conversation, creativity, history, interview, My own plays, Theatre, Welcome to Nowhere, writing

daniel keene: welcome to nowhere, voices you don’t hear, furniture, instinct and voluntary amnesia

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.

Daniel Keene, photo: Piper Huynh

Daniel Keene, photo: Piper Huynh

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.

Robert Menzies and Dan Spielman in Keene-Taylor Project's A FOUNDLING, 2001 Photo: Jeff Busby

Robert Menzies and Dan Spielman in Keene-Taylor Project’s A FOUNDLING, 2001 Photo: Jeff Busby

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.

WELCOME TO NOWHERE in rehearsal. Photo: Piper Huynh

WELCOME TO NOWHERE in rehearsal. Photo: Piper Huynh

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.

Playwrights Angus Cerini, Daniel Keene and Morgan Rose, photo: Piper Huynh

Playwrights Angus Cerini, Daniel Keene and Morgan Rose, photo: Piper Huynh

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.

Welcome to Nowhere runs Sept 24-Oct 3rd at the Coopers Malthouse.

conversation, Dramaturgical Analysis, history, My own plays, Sex, Theatre, writing

on yours the face, the middle ages, romance, rape culture and evolving language

So my family are amazing. I live with my sister, Hannah Kilpatrick, who is currently a PhD candidate for the Centre for the History of Emotions. The night after seeing my play, Yours the Facewe sat down in a cafe to explore the themes and interpretations from the perspective of her wonderful brain. I am trying to create some kind of a document after each of my shows that discusses the work and the dialogue around it in a creative way. This is mostly to challenge myself. It is incredibly difficult to be both an artist and an arts commentator and commentating on your own art is the most difficult thing. So, of course, I like to give it a shot. Warning: This post includes a discussion of rape and sexual violence within the context of my script and throughout the Middle Ages. 

FLEUR: Where are we?

HANNAH: We are in Journeyman. We are having coffee because we just did lots of upside down yoga.

FLEUR: So I guess I’m trying to create some kind of document about my own work each time. Last year it was Cameron but this time I thought it might be really interesting to talk to you because your angle is so different. Do you want to explain what you do?

Detail of the devil dragging souls to hell, TAYMOUTH HOURS, England (London?), 2nd quarter of the 14th century

Detail of the devil dragging souls to hell, TAYMOUTH HOURS, England (London?), 2nd quarter of the 14th century

HANNAH: I spend lots of time in front of a computer staring at a screen, which has Latin or Anglo-Norman or Middle English manuscripts on it.

FLEUR: What is your time period?

HANNAH: Mostly 14th Century but contextualising it for a couple of centuries before that.

FLEUR: I’m very flexible with my language. I believe that language is there to be evolved and used and rolled around in. Working in your time period, you see that perhaps more than most people because you see language evolve before your eyes. You’re academic work is at a time before English was standardised and then it was standardised for quite a long time and now it is very rapidly becoming difficult to keep standardised again. Who you say that’s true? I think in this last fifteen years, we’ve had more rapid linguistic changes than in the last…

HANNAH: No, I wouldn’t really say that. I’d say that what’s happened is that for several hundred years we’ve only seen one form of English: the standard central written English. There were of course all the other languages, which were spoken and also written in more marginal ways. In many ways the 20th Century did iron out a lot of regional variations, partly because of the spread of literacy but also because of the spread of things like television and radio, which enforced things like Received Pronunciation on the BBC. There was also the death – or relative death – of so many Italian dialects with wars and migration and being in regiments with people who aren’t from their town or region: it gets flattened out into one broad, general language.

Even before that, rise of the printing press ironed out those variations by making it possible to have one central controlled language. In English, in particular, most English printing presses were in London so it is London English that is going to win out. In one sense, the printing press flattens out the language but on the other hand it opens it out to more people in terms of literacy and availability.

The internet is doing something very similar now in terms of access and bringing different people from across the world together to form tiny little linguistic communities, that have nothing necessarily to do with the language they were brought up with. You develop your own slang, your own ways of shaping sentences, your own forms of punctuation. They’re all written based! They are not about pronunciation! Nobody really knows, for example, how ‘meme’ is pronounced, or ‘gif’.

Our food is brought out to us.

WAITER: Mushrooms?

HANNAH: That’s me, thank you!

WAITER: Aaaaand chilli scrambled eggs.

FLEUR: Thank you!

HANNAH: So at the same time you’ve got the flattening out and the opening up of language. And of course we know how that worked out with the printing press but we’ve yet to see how that’s going to happen with the Internet. I think right now, we’re still at the stage of opening up and seeing what possibilities are out there.

FLEUR: Yeah. Let’s pause for a moment while we eat our breakfast.

The recorder goes off.

THE KINGHT'S TAKE from Chaucer's CANTERBURY TALES, 15th Century Manuscript

THE KINGHT’S TAKE from Chaucer’s CANTERBURY TALES, 15th Century Manuscript

The recorder comes back on.

FLEUR: Okay. Breakfast was eaten. It was very nice. So if I were to re-focus a bit on Yours the Face…

HANNAH: But I haven’t finished going on about things!

