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.
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.
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.