conversation, creativity, interview, Theatre, writing

in conversation: on our unsettling medium, the beauty of collaboration and your voice

In conversation with Emilie Collyer.

A few months back I caught up with my friend and fellow playwright, Bridget Mackey. I was in the last week of a deadline for a new script and I told her that I thought it was the hardest thing I had ever written. “Either that or I just have a shit memory.” “Yeah Fleur, I think you just have a shit memory. I remember you being this melodramatic last time.” She was right, of course.

Playwriting is so hard. I can’t begin to express the difficulties of dragging an entire world into existence coupled with the craftsmanship required to structure and tighten it, ready to breathe in other people’s lungs. It is a beautiful thing but can be incredibly maddening and immensely isolating. That is why I love talking to my fellow playwrights about why they do this, how they do it and what it means to them. This is a conversation with the very lovely, very talented, very, very hardworking Emilie Collyer. I hope it brings you some of the joy and comfort it brought me. 

emilie

Portrait by Lliam Amor

SFB: You write novels and plays so what is it about those genres? Why Theatre? Why Novel?

Emilie: I love novels. I have this needy relationship with them. As a kid I would just read obsessively. The thought that I could create a world where someone else could have that experience…. But in some ways theatre is the most mysterious. In the beginning I wanted to be an actor. I left school with stars in my eyes. I tried it for a while and didn’t have the mechanics for it internally. I fell into writing and I thought, “This feels more true. I can imagine this being my whole life. This is The Thing.” But theatre has always been a form I don’t get. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with it. I didn’t really learn much about theatre until I was older. But you fall in love with theatre as you go. Partly because of the people and partly because of that hit and miss nature.

SFB: I love that what drew you to it was that it was a problem. You have these mediums one of which you loved instantly and the other is fucking weird and a bit troubling and prickly.

Emilie: I remember going to see my first independent shows at La Mama and was like the first time you hear punk music. It makes you go “I don’t know this world but there is something so familiar here.” It grabbed me and said, “you can come in but you have to get used to feeling unsettled.”

SFB: I was talking to someone last night about how theatre is so hard to write because you have to leave it hollow. You have to leave it unfinished. You make it as perfect as it can ever be on the page whilst writing it to be utterly imperfect on the page. It is a difficult thing to find. I’ve read scripts that have felt perfect on the page and you put them on stage and think, “well I didn’t really need to see that, did I?”

Emilie: Yes sometimes a perfect piece of writing hasn’t left that space. The beauty of theatre is that you are leaving out most of it. Do you do that backwards? Start with it all and whittle down until it is just the top surface showing or do you come at it sideways? Sneak up on it. It is like holding a horse back. I guess that is why it is endlessly fascinating.

SFB: It is so addictive. Perhaps it is the collaboration. So few other writers get to experience that; being a part of their writing as opposed to being the entirety of their writing.

Emilie: It is like a chemical thing. You put all the elements together but have no way of knowing what the outcome will be so every performance is a risk because of that other element: the audience and the space. They come in and you can’t control them.

SFB: When you read a play that really works for you, what excites?

Emilie: Things like sparseness. Surprise. Humour. It is almost a flatness: it leaves room for me to be in there with it. And there is an engagement with ideas but that is almost not so important. I don’t get drawn in by the subject matter so much as the style. I do get excited by the language at times but not if it is overdone. So if there’s a type of poetry in there or images that jump off the page but if that is overdone you go “okay, I can see that you are really good at that.” There is always that sense of space between the writer and the words and between the words and me. I do like it when something disrupts morality or social norms, not in an “I’m trying to be outrageous” way but more in terms of asking “have you ever thought about it this way?”.

SFB: I’m asked this all the time and I hate it so I’m going to ask you. When you write for theatre do you have a concept in your head of the production?

Emilie: No. Or maybe. I think I have a picture of the world. But I tend to see that world in a confined space because I know that is ultimately where it has to exist. I don’t imagine much the nuts and bolts physicality of the production. There is a part of my brain that is my imaginary theatre space so if I take a moment to imagine those characters I see them in a theatre or a constructed space rather than in the real world. Whereas, with the novel I’ll try and see it in the real world because I have to do that for the reader.

SFB: Do you write with a concept of the actors in your mind? Of their voices?

Emilie: It is different project to project. Before I had even started writing Once Were Pirates, I said to Ben (Clements) and James (Cook) “I’ve got this idea. Would you guys be interested?” I loved doing that. You’ve got the musicality of that person’s voice and their body, even if you don’t know them that well. I didn’t know these guys that well when I started writing but I had enough of an idea that, rather than these just being voices in my head, I had this whole other chamber to be banging around in. Like that’s the Ben-shaped chamber and I can do stuff that I think comes to him naturally and I can also give him stuff that I think will be hard for him and see how that sits.

