fact, writers are in pretty much the same position they have been for thirty years, that’s kind of the hard facts of it. And it’s the Guild who fight for them to actually increase that.

Angela: So who should pay?

Chris: Well, it’s only really been since World War II that governments have become significantly involved in funding the Arts. And yet we treat it as if its become a commonplace thing, but actually it’s really only been a couple of generations. And it’s a genuinely fraught area if government gets involved—then there’s got to be a responsible spend of that money and it’s got to somehow balance the instrumental benefits of that spend as well as the intrinsic benefits. And, the company I spend most of my time working for, it’s less than 10% of subsidy that state and federal government can find and we rely mostly on ticket sales. I’m not saying that’s a great thing but, as a result of that fact, the company—MTC, where I work—believes very strongly in Australian work and about the legacy and value of that and so we’ve gone to a number of philanthropists and are going to be launching a very exciting new thing very soon. However we get the money, we have to get the money. Because imagine if you go to market with a new handbag or earphones or something—and it costs us $1.5 million to put on a show, and it’s often the case that we’ll spend $10,000 on the development of that show—now any business person would say that’s completely crazy, you would never go to market with that little research development spend. And yet we do it all the time and wonder why they don’t work! We have to invest not just in the play, it’s actually investing in the people. Because people make art and, you know, it’s not brain surgery, we have to spend time on the people. It’s a craft skill, working in the theatre—you’ve got to do it, and do it, and do it again – and invest in that audience just as much as your investing in the people that make art for that audience.

Angela: Is there a culture of philanthropy towards the Arts in Australia?

Lee: There’s a very beginning culture of philanthropy. I think we’re probably about 100 years off there being effective philanthropy.

Angela: That’s a long time…

Lee: When you look at the time…philanthropic model, sure, but that’s the project. Because gradually government funding is just going to diminish, within the next 20 years we’re going to see funding for the Arts disappear entirely.  So all of the companies are developing their relationships with philanthropists and developing a language that convinces individuals that, if they want a complex cultural life, they have to pony up for it. And then the question is, how do we make sure that the culture remains accessible to people that don’t necessarily have the money to be able to afford it.

Angela: Why do you say that in 20 years time government subsidies will end to the Arts?

Lee:  I think that there’s just a cycle of diminishing funding for the Arts and whether that comes in spectacular cuts, like what happened last year under Brandis, or whether its in the attrition, the slow erosion cutting that was the three years before. Three years before those cuts, Griffin had not received an increase that allowed us to keep up on a CPI level. So, that had essentially been a form of cutting that was quite invisible and absorbed by the company and, as Alana said, we just find ways to subsidise ourselves—everybody working in the Arts works way more hours than is ever stated on a contract, the props, they contribute consumables, everyone will bring in stuff from home, actors dress in their own clothes, “yeah, I’ve got a t-shirt for that”—that’s just a really invisible layer of subsidy that happens.

Chris: I blame the romantic poets for that. Certainly the idea that there are just people who can exist happily in a garret. You know, God reaches down and touches them on the shoulder and says, “You are the child prodigy or the boy-genius.” And often it’s that gendered. And yet of course when you reflect on who those people were, they were mostly rich men from rich families. And yet that’s not the way that art presents itself, and we have to be alive to that.

Angela: Is it the role of the government to support the arts and theatre in particular? 

Chris: Well I think the argument is a very strong one for government because it’s about accessibility. You know if we believe that culture is important, if we believe that civics are important, you know if we believe in the democratic project, then yeah absolutely.

Lee: I think government supporting accessibility is important and I think government supporting education is important, do I think that they should be supporting all of these companies to the extent even at your 10% Chris, no I don’t. I think we should be learning how to run the companies better and listening to the audiences and investing the money from the successes into the works that we want to put forward that might not make the same kind of money. I don’t think we’re thinking strongly enough commercially speaking, I think we’ve developed a dependence on subsidy, counteracting a truly commercial possibility for some work. I think were burning through a lot of plays and not necessarily exploiting the potential.

Chris: And a lot of playwrights and a lot of actors.

