Two weeks ago I sat down with theatre maker Mark Wilson for a chat. He is the creator of Unsex Me which I discussed on the blog with audience members last month. He is an actor, director, writer and dramaturge and is currently undertaking Playwriting Australia’s dramaturgy internship with me at MTC. Mark’s passion for theatre is contagious and his delight in rigorous intellectual interrogation of art left me elated. He is a joy to talk to and, while it can be hard to convey tone in a transcript, know that there was a whole lot of laughter, consumption of brownies and self-decricapting grimaces. So picture this: a cold, rainy day. We are upstairs at the Malthouse, two pots of tea between us. We begin.
SFB: Tell me what you’ve been thinking about this week, Mark Wilson. What’s been on your mind?
Mark: I’ve been thinking about narrative or plot.
SFB: What about narrative or plot?
Mark: They’re not very interesting to me but sometimes you need it to be the vehicle. The theme.
I saw a film last night and it is a lot about how fucked Ireland is and I thought it was an appallingly made film. After, my aunty said to me “well wasn’t that the most profound film you’ve ever seen?” ?” I had to say “I can appreciate that the themes were there but I didn’t think it was well made.” I closed my eyes with boredom a few times. It was so achingly sentimental.
SFB: Good for the soul, isn’t it? Achingly sentimental? Don’t we all just want a story, Mark? Don’t we all just want a nice beginning, middle and end?
Mark: Maybe that’s what we want but it’s not what we all need.
SFB: What do we need?
Mark: We need to think about the world.
SFB: So when you read a play that excites you, what is it that’s working for you?
Mark: Well if it is an old play, it’s when characters start reflecting. If it is a new play it is about surprise
SFB: Do you get surprised in old plays?
Mark: Very rarely. I get surprised by the ideas characters express but the plots, almost invariably, are not surprising.
SFB: What surprises you in new plays?
Mark: Form. And… the surprising attacks of angles. Yeah. Often it is a formal shift. Suddenly we are all dancing.
SFB: Yes, seldom is my surprise the actual plot. If people are trying to surprise me with a plot – if that is their big reveal, that some guy has been dead the whole time – well then narrative is the least surprising surprise you can have.
Mark: Narrative: Uuuuughh!
SFB: I don’t know how to transcribe that sound. Just a lot of ‘u’s I think. And some ‘gh’s.
Mark: I think a ‘gh’. I’m a big fan of the ‘gh’.
When a playwright thinks that narrative is their whole job, you’re in trouble. If it’s not working often my first impulse is to get on the floor with it. I want to get on the floor with some good actors. I think my problem is that I look at scripts not as the final thing but as the start.
SFB: I think that’s how people should look at a script. I think a lot of the time a script that is polished and perfect doesn’t leave space for theatre. Sometimes they are beautiful to read on the page and you don’t need to stage it.
Mark: Somebody said that about F. Scott Fitzgerald. He couldn’t write a screenplay because he finished them. The directors he worked with (who eventually kicked him off) they had a movie in their head and their needed something more exciting from the screenwriter but Fitzgerald would deliver a magnum opus in screenplay form, which is useless.
The best Shakespeare I’ve ever seen hasn’t been Shakespeare.
SFB: What was that?
Mark: The Ostermeier Hamlet. It started with this slapstick burying of the king. They kept on dropping the coffin and it was raining and slippery and the guy who was burying it was doing that kind of dance when you’re like (demonstrates making robot sounds).
SFB: Popping. I’m addicted to So You Think You Can Dance. I’m sorry. Very embarrassing.
Mark: Yes. So they just threw any form, any theatrical technique that they needed at that moment. The most extraordinary moment was Laertes has returned and Hamlet is doing a soliloquy and then he stops and he says, “Laertes thinks I have wronged him. Have I wronged Laertes?” He waits then he asks it again: “Have I wronged Laertes?” Nothing. He asked it a third time and then somebody in the audience yelled out “Ya!” And Hamlet dove into the audience, climbed over the seats and was screaming at this guy in German. Then somebody on the other side yelled out in English “No! No, you haven’t wronged Laertes!” And instantly Hamlet was climbing over that way, screaming in English. So everybody was talking about it and Hamlet was reflecting on what was being said and then slipped back into the Shakespeare. It was extraordinary.