Once_were_pirates

Once Were Pirates promotional image by Lachlan Woods

SFB: I spend a lot of time reading my stuff out loud so by the time I get to the rehearsal room the play is in such a rhythm in my head. I’m frequently surprised that to find that it isn’t obviously written in that rhythm. And it is fine but it is a sort of re-training of your ear to recognise these new sounds.

That said, recently I did have a line I had added in a re-write and I heard it once and went “I can’t express how that line was meant without telling you how to say it.” That doesn’t happen often but the meaning would have changed unless I were a meddlesome writer and said, “Say it this way”. So I chose to be a meddlesome writer in a different, more socially acceptable way and just cut it.

Emilie: That for me is the real benefit of working on a script from the beginning with the actors. Because it is collaborative and you are all part of the re-drafting process and you can hear when they don’t understand something and you go “I didn’t write that clearly, did I? What do you think that means?” And they say and you go “Oh what I meant was this.” And they say either “Oh I see that now” or “No, I’m not getting that at all.” So then you have that dialogue about should I change it a little, leave it ambiguous for the audience or cut it altogether. I love that. The actors feed into it. They have some ownership. And it’s not even them going “Oh my character wouldn’t say that” – it’s not so banal as that – but they have started to invest in how the story gets told. It is such a privilege to have that as part of the process.

But then there is that assumption from very polite actors that you have all the answers. Even when they can tell that a bit’s not working and it’s not going to be enough for them they go “well she’s done this so it must be there.” And you go “no, no, it might not be there yet. I have to work harder on that bit.”

SFB: I am very careful about the language I use in the room. I remember the cast were having a big debate the other week about something and I eventually bowed in and went “I want to preface this by reminding you not to give my opinion any more credit than anyone else’s.” I don’t want to say it in a way that finishes the debate or draws a line under it.

Emilie: Yes, you’ve had an idea and you put some of it onto the page. You go “is there anyone else who would like to be in this world with me now as we work out if that idea has any value?” The joy of working with a team is that they can shine a light on things that you can’t see. They just come in there with their big shoes and their careful fingers and go “oh! That’s an amazing bit you’ve created over there.” And you go “I didn’t make that, what are you talking about?” They make it because they see it in a different way to you.

I think it is fairly impossible to get rid of your own voice all together but you are filtering it through those other ones and that makes diversity a little more possible.

SFB: That is interesting, the concept of your own voice. When I started writing, every character that I wrote was Fleur. Fleur the forty-five-year-old man and Fleur the nine-year-old girl but all Fleur. Now they are probably still Fleur to a certain extent – they all see the world in a slightly weird Fleurish way – but they are very different Fleurs now as opposed to all the same Fleurs. It is hard because when you are reading and assessing script you want a voice that is both totally unique to the character and somehow of that writer at the same time.

Emilie: I heard Scarlett Thomas speak at the Sydney Writer’s Week. This was to do with novel writing which is a little different but not that different. She went “meh! Your voice is your voice and that’s all you have. Someone else can study the same things and write a play about the same things as you so what your reader is responding to is you. How you talk to them. The nuances of your voice.” She was talking about whether you need to try and make every character sound different and she went “well you can but it is a bit of a false activity anyway. It is still going to be you.” And you have fun trying to filter you through different ways of being but if you try too hard it is going to put the reader off because they will feel the falseness in there. They like you. Well, if they don’t like your voice then they won’t like your voice but if they do then they are happy to be in that world with you.

SFB: What do you think your responsibility is as the writer?

Emilie: I think I’m responsible for working as hard as I can to get better at what I do. I’m responsible for deciding the kind of relationship I’m going to have with my work and with the world. I can’t control what the world thinks of my work and I can’t control how well it fares in the world but I’m responsible for ensuring that what I present to the world is something that’s done with a lot of care and rigour. That’s all that I can do. I think I’m responsible for coming to some kind of peaceful relationship with the fact of what I can’t control. It is very difficult to be an artist and make work but we love that hardness. I think the responsibility is fairly straightforward: do it the best you can. Read lots, write lots, take it seriously and do the work that you have to do.

 

Standard
Audio Stage, conversation, criticism

audio stage episode two: alison croggon

banneralison

Episode two of our ‘History and Documentation’ season features Alison Croggon: author, poet and the most important contemporary theatre critic writing in Australia. She has really raised the bar when it comes to the complexity with which we approach performance criticism and what we expect from arts writers as a community. I know that I am not alone in citing her as a massive inspiration for my approach to arts writing.