Lee: And a lot of playwrights you can have a really great play sit on the stage and then you move on to the next one as opposed to ‘what can we do with this?’ ‘Where can we take it?’ And it’s not that we don’t necessarily think about it but all of our resources are focussed on the next season and the next season and we’re not taking really great works to other places or not promoting them in other ways.

Chris: And I’ve certainly had, you know, very strong conversations, robust and dynamic conversations with artists who leave the country and just say it will never happen here. That because we have no West End or Broadway and because the middle tier is so, you know, tricky and in a perilous situation, they just go ‘forget it’ there’s no sense of growth here, that as Lee says, we churn through people as an appalling failure of ‘through put’ for want of a better phrase and we end up damaging our own industry.

Angela: On a hopeful note, I think that a lot of young playwrights, I mean I agree with what’s being said, I just want to say, for me, I’m getting this really exciting feeling from young playwrights about needing to invest in what’s going on in the world and for bringing their audiences along with that. And I think that one of the things that we can learn from them is just to kind of have confidence that that generation will start to go ‘you know what, we’ve had this time where things come to us, now we actually realise that we’ve got to fight for it, we’ve got to be vocal about it, we’ve got to say what we don’t like’ and I think that’s certainly a lesson your community has learnt in a great way Fred, you’ve got to just constantly draw a line and say beyond this I will not go.

Fred: Because we’re, as I said we’ve got this funding but our focus is getting private, philanthropic funding, we want to be independent of the Government and it’s given us a stay of time and it’s got us over a big hump where we can, for four years, where we can relax.

Lee: The theatre community is getting much better at working together. If the first 50 years were this competitive race to gather enough resource and infrastructure to not collapse when the funding disappears, now it’s actually about collaboration a lot more between companies.

Fred: And there’s a lot more companies now too, I think.

Chris: Yes and no.

Fred: There are a lot of more smaller, little groups that are around, I think.

Lee: A lot of super small, but not in the medium sector.

Fred: Not in the medium, yeah.

Lee: Not in the medium sector, that’s been cut away.

Fred: But maybe this is the conversation, I mean, how do they get to that next level and can they sustain themselves?

Lee: Yeah.

Chris: You know, it’s a terribly fractured community and it has been in the past

 Lee: I mean, seriously. Last year with the funding cuts, when everyone started to talk to each other for the first time, and tried to articulate one sentence that we all agreed on, we couldn’t do it. It was actually a learning exercise in how much we don’t talk to each other and how much we don’t agree. And if the artistic community can’t agree on what is important to us on a value level, then how can we possibly communicate to an audience of people who ostensibly are paying for us with their taxes? 

Alana: Probably needed a writer at that meeting Lee…

Lee: No, interestingly, we went to writers to actually generate the language for what we wanted to say, but it was interesting how hard it was to wrestle down to even one thing that we wanted to say.

Alana: Well, what is the core business of this thing? Like, what’s the core business of a broadcaster—it’s actually making radio. What’s the core business of a theatre company? It’s employing artists to make theatre. So, I’m not under any illusion about the realities of doing that in the twenty-first century but, at the same time, is there a balance? Has it bloated into something else that artists aren’t being made available to?

Chris: Well this is true to the extent that, what is useful for an institution—stability and certainty. And that’s what an institution requires to continue, and yet, what artists bring is often the opposite of that. So it’s uncertainty and chaos. And trying to find a balance between those two things is tricky.

Angela: Under what conditions, do you think, the arts and theatre in particular really flourish in Australia?

Chris: It’s a thrilling question culturally and historically as well. Someone who likes Stephen Pinker, for instance, argues that actually art is almost surplus to what we do as humans to survive and we only do it in times of excess. But of course, you can think of a million examples where that’s entirely wrong and it’s fundamental to the way our brains develop and that story is core to that.

Lee: I think we go through fluctuations in so far as the environment. I think we do flourish when we’re persecuted, I think that the voice of resistance comes up strongly. And I think that’s, on some level, what audiences and governments count on – the fact that, you cut the money away, we will still make work. There’s a sadness in that but there’s also a ferocity in it as well and I think we will keep making work as the funding is cut away but we’ve also learned that, to make it well, we need to find support for the doing of it.

