conversation, creativity, Dramaturgical Analysis, interview, Theatre, writing

in conversation: mark wilson on narrative, surprise, shakespeare and whatever this song is called

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.

Photography by Sarah Walker as part of her fabulous series, Clutch

Photography by Sarah Walker as part of her fabulous series, Clutch

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.

Mark laughs.

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.

Sarah Walker, from Clutch again

Sarah Walker, from Clutch again

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.

The new Star Wars' cast

The new Star Wars’ cast

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.

Mark: Wonderful.

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.

We listen.

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. 

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audiences, Audio Stage, conversation, creativity, dance

audio stage, episode three: angela conquet

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Episode three. Jana Perkovic and I spoke to the amazing Angela Conquet, artistic director of Dance House, one of the most important contemporary dance institutions in Australia.

We absolutely loved recording this episode. Angela was a joy to talk with and it was wonderful to add dance to what has so far been a very theatre-centric conversation of performing arts history and documentation.

Dance, even more than theatre, is incredibly vulnerable to disappearing into history. It leaves less words in its wake. “Not only do we work with the most ephemeral of art forms, when it comes to dance,” says Angela, “but we work with people and if we do not take the chance to preserve something when it can be preserved, things are lost for ever.” Angela has come here from France and this made for a wonderful conversation of what makes Australian dance Australian dance.

“I think it’s the approach to space that really makes [dancers and choreographers] Australian. We have this joke in Europe: ‘Australian dancers are such space-eaters’. … With certain artists, I think it’s fascinating, you can tell from a mile away that they have an approach to space that’s completely different to what you see in Europe.” Angela Conquet

Discussed in this episode:

Russell Dumas, how much space Australian pedestrians take, reinventing hot water, RoseLee Goldberg not getting Australian dance, what it means to have or not have a revolution, Merce Cunningham,  the historical importance of being seen at Avignon, and much else.

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 on the website.

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

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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.

 

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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. 

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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. 

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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.

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Audio Stage, conversation, Theatre

an announcement: audio stage, episode 1

 

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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. 

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