conversation, interview, Theatre, writing

in conversation: cat commander on collaboration, questioning yourself and australianess

Cat Commander is a beautiful playwright and actor. Her upcoming show, YOU TOOK THE STARS, will mark the first time that she has been the writer rather than the writer/performer/producer/everything else. It is a massive step for us as playwrights, when we first place our words into the mouths and hearts of others. Cat and I sat down over liquorice tea to talk about this new stage in her life and career.

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The first image that comes up when you google search ‘Cat Commander’

Fleur: Turning on the recorder. They are informal. The one I just typed up ends with “I’ve got to go because I need to eat some chips” so don’t feel that it’s like “NOW WE ARE TALKING!”

Cat: Okay. Okay.

Fleur: So tell me, Cat, what have you been thinking about this week?

Cat: The new sensation of what it’s like to be the playwright who is not onstage. I’ve done my job. I don’t have to do anything else. I feel like I could have done with a distraction this week to keep my mind off the fact that I don’t have anything to do.

Going into rehearsals today, I added an extra line. Maybe I did it because I felt like I needed to be involved. I also think the line needs to be there but I wonder if it was a bit of me going “argh! I don’t have anything to do and I feel a bit left out!”

Fleur: Are you loving that though?

Cat: Yeah! That’s good too! Part of me is going “oh you’re going to really miss it when you see it onstage and the people are applauding” but part of me is also going to love standing at the back every night.

Although there’s nowhere to hide! In rehearsal today, Kasha (Kaczmarek) delivered one of the monologues to me. It was this surreal out of body experience of going “I wrote that!” But it is also something I would say! So somebody has taken shit that I’ve said and is saying it back to me but making it make sense for their own brain! Kasha and John (Shearman) are such good actors. Even though I know what’s happening, I’m surprised by the way they make it real for themselves.

Fleur: Do you find your nerves different – you haven’t got to opening night – but are you actor nerves different to your writer nerves?

Cat: I actually feel pretty secure about this play because the bit that I enjoyed doing, the writing, I’ve finished. If it had gone on at first to third draft I think I’d still be panicking. “Fuck! I don’t know what this play is about!” But there was a massive jump between the third draft and the fifth or sixth or whatever this one is. I’ve figured out why I’m writing this and why I think people should see it and why I feel like it is worth of actors putting their time into. I think that is the thing I’m asking myself constantly about theatre: Why should people see it? Why should they pay to see it? Why ask actors to give up their time? I know what it’s like. I don’t want to give an actor a piece of work that’s not worthy of their time and energy.

Fleur: I’ve always thought that about your writing: what a delight it is for actors. I feel that comes from you knowing what feels good and hard to experience on stage but I hadn’t thought about it as also being this sensitivity to of what it’s like to invest months of time in words when you don’t know why you’re saying them.

Cat: I’ve thought a lot about it recently. I guess there is so much debate going on around theatre in Melbourne. So much of what gets up in Australia is largely irrelevant to us. It is overseas writing.

YOU TOOK THE STARS, promo image by Ben Prendegast featuring John Shearman and Kasha Kaczmarek

YOU TOOK THE STARS, promo image by Ben Prendegast featuring John Shearman and Kasha Kaczmarek

I was just in the States and I had someone ask me – and he was so curious and excited – asking me “what sort of theatre do you put on in Australia? What kind of plays?” And I was like “well… a lot of your plays. A lot of American plays.” And he was so genuinely shocked. “Why would you do that? Why wouldn’t you put Australian plays on?” That’s the question I keep asking myself. I’m really interested in American writing but I want audiences to experience our life on stage. I want actors to act without the falsification of using an accent. It is such a barrier to actually creating something beautiful, actors worrying whether they are getting their accent right. Or you are seeing an actor struggle with a text that’s clearly not meant to be spoken in this languid Australian accent.

Fleur: I ask those questions much more of independent companies, I must say. Why aren’t you producing local writing? It pisses me off when I see independent companies staging another production of LaBute. Look around you!

I’m sure that’s partly my ego as a local writer going “there are amazing writers here! Look! Right in front of you, fuckers! Why are you trying to make work that feels like mainstage? Why are you not digging your hands into the earth of Melbourne and pulling something out?”