Alana: Well I think that the theatre is still a futile industry, as opposed to being a democracy. I think that we flourish when we a sort of benevolent dictator at the top who likes the arts. I think that, basically, we need someone who takes a personal interest in the arts and they see it in all these dimensions and we don’t have to argue for it and they say, “I’m going to give you all the resources—if not the money, then the resources—and I’m going to empower you to do what you want.” 

Angela: Has there been anyone that you can recall in your lifetime that’s been that person?

Alana: Well, who do you say—

Angela: I would say Gough Whitlam.

Alana: Gough Whitlam, of course. I mean, that’s when the arts flourished—you had someone who did that. And yes I think there’s been Arts Ministers since then and certainly there’s been State Premiers who’ve taken an interest in the arts.

Lee: But it is petrifying when you have a minister coming in, as the portfolios have been changing so much across Federal and State in the last few years, when the reshuffle happens and you look at the biography of the person and they’ve got no interest in the arts—this is a stepping-stone position for them towards something else—and you just go, “How do I talk to this person,” and you start all over again. And, again, the fragility of funding—especially coming from my point of view when you’re working in new writing, when those voices of the writers are antithetical to the values of that minister you go, “Let’s not bring them to that play, let’s wait ‘til we’ve got one that they won’t hate.” And you kinda go, that’s awful. It’s actually awful and petrifying because, like you said Fred, you’ve got four years to find some other form of support. Four years to spend some of that resource on making sure that you’re not dependent on that money. 

Chris: So there was this extraordinary director from the UK in the 1940’s and 50’s, a guy called George Devine, and his argument for funding was: how do you take the trouble with the difficult dramatist? How do you work with art that’s in advance of the public taste? And that seems to be a kind of strong argument for funding. But beyond that it’d be great to think that the stories themselves are enough to drive an audience to get out of their houses. To stop watching streaming services and to go, “Actually, I’m thrilled by live performance”; whether that’s a band, whether it’s poetry, whether it’s seeing visual art; but that they’re thrilled by the idea of actually sharing the space with some real people. 

Angela: Thank you Lee Lewis, Fred Copperwaite, Alana Valentine and Chris Mead. I’m Angela Catterns. Let’s keep this discussion going and see you at the theatre soon.      

7 December 2:11 pm

A Note from Lee, 7 December

Big announcement. Our two Studio Artists for 2018 are Caleb Lewis and Meyne Wyatt. They will both be with the company for the year working on their plays and on all things Griffin. Watch this space!

This year’s Studio Artist Phil Spencer is now joining the company as our Artistic Associate. So yes, you will continue so see him unashamedly imitating me and being far funnier than me…he will also be the curator of Batch Festival, and many more projects including Griffin Up Late and Griffin Scratch…he is indispensable. This part-time artistic position is one we lost due to the Brandis cuts. Thanks to the extraordinary support of the Robertson Family Foundation, we’re able to bring back the position. We are in a whole new world of philanthropy now where individuals — like our invaluable Studio Donors — are supporting the infrastructure of companies. We cannot thank them enough for stepping in to fill the enormous gaps left when the government support was withdrawn.

Speaking of support, I saw Barbara and the Camp Dogs over at Belvoir last night — awesome new writing from the amazing Alana Valentine and Ursula Yovich. We have loved them both here at Griffin and seeing the result of their collaboration was really inspiring. It is a great new Australian music work. And with Morgan Rose’s play onstage at Griffin now there are some really bold offers from female playwrights — the absolute antidote to the news cycle.


Lee Lewis
Artistic Director

23 November 12:55 pm

A note from Will, 23 November

On Saturday night we say farewell to one of the most successful independent productions in Griffin’s history as Merciless Gods finishes its devastating run. A huge congratulations to Little Ones Theatre and Dan Giovannoni for his compelling adaptation and arrangement of Christos Tsiolkas’ anthology.

But it’s not Christmas yet (it really isn’t, please, please hold off on trees, novelty hats and slightly awkward expressions of bonhomie for one more week) and we have one more sensational show yet to come. 

