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John Aitken ~ Staging reflections

The literary history of a city is built slowly, page-by-page. By the nature of their art, the key contributors are usually invisible, while they quietly observe and write ~ appearing to be the shapers and changers of the culture only years later, in retrospect.

We look back and remember playwrights, Shakespeare, Chekov, Ibsen…but in the present we see only stars and the odd noteworthy director.

Pacing the streets of Northbridge, snowy hair billowing, airline bag firmly slung across his chest, is a modern Perth playwright. ~ A prolific writer who has worked on stages from Vienna to Turkey Creek and publicly made an enemy of political correctness.

Few people seeing John Aitken striding through Northbridge would guess that the airline bag was full of notes, destined for BBC production studios and the neat clipboards of stage directors around the globe.

A passing word, might leave you guessing that he’s a plum-in-the-mouth POM full of scorn for the crass antipodes. Another wrong impression.

John’s plays reveal a deep love of Australia and its odd collection of people, he revels in the differences between them and the sinuous threads of commonality. He has made a career of translating them into characters for the stage, blending people with ideas and pushing always for the awakening of a sense of social honesty and integrity that goes above and beyond mere manners.

Born in Scotland, John spent his preschool years in the UK. His father, a British airforce warrant officer, transferred to the Australian airforce after the war. Relocated in Applecross, John recalls a “pretty fantastic childhood.”

“We used to see wild brumbies and kangaroos as we walked through the bush to school and we’d swim across the river in our birthday suits because there was no one there to make a fuss.”

At Applecross Senior High School, he wrote his first play and his class mates performed it. Inspired and supported by English teacher Ted Styles and by Colleen Clifford, a grand old West End actress who drifted to Perth and set up a theatre, John’s career began.

While still at school, he delved into the delicate politics of the Fremantle waterfront and produced a play. He was also set the task of writing a nativity play for his final year’s performance.

Boys being boys, Marlon Brando and horror, were the key inspirations ~ Herod was the perfect vehicle for both, and was the first in a series of shocking characters that have populated John’s plays.

With a mischievous grin he relives the moment: “Herod was asked “What about the people?” and he responded saying “I spit on the people” and he spat on the audience. People were shocked and disgusted and there was a great fuss made about it.”

After school, John drifted to Canberra and started studying the classics before hopping into a friend’s Vauxhall convertible on a passing whim and cruising up to Queensland to work on the railway.

It was the mid sixties, two likely lads with long flowing locks, leaving campus life behind, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones blaring loud as they toured the tiny towns that still vote One Nation today ~ it was the year before Easy Rider was released.

Railway building was a short-term passion. Before long John was back in Perth opening a theatre called the Colony Room in a basement in Northbridge. There was no air-conditioning and the casts grew far too fond of the Red Lion beer garden, but the theatre survived for a good year before being closed by the Health Department.

John moved to a Stirling Street, open-air operation called the Hole in the Roof and from there he choreographed Australia’s first “Happening”.

His first opening night audience arrived to find the street closed off and men waltzing with shop mannequins across the tarmac.

The play “Little Malcolm and his struggle against the Eunuchs” was heretical ~ Union Jacks were thrown in dustbins! It opened with the opening bars of “God Save the Queen” and the audience politely rose from their seats, the music twisted itself into a Stravinski-esque waltz and then a recorded voice screeched out “Bugger the Queen!”
The first night notables, dutifully standing at their seats, were shocked.

The play made front-page headlines.

As the ruckus blew over he drifted east again, tramping the boards and managing stages in every Australian state.

By 1969 he was back in Perth ~ the new young stage manager at the Playhouse Theatre. It was a busy time and it wasn’t long before he was asked to start directing.
He luxuriated in the work of Arthur Miller, Tom Stoppard and Edward Albee, worked under the guidance of directors Barry J. Gordon and Edgar Metcalfe and made friends with a young director called Ray Omodei.

Then came an event that changed everything. John Aitken, age 24, won the inaugural Michael Edgley Award. A $5000 scholarship, to travel to England and study theatre.

He worked at the Royal Shakespeare Company, made the Royal Opera his second home and worked closely with Joan Littlewood ~ creator of musicals such as “Oh, What a Lovely War” ~ and her musical collaborator Lionel Bart. They were heady days, filled with the pomp and glamour of cutting edge theatre.