This episode was a delight to record and Alison’s passion for what she does is unmistakable. As my co-host, Jana Percovic said “one of the beauties of recording a conversation is that it captures the tone of a person, something that doesn’t always come across in print, and Alison has this wonderful humour to her, a way of laughing while making a complex point.”

I’d also like to point out that another thing you get from this is how shit we are at remember the names of our own work. I already started the trend in the last episode by renaming the play A Mouthful of Birds, School for Birds and this week Alison renames her infamous blog and former stomping ground as Theatre Works which entertained me no end as I am very immature.

There is a good side to not being crushed by culture. I think in Europe you’re really aware of the centuries and centuries of Western Culture and it’s all been done. One of the beautiful things about Australian writing, culture and performance is this sense that that’s not hanging over everybody. I think at its best, there is a tremendous freedom in Australian performance and a huge intelligence and disrespect that is really healthy.
- Alison Croggon

Discussed in this episode:
the mutual dependency of blogs and independent theatre, Robert Brustein, when reviewers are incorrect, Requiem for the 20th Century, internet trolls and the cowardice of anonymity.

New episodes will be released every 2 weeks, and we have made quite an effort to make them as accessible as possible, on a variety of platforms. Stay tuned and enjoy!

Listen to the episode:

You can subscribe to Audio Stage in iTunes or Player FM, or listen on the official website.

Our thanks to Sarah Walker for the photo of Alison. 

Standard
Politics

a little (big) thought

A warning for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders: This post includes images of deceased persons. 

At the launch of his recent platform paper, Julian Meyrick proposed that “there has never been a foundational moment for Australian theatre… (Perhaps because) our defining moment as a nation came from fighting for the imperial power rather than against it. That has shaped us as a nation.”

I was thinking about this on Thursday when we were invited into the rehearsal room for Walking into the Bigness at the Malthouse. I was there for PWA’s dramaturgy internship and, in trying to reconcile what is currently a full-time rehearsal schedule with his role as dramaturgy mentor, Chris Mead invited us into the room. “It is an awful thing,” he said, “to subject a life to the structure of a play” before passing us over to Richard Frankland, whose life is currently undergoing just such a scrutiny. Richard talked us through what was in his mind as the first week of rehearsals draws to a close: the power of stories to create heroes for a community and how art is an urgent necessity, and not a luxury, for him. But there were other thoughts too. He told us that the average Indigenous Australian attends fifteen funerals a year in their community; that, if you are a child under the age of sixteen, you are twenty-six times more likely to be in state care if you are Aboriginal; that where his mob comes from – Portland, Victoria – was the site of almost 140 massacres, including The Convincing Ground massacre, the first documented massacre in Victoria, which saw between 60 and 200 people killed and only two young men survive.

Walking into the Bigness

Walking into the Bigness

It is almost impossible to reconcile this history with the image of a nation whose defining moment was fighting someone else’s war. Rather, I propose this: we are a nation typified by our wilful amnesia. Our defining moment was not ‘The Great War’ or even the unacknowledged war waged between settlers and our first people. Rather we are defined by our ongoing and deliberate ignorance of that unmentioned war. Because 140 massacres against a single people in a single district in a single state is a war and that there are no markers to indicate that it ever happened within the town of Portland is deliberate. It is a terrible sabotaging of our own terrible past.

I wrote all this on Friday before I heard of Tony Abbott’s hugely offensive comments at the Australian-Melbourne Institute keynote speech, which seemed to returned us to the shameful state of Terra Nullius we thought we had left behind: “I guess our country owes its existence to a form of foreign investment by the British government in the then unsettled or, um, scarcely settled, Great South Land.”

This slip speaks volumes of Abbott and his disregard for the indigenous peoples of this country, but what it says about Australia itself is equally as disturbing. Comments like this don’t erupt from nowhere. They come with their own heritage – centuries of it – which incorporates Terra Nullius, declaring Aboriginal people ‘fauna’, massacres, disease, displacement of communities, the systematic removal of Indigenous children from their families in order to ‘breed out’ a culture, the struggle for citizenship, for land rights, for political representation, for funding and so much more. This heritage must also include how such a history is spoken about in schools, in the media and in Parliament. It is disgraceful but (and I in no way say this to let Abbott off the hook) it is our national disgrace, not just his personal one. As I said on Facebook this morning, a New Zealand Prime Minister could not say such a thing and hope to keep their job. It is our willful amnesia that has brought us to the point where a Prime Minister can say such a blatantly offensive and untruthful statement and remain in power.