FLEUR: I’m sorry, I know. But that was purely to introduce you and what you do and what you think about. We’re meant to be talking about ma play!

So the other day we received a very positive review that very much overlooked the issue of consent within the play. It talked about the scene in which a girl was photographed naked, unconscious, drugged as ‘romantic’ and ‘touching’ and referred to her as ‘asleep’. Do you want to talk a bit about the historical context behind consent?

HANNAH: Yes, not just the question of consent but also the question of waiving consent: that it could appear romantic to that audience member that this should happen.

I been reading the Confessio Amantis by John Gower – well a tiny part of it because it is massive. This is a part where he retells a story from Ovid. It is the story of Philomela: her sister, Procne, marries this man, Tereus, and they go to live happily over in Thrace but she wants to see her sister so she sends her husband back to get her from her parents. Tereus falls in love with Philomela and rapes her and then, so that she can’t tell anyone, cuts out her tongue and locks her up in a prison.

The interesting thing to me is the framing of that story: obviously Gower thinks this is a horrible thing but the comments that the women make on it are “How could your betray your marriage vows to me like this?” and “How could you cheat on my sister?” Effectively, the problem is spouse breach. It is said in the framing narrative, “Don’t attempt to get love this way.” The implication seems to be that this is love. It is just the wrong way to go about it.

A caption beneath reading, 'et tient le wodewose & rauist un des damoyseles coillaint des fleurs', translation: 'And the wodewose caught and ravist one of the damsels collecting the flowers.' From the TAYMOUTH HOURS, England (London?), 2nd quarter of the 14th century.

A caption beneath reading, ‘et tient le wodewose & rauist un des damoyseles coillaint des fleurs’, translation: ‘And the wodewose caught and ravist one of the damsels collecting the flowers.’ From the TAYMOUTH HOURS, England (London?), 2nd quarter of the 14th century.

There is a hunting metaphor running throughout the story. Tereus shows up in the form of various animals – he is a falcon, he is a wolf, he is a lion, he is a ravening beast – and she is the creature crushed in the falcon’s claw but… What was I talking about?

FLEUR: My play? Perhaps?

HANNAH: Yeah, your play. Yeah, the point is that this is framed as a hunting story and he is only wrong about this because he is not married to her and he is married to someone else so he can’t marry her. But it is still called love, framed as love. You have that idea that rape – sex – counts as love. It is something enacted by the man. She is saying ‘no’ – of course she is saying ‘no’, she should say ‘no’ – and you also have that image of the hunting metaphor running through a lot of romances of the Middle Ages and of much later as well. The point I’m getting to in a round about way – that you’ll probably have to edit substantially –

FLEUR: I really will.

HANNAH: – Is that there is this conceptual framework for romance as a hunt: for the woman to flee and the man to pursue and that’s the way the story is meant to go. That this is how heterosexual relationships work: if she wants to be caught, the woman has to flee. If she wants to marry him, if she wants to be a wife and not just somebody to be bedded and tossed aside, then she has to say ‘no’. She has to say ‘no’ repeatedly whenever she is asked until society (ie: her parents, her father, her brother, her male guardian) passes her on. I have seen the argument made that this is where we get our concept of modern romance.

FLEUR: That she keeps saying ‘no’ and he has to take this as a ‘yes’.

HANNAH: He has to assume that it is or can become a yes and that she must resist and he must pursue. That’s the premise, this argument goes, for the whole of Western, heterosexual romance since then.

We stop the recorder again. We go home. I tell Hannah that we have to actually talk about the play at some point. Bless.

FLEUR: Okay. So the play itself. Any thoughts on that?

HANNAH: Um… The word ‘romance’. You’ve been saying that some people have been watching this and seeing ‘yes, yes, yes’. It is struck me as I was watching it that part of the reason for that might be the word ‘Romance’, which comes from a particular kind of genre but also it is also certain a kind of expected narrative arch. It has always been the man acting and the woman being acted upon. Of course that changes a bit more recently. We do want to see the strong female character, although we do still have a fairly limited understanding of what that means but we still have the man initiating the action of the relationship and her receiving it. I think this makes a genre expectation – this expectation of how the story will play out in our minds – whenever we see this sort of thing.

It is very interesting when you put both those voices into one body. Part of the reason people might be seeing this story primarily from the masculine point of view is, well you obviously have a masculine body there, but in some wasy the male character’s voice is more persuasive more quickly in terms of getting you around to his point of view. Perhaps this might be different for a non-Australian audience, not because of the Australian accent but because of the Australian personality: more casual, more active, ‘come on in and share my story, be part of this story’.

But it’s not just that. It is a very gendered thing. Because he is very open and accessible and she is ‘standoffish’ in some ways. She is that glass face. We are focusing on her as a surface. We have words like ‘glass’ and ‘stone’ and ‘mummified’. Those images give a real focus to the surface and we are very aware that something lies below it but we don’t get invited into that. It takes a very long time to access her.

