Emma Sproule and her Dionysus Theatre introduce the theme of the inaugural Arete festival of short plays written specifically to the theme, a company initiative set to become an annual event.

Dionysus Theatre, described by Victorian Drama League award-winning director Sproule, as a contemporary company housed on the Mornington Peninsula. Breaking into the theatre scene in 2012 with Exit The King, Dionysus enters a new year with a new concept. Areté is a festival of short plays that was inspired, says Sproule, by an idea used in a previous theatre company, wherein an annual event was created  where people could submit one-act plays they’d written that supported the idea of a ‘creepy night out’ and produced them all over the Halloween weekend. This proved very successful so when Sproule went out on her own, she wanted to continue this. However, while Halloween worked very well for that company's in the ‘barn’ venue Sproule now wanted to broaden the concept as well as the scope for people to get involved and contribute.,

An ingenious plan and one that Sproule has successfully transposed into the framework of Dionysus Theatre.

In conversation with Emma Sproule about Areté:

There were several factors contributing to the final festival as it appears now, I had already decided I wanted to explore the idea of a quote as the playwright’s stimulus and that this ‘theme’ would change every year. I then stumbled across the word Areté (A-RE-TAY) in some research I was doing on Sophocles for a teaching study. It sounded beautiful to me and I loved it as the collective title for the annual event, something I knew we needed. First because its origins are in Ancient Greece, as is western theatre, hence the name Dionysus Theatre for our company. Secondly, while it cannot translate directly into English, it’s best described as the pursuit of excellence, being the best that you can be and is also tied up in the notion of moral virtue. The discovery of this word really helped all my frenetically flowing ideas settle firmly into place.

I wanted a festival for artists, both established and aspiring. By artists I meant writers, performers, directors, technicians and visual artists working in a variety of mediums. There is an enormous amount of creativity inherent in a theatre production and oftentimes only certain contributions are fully appreciated or acknowledged by an audience; I wanted to ensure that the audience was fully aware of all of the artists who contributed to the work. I also wanted it to be a forum for people that had passions and plans but were uncertain of how to get started. I also wanted to welcome people who had never written or directed before, to try these skills on. They are short plays so less overwhelming and work shopping, feedback and even support in the rehearsal room are all offered so no one needs to feel alone or out of their depth. That said, no one has felt that way. People have risen to the challenge and upon being given the opportunity, have grown in confidence and demonstrated great capability and potential. All involved are certainly striving for their own personal excellence and Areté is certainly a significant stepping-stone in this.

What I love most about this theme is that it works on multiple levels. On a surface level, it is an opportunity to explore an idea that is severely lacking in our current social discourse – a chance to examine the virtues and morals of our society. However, it is also for each contributor an opportunity to improve themselves and their craft and in doing so achieve their own personal excellence.

I also love that our theme each year can deal with an issue within our society that may or not be explicitly addressed within the media but that remains topical all the same. Also, a theme that requires us to explore and examine our own morals and virtues. Hence the reason that the word Areté proved so perfect when I found it.

As a director and a teacher, I love a discussion. I love that there is more than one viewpoint and you can never really know or appreciate someone’s reasons and motivations until you speak to them and hear their side. Therefore, the idea of several people tackling the same theme but interpreting it in such incredibly different ways was beyond alluring to me. Playwrights, directors, actors and artists all get to interpret the theme and now audience members get to experience so many new ideas. New ideas that may well spawn new discussions and in time lead to new understandings for the audience and the people they encounter in their  lives. I hope they leave discussing it. Heck, I hope they hang around and discuss it with us, over a glass of wine.

The theme for this year (Areté Alpha – to distinguish each year we’ll brand it with a next letter of the Greek alphabet) is For most of history, Anonymous was a woman. This is a simplification of a Virginia Woolf quote from A Room of One’s Own, essentially a feminist text that explored women as writers of as well as characters in fiction when the literary field remained one dominated by males. As a theme for Areté, it’s lovely and broad but supported by the question of whether women actually are equal in today’s society. Writers and artists were prompted to consider not only far off shores, where the laws frequently horrify us in addition to the brutality that oppresses and abuses women, but also right here at home. We see women demeaned in our advertising, work place, politics, entertainment and media. Clichés still run rampant and our society needs to reexamine how women are treated, and how they’re portrayed. Have we really advanced? Or are we moving slowly and surreptitiously backwards?