Following a highly successful season in Melbourne, Morgan Rose’s Virgins & Cowboys opens at Griffin on 30 November. A dark, absurdist comedy about desire, despondency and the futile pursuit of satisfaction, Virgins and Cowboys plays out under the fluorescent glare of a generation for whom all the information has provided none of the answers.

The season only runs until 16 December, so purchase your tickets now. There’s nothing sadder than watching groups of friends circling the box office like hungry pets at the Christmas dinner table in the closing week of the play, hoping for a last minute reprieve. So book early and have a great night out!

And while you’re feeling organised, make sure to finalise your 2018 Subscription by the end of the month for your chance to claim Griffin’s smorgasbord of prizes in our Super Big Win.  Five extraordinary plays, special events, and all the benefits that subscribing brings – it certainly sounds festive to me.


9 November 5:06 pm

A Note from Lee, 9 November

There are moments in Merciless Gods that will stay with me always. Moments where the mysterious alchemy of word and actor and the beautiful Stables stage conspire to burn through the fatigue of the day, the frustration with governments, the sadness for friends fighting battles they fear they are generationally destined to lose. Moments that made a profound relief rise up in me that the power of performance to inspire hope is not diminished. I needed that. Inspiration. Thank you to the whole Little Ones Theatre team for bringing a bucket of inspiration to Sydney all the way from Melbourne.

Thank you too to the Diving For Pearls team who have taken Katherine Thomson’s extraordinary play down to its original home in Wollongong and then on to Parramatta.

Thank you to all the playwrights who are drafting away on new plays which will find their way to us through the Griffin Award.

Thank you to everyone who was able to support our fundraiser, Griffin Soundcheck, on Sunday. There were bad jokes from Phil Spencer, great jokes from Susie Youssef, Sheridan Harbridge doing the splits, twice, Simon Burke making all sorts of insinuations about Big Ted, Justin Smith charming us, Genevieve Lemon delighting us, and the musical genius of Max Lambert and Roger Lock to remind us of the extraordinary talent that has been at Griffin this year. All these artists generously donated their performances so that we could upgrade our sound equipment. It was a really special afternoon.

It’s the time of the year when I can look back and see how much you have all done to support Australian playwrights, Australian voices and Australian stories. Every time you come and see a play at Griffin you are engaging in the creative conversation that shapes this country. I love that you know that you don’t have to ‘love’ everything you see and that you are so willing to understand why a play needs to be on the Griffin stage even if it is not your particular cup of tea. I talk about you a lot as I describe why Griffin is so special—I often say that we have the best audience in the country. It does drive other companies a bit nuts when I say that but I won’t back down. You are curious, you are brave, you are open minded, you are articulate and you are passionate. You are also way too busy and yet you find time to make sure you stay part of the most important theatre enterprise, the making of new work. So most of all, thank YOU. You inspire me.

That feels like the last newsletter of the year. It’s not. There will be more. I am just a bit more reflective today for some reason.


Artistic Director
Griffin Theatre Company

26 October 3:39 pm

A post from Karen, 26 October

After a fantastic run, Diving for Pearls is in its final days and has completely sold out. We could not be happier that this beautiful production directed by Darren Yap has touched so many of our audiences. In this recent interview with Time Out, Ursula gave insight into what it was like to play the iconic character of Barbara. I think the effort she, and all of the cast, have put in is evident in the responses we’ve been getting. Thank you to all the cast, creatives and crew who pulled this monumental production together. If you missed it at the Stables, Diving for Pearls is moving on to Riverside Theatres in Parramatta and Merrigong Theatre Company in Wollongong. It’s definitely worth a trip to see.

Yesterday I made my way into the city and was confronted with Christmas decorations as far as the eye could see—it’s offical: the silly season is upon us (we have even started talking Christmas cake in the office!) If you’re stumped at what to get a loved one, consider buying them a year of Australian theatre with a Griffin subscription. If you purchase one before 30 November you will go into the running to win some pretty amazing prizes in Griffin’s Super Big Win. The gift that keeps on giving all year! And speaking of 2018, if you know any young theatre enthusiasts, make sure they sign up to be a Griffin Ambassador next year. It’s a very special program we run for high school students in years 10-12, enabling them to attend Griffin Main Season productions for free throughout the year, engage with casts and creative teams in post-show discussions, and participate in special workshops run by professional theatremakers.