SFB: Holy shit.
Mark: Holy shit! Yeah.
A friend of mine said “nothing that is five-hundred years old can mean the same thing now as it did when it was written.” And Artaud said “if Oedipus Rex (or whatever play) isn’t working for your audience, it’s not the fault of your audience. It is the fault of Oedipus Rex.” That was big. For me. That the text, which I love, which has fed me, does not work on its own. Peter Brook said that at the beginning of his career he wanted the text to speak for itself but now he realizes the text can’t speak.
But a friend was saying that it is fucked in Melbourne because nobody can just do a show. They have to be having all these formal enquiries and that can totally isolate the audience.
SFB: I get that. And I still do love narrative. More than you, I’m sure. I still just like to tell a good story. But I am a very happy theatre-goer. It takes a lot to make me not like a show. I go in excited. You have to fucking pummel me to make me unhappy. Shows that everyone else hated I just go “they told me a story! They sung me some songs! Things were pretty! I’m happy!”
I guess I’m trying really hard to be the dramaturge slash arts writer who doesn’t bring their personal tastes with them. Which is hard because I’m also trying to be an artist who has to be full of personal taste. But I’m trying to ride that balance. I try hard to go into every show saying, “In every production there will be something that I could not have done.” That’s tricky. Sometimes. Sometimes you come out saying “well I couldn’t have done any of that because I wouldn’t have done any of that, would I!” So it is hard.
So you’ve been thinking about narrative and plot.
Mark: I’ve been thinking about narrative and plot. I’ve been thinking lot about this. And about race and how we deal with this stuff onstage.
SFB: Was there a conclusion? Did you find out how we deal with it onstage?
Mark: No. Badly. Nakkiah Lui’s article in The Guardian was interesting. She said we need two types of revolution. The first is allowing and actively casting people who are not white as characters that where race and ethnicity doesn’t matter and the other is an increased amount of material on stages that actively represents the lives of those who are not all white and middle class.
SFB: It is difficult. I said to Danny (Delahunty) before we cast The City They Burned that if we end up with an all white cast I’ll punch us. I’m keeping a tally of all the shows I see this year and I’m keeping a tally of how many actors are in each show and how many are not white. I can’t write a play for nine actors and have them all represented as white. But who do we get at the audition? We see over a hundred people and I think we had two or three non-anglo actors audition for us. But then the company, Attic Erratic, started casting Norm and Ahmed and suddenly these diverse actors all come out of the woodwork. Does that mean that these actors are out there and not coming to these auditions because they presume that they won’t –
Mark: You bet. They presume, understandably, that they won’t be cast as the universal. And it is ridiculous. The word ‘ethnic’ we don’t apply to white people. White people are not ‘ethnic’. What? What? Yeah. Yeah man. What the fuck! We’re neutral. White man is neutral.
SFB: I listen to a podcast called Popculture Happy Hour. I’d avoided it for a long time because I know nothing about pop culture but it is fantastic and I’m totally addicted, despite not knowing any of the movies they are talking about. It is just such good discussion. They did one when the photo of the new Star Wars came out and it was a table full of white men, basically. Then people started getting defensive and saying “we didn’t give you the photo to audit” and these guys on the podcast said “that implies that they are two separate things: looking at the photo and seeing that they are all white men.” It’s not an audit if that is the first thing you notice. That is just us looking and seeing the obvious.
Mark: Yes, that stuff is alive politically. And yet we chose not to engage with it.