We have six playwrights, two of them writing for the very first time, a solo performer presenting self-devised ‘episodes’ and two artists-in-residence. One artist will exhibit her work in the foyer and the other has created a symbolic and functional set item that links all the theatrical pieces. The item, a chair (which is featured on our poster), was included in the playwriting brief so that all writers knew to include it; or to allow possibilities for the director to do so. Hence, the interpretations on the theme are vast. We explore the issue of marriage as ownership, the impact of an affair on both women, the ability to control not only gender of an unborn child but also personality and ability, sexism in the media and ask the questions, are women anonymous because they’re forced to be or because they hide and what does it mean to be a feminist? 

As this is the first year of the initiative, I decided to invite playwrights (and later directors and artists) to be involved. For our inaugural production Exit the King in 2012, I invited all the cast personally rather than audition people as it made it more personal, and this was a nice way to commence the company. For future full-scale productions, this will be done by audition.

I knew a few writers and aspiring writers and so I didn’t have to search very far to find people willing to submit scripts. I compiled a playwright’s brief so that all were working towards the same specifications, for example, no more than four actors and four items of set (this included the aforementioned chair), the plays couldn’t exceed twenty minutes and they all had to explore the theme; how that theme was explored though was, of course, completely up to the individual writer.

Especially for the newer writers, there was an informal feedback and drafting process that we explored, however, we will look at developing this further in future years and, ideally, bring professional writers on board not only to help select the plays but also to serve as mentor for those who show potential but need to refine their work before we can stage it.

In future years, writers, directors and artists will all be invited to submit scripts, proposals and/or expressions of interest as opposed to being invited; these details are provided below. I am keen to really widen the field and for Areté to be seen as a great opportunity for many artists. I would also love people to submit ideas to me that I may not have considered; perhaps a beat poem, an interactive performance piece in the foyer, a musical item; it’s important to me that if the theme speaks to an artist, they submit their idea to us without fear that it doesn’t ‘fit’ the parameters of the festival. Areté is for artists.

In keeping with the invitation theme, most actors were invited, however, not by me unless I was directing them. Once the directors received their scripts, as they did not get to select them, they could cast their own play. It’s important to me that the directors had full control over their own interpretation of their scripts. Especially for those directing for the first time (in Areté Alpha we have three in this category) I didn’t want this process taken away from them. The lovely bonus of this is that given the broad reach of the other five directors, we now have many new faces in the Dionysus group. Given the Dionysus group has only produced one other play so far, we were relatively small, but it’s lovely that the majority of those involved are now seen in Areté Alpha taking on different roles. Stage-managers have become actors and actors have become writers and directors. Once more, in the future, auditions will definitely be held.

This is new for the peninsula and a variation on other events in the city. There are so many people to come and support as they explore new abilities or simply showcase those already established. This may well be a festival you would love to be involved in. Are you an artist? What could you contribute?  Come and see this, meet us, discover the next theme and have a better idea of who we are and how you could be involved.

Plus the Areté Alpha theme itself is important and should be something we are talking about more; perhaps people didn’t see it right in front of them or perhaps they simply don’t realise the detail and depth of sexual inequality today.

The 2015 theme will initially be published in this Areté Alpha’s program with all relevant dates, contact details and information. Playwrights, directors, artists and performers experienced and aspiring, are welcome to submit for Areté Beta – 2015. However, please feel free to come up to me at Areté Alpha and introduce yourself, I would love to hear feedback and possibilities for future inclusions. And again, have a glass of wine with us; Dionysus Theatre will always have wine. In addition to Dionysus being the patron of Drama, every year in Athens, festivals were held in Dionysus’ honour, including competitions between playwrights as their comic and tragic works were performed. Dionysus was also the Greek god of wine, pleasure and fertility (suggesting a great night out). We are going to serve the wine, provide theatrical pleasure but perhaps we'll just leave it at that for the moment…

THREE SHOWS ONLY Thursday, March 6th –  Friday, March 7th Saturday, March 8th at 8PM


BOOKINGS  http://www.trybooking.com/EGRY