FLEUR: She is also very passive, as well. And that was a really deliberate choice on my part. I mean, there is ‘yes’ in this play, but it is not ‘enthusiastic consent’. It is “And I let him because he had a mouth and so did I” and okay fine, if you really want me to say that I want you, I’ll say that I want you. Also, he is very grossed out by her when she stops being passive. When she does reveal what’s underneath he wants to carry her away from his body.

But I think his accessibility is a really interesting thing, in terms of how people relate to him. He is a personable guy; we do want to like him –

HANNAH: Even when he’s talking about “I could break her bones while she’s lying there”.

Roderick Cairns in YOURS THE FACE, photographed and designed by Sarah Walker

Roderick Cairns in YOURS THE FACE, photographed and designed by Sarah Walker

FLEUR: Yes! And some people can’t look past the casual, chatty tone. They can’t necessarily see that. And not many sexual assaults are this evil villain creeping around the streets at night being obviously the villain. It is usually someone who is known to the victim and it is often not brought to the police: not every case of a non-consensual action on another body is punished or even condemned. That’s what I wanted to show: she wakes up naked and they both know something is wrong but then these people then just go on with their lives. His actions are never questioned. And it is interesting how some people read that as being obviously incredibly fucked up and some people don’t because he was chatty, he was personable, we couldn’t see the almost lifeless body that he was standing over and no one wakes up and says, “You did a bad thing”.

HANNAH: Yes, and even in its darkest forms, the villain gets his comeuppance. We are very used to at least to some kind of acknowledgement within the story of “yeah okay, that was a bad action” and then there is a result. There is an acknowledgement within the text. And you are right: she is so passive that she isn’t the kind of person who I think would make that call, even on him let alone making it explicate to the audience.

And yes, her passivity does seem to make her fit perfectly into that ‘damsel’ role in some ways but also because she is on a pedestal, almost literally. She is the subject of the gaze. She is what everyone focuses on: the physical surface of her skin. I think even the first time that she spoke she said something like “the aim of every photo is to appear as if you are holding something back: that there is some kind of mystery” so –

FLEUR: “Make them think they haven’t got it all even if they have got it and you haven’t got a piece of your skin left to yourself and they’ll come back. They’ll want that last piece of you.”

HANNAH: Yes. That withheld ‘yes’ at the same time as they are in fact getting everything that she has, because at that point she thinks she is nothing but the surface as well.

“That last piece of you.” Peter Pan? The kiss at the corner of Mrs Darling’s mouth that Mr Darling could never get?

FLEUR: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. A bit of Peter Pan always has to make its way into my writing. That was one of the subtler.

HANNAH: Was that deliberate?

FLEUR: No, but I love that you found some Peter Pan in it. Well shall we leave it there? That was beautiful. Thank you! We meandered to my play eventually!

conversation, intimate portraits

on flirting, mirrors, sex, tummies and being really, really ridiculously good looking

I am fascinated by conversation. Two weeks ago I decided to start a new project where I record and transcribe conversations that aren’t about theatre (for once). Rather, they are anonymous conversations about gender, beauty, sex and sexuality. This is the first one. Enjoy. 



– Describe where we are.

– We’re in your bedroom. I’m trying to lie down without putting my feet on the bedspread so I’m going to take off my shoes so I’m using my abdominal muscles less. We’re on your bed in your apartment. The curtains are closed. The bed is covered in clothes.

– I put some things away yesterday. So. Um… how do you flirt?

– I don’t know! I think this was the thing I just missed the class on. I was so busy at high school being good at school and doing extra-curricular activities and – and I just never –

People I know figured out how to talk to boys and I just didn’t. I was friends with some boys but we just did things like talk about Vivaldi and be in musicals together and awkwardly lust after each other but not be able to do anything about it.

There was a boy that went – That was in a high school near me and we sort of – Would sort of flirt at each other awkwardly on MSN and then I remember he drove me home from a party or something. He walked me to my door, hugged me and then left and then later sent me a message saying “Why didn’t we kiss?’ And I said “Well because you – When you want to kiss somebody you kind of have to hug them for longer than one second. You’ve gotta kinda hold on for a bit.” And he was like “Ahhh. Yeah. Right. Yeah.” And then we just never – nothing ever happened. He dated one of my friends and then – and I’ve never got better at that!

I got to uni and I was just like “What are these things with penises?” I don’t know! I just… Every time I’ve ended up hooking up with somebody or dating somebody or anything it’s been because I’ve just been really awkward and then somebody’s kissed me. And usually it’s like “How did this happen? Why am I naked? You’re touching my boobs! What?” Yeah.

– How do you think you’re meant to flirt? Do you have a conceptual idea of what’s meant to happen?

– I feel like you are meant to sort of hold eye contact with people and smile at them in a sort of sexy way. You’re meant to be a little bit mean to them but not too mean.

– I think you’re meant to touch them like –

– Oh yeah, yeah! Apparently if you touch people… Yeah.

– Just like “Oh you’re so funny that I’m touching your thigh.”

– Yeah. And I – And I think I’ve experienced that as a person being flirted at where someone’s touched me and I’ve been like “Oh! Yeah, that’s nice! Being touched by people’s pretty good, hey!” Yeah.