Two years later, John returned to Perth to oversee the making of his first feature film. “Summer of Secrets” won the Jury Prize and the Critics’ Prize at International Festival of Fantasy and Science Fiction films in Paris.

After a spell with a government filmmaking unit John returned to Perth to set up the Magic Mirror Theatre, in a former brothel in Roe Street, and again the plays performed included John’s own writing.

What keeps calling him back to the theatre?
John says: “New theatre is about finding better ways to tell stories ~ it’s about refining the way to communicate with audiences.”

He says playwriting forces him to tune into the universal humanity. “If a play doesn’t excite me or make me laugh or move me, I can’t expect that this will happen to the audience. I need to be aware, when I’m writing, about what it is that I have in common with everyone else.

While still working with the Magic Mirror, John was cast in a play by a company called the Winter Theatre, rehearsing in an old dairy in Northbridge. The cast members were an eager crew, but they deemed their managing board to be incompetent and mutinied.

John became chairman and director of the Winter Theatre and resumed his provocative mantle ~ upsetting the Catholic Church with an American play about an alcoholic priest.

Then came the 1980s and John wrote and produced a spate of new plays, many of which toured the state. They included “Authority”, a play about a violent drunken policeman, toured the north-west and did a few seasons in Sydney, in the politically sensitive post-John Pat years and “Watershed”, a play that questions the C.Y. O’Connor suicide myth.

In 1993 with Australia Council and ArtsWA funding he wrote, and the State Theatre Company of WA produced, “Daisy Bates and the Dancer” ~ a play that again sparked a controversy.

According to John: “It had some wonderful reviews and some very negative reviews ~ because some of the critics here are rather naïve. They assume that if a play has a racist character in it, for the sake of the drama, then it’s a racist play.”

His next play, “Music from the Whirlwind”, was a pithy exploration of the relationship between the oppressive Stalin and the revolutionary composer Dmitri Shostakovich.

It premiered as a one-man stage play at the Hole in the Wall, toured the Eastern States and was performed in Chicago. Perth actor Bill Dunstone took it Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore and India and the ABC and BBC produced a radio version of the script.

Why was a WA writer writing about a Russian composer?

John gets agitated. “We have spent far too long tethered to our own backyard. No one would ask an English writer why they were writing about Mozart, but I’ve been asked over and over again…it doesn’t matter where I’m from, what matters is that this is a play about the evils of political correctness.”

Flushed with passion he continues ~ “If you have a funding body telling artists to be politically correct, you will get sociological, but not artistically interesting, work. Art thrives on conflict and different interests. I never think a play should be controversial for the sake of being controversial ~ but we shouldn’t shy away from controversy, at the time it may appear to be too much, but ten years later it may seem to be not enough.

After “Daisy Bates” John went North himself and worked with Aboriginal groups, writing plays about their stories and legends and taking them on tour.

John flew out of the searing Kimberley heat into the snowy middle of a European winter to take part in the International Schools Theatre Festival in Amsterdam. A journey that saw him present more than 100 theatre workshops in cities across Europe.

John’s latest play, “The Song of the Earth” is about Gustav Mahler and his wife Alma, it is the second in a series of three, that began with Shostakovich and will conclude with Oskar Kokoschka.

He describes them as a series of plays about elemental creativity ~ about people who gave up everything on a personal level to create something with the potential to change everything.

“The Song of the Earth”, named after Mahler’s last great piece of music, debuted on stage at the Octagon theatre last night (17-9-99) and the ABC has commissioned a radio version of the script.

Meanwhile, John’s latest crew, the Prickly Pear Ensemble, are planning the performance of Northbridge Tales next year. It’s play full of characters and adventures from John’s own past in Northbridge, heavily laced with drama and fiction.

As an adjunct to the creation of the play, John started taking groups of people for walking tours around Northbridge last May, showing them some of the places involved. The tours have taken off in their own right, and John’s snowy head and pointing finger now can often be spotted in the midst of groups of foreign students, tourists and social club members, in and around the history-rich streets.

The living playwright ~ speaking, performing, writing, producing. The magic mirror ~ showing us ourselves creatively reflected.

Given his track record, it fair to wonder what we’re in for next.

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