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Four weeks after becoming the artistic director of Sydney’s Griffin Theatre Company, Declan Greene had to cancel two plays because of Covid-19. He speaks about this extraordinary challenge, his childhood flair for drama and his ambitions for the company. “I’m constantly thinking I should do more to change things in the world … I’m interested in reconfiguring the space I work in to make it a more equal place.” By Steve Dow.

Griffin Theatre Company artistic director Declan Greene

Declan Greene in rehearsal last year at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre.
Credit: Phoebe Powell

The playwright, director and dramaturg Declan Greene has made Australian theatre speak to our unstable present, with a penchant for casting his plays – which are steeped in queer aesthetics – against expectations of gender, age and race.

Greene made a name for himself placing anarchic gender-fluid performers in satires of southern Gothic and Hollywood tropes, collaborating with the performer Ash Flanders as the duo Sisters Grimm. Their early shows were staged in venues such as a Melbourne car park, a vacant shed and a suburban backyard. Later productions premiered on mainstream theatre stages.

Last year, Greene collaborated with Jamaican-born Australian actor Zahra Newman to present a one-woman theatre adaptation of our greatest cinematic satire of the macho bloke, Wake in Fright, locating new ways to destabilise toxic masculinity and a culture of aggressive conformity. The work was met with critical acclaim.

Theatre circles buzzed with excitement last December at the announcement that Greene had been appointed artistic director of Sydney’s Griffin Theatre Company. The humble 105-seat Kings Cross theatre carries an outsize responsibility as the only theatre company in the country solely devoted to presenting Australian plays, most of them premieres. Greene had to move to Sydney for the role; his partner of seven years, theatre-maker Troy Reid of the Applespiel collective, remained in Melbourne, where he is studying to become a baker.

Just four weeks into the new role though, Greene was shutting the theatre’s big stable doors and announcing that the Covid-19 pandemic meant Matthew Whittet’s new play, Kindness, would not be staged in March as planned, nor Kendall Feaver’s new work, Wherever She Wanders, originally scheduled for July.

Wearing a bright orange top and sporting stubble, Greene is misty-eyed speaking from his Sydney home via Skype this week when asked about having to deliver the bad news.

“That’s part of the weirdness of running a theatre company as a playwright; I have lived knowledge of the years of heartbreak and sacrifice and deep dedication and psychological hardship that go into forging a play, and production is such a deeply rare thing,” he says.

“Having to call Matt and Kendall and tell each of them we couldn’t do their plays was fucking awful. My god, if I got that phone call from an artistic director, I would be absolutely fucking devastated.

“And the worst thing is that there are no guarantees being made at the moment about future presentation of these works. No Australian theatre company at the moment can make that promise.”

The actors and other creatives on Kindness have been paid out their entitlements, thanks to strong cash flow from the David Williamson play Family Values, which was staged at Griffin at the beginning of 2020. The theatre also recently had its four-year Australia Council funding reconfirmed. Casual box office and bar staff have been redeployed in part-time jobs, including reading and assessing scripts from the huge pile submitted by hopeful playwrights.

Lee Lewis, Griffin’s previous artistic director, says she sees in Greene “a potential for the kind of leadership that will give Australia the new-writing theatre it needs, a company that is politically fearless, formally wild, inventive in ways that challenge all the larger companies and that will truly lead the country in the development of new Australian voices”.

Our present chaos will not diminish Greene’s capacity, says Lewis, who herself worked through the 2015 arts cuts when George Brandis was federal Arts minister. “Declan has never had money, so he is fit for a new theatre world where there is none to be had,” she says.

In April, Greene and his small team launched the Griffin Lock-In series, commissioning five artists to create new pieces of theatre in just 10 days, challenging them to “make something communal and alive” that harnessed live-streaming technology on YouTube, while also acknowledging their audience. Having never created live-streamed performances before, the Griffin production team found the series a “chaotic” experience, Greene says, although the main problem was dealing with the national broadband network’s slow evening speeds.

One of the works, Thirsty!, by Chinese–Australian performer Roshelle Fong, was polished up and presented for a second time this week, with funding from Google Creative Lab. Set in a post-lockdown world, Thirsty!  is an interactive thriller requiring its audience to look for clues to assist the performer, who is posing as a Tinder date in an undercover investigative mission against a home invasion suspect.

With no clear sign of when theatres will be allowed to reopen, Greene acknowledges that “it’s a horrible time for artistic companies and especially freelance artists at the moment”. A question mark remains over plays to be staged at Griffin from September onwards.

“But what this situation offers us is an opportunity to renegotiate some of the fundamentals of our relationships with our audiences,” Greene says. “People who really love and are passionate about theatre are really missing it and looking for alternative ways to experience it.

“Work built for live-streaming is built for pretty much anyone. You don’t have to leave your house to experience it at all. So, if you can figure out a way to create the appetite for it, it could foreseeably be much cheaper to access. The internet is everybody’s space. It’s like making public art. It’s for everybody.”

Greene is acutely aware of theatre being seen as elitist, and believes the arts community needs to talk more about the high price of tickets compared with other forms of entertainment, for when theatres open again. “The thing we have to work out is, what reason are we giving people to leave the house?”

Singer and actor Mama Alto – who starred in The Homosexuals, or “Faggots”, Greene’s satirical 2017 play about gay materialism – says her favourite thing about Greene is his belief in theatre as an important art form. “Declan has a ferociously quick mind,” says Alto. “His works are frequently outrageous, but present incisive and important questions about human nature.”

