2016 / Friday

Art saves lives

Pascale Freer

Kate Mulvany

Kate Mulvany

When Kate Mulvany takes the stage she pauses to take everyone in. She has glossy copper hair and is wearing a black pant suit with a plaid top and white frilly bobby socks. She has smoky eyes and red lips that crack into a cheeky grin. Her performance has the audience enthralled. The actor and playwright who won the Young Playwrights Philip Parsons Award in 2004 is giving the annual Philip Parsons Lecture at the Belvoir Theatre.

She grew up in Geraldton, WA, where as a child she had cancer and many multicultural visitors told her stories to distract her. These storytellers ignited her imagination and love of theatre: “The telling and sharing of stories does save lives. It saved mine.” The transformative power of theatre is under estimated, she said.  “Art saves lives. Not with a scalpel. Or medicine. Or money even. But with shared honesty, empathy and imagination.”

Ms Mulvany emphasised the importance of theatre and its role in bringing to light important issues, and said the theatre is undervalued and underfunded by politicians.

“I have been involved in plays that have spoken out about issues that are ignored by questioning naysayers and pompous politicians,” she said. On the other hand the response from audience members has been significant. “I’ve seen people wait in the foyer afterwards to say to the artist involved ‘thank you for giving me a voice when no one else does’.”

Artists – actors and playwrights – are often challenged with such questions as what do you offer the world? Do you save lives? Do you create wealth? “Yes, we do create wealth,” she said. “According to the Australia Council, the cultural centre of our working nation, we contributed $50 billion to Australia’s GDP in 2012/2013. We give back a hell of a lot more than we receive.”

Ms Mulvany created a metaphor where the theatre and arts world is a house with many floors. She uses the quote “Act well your part, for there honour lies” to hold each part accountable. On the top floor are the artistic directors and festival heads. The Bell Shakespeare company allocates some of its funding to provide two Australian playwrights with a desk, a computer, dramaturges, space and time to write whatever they like even if it is for another company.

On the next floor are Australian playwrights. Ms Mulvany wants to see more original plays and fewer adaptations to “create the map of our cultural legacy”.

She encouraged writers to keep writing. She said she has only received personal funding once, and has another job as an audio scribe for the deaf. Her boss has employed her for 15 years and is a patron of the theatre and understanding about her schedule. She said writers could take the initiative to develop their writing, even when funding is unavailable, by inviting actors to their living room to read their play aloud. And she recommended going to see the plays of their fellow writers in order to return the favour.

She appealed to our big name performers to support new Australian plays rather than Chekov or Tennessee Williams. Once an actor or director reaches a certain level they have influence and power, she said, and invited these names to “Act well your part, for there honour lies.”

Ms Mulvany urged critics to review with empathy rather than being unnecessarily nasty for online infamy. She praised the critics who attend the rehearsals and ask actors questions about “what they think of their role rather than where they eat brunch on Sundays.”

She was recently interviewed by The Sydney Morning Herald for My Secret Sydney outlining her favourite places to go in the inner west.

“I am an artist who likes a happy ending,” she said. “I love being an Australian artist. I love telling stories. I love that our stories do contribute to our nations wealth. I love having my values, challenged or blown apart completely. I love the people. A family as diverse and inspiring as the one that regaled me with stories in that hospital ward so many years ago. I love stories. They do save lives.”