Over the last month, the significant performance library at UC of Free Theatre's Peter Falkenberg has been packed up and moved to the Arts Centre to form a new library in The Gym. The move prompted reflection on some remarkable achievements since the Theatre and Film Studies Department was "disestablished" in 2013.
It's a funny old thing...
Since the axing, this 'non-department' has produced six PhDs.
That would be impressive for any department of its kind anywhere - let alone one that doesn't officially exist... having been sacrificed on the altar of STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering and Maths - the subjects pushed by the last government as the most relevant for employment and productivity with the arts being seen as the most "irrelevant").
Marian McCurdy, Emma Johnston, Te Rita Papesch, Tony McCaffrey, Aaron Annan and, just recently, Liz Boldt, have reached the pinnacle of academic study. With supervision from Peter Falkenberg and Sharon Mazer, post-graduate work has been produced that would be impressive anywhere but outrageously successful for a department that achieved such a sophisticated bridging of theory and practice. Ironically, a US academic's review of the department that was eventually used to close it down stated unequivocally that such an impressive culture would be the "jewel in the crown of any serious research university in the US". It's critical, political approach clearly made it a target rather than collateral damage, a hallmark of neoliberalism. The submitted work of PhDs reflects the rich, diverse and nuanced culture that has grown out of Free Theatre and adds to an impressive culture over 20 years - topics here. There is one PhD still to come. And of course Free Theatre, for the meanwhile, with a core of PhDs at its heart continues to produce new work in the central city with a mix of vastly experienced and qualified artists and emerging young artists that may well go on to produce a new wave of practice and theory that drives a new culture. It feels like there is change coming.
An article in The Press recently acknowledged the destruction of nine years of neoliberal governance on education and the arts in particular and an awareness of the desperate need for the analytical, contextual approach of arts education in what will be a vastly different society and economy in the 21st century:
There is a certain 'follow the money' culture that has been promoted over the past decade that has narrowed some of the wider debate around the overall value of participating in education... It's not just a private good, it's a public good. We need to rediscover that ethos... A university education is not just about making yourself more employable. If you talk to employers about the skills and dispositions they want a graduate to have, they want critical thinkers, people who can digest large volumes of information and make sense of it, who can be analytical. They are talking about the profile of a graduate across a huge breadth of programmes. I think we go down a very dangerous path if we say that a university degree is preparation for a particular job. We know that university graduates tend to be pretty adaptable and flexible.
It must be said that the targeting of the arts by Steven "Pretty Legal" Joyce and his previous National government were draconian and predicated on a misguided, outdated world view. However, it continues to be a sign of hope that there are those who acknowledge this and have fought for a less "flat-earth" approach within the university:
Around the country, for arts in particular, this last decade has been demoralising. Every year we get told 'You're not as useful and don't contribute as much', even though we see all around us the important role arts has played in Christchurch's recovery. At least now we have a Minister for the Arts at the highest level in Government, showing once again what the Prime Minister takes seriously.
A recent piece from UC senior management seemed an attempt to rewrite history and reposition management as saviours of the university rather than henchmen for the previous neoliberal regime. But the attempted spin and assertions simply don't stand up to even brief scrutiny.
In 2012, a colleague at UC described "TAFS people" as cockroaches - as the university looked to once again shut us down (eventually with success). He offered a back-handed mark of respect by using the same term that then US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton used to describe former PM Helen Clark (who, incidentally, once saved the department) as the ultimate survivor. But our erstwhile colleague was pointing towards something that perhaps just doesn't make sense in university these days... or arts organisations... Free Theatre and the department it spawned just don't make sense in a market-driven culture, continuing to function as a critic and conscience against the commercial odds. It is this kind of focus on collective creative thinking that is the future.
As a new Minister for the Arts, who just happens to be the PM, steps up, she brings with her an unprecedented two Associate Ministers for the Arts that are, respectively, the Minister for Finance (and Sport) and the Minister for Social Development and Disability issues. For those that care, we all have to contribute to make sure this symbolism marks real change and not more of the same neoliberal posturing.
With that in mind, it may be of interest to read Falkenberg's keynote for a conference on 'theatre and resilience' in Australia last year. Among other things, the article reflects on the experience of the department, Free Theatre and Christchurch as they battled through the worst excesses of neoliberalism that were pushed to extremes by the National government of the last nine years.
People want to be reassured by performances of resilience. Looking at it in this light, resilience becomes problematic. It could be that the arts and theatre can become complicit with the ruling ideology, and will become service providers like the counsellors and psychologists who are employed after a catastrophe. Only good news is allowed. This is an old predicament for those of us who make theatre. We always have to decide if we want to become part of an entertainment industry, or if we consider art-making in the theatre as part of a larger emancipatory process. Schiller says that only where we play can we be free and fully human. If we are not free, how can we play? Perhaps we have to think about replacing resilience with another word: resistance.