Jane Montgomery Griffiths on the dissolution of Monash University’s Theatre department

Two weeks ago, we covered the proposed dissolution of Monash University’s Centre for Theatre and Performance.

This week, it was publicly announced that the faculty will go ahead with its plans to change the Centre from an autonomous unit, placing it in the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music and Performance and asking for 75% staff redundancies.. Future students will no longer be able to major in Theatre Studies, with the university only offering Theatre units as a minor sequence with no theatre electives.

Jane Montgomery Griffiths

AussieTheatre spoke with Professor Jane Montgomery Griffiths, an 18-year veteran of the CTP faculty, about these proposed changes. Professor Griffiths was the Director of the CTP for 9 years, and teaches several units within the Theatre faculty. Outside of Monash, she is an acclaimed performer and playwright, with past credits including Macbeth (MTC), Antigone (Malthouse), Wit (fourtyfivedownstairs), and King Lear (Bell Shakespeare). Her expertise on theatre practice is unparalleled, and she is a brilliant example of the quality of staff seen at the CTP.

How are you handling the news of the proposed dissolution?

It came completely out of the blue. We had no idea at all that that was going to be the faculty’s proposal. It’s rather surreal, actually. The proposal was issued by the university. Each faculty has different proposals, and in the faculty of Arts there were targeted voluntary redundancies offered to various areas, but Musicology and the CTP were specifically named areas that would be having their major taken away. With Musicology they want voluntary redundancies of both staff, and with us they want 75% voluntary redundancies. They say voluntary, but what I don’t know and haven’t been able to ascertain from the faculty, is what happens if you don’t take them. The university has been saying they want to disestablish our major, and have a minor that runs through music. So to all intents and purposes, that is the centre closed down. The University’s decision to keep the name is purely semantic and entirely meaningless. The thing I find really concerning about this is that the university has decided on this disestablishment based on what they say are low enrolments and low completions. But as far as we’re concerned, those are false metrics. Because it doesn’t take into account that many students take just one or two of our units. In my first year acting, I have 90-odd students… We have an incredibly successful presentation skills unit where we are over-subscribed, and we have literally hundreds of students from every faculty, every discipline, every ethnicity, every language group… In terms of our majors, it’s a very specialist area, so the people who continue with us right the way through for their major and/or minor, we’re talking 40-odd students each year, because it is so specialist. The other thing is, we are not allowed to offer low enrolment units. Every semester, the faculty gets back to us and tells us if our units are under-subscribed, and we don’t run them. And if it’s said to have been disestablished because of low completion, it makes it sound as though the program is crap and that a lot of work is just unsuccessful. And it’s not by any quantitative measurement. So I am utterly perplexed.

And Monash’s theatre program is well-known nationally for its quality!

Yeah, I think it’s actually the most successful in the country. It’s got more engagement from the industry than any other, a testament to that is the number of industry folks who have been sending emails expressing their concern to the Vice-Chancellor and the Dean. But what we don’t know is whether that’s being listened to. As far as we’re aware, we’re the only program that commissions work and provides that degree of intensive study. And I’ve looked at what is being done online in terms of teaching and it’s incredible. Monash has been ranked equal 20th for performing arts globally; why, then, cut the section when the teaching and research reputation is so high. We also need to consider the situation of postgraduates. Last year we had the highest number of postgraduates in the country. It’s an important consideration about what will happen to their supervision when the specialist staff who have taught them (myself included) are made redundant.  It’s also worth noting that because we are the only department in the country that has this degree of industry connection, the repercussions of this are going to go way beyond our student body into the broader theatre community. .

One of the Music Theatre Elective productions, The Dressmaker | Photo by Sarah Walker

One of the proposals was for the Theatre major and minor to be relocated within the Music department – what are your thoughts on that?

The Faculty has had the desire for a while to amalgamate music and theatre as a ‘centre of the performing arts.’ And that makes sense; that way, we can we can use the synergies between musical and theatre. But it makes no sense [for the Theatre Major] to be subsumed within the School of music. The Faculty states the quality of education for our students won’t be compromised but how can that be the case when 75% of staff are gone and 12 of our offerings are cut?.

There could have been a very different way to suggest these cuts. We could have been given a chance to make our case and demonstrate the enormous amount of student, industry and community support we have had. As things are,  we don’t know whether the Universtiy and Faculty have even looked at the campaign during consultation period. We’ve certainly had no feedback of the swell of support we’ve had.  CTP is used to adapting to change. Six years ago, the university decided to scrap the designated degree of the Bachelor of Performing Arts. We facilitated the Faculty’s desire for this change, adapting our units to be more inclusive and to acknowledge the huge role of theatre and performance in the cultural economyEvery year we have improved the student experience to have a level of industry engagement and professionalism that is quite unique.  That’s the sort of innovation that makes a bit special. And that’s unfortunately not recognized.

As for me, I’ve given 17 years’ service to Monash  – 9 of which as head of CTP – and I thought I would be there for quite a few years to come. So, it is quite devastating. I think for many of us it hasn’t quite sunk in. I do feel that some of us who have been around for a long time… it would have been nice to consult with us.

You know, I think this issue extends beyond Monash. It seems like we’ve got a war against the arts across the country.

It touches every sector of the performing arts and of academia and it is  something which is insidiously moving across Australia. I heard this week that the University of Newcastle is going to cut its theatre department. This has a number of serious consequences, not least for those students wanting to do a double degree in Arts and Education. What’s going to happen to the next generations of drama teachers? I think the final thing that really gets to me is a total refusal to acknowledge that the performing arts makes a multi billion contribution to Australia’s economy and, perhaps more importantly, to the well-being of the community. This has never been more evident than now when, during COVID lockdown, entertainment streaming services have provided a life-line.  Those shows are created by people who have studied performing arts. What will happen to the Australian arts sector if universities destroy the channels to receive an education in this. I do to acknowledge that Monash has made every effort to offer staff cuts than some universities which are asking for  – in this case, 277 – but targeting CTP is not the way to make these cuts.

Students of the CTP, both past and present, have banded together to start the #SaveOurCTP movement. Why do you think students and alumni are still so tied to the department?

We try to create a home in CTP – somewhere where people can feel safe and secure and that that makes the experience at Monash a whole lot better and different. We provide a safe space which will enable them to become better students and begin to understand about generosity, magnanimity, communication skills, tolerance, respect – all those things that are so crucial in a world that is so fractured. The work the students have done is quite exceptional. And if there was anything to demonstrate why CTP should continue, for me, it’s looking at the student run campaign, the website they’ve created, the video that they’ve done, the testimonials they’ve received, the Twitter campaign. There couldn’t be any better evidence.

Learn more about the campaign and how to take a stand at www.saveourctp.com

Gabi Bergman

Gabi Bergman is a Melbourne-based performer and educator. She holds a Double Arts degree in Theatre Studies and Film/Screen Studies and a Master of Teaching (Secondary Education). Gabi has always been an avid lover of theatre, specifically musicals, and spends way too much money than she’d like to admit on tickets. Her most prized possession is her crate of theatre programs.

Gabi Bergman

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