Griffin Theatre Company artistic director Lee Lewis says she feels a personal responsibility to writers producing new work. Photo: Dallas Kilponen
A few days before the launch of her second season as artistic director of Griffin Theatre Company, Lee Lewis was listening to a conversation on ABC radio about cutting funding for the opera. "I thought, 'yeah, do it'," she says. It's not that Lewis doesn't like the opera – "I loved Madama Butterfly" – but with public funding looking less and less secure, "the arts community's got to start prioritising: what are the things we need to have? And what are the places that are making the works that will be the national treasures of the future?"
Opera Australia and the state theatre companies have vast networks of supporters that could support a shift away from government funding, Lewis says. And the opera could be doing more to contribute to the artistic conversation than it currently is. "I look at the repertory model and think, 'I am bored of these five operas that keep coming back.' I want to be seeing new opera. I want to see opera around the kitchen table. How many new works did they actually premiere this year? What is that contributing to the canon?"
The canon is a frequent occupant of Lewis' mind. As artistic director of Sydney's only theatre dedicated almost entirely to producing new Australian writing, Lewis says she aims to take chances on young writers in ways main stage companies never could, to produce the new works that could go on to live in our playwriting canon. It is why, as she calls for a reprioritisation of funding, she insists Griffin should always be supported. "We take chances on young writers and big ideas. We lose money at every show here at Griffin – and that's what we're funded to do."
Lewis' aim in 2015 is the same as it was in 2014: to surprise. "If we get a situation where people think they know what they're getting with Australian writing, then it's over and done with." To that end, the next season will feature among its six mainstage productions Masquerade, by actress Kate Mulvany, a whimsical, kid-friendly co-production that will play as part of the Sydney Festival, as well as playwright Kit Brookman's A Rabbit for Kim Jong-Il, which leaps off from a bizarre true story about the former North Korean leader.
Lewis will co-direct the former, and direct the latter, along with The Bleeding Tree. The play won Melbourne playwright Angus Cerini the Griffin Award for new Australian writing this year and opens with a mother and her daughters killing the abusive father of the family. "Angus has just got such a visceral voice and shameless willingness to go into violence and examine it."
It's a play which speaks to an urgent and current situation, says Lewis: the almost epidemic levels of domestic violence in Australia. And it adds something fresh to the discourse, at one point the mother telling a man considering reporting her that he had said nothing when he knew what her husband was doing, and it's none of his business now. "The sheer ownership of defiance – I thought that was a good brick to throw into the puddle of the conversation about violence against women."
The 2015 mainstage season will also feature Suzie Miller's Caress/Ache and Aidan Fennessy's thriller The House On the Lake as well as a special collaboration with Performance 4A, Yasukichi Murakami: Through a Distant Lens. There will also be five more plays presented by independent companies as part of the Griffin Independent program.
For Lewis, it's never enough.
From a longlist of 30 to 40 works, she says there are 12 that she could stage every year – "devastatingly, we don't have the resources to do all of those." She has 15 already on reserve for 2016, and she tries to find homes elsewhere for the plays that don't make it.
Given the whole purpose of the theatre, Lewis says she feels a heavy personal responsibility to the writers asking to produce their work on her stage at the SBW Stables Theatre. "These are plays that are trying to speak to the audience now. At other companies they're in competition with Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams and the rest of the world. Here we're trying to build the storehouse of Australian stories. And if a play can't find a home here, it breaks my heart."