But, it’s not Christmas (or 2018) just yet. Before the end of the year , Griffin still has two shows waiting in the wings. We’re very excited to welcome Griffin Indies Merciless Gods and Virgins & Cowboys to the stage after both have had incredible runs in Melbourne. We hope to see you at the Stables for what promises to be a huge exclamation mark to finish a stellar year at Griffin.

Karen Rodgers

General Manager
Griffin Theatre Company 

12 October 3:06 pm

A Note from Lee, 12 October

Here are six jokes Phil Spencer offered to sell me as I come back into the building and write my first enews in a while. No wait, we are still functioning under the ‘Brandis-ripple-effect-lack-of-funding’ so I can only afford three. But they will be excellent. And my enthusiasm for them knows no bounds because I am back in sunny springtime Sydney and the crazy Griffin house after a stint directing Hay Fever at Melbourne Theatre Company.

I feel like I have been in Melbourne having an affair with a British playwright. Somehow I feel like I have been unfaithful to Australian playwrights and that I should be coming back to Katherine Thomson on my knees begging for theatrical forgiveness. I mean don’t get me wrong—I had a great time with Noel Coward. Great cast, great play, great team, great company. No complaints…but there is nothing quite like the rush of a new play, is there? The wild ride that we all go on into new territory both on the artist side and the audience side is exhilarating. 

So come on, buy your tickets to next year’s roller coaster. Looking at the plays, it feels like we have Luna Park on this side of the harbour. Be brave, be curious, be entertained, be challenged, be a subscriber! Just make sure you be here for the great plays.

Here’s a joke: 74 days until Christmas. And have I mentioned how good a subscription is as a gift to family, friends, staff  and co-workers…

What’s not a joke is the heartbreaking performances onstage at the Stables in Diving for Pearls. This extraordinary play is a chance to look back to the 1980s and see how far we haven’t come as a country in taking care of people. Katherine Thomson is one of this country’s greatest writers and this play is one of our national treasures. Don’t miss it!

And to finish up, an anecdote. So I’m catching up with a playwright at Malthouse when a group of four women come out of Matt Lutton’s wonderful Black Rider. They all had different opinions of the work and were having a robust conversation when one of them said ‘I can’t wait to see Hay Fever next week’. I just loved that their spectrum of theatrical experience in a short space of time would include such vastly different works. That, for me, is when our theatres are working at their best—to provide wildly different experiences to the people of their city so that their conversation can be full and rich and inspiring.

It’s great to be back,
Love Lee

Lee Lewis
Artistic Director  

9 October 1:07 pm

High Hopes Are Not Enough: A Note from Di Kelly

Di Kelly is an Associate Professor at University of Wollongong, researching employment and industrial relations, particularly with reference to the steel industry. This note was written by her in 1992 and was included in the first publication of Diving For Pearls.

At the beginning of 1982 over twenty-one thousand people were employed at the Port Kembla steelworks near Wollongong in NSW. Within eighteen months this number had fallen to under fourteen thousand, and that decline continued for a decade. Ten years later there were fewer than eight thousand at the same plant. Many more thousands of jobs in the firms which served the steelworks have also disappeared. And the lives of those thousands who lost their jobs or resigned before it was too late would never be the same. Yet the experience of Wollongong was not unique.

From the mid-1970s the world market for steel became ever more competitive. On the one hand products such as plastic and aluminium were competing with steel. On the other hand former customers in newly industrialising countries like Korea, Taiwan and Brazil were now competitors with the old steel producing countries in Europe, North America and Australia. In industrial regions throughout the world, there were crises of mass reductions in employment and in many there was very little in the way of alternative employment for the redundant male workers. So sang Billy Joel in his 1981 hit song about American steel towns and the closure of the giant Bethlehem steelworks (which he called Allentown).