The Mirror

– The days when you look in the mirror and you think “Yeah! I’m smashing it today!” Can you articulate – Like, at the time are you aware of the things that are working? What makes you feel more attractive than other days?

– Some part of me is pretty sure it is just the light.

– Oh totally!

– Like I’ll do my makeup and be like “YES!” And then I’ll move to another mirror and be like “NO!” And I’m just like, “is my entire self-worth entirely lighting?”

– I think this often. When I’m putting on makeup in my room, I don’t have lights anywhere near my mirror so I use a light sort of reflected into the mirror and it’s always really unflattering and I’m always like “Goddamn it! What am I doing?” Then if I move into natural light or just top lighting I’m like “Aw yeah! Look at ma chin! Look at my jawline!”

– There’s a time of the day when I just shouldn’t go into the bathroom because the light –

– What time is it?

– It’s – it’s like late-ish afternoon. I’ve just recently figured this out! Don’t do that! Because the light just shines through at such a way that it makes me just appear immensely hairy.

Both laugh.

– That’s brilliant.

I think sometimes um, like if I’m side lit it just makes me really aware of having hair on my face which I’ve never – It’s not a thing I think about! And I often think about this about movie stars because they have to be lit in all sorts of ways and I wonder if they just – What’s it called? De – delip – delipadating – dilapidating – dilapidated – epilating?

– D – d –

– It definitely starts with ‘d’. You can buy de- delapitory?

– Delapitory? Yeah. Yeah. (Guys, it is totally depilatory. That went on far too long.)

– Whatever! But no I wonder if they have to – like – wax their whole faces all the time! Or they put creams on them to – like –

When I was young I went through a period of shaving my (inverted commas) ‘sideburns’. Like, that area in front of my ear where hair grew. Cos I just – was like “Uh! I don’t think there’s meant to be hair there cos that’s kinda my face” and I’d shave it and it would get all stubbly and someone once asked me if I shaved it – a girl at school – and I was like “NO! Of course I don’t!” Well yes, I do. But I wouldn’t tell anyone about it. Yeah.

It’s a funny thing.


Being really, really good looking and skin

– What does it mean, do you think, to be really attractive?

– I don’t want to be one of those people who are like “Uh! I’m so unattractive!” but, you know, I’m not – I’m not conventionally – No one would ever look at me and be like “What a beautiful person that is!” But for people who are quote-unquote ‘conventionally attractive’ – The sort of people that my brother dates! These women! They just look like they model for – like – Ripcurl! They’re just exactly what you’d expect an early-twenties boy to like. They’ve got long hair. They’re tiny! They’re always tall and have these legs that go on forever and boobs but not huge boobs and no hips to speak of and they just flounce about wearing anklets and tiny shorts and yeah. I wonder what it would be like, being the sort of person who would walk down the street and have people look at you and know that what they were thinking was “that person’s attractive.” Not even in the way that women experience people being like “You’re a woman, therefore I have the right to comment on your body” but just someone being like “Wow! What a babe.”

This guy I know has a blog and he talks on the blog sometimes about “I locked eyes with this girl at Uni today, had a bit of a perv, knew it was mutual.” And just him knowing that I find so fascinating. I’ve never known – Never known that someone was looking at me and thinking I was a babe. Even when someone is like sitting on me and saying, “I think you’re a babe” I’m like “Ahh, they probably don’t though.”

That knowledge! I wonder if that would fuck you up a bit! I think those beautiful people must find it really hard to age. To stop being that person.

– I – See – I was so unattractive as a teenager. Just – so unattractive.

– You discovered eyebrows and I feel like that’s really changed your life.

– It really – It really did. I think it must be a very different experience being someone growing up knowing they were beautiful.

– I think you’d be so self-conscious. When you looked in the mirror as a teenager, did you look in the mirror and think “Oh my God! I’m so unattractive” or did you just go like, “Oh yeah, that’s my face”?

– I don’t think I ever saw my face. For a decade I only ever looked in the mirror to look at how my skin was doing that day. I never took in the entirety of my face. It was always, “where are they today?”

Both laugh.

– Yeah, I remember that!

– I don’t think I pieced together my face as a whole. I remember after our school formal we were looking through the photos and there was a photo that literally had half of my face in profile just peaking into the edge of the frame. One of my friends was like “Whose that? Oh it’s you! You’ve got a really nice shaped nose!” And she was surprised and I was surprised and I feel like I wasn’t the only one that never looked at my face as a whole. I… And maybe this is totally incorrect because of course I can’t know what other people were thinking and seeing but I – my self-image was so caught up in my skin that I feel that no one else ever looked past that either.

And my skin wasn’t even as bad as I’m sure I’m making it sound! Like, my face wasn’t out of shape or disfigured!


Ageing and sex

– How do you feel about ageing? And I don’t so much mean like eighty-year-old ageing. I mean like getting to the point where you’re like forty-five and being like “Whoa. Got a lot of wrinkles.”

– It’s this funny contrasting thing because my profession has such a long internship and I can’t fucking wait to be old enough for people to trust me to know what I’m doing. And that’s such a big thing. When I think of being forty-five my first thought isn’t “my skin will be worse”. My first thought is “I will know so much more than I know now and people might pay me for that knowledge.”