She cites Greene’s stage adaptation of Lars von Trier’s film Melancholia, his colonialism critique in Lilith: The Jungle Girl, and the collision of pop culture and ego in Calpurnia Descending, which pitted actor Paul Capsis as a fading star paranoid about the young ingenue, played by Ash Flanders, both in drag.

Flanders, who met Greene when he auditioned for a role in a show that Greene was putting together for the Melbourne Comedy Festival in 2005, says his friend and collaborator has a “deep artistic restlessness” and “never settles, never repeats, always thinks more meaning could be wrung out, more surprises could be had, more intrigue, more fun…

“In private he’s exactly how he appears in public – funny, overworked, underslept and idealistic in the best sense of the word.”

 

Declan Greene’s earliest ambition was to be an actor. He was born in 1985 in Pakenham, on Melbourne’s outskirts, but spent most of his childhood in the rural Victorian town of Iona, with a population of fewer than 300 people. “There’s a church and a cricket pitch and a drain that runs through the town,” he says. “That’s literally all there is.”

Greene’s parents are Irish Catholic; his mother, a nurse, was born in Australia, and he has a younger sister. The family had a two-hectare hobby farm, raising calves. But there was theatricality even in the rural setting. Greene’s mum sent him off to kindergarten dress-up day as the Wicked Witch of the West, because he was obsessed with actress Margaret Hamilton from The Wizard of Oz.

“I always loved villains,” he tells me. “They were always so much more interesting and had better songs. The Wicked Witch was avant-garde in her couture.”

While Greene went to a Catholic primary school and an Anglican high school, he says his parents “never really rammed religion down our throats”.

“I suspect a big part of that was my being a kind of flaming faggot from the moment I was born. There was no way for them not to realise they had an extremely gay child. It’s ridiculous; my parents were so good with my sexuality.”

Greene tells a story from when he was five and his father and some adult male friends were laying tiles in the family’s kitchen. Greene came into the room wearing several layers of costumes from the dress-up box, including a huge woman’s hat. Swishing around the skirts he wore, Greene declared: “How do I look, boys?” The men all turned and looked at Greene’s father, who responded nonchalantly to his mates: “Well, how does he look?”

Rocker Courtney Love was Greene’s favourite diva when he was growing up. Gay men attach themselves to such strong figures because divas “perform gender in a way that you do”, says Greene, who also thought of Marilyn Manson as a diva: “I think it’s why sometimes gay men are interested in theatre – we’re used to passing and performing from the moment we’re born.”

When he was 12, Greene’s mother went out of her way to take him to a cinema to see a film she had chosen – the American comedy In and Out, starring Kevin Kline as a popular teacher who announces he’s gay. Afterwards, she peppered Greene with questions about what he thought of the film.

When he was 13, singing “Mein Herr” around the house at the top of his lungs, playing the Cabaret soundtrack in the car – he thought Liza Minnelli was the “most beautiful and exciting thing I’d ever seen on screen” – his mum turned to him and said, expectantly: “You know Liza’s a huge gay icon?”

At high school, Greene’s acting ambitions took hold, but he also wanted to be a rockstar or a member of a punk band, even though he says he can’t sing at all. “I used to go outside behind the sheds on the farm and just scream, like Courtney Love and Marilyn Manson.” He started writing and directing his own plays, casting other students.

He failed to get into the Victorian College of the Arts or the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney. He enrolled in theatre studies at Melbourne University but dropped out early because he found the course was too dry and academic, so he swapped to art history. “I kept writing and directing,” Greene says, “and at a certain point I saw myself on film and realised I wasn’t a very good actor.

“I thought I’d be good at the acting in the hysterical, ridiculous homosexual roles I was writing for myself. Then I met Ash Flanders and realised he could do everything I wanted to do, but a million times better than me.”

Flanders confirms Greene’s self-assessment: “His only weaknesses were his acting and driving, both abandoned for our safety.”

Lee Lewis declares it an “excellent” state of affairs that a playwright is now running Griffin, given Australian theatre faces “huge questions about traditional structures and forms excluding new storytelling voices”. She’s certainly not alone in this view.

Greene is also an “exceptional director and an insightful dramaturg,” says Lewis. “He lives his values, he has very little fear as far as I can see … [he is] no less talented than the auteurs of old, but … ready to cede centrality for the sake of growing the new original voice.”

Greene considers himself a playwright, a dramaturg and a director in equal measure. “You can’t have an ego as a dramaturg at all,” he says. “It’s totally about the writer you’re working with, and your job is moving them towards their ambition for the work.”

How would he characterise his politics? “I definitely have a deep social conscience but … I’m not an activist. I’m constantly thinking I should do more to change things in the world … I guess I’m just interested in reconfiguring the space I work in to make it a more equal place.”

He wants Griffin to look unlike any other theatre company in Australia. His eye is on artists seen less often on main stages, those from culturally diverse backgrounds working to “decentralise the whiteness and hegemony at the core of a lot of Australian writing”, he says.

“We are the space in Sydney best equipped to take risks on artists, because we don’t have as many seats to fill. So, to give people their first main-stage gigs, and to take risks on ideas, aesthetics, types of story and experience other theatres can’t touch.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 23, 2020 as "Greene power".

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Steve Dow
is a Melbourne-born, Sydney-based arts writer.

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