So the experience of those in this play is not just some rare Australian occurrence, and the fears and problems of Den and Barbara are the same as those that existed in the old industrial cities in the USA, the United Kingdom and throughout Europe. In Australia, like many countries in Europe, employees were not simply laid off. There was redundancy pay, or special severance pay for those who resigned voluntarily. Many of them rested their hope in the possibility that they could use their severance pay to start a small business, or gain new skills for new occupations.

So Christmas 1983 in the steel and coal towns of Australia was a strange time of fear and spending, when people in safe jobs crossed to the other side of the street to avoid those who might have lost or left their jobs; and those who no longer had jobs spent their money in the hope that jobs might miraculously appear. Then there were those who were not quite sure that they would still have a job by the following Christmas, nor what they would do if indeed they did lose their jobs. A lifetime working in a steel plant or a contract engineering firm does not make for portable skills. Many of the employees who resigned or were retrenched were unready and untrained for other sorts of work. Like Den who stays with his job for as long as he can in the hope that things might come good, they were often doomed to disappointment. But they stayed and hoped for better things, or tried to set up small businesses or trained for different jobs.

But the problem was that new occupations required new industries and investors were wary. Media stories of industrial cities almost always exaggerate the militancy of the workers, or tell tales of their conservative work habits. On the television news, stories of steel towns are almost always represented through pictures of chimneys, spouting what looks like plumes of smoke. The fact that those plumes are nothing more than steam would spoil a good story, and so the public image of steel towns remained flawed and the investors stayed away.

Many of the workers were migrants who had been coming to Australia since the 1940s in search of a better life. In the 1980s, they had to contend not only with increasingly inappropriate skills specific to old technology of heavy industry or steel production, but with the language and cultural differences found in a society which mostly pays only lip-service to multiculturalism.

It was worse for migrant women. Traditionally, industrial cities have woefully few jobs for women and in relatively recent cities like Wollongong, the situation was aggravated by the absence of other industries. Like Topsy, Wollongong had just grown from a small industrial centre, surrounded by a multiplicity of mining villages prior to World War II, to a burgeoning unplanned, under-resourced city in the 1960s and 1970s, its growth in population outpacing the social and economic infrastructure needed to support such a city. To be sure, women with few recognised skills could work in clothing factories, with draconian working conditions easily enforced because of the vast pool of unemployed women ready to replace those who questioned the rules, but there were only a few of even these undesirable sorts of jobs. There were office jobs too, but not many. So there were few jobs for women, but especially migrant women. Barbara’s desperate attempts to change her appearance and her vowels underline the even greater problems which would face migrant women who had to contend with language difficulties and prejudice, probably not in that order. In an international downturn in the market, those with least skills, and the least portable skills are the most vulnerable.

But life in the steel towns is one of contradictions, as we see in the play. Coal and steel sandwiched between superb beaches and miles of rainforest. Heavy industry is not pretty, but it is surprisingly limited in its impact on the environment. The worst pollution may come from the nearby metropolis. Within a mile or two of the engineering district, the new international resort can justifiably portray flawless images of sun, sea and sand. There is no dirt, no dust, no smell of industry.

It is not surprising then, that when the steel cities reeled from the shocks of workforce reductions, they looked to these features as possible alternatives to the making of steel and the hewing of coal. Gradually, over the years following the first major reductions, the local authorities, commercial organisations and trade unions cajoled and enticed new industries in the hope that never again would the town put all its economic reliance on a single industry.

Despite all the best efforts, however, recovery was not fast enough and there were never enough jobs to go around—particularly for those with fewest modern skills or vulnerable in other respects, such as older workers, younger workers, women, migrants, Aborigines—so many of whom wanted to work but for whom there were just no jobs. And then came the recession of the 1990s…

Diving for Pearls runs until 28 October.
Book now 

28 September 12:48 pm

A Note from Phil, Thursday 28 September

When charged with task of writing the Griffin eNews, I’ve been told it is best to open with a pithy anecdote, elucidate the goings-on of the company with a meaningful backstage insight and then close with a joke and/or a photo of the day Elliott brought his dog Peri into the office.*

Although, sometimes, it is far better to just let the cavalcade of stars do the talking and Diving For Pearls has quite the constellation…

★★★★ –The Sydney Morning Herald
★★★★ – Time Out
★★★★ – Limelight Magazine
★★★★ – Daily Review

“This is a production not to miss—seriously recommended…” – Stage Noise
“Gherkin stains all over the concrete.” – Phil Spencer (Personal favourite line in the play)

You only have a few weeks left to catch this tremendous production—so book up or miss out!