– Not a bad pay off, is it?

– It’s a fucking amazing thought.

– I sometimes think about my body post-having a child. In my mind, I don’t imagine getting married and having a child and being with that person forever. I imagine more “Oh sorry. We’ve been sleeping together for four months and now I’m pregnant. And ah – ”

– “Thanks for the sperm, see ya.”

– “Thanks.” And so I – I always think that I will be dating after I’ve had a child. And I sometimes think about that moment when I get undressed for the first time in front of someone that’s not seen me naked before. And I don’t think of it with horror. I think about it with – Will I at that point when I take my clothes off my post-baby body, go “God the me of the past was an idiot for undressing with the lights off!” Will I go “Why didn’t I celebrate this body?”

– I find the whole nudity-sexual partner-discomfort thing interesting because I’ve had a lot of conversations with people where they are just like “I just can’t. I don’t like the idea of someone seeing me naked because I don’t like my body and I get really self-conscious during sex to the point where sometimes I don’t want to have sex because they’ll have to see me naked.” I’m not slender and there’s a lot about my body where I go “God! I wish it wasn’t like that!” But I kind of hit a point in my life where I’d had sex with a bunch of people when I was heavier than I am now and no one complained about that.

I think we do this weird thing where we think that people don’t know what our bodies look like because we can’t see them from all angles all the time and so we sort of go “Oh my God! They’ll know this about my body.” They kind of – They probably know already! And they still want to have sex with you.

– See I know this too! I know intellectually that there’s – I’ve thought back on and gone “did I judge that person’s body while I was… on it?” No! I just did the sex!

– I remember the first time I slept with someone who wasn’t a tiny, skinny, wizened man because they were an artist and they didn’t eat enough because hey, my life. I slept with someone who had a bit of a belly and I remember giving them head and looking up and being like “Whoa! There’s a stomach in the way of the trajectory of where my eyes usually go” but I wasn’t like “aw gross” I was like “That’s fun!”

I remember I tried on a top once and I was like “I don’t like this because it hugs my figure and makes me look heavy. The guy I was with was like “I really liked that on you because it made you look curvy.” And I was like “What? That could be a good thing?” I felt so stupid! That had never really occurred to me that someone could be like “Fuck yeah! I love that!” instead of being like “I’d love it if there were a bit less of that.” Which is so… Oh my God! Way to take the media into my own brain but I –

But despite all that, when I’m having sex with a person, I don’t think I’m ever like “We can’t do this position because then you’ll see my stomach.” I’m usually too busy being like “Hey! Touching naked people!” and celebrating that! I’m proud of that fact. I’m really pleased that is part of my thought process. I’d really hate to be in the position of being frightened of someone else seeing my body. When I’m in the process of getting undressed I’m sometimes a bit like “Uh! It’s happening!” But once I’m naked it’s like “Well, they can see me and they’ve got an erection so it’s going to be fine!” It’s not like they’re making apologies or backing towards the door because I have a stomach and there are some stretch marks in my life. I feel like I’m glad that I’ve hit that point where I’m like “You are fine with seeing me naked and you still want to put your penis in places. That’s great. Let’s just roll with that.”

Thank you to the other talker. The photos in this post are all old self-portraits of mine. I decided that, as this was a very different thing, I should illustrate it differently, so I’ve given Sarah Walker’s archives a break for one week. Apologies for the nudity. 

conversation, criticism, My own plays, Theatre

in conversation: cameron woodhead on the city they burned, hetero-normativity, the bible, how i got it wrong

A play of mine, The City They Burned, is currently drawing to the end of a very popular Melbourne season. Overall, it has been received incredibly well by both critics and audiences but on the 9th of September, Cameron Woodhead, senior theatre critic for The Age, reviewed it. Whilst he said that the second act “stands tall among the best indie theatre has to offer”, he called the first act “intensely problematic”, saying that I sidestepped “the homophobic impact of its chief interpretation, which led to the persecution of countless homosexual men throughout history.”  So we sat down in a café to talk about it. 

The conversation was very friendly and respectful but it is hard to be both the artist and the arts writer in the one conversation. When it came time for me to respond to Cameron’s criticism I was surprised by how little eye contact I managed and I’m glad that you can’t get the awkward pauses from this transcript. It is also a strange thing to be the one to put incredibly eloquent criticism of your work on the internet for any googling festival director to find in the future but I believe that conversations such as this are vitally important to our industry. I feel very fortunate to have received such thorough, thoughtful and multi-faceted responses to this work. As with all of this blog, I hope that this contributes to the conversation regarding art, criticism and interpretation.

CAMERON: When I wrote my review of The City They Burned, I actually expected that no one would touch what I was saying with a ten-foot pole. What I’m saying is very confronting and difficult and thorny and hard to hear and hard to talk about.

FLEUR: The cast and the director are all really excited that this conversation is happening.

