The final Welcome to Nowhere Playwright interview: Emily O’Connor and Olivia Bishop interviewed me. Which feels terribly narcissist to post an interview with myself but I guess my usual entries are just me shouting at the internet without the guiding hand of outside interviewers so let’s just embrace it. 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. So enjoy!
What brought you to writing, and why specifically theatre? Did it start with other kinds of writing?
I came to theatre really young, so it was first form that I feel in love with. I arrived in theatre by being vindictive. I’d had just a really horrible traumatic experience changing schools, and so I was like “I know, I’ll write a play about it and make people feel really guilty”. That was my whole motive! So this play won the South Australian State Theatre’s Young Playwright’s competition, and the prize for that was that they spent a week workshopping my play with a group of professional actors, a dramaturge and a director, and then they did a staged reading of my play. It was truly terrible.
What was it about, what was it?
It was about me being an angsty teenager and having my life ruined by these teachers! It was just entirely to make them feel bad. I knew it was bad at the time. I have a really clear memory of being like “the instant this week finishes, I’ll never read this again, but I know what a good experience it is”.
I’d been a classical singer and that’s so internal. It’s so about what’s going on inside body. Workshopping for a week just made me aware of what an incredibly collaborative art form theatre was. That week was such a gift. I came to Melbourne to study singing and I was like “Why am I doing this? This is terrible, this is so much more boring than theatre!” And so I dropped out of that six months in, and have been doing theatre ever since.
You direct and occasionally perform in things as well, but is there something about writing that really draws you to it? I mean, which do you prefer?
Um, I don’t know if I should say which I prefer because then people will only hire me for that…
I love both writing and directing because they use really different parts of my brain. I direct from a place of uncertainty and I enjoy that. But you kind of more charismatic in your uncertainty. You’ve sort of got to come in and be like “look, I don’t quite know yet but I know how we’ll figure this out”. With writing, I kind of love that I get to just try and work my stuff out myself, and people around me support that. I don’t have to lead. I can just embrace that unknown. What was the other part of the question? Which do I prefer and…?
Yeah, what is it about writing that draws you to it?
I think I write theatre because I love both words and the visual. I love having the opportunity to create images through other people. I really enjoy stage directions. I don’t write them often, but when I do I try to create emotive, poetic, impossible ideas for people to play with. They are as much an offer as dialogue.
I love how collaborative theatre writing is. A lot of the time there’s this expectation that writers write in isolation in this cabin in a wood somewhere. And I mean there’s still a lot of writing that’s lonely and private and has to be but playwriting is like you tried to be an introvert and failed… Its the most collaborative form of writing there is. And I love that. I’m so needy as a writer. I have my group of friends that I’ll just be like “Hey, can you come over? I just – I just really need someone to read this to me, right now, and I have dogs and cups of tea on offer. That’s what I got for you”.
When you are writing, do you find yourself putting on that director’s hat and being like, “This is how I envision this piece” before its even workshopped?
I’m really proud of the fact that I don’t. I think being a director has taught me to have immense faith in directors. I love leaving things incomplete. I think a good script should feel unfinished on the page, because that’s not the form it’s meant to exist in. I’m really proud that I embrace that, and that I’m good at leaving that space, and leaving room for a director.
Moving on to Welcome to Nowhere can you tell us a bit about your process? What prompts you might have been given, or what first inspired you to start writing the play?
I could probably show you… Actually no I don’t have that book with me. I drew a map. I got into mind maps, I drew a map with lots of little pictures and arrows, like… to try and figure it out. And I drew a picture of an alien. I just… It seemed that the most liminal or Between Space you could be in was not knowing which planet you’d end up on. Mars One had been on my mind because of a really beautiful podcast that I’d listened to, which was this girl talking about waiting to find out if she was going to Mars. There was something so human, and casual about how she talked about it, but I’m also like “who the fuck wants to leave this planet?!” That is so weird to me. I think it’s really good to start with a question like that: “Who would this person be?” The other element of it is that it’s a one-night stand. I feel like those are kind of liminal spaces as well, particularly after the sex has happened: “… And now we just…”
“Are you staying over, are you leaving, are you…?”
“Oh I’ve got… I’ve got… a thing tomorrow morning. I mean I could… No, it’s a bit later, it’s like 10, that’s fine I can… Do you mind if I… stay…?” There’s that weird kind of uncertainty as you wait for morning that I think is really interesting. I liked smooshing those two uncertainties together like that.
