This is part three of the Welcome to Nowhere Playwright interviews: Chris Edwards and Sophia Riozzi interviewing Daniel Keene. I am one of five playwrights commissioned by Monash University to write this new work along with Angus Cerini, Zoey Dawson, Daniel Keene and Morgan Rose. As part of the process, I’ve had student actors interview the creatives. Editing this down to a consumable-length nearly killed me. This is such an immensely generous interview from Daniel. So enjoy this beautiful contribution from Daniel, Chris and Sophia.
What brought you to writing?
I was supposed to be being a teacher, but I just started working in the theatre, at La Mama and places like that in Melbourne. I started off as an actor but I was a very, very poor actor, and I knew that I just wasn’t very good at it. So I thought well perhaps I can try directing, and that was my second mistake because I wasn’t very good at that either. I did a bit of lighting design, and that wasn’t particularly good, but I still wanted to work in the theatre. I started working on texts that weren’t mine. I would edit, like dramaturg them and other people would perform them, and that just led me to writing.
I came into the theatre because I wanted to work in the theatre but I didn’t know in what capacity. And then it took a few years to understand that what I could do was write. Having worked as an actor and doing a little bit of directing and designing and that sort of stuff, I found it really useful when I started to write because I knew what it was like behind the stage, so that became really handy.
Do you have any central themes or ideas that you always go back to writing about?
I suppose I do but in a way it’s kind of up to somebody else to identify them.
When I first started going to see the theatre, I got very tired because I never saw any working class people on stage. All I saw were middle class people, and I come from a working class family so I didn’t see anybody on stage that I recognised. I couldn’t understand why those sort of characters didn’t have the space and time on stage, so I started writing about those kinds of people because they were the people I knew, that I grew up with, that I related to. And then, as I continued to write and became a more established artist, I was no longer in that milieu, I was now living as an artist, but I’m still drawn to those sorts of people. People who I feel don’t have a voice, and so I try to write plays that articulate things that aren’t normally articulated.
It’s also the fact that people seem to think that the only interesting stories are about people who are themselves kind of interesting somehow, like I’m a nuclear physicist or I’m a university lecturer or I’m a whatever you are. But a guy who works in a factory or, a woman who works in a kitchen, they can have just as interesting lives and their stories can be just as profound. That’s an old cliché really, but I really believe that. I want to write about those sorts of people.
Is that something that led you into the Keene-Taylor theatre project?
The Keene-Taylor project started off as a really pragmatic thing. I’d seen Harriet Taylor’s work around Melbourne, and she’d seen my work, but we’d never met. She wrote to me and asked if I have anything that needed directing, and I’d written about four very short plays that I didn’t know what to do with. I wrote them because formally I was really tired of writing large dramas that had three acts or five acts, because the machinery of a large drama is quite demanding, you’ve got to get it to work in a certain way. And I thought, why can’t I write a play that’s only five pages long, and not be afraid of its length? Why can’t it be ten minutes long, more like a theatrical poem more than a drama? But then who’s going to do a play that’s five minutes long? I mean, nobody.
But she had a desire to do my work so I showed her these short things. We mounted the first season at the Brotherhood of Saint Laurence Warehouse, because we had no money, no funding, no support or anything, so that was the only place we could get for free. But we ended up with really fabulous actors like Helen Morse, and Paul English, and Malcolm Robertson, and all these amazing actors who wanted to work with me and with Harriet. We had a great cast but no money, so no set, no lighting, no anything, so we developed this aesthetic.
When we went into the warehouse at the Brotherhood, the warehouse was full of old furniture and once a week anybody who needed a bed or a desk or a chair or something could come and take it for free. So when we went into the warehouse, we weren’t allowed to move anything, or to get rid of anything, it had to stay in there. So we decided not to bring anything in, no set, we’d just use whatever was there. If there were twelve wardrobes and sixteen beds that’s what we’d use, but of course every week it changed, because they would go and new things would come in. We developed an aesthetic where we’d just use whatever was to hand, and we’d use no theatrical lighting we’d just use whatever was in the warehouse, just light bulbs and things like that. That became our kind of trademark, and it was great fun working like that, having nothing except what was there. You couldn’t choose to have things; it was just all we’ve got is this so we’ll just use that.
It gave me enormous freedom because I could set a play on a street corner, or in a boarding house, or in a bar or something, it didn’t matter because all it was going to be was a couple of kitchen chairs and a table, so we could make up anything we liked. And because of the location and because of what that place was and the people it serviced, the people it helped, that kind of determined a lot of the stuff I was then writing about. I’d already been writing about that anyway, it just kind of focused it really strongly.
Having been a director, is it hard for you to take a step back in the rehearsal room?