SFB: There was another story I heard on a different podcast (I can’t remember which, maybe Snap Judgement) about a boy at a segregated school. One day the nun walked in, took down the crucifix and put up a new one with a black Jesus on it. All the kids were staring at her in shock and she says “Jesus would have probably looked more like you then me” and walks out. All these kids are just… minds blown and this guy, who is now an adult, says “still, whenever I think of Jesus, he is black, like me.” And that was such an empowering moment for him as a man, when Black Jesus came to stay.
What’s this song called?
SFB: No idea.
Mark: I love this song.
We both listen in silence.
Mark: I think it’s those people who dressed like hippies on the front of their first album.
SFB: Remember me saying a few minutes ago that I know nothing about pop culture? Yeah, still true.
So Mark, why theatre?
Mark: Why theatre? Oh no! Well real time, real space is shared. That’s fundamental. I think what fourth wall naturalism doesn’t understand is that we are all sharing the same place at the same time. Stop pretending we’re somewhere else. For me, a piece of theatre that doesn’t acknowledge its theatricality has failed already. Even texts that fundamentally do, like Shakespeare, I’ve seen appalling productions that try to pretend that we’re not here. Are you serious? Are you serious? Come on. Yeah. Real time, real place, same space, we’re sharing something. It’s an event. People come together. It’s that old phrase: we are a socially constructive form. I like that a lot. But then I also like “no, fuck that, I’m an individual in that room!” I guess I want it both ways.
SFB: I’m just firing short things at you now. So what does the term ‘responsibility’ mean for you within your art?
Mark: Yeah, yeah, okay. Responsibility. I think we have a social responsibility. I think we need to acknowledge our advantages in life. Our social and economic advantages. I think that theatre needs to do that in the way that we tell stories. You know, everyone shits on some of these playwrights but they write an unproblematic middle class world, that’s fucked. Like Marcel said in the paper today “we always say that theatre can do anything but we do an awful lot of plays set in middle class living rooms.” I think the responsibility is about how we present the world. Because all the world’s a stage and a stage is all the world. That’s why I find well plotted, complete-unto-themselves plays so boring: they’re assuming that they can present everything; that they are a complete world. Well no, actually. I’m drinking peppermint tea. Somebody picked that peppermint tea. I’m enjoying the fruits of their underpaid labour. And yeah I might be a filthy socialist of the old sort –
SFB: Look at that beard, of course you are.
Mark: Look at this beard! But then look at my pink pants. Yeah. I think it is irresponsible to answer questions and not ask them. The theatre is the place to ask.
SFB: Okay so you’ve said a lot about what we are doing wrong in theatre, how do we fix it? I’m sorry! I’m sorry! What a bitch. Who asks this stuff?
Mark: I think we need to stop producing mediocrity and things with small ambition. I don’t care that it was a hit on the West End two years ago and someone wants to be in it and it will sell tickets, why is this happening? A real interrogation of the social need. I’m not talking about being didactic, I’m talking about asking interesting questions. Why are we doing yet another play that can sit nicely and not offend? It is fucked. It is fucked. But on the other hand, I’m talking about the majors here, and there is a big audience who doesn’t share my taste and that’s fine. That’s totally fine. But my God, when they see and Arthur Miller that should be the best God damn Arthur Miller that anyone in Australia can produce. If not, then there is something wrong.
But really dramaturgy is the thing. And I don’t mean ‘dramaturgy’ as script development. I think that reducing dramaturgy to fit that definition is one of the most appalling things in the world. Why are we doing the piece? Who is it speaking to? What does this choice that we’ve made mean in relation to the text and the audience? That is the thing that needs to fix theatre. Why beyond economics is this the play we’re doing? But I also understand that there are enormous pressures in programming but let’s just say that if I was running one of these big houses that question would be asked a lot. And then it would be a question to marketing – “how would you sell this?” – as opposed to a question to the literary department – “how would we sell this?” What!?
I don’t know if anything I’ve said today represents my thinking at all. I don’t know if it’s true. I don’t know if I believe it.
SFB: You’re my fave. And on that note.
Mark: On that note.
Sarah Walker’s beautiful work can be found here. But then you all knew that, I hope.