Louis Nowra is an iconic Australian playwright, librettist, screenwriter, novelist, non-fiction writer and a regular contributor to The Monthly and the Australian Literary Review. His best-known plays include Cosi, Radiance,The Golden Age and Summer of the Aliens. His novel, Ice, was short-listed for the Miles Franklin Award in 2009 and his most recent book, Kings Cross: A Biography, was published in 2013.
We spoke in Adelaide during Writers’ Week. I was so surprised that he agreed to an interview that I forgot to write down the name of the hotel he was staying in and had to do some detective googling to figure it out. Very professional.
Louis Nowra: Well, I don’t read reviews. I did a play called The Golden Age and it was universally reviled by critics. It went on a lot, but the reviews were so bad that a guy did an MA thesis on it. He wanted me to read it and I said “I can’t read it. I’ve read enough bad reviews.”
After The Golden Age, I stopped writing plays for three years because I assumed that they were right, that I was wrong. I only got back to writing plays because Neil Armfield wanted me to adapt the Xavier Herbert novel, Capricornia. I collected all the newspapers and after the show had opened, I read all the reviews and what I realised was that I was right and they were wrong: it was universally admired but I knew what the flaws were. The critics couldn’t tell the difference between the production and the play. The production was brilliant but I knew there were lots of things wrong with the play.
If you are a playwright, you’re not going to learn much from your reviews. Reviewers are probably better on the idea of what the production is. Most have a better idea of directors than they do of writers.
It is a very astringent form, plays. It’s a blueprint. Theatre is a communal activity. It cannot exist unless actors are acting it out in front of an audience. That always attracts me: how astringent you have to be in your writing, knowing that it’s going to be fleshed out by the actors. That’s why novelists can’t write plays. From Flaubert onwards they’ve attempted it. They think it is easy. They think it is dialogue. It isn’t: it’s what you leave out that’s crucial in plays. Novelists do not understand that at all.
People occasionally send me plays – not very much anymore – and I realise that they don’t see theatre. The first thing you notice in a bad play is that the dialogue is saggy. It has no life. The thing about theatre dialogue is that it has to be tough. Every line has to mean something or contain a rhythm to the whole scene that will keep you interested. Naturalistic dialogue is not rhythmic. It’s not tough enough. To me the great playwrights like Shakespeare, Congreve, or Orton, and even Tennessee Williams, call attention to the language. Naturalism is basically saying ”pay no attention to the language; pay attention to the characters.” I think language really crucial in plays.
I can’t understand naturalism. I don’t know what’s at stake. I can’t watch House Husbands or Offspring or Packed to the Rafters. Life and death I can understand, but the very idea that somebody’s pregnant and she’s going to give birth is not interesting to me unless it is placed in a much larger context. Naturalism is basically saying that’s the most important thing that’s happening: that she’s giving birth when it is the circumstances that are really crucial. Naturalism is really limited on that level. I just can’t figure out what’s so interesting about these boring lives.
And you have to understand that naturalism is the Australian idiom. Australians love being portrayed on stage because it is confirmation of their lives. That’s naturalism: naturalism confirms their way of life where Shakespeare’s plays say “things are much larger: I’m going to shock you into seeing the world a different way.” Naturalism is always confirming the way you see the world. I go to plays or read literature in order to be told “there is another way of looking at the world.” At the moment, theatre isn’t doing that. It seems to be treading water because the talented people go “it’s a ghetto and I want to be where the action is: film, television.”
And the great disease in theatre has been people going off to become arts administrators. You go into Sydney Theatre Company and there are so many more office workers than there are actors on stage. That’s been a huge turn around. When I was here in the early 80s, we had a brilliant administrator – Mary Valentine – hardly any office staff and the whole thing was to put all the money on stage. Now the economics has changed immensely.
Back then, we had a company of twelve people. Actors like Geoffrey Rush and John Wood. That cost a lot of money but you could always have twelve people on stage. If you have twelve people on stage, it is an epic canvas. It is a greater slice of society. Once the money goes to the arts administrators and the office workers, less and less actors can go onstage: you can’t afford them, the world shrinks. Nowadays, most arts administrators would love it if Australians wrote monologues: it is cheap.
I was allowed to fail time and time again. I was allowed to get no audience. There is one young playwright who wrote a play a couple of years ago that I felt was really good. It didn’t get good houses and now he can’t get any work on. It’s because he has that stigma of failure. That was never there before. There is much greater pressure on the playwrights to have a hit rather than building up a career. It is a very different world. I’d hate to be a young playwright starting out now.
There is that constant thing of trying to get audiences because, quite simply, it has become so damn expensive. Unions have rightly demanded that actors are paid much better. Cleaners are paid much better. But what you’ve got is this terrible thing of everyone looking over their shoulder saying “Will this make money? Will this break even?” A sense of adventure is gone. Financially you can’t be adventurous unless you’re bravely stupid and happy to go out with a bang.
You need young people to go to theatre. That means that there is something vital happening that they want to be a part of. You don’t get that any more. You’ve got to understand what Jim Sharman did at Lighthouse in the early 80s: that first year we had older subscribers and he said ”I don’t want them.” So we got rid of them. They were very easy to get rid of: we put on the shows that they hated. The next year we got the younger audience. Even this week I’ve had people come up to me and say “I remember when I was young and I saw that second year of Lighthouse and it was brilliant.” That was Jim saying “You can get rid of the older subscribers and survive but it requires an immense amount of bravery.”