No, I really like that, because once the play is finished, it has so many drafts, and by the time it’s finished I know it, I could probably recite it backwards. I think that if I’ve done a really good job I can just let it go completely. It’s not my job to direct it or perform it or design it. I like the moment that I hand it over and say, ‘well okay that’s your responsibility now. You make something out of that.’ I often enjoy coming to see work of mine and I don’t recognise it. The best thing ever is when I sit in an audience and I forget that I wrote it. I’m just watching something else. That doesn’t happen that often but when it does it’s incredible, because it’s become another thing.
I try to move on as quickly as possible to something else and forget about what I’ve just done. There’s a thing that actors talk about – ‘voluntary amnesia’. If you’re an actor and you’re playing Hamlet, you’ve learnt it and you’ve performed it, then you’ve got to do another play. You don’t want to still be remembering, you have to forget that role and then launch into the next one. So I tend to do that as much as possible: once I’ve finished a play, I’m finished with it. I try not to revisit it, it’s finished, and then I do something else.
With Welcome to Nowhere, how did you respond to the prompts you were given?
And then the idea was interesting, this ‘welcome to nowhere’. That for me translated into a moment of transition between one place and the next, hence the play I wrote. I came up with the idea of this transition fairly quickly. I thought that was a nice place to start because it’s got a little bit of tension in the situation. But then it took me a very long time to know who were these characters and how many were there and what were they waiting for. Then I tried to come at it at a kind of oblique angle, so it’s not like they’re waiting to get into military school or something: it’s something had already happened but hadn’t quite finished. They’re all waiting for that process to be over, which is the collecting of the ashes and the reunion between the three of them, and like most plays I write there’s no resolution at the end. There’s probably a possibility of resolution, but the audience has to kind of imagine.
Another trend between a lot of your plays is there’s always an excerpt of a poem at the beginning, could you give us some insight into how that began?
A lot of writers do that. You find it at the start of a lot of books. I’ve always looked to poetry as a stimulation and inspiration and to find clues, to find ideas. When I came up with the notion of the play, I revisited a whole lot of favourite things of mine that I thought were somehow connected with that feeling that I was having. Because when I imagine a play, the first thing that happens is I feel an emotional landscape. It’s just a general feeling of what emotional and intellectual ground it will cover, like imagining a piece of music. Then I have a look around, at people I’ve read a lot, and see if there’s something that will stimulate or that somehow connects to that feeling, that may help me then think further or develop further that idea. And also for people working on the play: it’s kind of a little invitation.
So with your playlet Ash for Welcome to Nowhere, there are these preoccupations with family and loss and grief, so how did you arrive at those themes?
They’re not necessarily conscious. Once I understood that the play was about some kind of transition, then the situation was – ‘Okay it’s a room and there are people waiting in it. Who are the people? I don’t know, a man and a woman. Who are they? I’ve got no idea. What are they saying? They’re waiting for the third person’ – I try not to decide anything beforehand. I don’t say before I start writing ‘This will be about a brother and a sister and another brother, and they’ve been separated’ – I don’t do that.
I have a blank sheet of paper, and then I wait until I can hear somebody. I sit there and I wait until I hear somebody say: “Do you think he’ll come?”, so I write that down. I just know this is what’s being said and it’s making sense to me. This feels like it has a rhythm and it’s leading somewhere and its actually progressing. Then after a page or ten pages or something at some point, I have a sense of ‘Oh okay it’s a brother and a sister and they’re waiting for the other brother’, that’s what it’ll be. So I go back to the start, now knowing this. But I’ve got there by writing.
Once I’ve done that, then I know who they are, and then I’ll start the real work, which is to construct the play. Instinct is the first thing, but intellect is the second thing to use, to then shape that into something that works, that has the right cadence, that makes sense, that has an emotional logic, that contains ideas. That’s the second part of the work.
Then if I end up writing about families? – Well 90% of the world’s drama is about family one way or the other. They make great plays. Families are full of departures and homecomings, which are great dramatic things, so I’m lead to it instinctively.
What kind of advice would you give to students like us making this transition in to the world of theatre?
I’m not anyone to ask advice about that.
I think that what everybody needs to do if they want to work in the theatre is learn how to be theatre makers. Learn everything you can learn about the theatre – how do you do lights? How do you build sets? What does design mean? How does sound work in the theatre? – All of that, even if you just want to be an actor. It’s really important to understand how all those things work, and how they cohere.
Find your cohort. Find the people you’re going to work with. Begin to find them now, when you’re a student, because no piece of theatre is made by one person. It’s always made by a group of people. I think the most important thing you can do is find your allies, find your cohort, find the people you want to work with. It’s a matter of elective affinities; find the people you’re drawn to and that you want to help create theatre with. If you can do that, then you’ll have somewhere, once you leave this place you’ll have a context you’ve made for yourself. To finish a course that’s to do with theatre and then to go out into the world just as a single person, I think is really difficult. It’s not possible. I think it’s better to begin now to imagine the sort of work you want to make and whom you want to make it with, because that’s how theatre is made.