CAMERON: I think what artists should want is something that makes them look upon their art from a different set of eyes. It is not what artists necessarily do want; they end up wanting as many stars as possible. Art is not art unless you can read it in different ways so from that point of view it always invites conversation. If I can make the artist go “oh wait, I didn’t think about that when I wrote this piece and had I thought about it in this way I might have done things a little bit differently”… Well, that is valuable. It ceases to be a conversation when you ignore the reviews and concentrate purely on stars and tweets.

FLEUR: I’ve had a really interesting relationship with what I’ll call The Negative Review because

CAMERON: It’s not entirely negative!

FLEUR: Oh no yours isn’t! No, no, not at all!

CAMERON: Oh right! You’re talking about The Negative Review!

FLEUR: Yes, THE Negative Review as an entity. No, I really appreciate that you did separate the two halves and said “I really fucking loved this and this totally missed the mark for me”.

But I remember the first time I got a really negative review. I think I’d just somehow luckily stumbled out of university and got good reviews and I just thought that was kind of how it worked. I did Insomnia Cat Came To Stay as a development in Adelaide. I went “I’ll just do this little showing and get some good reviews and use them to put it on in a festival”. Then I got a terrible review and I was so… surprised. And devastated. Totally devastated. It had never occurred to me that I was going to get a bad review from this thing. Ah, youth.

The next one that I got was one of yours on Awake, which I hope you don’t remember.

CAMERON: What’s the show about?

FLEUR: Do I have to? Okay. Well I’ll tell you what you said because of course I remember.

CAMERON: Of course you remember! The artist never forgets.

FLEUR: Okay. You said that it reeked of hypochondria and idle hours spent on Wikipedia.

We both laugh. Quite a lot actually. Cameron even claps.

CAMERON: Did I? Did I really say that? That’s not very kind, is it?

FLEUR: But at the time I was devastated but six months later I was able to look at that review and it did change some really big things about my art, one being that I don’t direct my own writing any more and the other being that I stopped doing medical-themed shows.

CAMERON: Well it’s not that you can’t write a very good show about Fatal Familial Insomnia or –

FLEUR: Oh you DO remember!

CAMERON: Or whatever! Some vanishingly rare condition that is only suffered by three people in the entire world! But… chances are probably not.

FLEUR: But it is interesting that I’ve gone from there to sitting down with you and a microphone. But then a review said of a show I co-directed last year that it was like being stabbed to death with a potato. I thought that was hilarious and shared that quote but I’m not going to sit down and chat with him about how he thought it was like being stabbed to death with a potato because that doesn’t mean anything.

CAMERON: Well I have a bit of an issue with people who say things like that because, yes, it is highly coloured but it is not very specific. The main thing you get from a sentence like that is the reviewer drawing attention to him or herself. Everyone is going to do it from time to time. Everyone has an ego but it shouldn’t primarily be about the reviewer. The reviewer is there to talk about the art. You should do that as clearly, precisely and evocatively as you can. What does it mean? It just means he didn’t like it very much.

FLEUR: I think you’ll find it means it was like being stabbed to death with a potato.

Jessica Tanner in THE CITY THEY BURNED, production photography by Sarah Walker.

Jessica Tanner in THE CITY THEY BURNED, production photography by Sarah Walker.

Okay. So to turn to this ‘hetero-fying’ of Australian theatre – can I call it that?

CAMERON: Well the word is hetero-normativity and I hesitate to use it because it makes you sound like a pretentious Under-Grad. Look, the vast majority of the theatre that we see takes heterosexuality as a basic assumption and we deal with that. Most of the time we wouldn’t even remark on it because the vast majority of people are heterosexual. That’s fine. If it doesn’t overtly evoke a non-heterosexual theme or idea then why would you mention it? But that’s not the case with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, which, fairly centrally invokes men who have sex with men.

FLEUR: Tell me your interpretation of that story in the Bible.

CAMERON: My interpretation of that story? It’s not really a question of my interpretation of that story. The dominant interpretation of that story through all three major monotheistic religions has been to use it to assert that male homosexual relations are wrong and are the subject of divine punishment. I’m not saying that is the correct interpretation but I am saying that is the dominant interpretation, which has been used to horrific social affect for a very long period of time. You can’t read that piece of art without being aware that this is the history: this particular story has had a very serious impact on a marginalised group of people in our society. I don’t think you would do it with any other marginalised group of people. I do not think that you would take a myth that had had a terrible effect on women or indigenous people or migrants and entirely write them out of the story and re-balance the sympathy of the thing so that a different group came to the fore. I don’t think you would do that.

What I’m interested in and why I agreed to talk to you today is to find out why you did that.

FLEUR: Okay. Do you want me to say why I – why I – um…

CAMERON: Yeah, sure.

FLEUR: Okay.

I guess a good place to start is with word ‘Sodomite’ because we deliberately left it in the script. We had a big talk about it. Danny was like “doesn’t that make people think that it is something other than what it is?” “No, because we want people to remember the history of this story but also realise that, whilst the majority of people think that this is a story about how horrific homosexuality is, the Judaeo-Christian version of the story doesn’t have that.” That’s not what the word ‘Sodomite’ originally signified. It was a city first and the Judaeo-Christian Bible doesn’t say why God is damning the city.