While flicking through my diary to find the quote from Meyrick’s speech, I found the following quote from Meyrick’s most recent platform paper, The Retreat of our National Drama:

“The late critic Harry Kippax (said) that he spent so long waiting for Australian drama to arrive he failed to recognize it when it finally came.”

I think the issue here might not be missing ‘Australian Drama’ (whatever that means) but that our identity is one that is unrecognizable to us. We are staring past our reflection in the mirror without a flicker of comprehension. Our identity is a constructed one, manufactured to illustrate not where we’ve come from but where we pretend we have come from. The actuality of our heritage has been distorted; manipulated and it is shameful. We should feel shamed.

So what does our ‘National Drama’ look like? Well, my guess changes daily. Today I think that, if it were to be an accurate portrayal of our national identity, it would probably look a lot like a bunch of white people avoiding eye contact as they stand on the site of a massacre they never acknowledge. And we are nailing it.

Roebourne Gaol, 1896

Roebourne Gaol, 1896

Thank you to my mother for reading and giving her always insightful feedback, which today included the warning “don’t get carried away with fabulous rhetoric!” Be sure to keep an eye out for Walking into the Bigness at The Malthouse. It is a very urgent work about a very great man. 

Standard
conversation, Theatre, writing

on independent theatre, intimacy, hysteria, criticism and debate

A few weeks ago I interviewed Daniel Keene for The Music magazine. With their permission and Daniel’s, I am posting some of the parts of the interview that I wasn’t able to include in the article: some beautiful thoughts on Independent theatre, The Keene/Taylor Project and taking criticism. Enjoy and get to Neon. Photographs of A runs until July 6th. 

Photographs of A, promo image

Photographs of A, promo image

Martina (Murray) has really been promoting the idea that ‘independent’ doesn’t mean ‘amateur’ or ‘less than main stage’. It is a whole different beast. Can you talk a bit about your sense of the difference between main stage and independent?

I’ve been working in the independent – well it wasn’t called ‘independent’ when I started working  –

Yep. It was just called ‘theatre’.

‘Theatre,’ yes! Exactly! So I’ve been working in it for thirty-five years and it isn’t a step on the way to somewhere else. It is its own thing.

I’ve worked on main stages too so I am very aware of what the differences are. I’m very aware of what the similarities are too. The work is the same: you still have to rehearse, you still have to build the set, you have designers, you have actors, etcetera, etcetera. All of that is the same but in independent theatre your means are usually limited. That is not necessarily a bad thing. I quite like the idea that you can make theatre out of nothing although it can be tiring. So your means are limited but you don’t have to think of something like a subscriber audience. That isn’t a concern. There is freedom of thought.

You usually work on a small scale. I’ve always been very keen on chamber theatre – very intimate theatre. I mean, the Keene-Taylor Project is all about making chamber theatre; plays that you wouldn’t see on a big stage because they wouldn’t fit on a big stage.

When the Keene-Taylor Project started, I think that illuminated for me why I work in independent theatre. I’d written a number of short pieces. I didn’t know what to do with them. I wrote them to escape the kind of tyranny of writing a full-length play and all the mechanics and dramatics that that entailed. I thought, “why can’t I write a play that’s only two pages long if that’s how long it is? Why be frightened of shortness? Why can’t a play be like a poem on stage?”

Once I decided to write them I thought, “who’s going to do them?” because they have to be done. Otherwise, they are like a piece of music you never hear. So we started the Keene-Taylor Project, working in a very small space. In the independent theatre you can do anything you like and you can try out all sorts of things that are just not possible on a main stage. Working on main stages, having been commissioned now to write plays on main stages, they have their own benefits, their own enjoyments but they also have their own limitations. They are different limitations to the ones you find in independent theatre.

Augustine in her poses of hysteria

Augustine in her poses of hysteria

What is it about the story of Augustine that drew you to it?

It is so much about performance. Augustine goes into the hospital at fourteen-and-a-half, fifteen-years-old. Charcot pronounces her hysterical because she has a number of strange symptoms and proceeds to take photographs of her in various states of hysteria.

Yes, I looked at some of the photos. They are very strange and, yes, very performative as well.

Very performative! There was always a question about whether what was happening was real. Was Augustine having an attack of hysteria or was she performing her hysteria or was she doing what Charcot not necessarily told her what to do but what he suggested that she do? All these questions about her performance! The performance of her illness, if you like. I found that really interesting: the hospital and Charcot and the early days of psychology or psychiatry. It is a very odd time.

