Third Age: Festival Fury in Times Gone By

The Adelaide Festival and the Fringe have packed their tents and stolen away, and a grand time was had by all. Some say the old town has never looked better. The excitement built and expanded in a satisfying way. This publication played its part, too. But there were no scandals that I heard about.

How different from the passionate ‘70s and ‘80s when the arts were front page news, critics were accosted in the street, Festival Centre advertising was withdrawn in protest over reviews, festival directors threw huge tantrums (fists flew in the foyers) and threatened to walk out, and one festival was nearly cancelled.

I’m not saying this is how it should have been, but how it was: some of the noisiest dramas happened away from theatres; many of the “performers” had never been on a stage.

Convention required same-night reviewing for the dailies – a performance art in itself – so that people could read early in the morning what they had seen the night before. Critics had to scuttle from the theatre (more than once a disgruntled patron in the red seats tried to trip me up in protest against my rapid departure) and race up the street to the newspaper, where the real life drama for them often began: writing their several hundred words that could be quoted against them forever, while an impatient sub-editor hovered.

In hot metal days, the printer was waiting too, with a hole in the metal arts page and a traditional scorn for journalists.

My daughter reminded me this festival how she grew up as my “date” at festival performances (no one else would have coped with my unsociable concentration on the task in hand). The discipline involved has remained with her. The eight or nine-year-old had an arts editor for a mother in days when some performers or producers would have liked to hang, draw and quarter me at times. Before final curtain at a festival show or big production, I was dragging her up King William Street to the almost empty office, where I thrashed my typewriter and smoked like a chimney. She enjoyed the drama, but longed for sleep. Did I even think to ask her if she wanted a drink? Probably not.

In the performance itself she sat unmoving, never daring to cough, hardly daring to swallow. No child today would cope with the discipline she accepted. The children
of people involved with theatre at that time are a special breed, now in their middle years, thinking back in wonder at their self-control. Our famous man of theatre, entrepreneur Bob Lott’s daughter Martha Lott (now a renowned actor, entrepreneur and award-winning producer) is one of them. She and Natasha recently swapped memories. Far from resenting the harsh strictures imposed by their parents, they value it. And of course they saw more theatre and exhibitions, heard more music and witnessed more curious behaviour of passionate artists than their peers.

They recall with delight how everyone dressed up. Ball gowns were seen at first nights. There were glamour, excitement and passion. Free drinks at intervals for the chosen in the JB room. Much angst if you weren’t asked.

My daughter still wonders how I made notes on a small pad throughout performances without taking my eyes off the stage. She was scared someone would object to the sound of my pen on paper. These days audiences have phones, water bottles and bronchial spasms, and rarely give a damn about a bit of noise.

She was with me the night I taught a festival director a lesson after he was rude about how Adelaide women dressed. In those days directors came from “overseas” were invariably male and were so up themselves by our standards it was embarrassing.

When he added insult to injury by saying our orchestra played out of tune, and was free with other insults to a place he appeared to scorn as parochial, everyone knew about it. And he wasn’t the only festival director to behave as though Adelaide was dirt under his elegant shoes. He changed his tune eventually.

Kicking back at that led to all kinds of public and semi-public rows. Audiences sometimes had the wool pulled over their eyes with the odd, very ordinary festival show. It was easy to blame the audience; for directors to say Adelaide was “just not ready” for something.

At the Edinburgh Festival in the ‘80s, I brushed up against the same fights and put downs. The arts were incendiary there, too, funding having increased to something to be passionately fought over, as well as usual artistic dramas.

Now everything seems civilized; the fights, I suppose, are kept behind doors. Arts criticism doesn’t seem to be a life and death performance in itself anymore.

But old arts editors like Lance Campbell and me remember. “I doubt that anyone does same-night reviews,” he said to me. “With digital, even deadlines don’t exist in the same form – almost anything can be slipped in any time. But I do remember the days, the nights, the incredible pressure and abject fear of missing the deadline, always writing about three pars too many while trying to find out what I really thought, and the answer was invariably in the second last par. Then trying to put that at the top with a sub (sub-editor) standing over me.

“However, Evita was different.

“As you will recall, it was a huge event, which you must have communicated to an understanding editor. Was it Don Riddell?

“This meant that I had time to research, as well as a set space and dedicated word count well in advance. I went to the final Evita preview, had the next morning to put down my thoughts, submitted them, then went to opening night.

“I can’t remember whether I then went back to the office to polish, but without mobile phones, I expect I did. “Then on to the opening night party with Rupert and Robert at the Old Lion, which lasted until 4am. So, just once, I was spoilt by an accommodating deadline. After that it went back to the old same-night review pressure/fear situation for the rest of my time as critic, and as one of your successors as arts editor.”

I told him of the exhilaration I felt when I thought I had nailed it; he said night reviewing released so much adrenalin that he could barely sleep afterwards.

“But next morning,” he said, “I enjoyed the immediacy and excitement of an opening-night review in the paper. It meant we were taking both the production and the public seriously.

“I had the impression that the parties appreciated the effort.”

But Adelaide being Adelaide, the old quarrels for some have never ended.

@mollyfisher4

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