CAMERON: It is implied. It is implied. The Biblical exegesis from Ezekiel onwards that claim that it wasn’t to do with male homosexuality all fail. They are all apologising for the blatant homophobia of the legend. None of them deal with the fact that the men in the story at no point indicate even the slightest sexual interest in women. Any interpretation that doesn’t have homosexuality at least somewhere in there, fails to take into account a very particular aspect of the story. An aspect of the story that you wrote out.

Dushan, Scott Gooding and Kane Felsinger in THE CITY THEY BURNED, performance photography by Sarah Walker.

Dushan Phillips, Scott Gooding and Kane Felsinger in THE CITY THEY BURNED, performance photography by Sarah Walker.

FLEUR: For me it was this idea that God decides before getting to the city that these are Bad People. It is this judgement from afar. A higher power deciding that an entire group of people aren’t worthy of living. And it doesn’t say in the Bible why. They had turned away from God and God has decided that they are going to die.

I felt that it did the story a disservice to agree with that interpretation that they were all going to die because they were homosexuals. I wanted to re-claim it as the story of a higher power deciding from afar that people are bad for no clear reason. I wanted to remind people of how we now view this story but also modernise the concept of ‘evil’. [Note: For those who haven’t seen the play, our Sodom is modelled on the industrial city of Shenzhen. The Sodomites are damned because they cannot keep up with the demands of their CEO and company executives. Canaan brings in twice the revenue. They are discontinued in the most brutal way.]

There’s what I call ‘Biblical fan-fiction’, stuff written probably around 18th Century. There is this Book of Jasher (and Jasher is a lost book so it is certainly not original), which describes why Sodom was bad. It describes a traveller coming to the city and a Sodomite hits him in the head with a rock and he bleeds. The Sodomite is like “now you have to give me money ‘cause I got rid of that bad blood out of your head.” And the guy is like “I’m not going to pay you for hitting me with a rock.” So he gets taken to court and the Judge is like “yeah, you totally owe him for getting rid of the bad blood.” So that is what the 18th Century thought of as a Bad City.

Through different stages of history there have been different explanations of what made these people bad. I thought that maybe it was time to do a representation (and maybe I was wrong), which acknowledged that it never states why they are so evil that they should all be destroyed. I feel like it would do more of a disservice to say, “yeah, this is a story about how bad homosexuality is.”

CAMERON: I don’t object to it not being a story about how bad homosexuality is! How could I? I don’t want that! No one wants that! It’s the way you’ve re-written the story. You’ve created a theatrical world where homosexual desire does not exist. It doesn’t exist. You’ve got an upper-middle class dinner party with various bogan workers invited, all of whom talk about their wives and families to no great purpose. You’ve got angels who exist purely for work and don’t seem to have any kind of sexuality at all. Then you’ve got this fabulously complex vision of female sexuality played out through the daughters. I think that what you’ve said is an evasion. You can’t get out of hetero-normativity by saying that “if we’d included homosexuals it would have been homophobic.” Hetero-normativity isn’t that much better. Would you rather have rocks thrown at your head or be ignored totally? Of course you would rather be ignored totally but, all things being equal, there is a better option than being ignored totally. Why not take it?

From what you’ve created, having as complex a vision of male sexuality as you do of female would make it a stronger piece. You’ve written very strongly for the women and not so strongly for the men. And the women do have focus for a long time in act two in a way that the other characters don’t necessarily get, but if you wanted to actually horrify us… Well it (the attempted rape in Act One) erupts out of nowhere. Even the most un-desiring homosexual rape still has sexual desire in there somewhere. You don’t get it. You don’t get sidelong lusty glances from the men to the angels. It is by far the most brittle aspect of the entire performance.

As a gay man sitting there watching, I had grown up with this story. I grew up when sodomy laws were only just beginning to be repealed. It has gone from something that was reviled and criminalised to something that we now, superficially at least, accept as normal, almost in a too eager way so that we don’t have to think about how awful it was before. It is a very confronting piece to watch from a gay man’s perspective. You probably have lots of gay friends and I’m sure they will all come up to you afterwards and say “I thought that was a really great piece, Fleur” but if you put this review in front of them, they would probably say “he’s got a point.”

FLEUR: My thought with both the rapes in Act One and Act Two is that they came from a position of wanting power rather than sexual gratification. And that line of thought has been talked about through studies such as the one where they asked rapists to describe what clothes their victims were wearing and them having no idea, which points towards it being less about sex appeal and more about power. Although I’m sure they could still tell you the gender of their victim.

CAMERON: Look, I don’t buy it. I know there is a big fat movement that wants to distance rape from sexual desire and talk about it in terms of power and I think it wants to do that for a couple of reasons, some of which are genuine and some are a bit dodgy. The dodgier side of it is that it makes sexuality a sort of squeaky-clean thing and makes the act of rape monstrous. I don’t think that helps either the victim or the victimiser nor does it accurately reflect what is going on. In every act of rape there is at least one person who wants to have sex. Always.