Charcot is the father of a whole lot of things that are now really legitimate and interesting but what he was doing just seems really bizarre. He was taken very seriously but now it looks crazy! Hitting children and poking them with forks and ringing bells in their ears and putting electric currents through their earlobes! For women who were hysterical there was an ovary press, which was a brace that tightened over the ovaries. A whole lot of things that now just seem cruel! And of course, it is men deciding that women are hysterical! Of course it is all because of their womb! And of course there are all these really weird misogynist – or if not misogynist, then sexist – notions involved in all of that.

Theatrically, it seemed to be interesting because it seemed to say so much about performance or to ask a lot of questions about performance. Also because there is very little known about Augustine herself. We know about Chapcot’s experiments but she didn’t leave any writing behind. There wasn’t any letters or diaries. I was trying to give her a voice. So we could hear her speaking of those experiments, that time and what Salpêtrière was like.

Une leçon clinique à_ a Salpêtrière

Une leçon clinique à la Salpêtrière

Brian (Lipson) has talks about his on-going passion with the mysteries of science and the theatre. Do you think you have a driving focus that spans your work?

I’m very interested in the nature of performance. With this particular play I am very interested in how transparent we can make performance. You know it is being performed. We’re not hiding that. It is not mysterious. I like that.

I’ve always been interested in a grand way in the possibility of theatre to give voice to people that don’t have a voice; to speak for people who don’t get a chance to speak in public. I see that as a responsibility that I have. A moral imperative.

I remember talking to Terry Yeboah last year about how you came to write Boxman and how you had such a strong image of Terry in your mind. Do you often write with actors’ voices in mind? 

Yes, I have done and that’s a product of the Keene-Taylor Project. When we got started, we didn’t have a permanent company but we had a pool of actors who wanted to work with Ariette and I. So if I had an idea for a piece, I could think ‘oh, Dan Spielman’ or ‘Malcolm Robertson’ or ‘Paul English’ or ‘Helen Morse’.

I think it is really great for writers to work with actors in mind. The only way for a playwright to be successfully is in the theatre. You’ve got to be in the theatre working, not sitting at home. I mean, you do sit at home and write the play, of course you do, but you’ve also got to be engaged with the whole process. That’s the only way you can actually understand what it is that you’re trying to do.

 

Once I had ended the proper interview I asked Daniel a few questions about debates surrounding Australian playwriting, not all of which I am sharing but a bit of it was too fantastic not to.

Bonus round.

I think people need to engage in the debate. It is only art! You know? I mean, it is as important as your life but in the end it is just work. Just work. When I write a play, the play is not me. When people hate the play, it doesn’t mean they hate me. They hate the play. It has nothing to do with me. I find it very difficult to get personally offended by people not liking my work. There are people who are not going to like it. They don’t have to like it. I can’t understand people getting outraged personally because someone is criticising their work. I think that is kind of silly.

Say you reckon he or she is dead wrong. Well how are they wrong? Why are they wrong? Where are they wrong? Where are they right? What do you agree with? You know, a debate! A rigorous debate! But that means people putting personal feelings aside and looking at their work, stepping back and looking so you can see it.

I think discussion and debate and dialogue are good.

When Alison (Croggon) started Theatrenotes, at first no one would comment. The space was there and she was sitting there going “why won’t anybody say anything? Disagree with me!” And then slowly people started making comments.

She was always amazing at comments. I couldn’t believe she responded to everyone. There were some people I would go ‘oh surely you wouldn’t bother writing back to that one!’

No because, in a way, that was the point of the exercise: to have a discussion. Not just for her to post her opinions about something (everyone has an opinion; hers is a very informed one, of course) but to put it up there and say “this is what I think. What do you think?” The interesting thing was the discussions. Some of them were funny, some of them were vicious, and some of them were really, deeply interesting! You’d meet people in the foyer and they’d be talking about the discussion that was going on! They had read it all afternoon! So-and-so said this! It became a forum and I think that is only good.

Often when she was critical of a work, she would hear from the makers privately saying “thanks for taking it seriously and spending the time and intellect and energy talking about it.” That’s all people want: that you take it seriously.

Standard
Audio Stage, conversation, Theatre

an announcement: audio stage, episode 1

 

Image

A few months ago I met Jana Perkovic and after perhaps an hour of being totally excited by each other’s minds, she asked if I’d like to do a podcast with her. Now podcasts are basically my favourite thing. I love the way they catch us in our cars or bedrooms or at the gym and just open our minds to the world outside. I feel like I’ve been waiting years for someone to ask me exactly what Jana asked and I’m so happy that it was her who came along, as I have so much respect and love for the work she does. We were quickly joined by our producer, Kieran Ruffles and we got to work on Audio Stage.