In the fury of living in the present, you may not have yet cast your eyes over our upcoming 2018 Season. You can do that right here, right now. If you fancy.

I’ve spent the last week performing my storytelling show Hooting & Howling at Melbourne Fringe and can attest first hand that the alternative, independent, DIY, new writing scene is alive and well south of the border. As are ironic calypso bands.

Here at Griffin, we’ll be programming a suite of new works in 2018 for Batch Festival—so, if you’re an artist reading this, you still have time to pitch your brainchildren. Submissions close Friday 6 October.

Last month we had the pleasure of reading a bag full of new play ideas for young people – there were a huge range of wild, unruly, heart-warming and hilarious scripts in the mix and as ever picking three was tough business. But it is with a great big smile that we announce Dan Giovannoni, Verity Laughton and Katie Pollock as the shortlisted writers for our inaugural Martin Lysicrates Prize. Our three finalists’ entries will receive a staged reading on Saturday 14 October at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta. Cannot wait.


Phil Spencer
Artistic Associate


14 September 1:18 pm

A Note from Phil, 14 September

When I am sloshing about the foyer chit-chatting to a fellow thespian (whose name I definitely knew…then forgot…then knew again…then, nah, it’s gone…), and he uses the phrase ‘Australian Classic,’ I go a little quiet and nod along and make my ‘yes, hmmm, yep, yeah, interesting, yeah’ face.

And although, like a good new Antipodean, I’ve flicked through my anthology of Australian plays, dabbled with Ray Lawler, glanced at Mona Brand, reeled at Katherine Susan Pritchard and sang out loud to/for myself with Dorothy Hewitt, I go a little coy because I have not actually seen a lot of these plays on the stage. (You know the stage, it’s the bit in front of the seats. The bit in front of the seats, where the actors do the talking and the play grips you by the heart.)

And so, in the foyer, last night, after Darren Yap’s mesmerising production of Diving for Pearls, I didn’t have to make my blagging face, I just stood there, beaming ear to ear at seeing, what was for me, a brand new world brought to life before my very eyes on that bit in front of the seats.

But don’t just take it from me—on Stage Noise, Diana Simmonds writes: This is a production not to miss — seriously recommended.


We’ve programmed some really rather amazing shows in our 2018 season. The best way to ensure you’ll get tickets to all the shows you want (at the best price) is to subscribe. 

It is with a big grin and a little lump in our throat that we raise a glass and bid a fond farewell to Griffin hero Damien Storer; for those who don’t know, Damien is the man behind the Griff bar who shouts ‘Right you lot, it’s closing time, get out, I want to go home now.’ You’ll be missed, Damo.

Wow, you read all the way to the end. I didn’t mean it to be this long, but hey. As a treat for getting this far, I want to leave you with snippet from my life, from last weekend…

10.15am. Saturday. Flinders Street, Darlinghurst.

My wife and I sit in traffic, when a car of the young peoples pulls up alongside us at the traffic lights. The young female person driving and her passenger, who is also a young female person, affectionately snuggle and listen to (probably) FBi Radio. The couple are also sharing a packet of Tim Tams. They look blissful. 

We make eye contact with them, and my wife and I do our ‘good biscuit choice/bit jealous right now’ faces and flick a thumbs up. There is a pause, and then the young peoples wind down their window and without a word offer us a Tim Tam across the traffic. We take it. Of course.

This small interaction with a same sex couple, is one of the major reasons that we’ll be voting YES in our house. As you should too…Because love is love and Tim Tams are Tim Tams (apart from double coated Tim Tams which are all sorts of wrong).


Phil Spencer
Studio Artist

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