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A New Publishing House for New Australian Work - Dominic Mercer and 8th Buffalo Press

Dominic Mercer has been an asset to Sydney’s independent theatre scene for some time. He is a director, dramaturg and the literary and project manager at The Old 505. He is also a lecturer in dramaturgy at NIDA, and associate producer at Belvoir Theatre Company: “I’m pulled in all directions!” Dom says.

This year he teamed up with actor/playwright Sam O’Sullivan to create 8th Buffalo Press, an independent publishing house, which aims to publish new Australian play scripts, the proceeds of which contribute to funding an already programmed production of that work. The idea had a test-run in 2016 when Mercer and O’Sullivan joined forces to produce O’Sullivan’s play “The Block Universe (Or So it Goes)”. In order to fund the show, the pair published the script and offered it as a reward for donors. In all of its simplicity, this system helped to pay for the production and, even more excitingly, promote the playwright and his work beyond the play’s premiere season. They realised this model of promoting via print was a great source of value to new work, and also easily achievable at an independent level.

8th Buffalo Press’ first proper task is underway at The Old 505 Theatre with the 2011 Patrick White Playwright Award-winning play “Little Borders” by Philip Kavanagh. The play will be performed from 4 to 15 July. Using a Pozible Campaign, 8th Buffalo Press are offering published copies of “Little Borders” amongst other rewards as an incentive to support this original production of an Australian play. 

It’s a truly inspired plan with great potential to change and support Australia’s theatre scene, and as such it has The Prop’s support 100%. Today, the digital world reigns supreme, but in this department, we still cherish the page. To publish a play is to legitimise it, and to distribute it is to keep it in the social consciousness. In the interests of supporting upcoming playwrights, a model like 8th Buffalo Press appears to be the perfect way to extend our love affair with great new work beyond that singular night at the theatre!

This morning I chatted with Dominic Mercer to understand the concept of 8th Buffalo Press a little better. 

So, what inspired you to launch 8th Buffalo Press?

Maybe we’re old fashioned but not only do we love owning physical scripts, but I know that in all of the theatre companies that I’ve worked for, when you’re programming and looking for ideas, it doesn’t matter how many digital copies of scripts that you have, your first port of call is the library. To run your finger along the spines and ask “who’s on the shelf?”. I guess it’s the power of a play script to be something that you come back to after ten, fifty, or even four hundred years…

Knowing that it’s so rare in Australia for shows to publish scripts, we just became really curious as to whether this was because of the expense, or perhaps something else? We realised the printing and publishing of the scripts themselves is not very expensive, but how you then turn that into being a tens-of-thousands-of-dollars company is what’s tricky. [In Australia] there are two printing companies for plays: Currency Press and Playlab.”

Mercer says that those companies are more inclined to print works viewed as part of the Australian theatrical canon, as they are more likely to be sold. Whereas new work, which is already inherently risky to be produced on the mainstage, doesn’t get a look in. This leads to a more conservative and conventional output of published plays.

“Most of the exciting new writing that’s happening in Australia, we believe, is actually taking place at the independent venues. Yet, these are the companies that don’t necessarily have the resources to print and publish the work they’re presenting… So, we wanted to find a way to make that possible”.

Why do you think it is that the “more exciting work” is presented by the independent venues, and not the main stage ones? 

Mainstage companies are beholden to their subscribers, and new work is perceived as the unknown so it’s difficult to sell. So you need to find something about the writing that is a known entity. [This] generally lends the companies towards conventional programming… putting on a play that we’ve heard about, using an actor who is known… We don’t have the spectrum of new writing companies in Australia that we see elsewhere. Here, people don’t go to the theatre to see form explored, in the way that happens in other parts of the world, for example in the UK, or in Berlin or France.”

Can anyone approach you to be published? How exactly does it work?

“At the moment, we want to publish scripts for shows that have been programmed. The scripts can be part of the package that is presented in that venue. Whether that means selling them as part of a Pozible Campaign in the way that we’ve been doing for Little Borders, or selling scripts on the night with programs. But it’s not a free-for-all “we’ve found a great script, let’s publish it!’. The scripts we’re interested in publishing would be attached to a production, which will hopefully then pave the way for that production to get a second life, or for that script to be re-used down the track.”

Why do you think new work doesn’t get second life? And how big a deal is that in the Australia theatre scene?

“If you look at any of the writers who have been lucky (and talented) enough to have enjoyed careers predominately as writers, they’re the ones who have had scripts that have penetrated our social consciousness enough to have revivals. It’s the revivals where the return of royalties happen, and if you can return to an audience again and again, you become a leading and wonderful playwright. Why it’s so hard? I guess there’s this idea that ‘new’ happens once and then it loses it’s ‘newness’. So then there’s this attitude within companies of “well why would I do this script that’s three years old, when I can do another, newer work?” and then “if we’re doing revivals, why not do something that’s already perceived to be part of the canon?”

Unless you have that first production which is an absolute smash and tours beyond the venue or something, then the chance of a revival two years or five years or ten years later is pretty minimal.”

Tell me about “Little Borders”. 

“It won the Patrick White award in 2011. Phil wrote it as part of his masters thesis at Flinders uni. It is looking at the trend occurring in the USA, and particularly within the last two decades, in Australia, where suburbs are self-selecting their own residents on class and ethnicity, to the point where we’re seeing a huge increase in gated communities. This is a thing that never really happened in Australia until the mid-to-late 90’s, and now it’s become increasingly common as we become more distrustful of our neighbours. The piece starts and you think it’s about one particularfear of the other, and actually you realise that fear of the other will translate to whatever you are confronted with, whether it’s racial, class, able bodied-ness, and so on. It’s kind of about the power of the fear of the unknown.”

Finally, What is your favourite Australian Play?

“One of the most exciting pieces that I’ve come across in the past decade would have to be “8 Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography” by Declan Greene. 

Actually, there’s something in it that I definitely see echoed in “Little Borders”: its capacity to look at the bleakness and un-generosity of the Australian middle class in a way that’s not solely judgemental… It’s like I can actually understand why those people were hideous to each other! I don’t agree with them, but I get it? We’ve all read cynical writing, but there’s a generosity in both writers’ work. Just think of that last epilogue in “8 gigs”… beautiful.”

Support the 8 Buffalo Press Initiative, and the upcoming production of Little Borders by Philip Kavanagh at The Old 505, here

Lucy Goleby in Little Borders

Lucy Goleby in Little Borders

Little Borders - The Old 505

How to Win a Double Pass to 'Tongue Tied' at The Old Fitz!

How to Win a Double Pass to 'Tongue Tied' at The Old Fitz!