Audio Stage is about acknowledging the vast intellectual wealth we have here in our arts community. We wanted to give our country’s best performance makers, arts commentators and academics a chance to speak about the issues that define our industry and whats more, we wanted them to do it long form. Too often when artists speak in public, they must operate in show-selling soundbites. This is about trying to counter this and offering up to you delicious, expansive conversations from amazing minds. Basically, if you enjoy this blog or Jana’s Guerrilla Semiotics, we think you will probably enjoy this loving, passionate, chatty and unashamedly intellectual series.

Our first season explores the topic of performance history and documentation. Live performance is defined by its live-ness; by its perpetual present. So what happens to our art when that present is past? Do we embrace its intangible mortality and let it die? In doing so, we would be sentencing generations of future theatre-makers to operate (in the words of Julian Meyrick) “as if theatre was a terra nullius” and taking from them a wealth of wisdom and creativity. 

In the first episode, our guest is the extraordinary Robert Reid, playwright, director, one third of Pop-Up Playground’s key creative team, a PhD candidate in theatre history and a great populariser of performative play in Australia.

Discussed in this episode:

What we know of our history?, melodrama, vaginal knitting, the shadow cast by The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, stage directions: yes or no?, scripts as historical documents, improbable character descriptions, and the potential historical value of internet comments.

New episodes will be released every 2 weeks, and we have made quite an effort to make them as accessible as possible, on a variety of platforms. Stay tuned and enjoy!

Listen to the episode:

You can subscribe to Audio Stage in iTunes or Player FM, or listen on the official website.

 

Thanks to Sarah Walker for the use of her photo. Graphic design by Jana. 

Standard
personal, Politics, Responses, Theatre, thoughts

on bureaucracy, subtlety, hyprtxt and a naked body

I was booked in to see three shows last night but only managed two because they utterly devastated me.

I still don’t really have words to express why The Defence at MKA’s HYPRTXT Festival upset me as much as it did. It was intentional: the playwright wanted us to be uncomfortable to highlight some very pertinent issues in our industry. But there was something about watching the events unfold as an audience laughed hysterically that left me utterly shattered. And I want to apologise to the actors, all of whom did excellent work: I was sitting in the front row and I’ve no doubt my face was radiating an aura of ‘don’t you say another fucking word’. Sorry.

In the light of my (rather extreme) emotional reaction, I’m going to respond in a slightly unusual and immensely personal way.

Image

Image by Sarah Walker and graphic design by George Rose

Three thoughts inspired from a night at HYPRTEXT:

Thought One. On The Grace of Officials.

One day, when I was fifteen, I attended an event ran by an organisation which provided legal aid to asylum seekers. At the end of the talk, I walked up to them and asked if there was anything I could do to help. It turns out there was. A week later my dad took me to their office where we picked up a dictation machine and three cassette tapes. As the lawyer handed them over she paused and looked at my dad. “I hope your daughter is open-minded,” she said. “She is going to hear some very extreme stuff.” And I did.

These were the tapes of asylum seeker hearings and every hearing I transcribed ended with asylum being denied, which was why this group now had the tapes, so as to assemble a defence for a re-hearing. (They could not be called ‘re-trials’ because, apparently, the refugee was not on ‘trial’ despite all evidence to the contrary.)

Look, the horror of the individual cases does blur together. The voices were coming from a compound in the middle of a desert via webcam, through a translator sitting in a room in Adelaide with a thick Middle Eastern accent, through a tape recorder and into my ears. I know there were rapes, death threats, dead families, torture and humiliation. What I remember more clearly than the terror was the bureaucracy. We were swimming in it.

“Please place your hand on the Quran and swear – ”

“I can’t.”

“Why?”

“He says to me, ‘you know! You are a Muslim. You tell them!’”

“I’m sorry?”

“He has not washed. He cannot touch the Quran when he has not washed.”

They tried for quite a while, these men in Adelaide, to wash the hands of a man in Woomera but in the end the request proved too complicated for the system and they had to proceed without an oath. He was handcuffed, you see. For the whole five hour hearing. This was not usual practice but he was ‘a trouble maker’.

This exchange has stuck with me for twelve years. The irony of expecting a man to be devout enough to swear an oath on his holy book without taking into account the needs of a devout man. A devout, hand-cuffed man in the middle of a desert. And yes, there were moments of humanity. Moments when men pleaded for their freedom and safety but it was the bureaucratic inhumanity that I most clearly retain.

