Carbon Cate’s direct action on the cultural cringe

HEDDING OVERSEAS Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett in STC's Hedda Gabler.
HEDDING OVERSEAS Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett in STC’s Hedda Gabler.

WITH a second Academy Award under her belt, Australian-born actress Cate Blanchett joined an international cultural elite, and it was fascinating to watch the response of the Australian media to her accolade.

This was particularly true of News Corporation, which dubbed her ‘Carbon Cate’ when she joined a 2011 advertising campaign encouraging Australians to understand the benefits of the Labor government’s Carbon Tax.

But by the day of the Oscar ceremony, The Daily Telegraph had reverted to calling Blanchett “Our Cate”.

Within minutes of her award, tall poppy syndrome had kicked-in, and News Corp’s news.com.au was questioning Blanchett’s contributions to the Australian film industry over the past decade.

The day after her historic win, which marked the first time an Australian actor won two Oscars, they buried Carbon Cate in the entertainment news, which is probably where they believe she belongs.

“It seems the cultural cringe is still alive and well in Australia.”

In case we need a reminder, ‘cultural cringe’ is the tendency of a colony to question the relevance of its artists against its ‘motherland’. It’s a kind of inferiority complex, if you like.

But this anti-intellectual process doesn’t only apply to the Arts.

When Barnaby Joyce leapt onto the ‘Carbon Cate’ bandwagon, he was taking a dig at someone he accused of being out of touch with economic realities.

He also had an agenda, which was not just anti-Cate, it was anti-science, and he probably knew very well that coining an alliterative derogatory term for his target would be highly effective.

So, it’s time for a reminder on the facts about Blanchett’s commitment to Australian industries and solutions to climate change.

Cate Blanchett is a local, who has lived with her family in the Sydney suburb of Hunters Hill for almost a decade.

In 2013 she ended a six-year stint as to co-artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company (STC), work she admits put a dent in the time she could commit to an international film career, yet led to a golden era in Australian theatre exports.

Yes, that’s correct: Australian theatre, exported.

Despite the level of Australian Government funding for National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) and Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS) students, the local film, television and theatre industries they graduate into would not stand comparison with the reach and profitability of any other similarly funded Australian industry.

Australian theatre particularly does not even register against our worst-faring industries, such as agriculture and manufacturing. A decade ago, NIDA graduate and Australian actor Jeremy Sims quite rightly described our theatre industry as a “cottage industry”.

Before Cate Blanchett played the title role in Hedda Gabler for STC in 2004, Australian international theatre tours were few and far between. But in 2006, STC took the production to New York, where it played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music to a limited but sold-out season. It was not quite a Broadway experience for the company, but the touring cast and key creative crew were Australian.

The experiment was repeated and expanded with STC productions of A Streetcar Named Desire and Uncle Vanya touring to NYC and Washington; and Gross und Klein, which toured to France, Germany and the United Kingdom.

Like all good international trade, the experiment was a two-way street, including collaborations with America’s Artists Repertory Theatre, and international artist imports, including Philip Seymour Hoffman, William Hurt, and Isabelle Huppert, to work alongside local creatives.

With Blanchett’s star power attached, local and international sponsorship was attracted to match government funding.

Consequently hundreds of Australian theatre practitioners were employed in a viable industry which did more than break even, it made money.

And Blanchett was smart and generous enough to include Sydney Theatre Company in her Oscar acceptance speech this year, in front of one of the world’s largest live audiences.

It was a form of product placement which every fledging industry needs, and there was absolutely no inferiority about Blanchett’s description of STC as, “one of the great theatre companies in the world.”

AUSTRALIAN MAID Isabelle Huppert and Cate Blanchett in STC's The Maids.
AUSTRALIAN MAID Isabelle Huppert and Cate Blanchett in STC’s The Maids.

When STC’s production of The Maids, starring Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert, opened at New York’s Lincoln Center last August, the experiment moved from its start at the fringe of one of the largest theatre industries in the world, right to its heart.

Created in Sydney, and sold to the world, Australian theatre has never experienced such exposure, and it’s already had an effect on other Australian theatre companies, with the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) matching STC’s international touring record with something of a coup.

Instead of touring in an American or European classic, the way STC has done, MTC showcased an original Australian play – David Williamson’s Rupert – a bio about News Corp boss Rupert Murdoch.

CREATING A STIR Cate Blanchett in the controversial 2011 Carbon Tax ad campaign.
CREATING A STIR Cate Blanchett in the controversial 2011 Carbon Tax ad campaign.

Which brings us neatly back to Carbon Cate’s record of direct action on climate change.

In 2010, Blanchett and Andrew Upton, her co-artistic director and husband, oversaw the conversion of STC’s power supply to solar.

By the time they flicked the symbolic switch, which would light the company stages with energy from the sun, Blanchett’s appearance in the “Say ‘Yes’ to the Carbon Tax” commercial was still months away.

Her appearance in the commercial has undoubtedly been blown out of proportion over time. Michael Caton (who could easily have been dubbed ‘Carbon Caton’ but missed out on any ire from the Coalition) took the main role.

Blanchett was the last of the actors to appear, and her only line was simply: “And finally, doing something about climate change.”

In the light of STC’s conversion to solar, at the time one of this country’s largest solar capture operations, and the steps she and Upton had taken to ‘green’ their own home, Blanchett had earned the right to claim to have done something about climate change.

PLUCK COVER copyThe irony is, her actions were as close to the Coalition’s ‘direct action’ as it gets, which only proves that many in Australia are not ready for an artist to show the way, even one at the top of her game internationally, with her feet, and her creative heart, firmly planted in home soil.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded

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