Lee Lewis, Griffin Theatre’s new Artistic Director for 2013, is a lucky woman. Not only because she has been Associate Director of the company for four years and has the luxury of a six month take-over period (which means she does know where the photocopier is) but also because Lewis knows exactly the direction the company is heading.
“I’m very fortunate that the mission statement of Griffin remains the same,” she says. “We’re here for Australian writers and I’m very happy to advocate for them. Writers need a home – and Griffin is here to support new Australian work and give writers the home they deserve.”
“Writers need to know that there is a place that values writing above all other things,” explains Lewis; “And having been an actor and director there is a level of literate beauty that writers can bring – these are people who have a complex and beautiful relationship with words and that is a gift that deserves to be celebrated.”
That the nature of Australian playwriting is shifting is obvious to any regular theatre-goer who engages with a range of different voices and material. As Lewis points out, we are at the edge of a new age of discovery, collaboration and open conversation and it is vital that new writers are supported from the very beginning with a structure that gives them the opportunity to “breathe” within a creative space.
“With new writing you have to be present at the beginning,” says Lewis. “Artists sometimes need to be reminded about choices they can make (for example, who they can put on stage; how to write for a particular audience and grow that audience) and when this happens earlier in the process it allows artists to become more vocal about what actually matters to them.”
The current times are also proving to be a well of inspiration and diversity for all Australian writers and this, as Lewis points out, is being reflected increasingly on our main stages.
“People are willing to speak out and reflect upon their own stories, and conversations are starting to happen that are in response to questions of diversity,” says Lewis. “We are in a world of migration – the dominant story is no longer of those who ‘stayed’ but instead about global relations and international development. I believe (especially for the West) that this is the century of great social reconfigurations, and indeed ramifications, for both men and women. Our conversations about sex, success, power and women are moving forward. For example (along with other debates) we can see that the gender equity battle is changing – women are fighting the fight for both men and women and we can see this happening right here in Australia.”
In addition, Lewis is not only aware of the spring of rich dramatic literature that is being uncoiled but of how audiences and audience perceptions are also transforming.
“The traditional white middle class audience is no longer as homogenous as we may have supposed. They are a growing, sophisticated and literate audience; a transformative group made up of some very influential people,” explains Lewis. “These individuals influence the decisions being made in the arts and it is through the changing perceptions of what white middle class audiences want to see that Australians' voices and contemporary Australian stories can be heard upon our stages.”
Griffin Theatre has always valued Australia’s unique perspectives. Geographical isolation and a history that stretches back to well over 40,000 years have given this land and its peoples a resilience and determination not often found elsewhere. “You can’t have the same perspectives working in London or New York,” says Lewis. “We’re not necessarily championing the power of the artist but at Griffin we do think it’s important to recognise that Australians have a very distinct perspective and an intellect that is constantly being refined. Australia is a great place to be at the moment because even for those who want to go overseas, they find themselves wanting to come back.”
And indeed, there is no other place Lewis would rather be at the moment. Looking forward to being at the helm of what she hopes to make Australia’s number one home for writers and new Australian plays, Griffin’s new Artistic Director is looking forward to the adventures of 2013.
To conclude our conversation, I asked Lewis the secret to her survival: “I don’t sleep and I walk really fast. I also drink lot of coffee.” A delicious place to be.