Then whatever I write is often influenced by what I’ve been reading, or seeing. I feel like the beginning is quite influenced by The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas. That chorus was really intriguing me: how you tell a story communally. There’s other influences which you guys have noticed, some of which I wasn’t necessarily aware of but don’t surprise me: Slaughterhouse Five is my favourite book. I’ve read that so many times. I wasn’t necessarily thinking of it at the time but I kind of loved that Emma saw Slaughterhouse in it.
I know that you said that you like to keep the directing and the writing separate, but when you’re writing the characters do you envision them? Like with this did you visualise, um, mannerisms, or maybe what the alien looks like, or… was there kind of that sort of process? Were they based on real people at all, or are they sort of just…
Well, at the beginning I really didn’t even know what gender they’d be. I wrote them as A and B. When I showed the first draft to Emma I went “I feel like I really want A to be a girl, just because I don’t see female characters like that very often.” Then I’d written about ‘dick’ so B had to be a guy. The alien took me a little while longer. I think you guys saw a draft where it was called ‘alien/scientist’. I wasn’t quite sure where that was sitting for a little while; was it going to be an alien or a scientist? Then in rehearsal Leticia (the set designer) said it was about curiosity. Hearing that really influenced the final drafts. The idea of the alien’s curiosity about them as well as Henry’s curiosity about Maisy and Maisy’s total lack of curiosity about anything Earth-bound. That really help me shape it.
Apart from curiosity, what are the other key themes that are dealt with in ‘Inertia’?
Space… Inertia: momentum or a lack of momentum was really interesting to me. That opening scene is all about Maisy knowing things and doing all this stuff and what an amazing, driven, young person she is. And then you see her and she’s just stopped and stuck. Being in stasis like that really interested me… Um… Yeah.
I think that’s also just me totally embracing nerdiness! It’s the nerdiness thing I’ve written. The big romantic speech? The most romantic thing in my head was making out under whalebones at a museum! But how hot is that?! …So yeah that’s kind of, I think it’s sort of embracing the beauty of trying for something bigger than you. And that’s maths, that’s science, that’s space, that’s all that stuff. And I think there’s a lot of parallels in science and art. They are both about trying to understand the world around you.
Obviously because I’m playing the alien I’m quite fascinated with that character. I guess I’m still in the process of figuring out what the alien is. I was wanting to ask you, as a device what does the alien serve as?
I think that from the beginning, a lot of the writing has been about being watched. Of Mars being watched, then Maisy being watched, and being willing to put herself on what’s basically a life-long reality TV show. I wanted a sense of someone watching them constantly. But also this alien is from a planet that has been watch for as long as we’ve been able to look up. An earlier draft said something like “we’ve explore Mars with our minds for so long and now we’re actually going to put our feet there”. Maisy’s going to be the invader. Maisy’s part of an invading force.
In a way, Maisy’s going to take on the role as the alien.
Yeah, Maisy will become the alien. I think it’s interesting to think of someone from a civilisation on the brink of being invaded just watching and not actually taking any steps to stop it. Just observing this moment of transition… this moment… this liminal moment before the next stage of our relationship with their planet.
And then to think that we on earth will be able to look out into space and think that there are people out there looking back at us!
Going back to the actual writing of ‘Inertia’, did you come across any challenges that you hadn’t come across writing other plays?
I often struggle to write short plays because I try to cram in too many things. That’s concepts and forms or devices. I had to really be careful of that. For a little while there the space of six scenes I had four totally different rules for how the universe of the play worked. So there was the chorus narrating; there was Maisy and Henry interacting; there was this speech by this scientist and there was also projections of video games and all sorts. And then there was also this like weird sex scene that I’d written as the scientist narrating it as a rocket launch, calling out what hormones were being release when and stuff like that! It was really nerdy. It was horrible.
Oh God! I’m a bit glad you cut that out!
Yeah. It’s only going to be about 20 minutes, and that’s very disjointed to have four totally different stylistic things in such a short play. That’s a thing I confront each time I have to write something short… because I’m just not good at… at being that clear.
Being concise and…
Yeah being concise both in terms of thoughts and themes and also in styles and how I want to tell a story because I love changing styles.
Last question: a bit of a silly one, a bit cheesy but…if you were stranded on a desert island and you only had one thing you could take with you, what would it be?
Probably lip balm cause I’d just feel like I’d get really annoyed at having dry lips!
I was expecting like, ” Pencil and paper to write down a memoir!”
Nah, I’m sticking with lip balm.