And in the end, appropriately enough, my job vanished in a cloud of bureaucracy: the group lost access to tapes. New rules dictated that, instead of being given to the defence team, they would be sent to Sweden (I think Sweden, somewhere a very, very long way away) where an accent analyser would determine that perhaps the man came from a town two towns over from the town he said he came from. That he was a liar because his accent told a slightly different story than his words did.

The morning after Howard was re-elected for his third term I went for a walk. I wandered through the suburbs and asked, “Who are the people voting for this system? Do they know? I hope they don’t because what does that say of my countrymen and women if they know and still say ‘do it.’”

Image

Photo source, The Age. The photographer is Peter Mathew.

Thought two. The Defence.

We had exchanged about six emails and the word ‘nudity’ had never been mentioned. When he first asked me to take my clothes off I agreed because he said I could have my back to the camera. It was implied nudity. When he asked me to turn around, I hesitated but did it because it seemed easier.

After a few minutes, he paused to bring in some new props (a mirror, I think) and I told him I was surprised by the nudity and would be more comfortable with clothes.

He told me he was disappointed.

I told him my profile said I didn’t do nudity anymore.

He told me that he had seen photos of me naked so just assumed it would be fine.

It wasn’t.

Look, it’s not a big deal. In the end. Worse things happen every day. But it was one of the last shoots I ever did. And I didn’t share the photos. And my throat felt tight for days. And scanning over my old portfolio I had a lot of memories of not feeling in control of my own body. And assuming it will be fine is not how we make art. I’m sorry but it’s not.

syboro

Image by Syboro, not the photographer in this story

Thought three. Issue-based theatre.

Listen. We demand of artists that we address issues head-on. It is central to our idea of ourselves as an artistic community: that we are brave and urgent. In his speech at the National Play Festival last week, Andrew Bovell’s said “the question for us, as writers, is what story will we tell each other”. He said “the fight for the soul of our nation continues” and that we as writers, thinkers and artists must be “up for the fight.”

And yet, say the words ‘issue-based theatre’ and people will screw up their faces. It is too unsubtle for us. Conversations can be blatant and loud and we wear our politics on the tip of our tongues and on the front of our shirts but we expect of our art not to ‘hit us over the head with a message’. We demand a subtlety that is, perhaps, impossible when faced with issues of this magnitude.

These plays were not subtle but fuck it. Bring it on, guys. Shout it loud. Just maybe give me a cup on tea and a hug at the end because you crushed me.

Standard
audiences, criticism, Responses, Theatre, thoughts

on expectations, secrets, democratising of opinion and grounded

Last year Jane Howard told me about a theatrical experiment: Lyric Hammersmith’s Secret Theatre. The theatre isn’t secret – it is a very well known venue used in slightly non-traditional ways – and the events aren’t secret – anyone is welcome. The secrets are the plays themselves. Audience are invited to book blind for a season of mystery performances. They could be seeing a classic, an adaptation or a brand new work. What they’re subscribing to is their own willingness to give themselves over to a night of theatre without preconceived notions of what they will experience.

Image

Sometimes I wish I could walk into a theatre completely blind. I wish I could walk in and sit down without having heard my friends’ opinions. I seldom read reviews before I see something and never read program notes until afterwards (unless instructed to by the artist) but despite this I am almost always entering the space with a lot of prior knowledge due to the tightness of our community. I love the idea of booking, collecting a ticket and sitting down without ever knowing if I’m going to see Shakespeare, Churchill or Sisters Grimm. Can you imagine being in a theatre and having no idea of what you are about to see? An actor walks onstage and perhaps he says this:

  • “she turned eighteen that summer       she was a skinny gal sittin on the crumbling cement stoop of her apartment building sippin lime soda outta a sweatin glass bottle       wrappin her lips round the neck like she wanted it real bad[1]

Perhaps she says this:

  • “Every morning I wake up in my red bedroom that seemed like genius when I painted it, but looks more and more like carnage these days.[2]

Perhaps he says nothing. Perhaps he screams and perhaps a fish falls from the sky and lands at his feet[3].

Or perhaps he says:

  • “Now is the winter of our discontent Made glorious summer by this sun of York[4]

And even though you know these words, you had no idea he was going to say them and this creates an illusion of newness in your ears.

As a playwright I love the idea. I hate that I have to reveal a twist in order to market a play. “This is a play about” can be such damning words, reductive to both the script and the imaginative possibilities of its audience.