Cat: But isn’t it interesting that we have this perception that it’s the funded theatre companies’ prerogative to put on overseas work and it is us, the struggling battlers that have got to put on and support our own stuff. Wouldn’t it be interesting if we lived in a world where amateur companies were going “let’s have a go at some overseas stuff” and it was the flagship companies were going “find me a new work! Let’s pump money into a writer.”

Fleur: Oh I absolutely don’t think it is the mainstage’s prerogative to produce all the overseas work! I would fucking love if one of them went “do you know what? This is our season of new Australian work.” I guess I just want independent artists to be trusting and supporting each other.

Cat: It is just a shame that we don’t have the population or the interest to support a wider range of programming from both mainstage and independent companies.

What I would really like is to have time and support to make sure it’s right before it goes on stage. To know what right feels like. I think that’s what I’ve been trying to figure out.

I think if Melbourne could do with any more theatre it would be really meaty Australian work that up there with the dramatic structure of what’s being produced on the world stage. I don’t think conventional theatre is dead. I don’t think we’re ever going to want to stop seeing two people talking to each other; being outside of it yet still part of it. You are because you’re a meter or two meters or ten meters away.

I’m learning to think more thematically. To go “if I could sum this play up in a word or sentence, what would it be? What is it really about?” It’s not about two people talking to each other. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about people dealing with anxiety and trying to make love exist in the world where love seems so fucking impossible.

Last week I was thinking about myself the way an actor might think about a playwright. If I were the actor doing this play, I would google the playwright and I would find out what had been happening in the playwright’s life. That made me think.

I lost a friend last year and that sent me into a spiral of existential l doubt and questioning stuff. That made me go “oh, the word ‘death’ comes up a lot in this play.” It is clearly about a fear of dying and love is kind of all about a fear of dying. We’ve gotta make meaning out of this weird existence of ours otherwise why are we here?

Fleur: Oh dear. I’m just imagining my actors trying to google me to figure out what made me write The City They Burned. “Well she got naked a lot then got angry at God. Hmm.” That wouldn’t work. But I keep having these conversations with audience members who are asking just that. Where did this come from?

Cat: Yeah, I’m interested to have those conversations because I’ve never had them. I’ve never had that objective conversation where it’s not about “what did you thing of me? Was I doing a good job of the thing I wrote and acted and directed and did all the fucking sound cues?” Now it will be “hey, what did you think of this thing that I helped create.” I feel like I’ve been a part of something rather than an instigator of everything. It feels a bit more like what the artistic process should be like. I’m into this collaboration thing. I’d like to do more of it.

Fleur: It is an amazing feeling. It feels like such a privilege to have all these brains focus on your work with such love. I don’t think you can do new work – and indie, unpaid work – without a lot of love. Theatre is too hard to make without love. You make it with people you are in love with.

Cat: I think there should be ferocious debate and I think you should have intellectual respect for each other. I don’t think it should be 100% yes.

Fleur: Oh it should be hard! Hard isn’t a bad thing. But find those people who challenge that challenge you because they want it to be good. They want to be part of something good and they know you can be good.

Cat: The thing that I like about indie theatre is that part of the process is me cycling to South Bank on a Saturday morning to pick up some monkey ears from an old friend. “You’re a drag queen! You know how to sew! Why don’t you make me some monkey ears?” And there are probably lots of people who could have done that but, again, I want to be working with people I like. And people who make them regardless of the fact that I don’t reply to emails because I’m totally strung out and have no idea what’s going on right now.

That’s why I can’t do Tinder. People go, “you’re a writer, you should be really good at that!” No! I’m good at writing both the voices! When I don’t know what the other person is going to say I’m like “No! No! I don’t want to be a part of this!” You’re expecting me to give you the part of my brain that I’m using for the thing I care about! Anyway. That’s the next play, clearly. How much I don’t care about relationships. You Took The Stars is a play about how I’m really interested in them and now it is like “I’m completely disinterested because I am burnt the fuck out.”

Fleur: Well that’s a way to end it:

But, you’re fucking excited! You’re about to have your play open! How does it feel?

Cat: I’m over the moon. I couldn’t be happier.

Fleur: Congratulations. That’s really special.

Cat, Kasha, Matt Furlani and John, photographed by Ben Prendegast

Cat, Kasha, Matt Furlani and John, photographed by Ben Prendegast

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