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.
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.
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.
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.
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.