As both makers and watchers we are so immersed in our own community that it is difficult to be truly surprised. Often I find this works to the detriment of the good shows: productions that get a lot of hype early in the season tend to be unable to live up to unrealisable expectations. Conversely, I try so gosh darn hard to find something amazing in every show, something that I personally could not have done, that hearing only bad reports of a show sends me into a state of manic optimism. I tell myself “I’m going to be the one that GETS this.” I give it the benefit of everyone’s doubts.

Image

Secret Theatre’s ‘Show 4′

Now a quick search online will prove that Secret Theatre is not the perfect solution. Already critics have pointed out that the ‘secret’ is detracting from the play itself. In other words, if this was their solution for managing our expectations, they only created more hype for themselves to live up to.

Hype isn’t a new thing but the prevalence of social media and having the fast-tracked, fast-formed opinions of our entire community only a click away is a very modern phenomenon. Where once the critic was the voice of verdict, now they are a part of a chorus. Which is good, don’t mistake me. We are democratising opinion and, hopefully, this will lead to a far more nuanced documentation of a work. As Alison Croggon said in a recent interview with Jana Perkovic and I, we are “letting go of the fiction that critics are the objective judges of whatever art happens around their feet and entering much more into the flux of the moment.” However, this does mean that we, as intelligent, hard-thinking audiences, must question ourselves as to how our expectations shape our perception of a work. It also means that theatre has to be fucking good to still surprise, excite and move us in its second week.

Which brings me to the show that started this line of thought. I’ve got to admit that I was wary going into Grounded because I had heard nothing but glowing responses. I tried not to build up my expectations or read any details of the show. I wanted to go in as blank as possible. But I need not have worried.

Image

Kate Cole in ‘Grounded’

Grounded is everything I want in a one-woman show: outstanding storytelling that immerses us so deeply in one person’s world view that it changes our own. Just a little. Kate Cole’s performance met George Brant’s exquisite script with the intellectual vigour, empathy and toughness it deserved. Any moment that could potentially descend into poetic fluffiness was clamped down on. The effect was heart-breaking. It made me think of Joanne Sutton’s performance in Insomnia Cat Came To Stay: when I played the role, the insomniac’s mental deterioration felt like less of a journey because, let’s face it, I already look like a sleep-deprived, neurotic nut. Joanne on the other hand, began as such a strong, capable figure, and her crash was far more tragic as a result. It was like this with Kate Cole only that she never truly crashed into vulnerability. Despite her extreme PTSD[5], the character’s sense of herself as a powerful woman of war is what holds the fibres of her tattered being together.

The story is a familiar one but, again, our expectations are exceeded at every sentence by beautifully crafted words that never behave in quite the way we are expecting them to. The writing is a joy. The performance equally so. And then there is the design.

While it makes me feel like a reviewer (as opposed to just some kid that writes about things that interest her) to go through and mention each element separately, I do want to talk about Matt Adey’s design because again, it is about exceeding our expectations. The difficulty facing any designer working in Red Stitch’s icon barn-sized theatre is that the audience has seen that space for years. We know its exact size (tiny) and exact shape (peculiar) but Adey made it feel like a new space; a bigger space and yet, one oppressive to its inhabitant. Its supposed immensity magnified her isolation rather than diluted it and elegant lighting changes transformed her world from a freeing expanse to a nightmare of unrelenting intensity. Fucking rad.

Grounded runs until July 12th and you should get on it because it deserves to sell out and I have no doubt it will.

I have one more thing to say about it. As someone whose Middle Eastern heritage is not worn in her face or her skin colour, stories like this break my heart. Sitting there and hearing of the brown people made grey by the drone’s cameras, made body-parts by their blasts, and I was acutely aware – although no one would know it to look at me – that these people looked just like my beloved grandmother. Looked just like my great-grandmother who was three when the family came out here and became one of a tiny population of Middle Easterns in rural Australia. They were my great-great-grandmother who was raised by Lutheran nuns in Beirut after her mother, my great-great-great-grandmother, froze to death somewhere in a vineyard in Syria. I knew this and it tore me to pieces. In showing how America dehumanises both its own and my grandmother’s people, Grounded found humanity for both.

Image

My great-grandmother, left, and her sister, May.

[1] but I cd only whisper by Kristiana Colòn

[2] My Name Is Rachel Corrie by Rachel Corrie edited by Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner

[3] When the rain stops falling by Andrew Bovell

[4] Richard III by some important dead dude

[5] Or is to CTSD? Concurrent Traumatic Stress Disorder. As we enter a new era of warfare, we enter a new era of psychological trauma.

Standard