Although, having said that, I really liked the fragment in Act Two where she [the eldest daughter] talks about her rapist crying. I thought that was awesome. I really loved that: the idea that someone is doing this stuff and is nevertheless pathetic and knows what he’s doing is wrong but does it anyway. I thought that was quite insightful and powerful. It is complex. It’s not what people expect.

Brianagh Curran and Shoshannah Oks in THE CITY THEY BURNED, performance photography by Sarah Walker.

Brianagh Curran and Shoshannah Oks in THE CITY THEY BURNED, performance photography by Sarah Walker.

FLEUR: There was Menagerie and… What was the other piece you mentioned in the review?

Cameron: Menagerie and On the Misconception of Oedipus. The myth behind Laius, Oedipus’ father, is that he abducted and raped the youth Chrysippus and everything that happened to Laius’ family – the curse, him being killed by his son and the son sleeping with the mother and blah, blah, blah – was down to this act of homosexual abduction and rape. Hardly anyone knows that aspect of the story. Homosexual abduction and rape used to be called, in the ancient world, The Crime of Laius, and it was then, as it is now, a really taboo subject. I think Tom Wright was gutless for not exploring that aspect of the story. However he made that decision and I had to judge him on the basis of what he’d done, as I had to judge you on the basis of what you’d done. You can’t stop people from making these decisions. All you can do is say “I noticed you made this decision. Isn’t it interesting that you, a heterosexual playwright, should ignore this?”

As for Daniel Schlusser’s Menagerie, don’t even get me started. Tennessee Williams’ homosexuality was portrayed as this hideous, loveless, fleeting thing. Daniel Schlusser would never have done that to a heterosexual playwright where their sexuality was integral to their work. That was one of the reasons I really didn’t like it and that didn’t come through in my review of that show but I was angry after that show.

But it’s not like I think the Melbourne theatre scene is overtly homophobic. Hetero-normativity is much more subtle than that and it comes about through an erasure, through a blurring, through an unwillingness to engage. I’m not laying down any laws. I’m saying, “this is something to be mindful of when you’re making art on subjects that invoke non-heterosexual acts, people and themes.”

FLEUR: In the last few weeks there has been The City They Burned and there has been The Sublime and the responses have been very personal to the people that responded to them. In The Sublime it was mostly the female reviewers who were the most offended and you were fine with it.

CAMERON: I don’t know if I was fine with it but I hedged my bets. I think some of the female reviewers are right to be deeply uneasy or even outraged by the way this material has been presented and performed. However, I note that some of those same reviewers looked at your piece and completely missed that –

FLEUR: But they could say the same of you though, Cameron.

CAMERON: Everyone has blind spots and that’s why it is important to have diversity of opinion. Art is there to be ambiguous, to give us a chance to bash out ideas against each other and see what falls out. The fact that works like The Sublime and The City They Burned overtly encourage that is fundamentally a good thing. You can’t really write a play that explores power and write homosexual characters entirely out of the story. That is an act of radical disempowerment in itself. There would have been ways of addressing your themes that were even more complex and challenging than what you ended up with.

As I said, I loved the second half of this piece! If the first half had been anything like as powerful and meaty as the second, I would have given it gobs of stars and told everyone to go and see it. I still said everyone should go and see it! I still think everyone should!

You’ve written a really good play. I think the review would have been blander if I didn’t think you were a really talented writer. It got to me that someone who was as talented and educated and with it as you are could come at this problem and not see that this was an issue.

Many thanks to Cameron and the entire cast and crew of The City They Burned for their passion for and belief in this work, which is robust enough for me to use it as a very public guinea pig.

audience conversations, audiences, conversation, Theatre

in conversation: audience on blood, tears and why

A few years ago I made a whole lot of people angry. I wrote an essay against the glorification of models and actors endangering themselves for the sakes of art. To be honest, these people were mostly pissed off because I wrote it in a really rude, self-righteous way (oh youth!) but I want you to know that I stand by the sentiments I expressed in that article: that duty of care should be at the heart of a rehearsal room and that art is seldom worth physical or mental endangerment. I want you to know that before I tell you about A Wake: Kids Killing Kids. I want you to know that I am still that person and yet, and yet, and yet….

And yet I want you to know that I left that show with a feeling in my chest that took me sixteen hours to name. It was pride. Immense pride in artists and in being part of a global community of theatre makers that push hard against ease and complacency and thoughtless acceptance of the status quo. I was so proud of these artists, the Australian collective Too Many Weapons and Filipino site-specific theatre company, Sipat Lawin. Their fearlessness, their riskiness, their passion and their generosity filled me up.

I had said that I would record audience interviews during Next Wave, but when Kids Killing Kids finished I turned to my friend and said “I don’t think I can do it for this show.” Partly this was because of my own emotional reaction but mostly I was so incredibly aware of how much had already been said about this work and its predecessors: Battalia Royale and the Melbourne Fringe season of KKK. I felt that what these artists deserved was some silence. However, saying aloud that I had planned to interview people meant that the friend instantly found me two audience members. Thirty seconds later I was seated on the floor outside the theatre with the incredibly lovely, incredibly thoughtful Josiah Lulham and Anatol Pitt. The conversation was a beautiful reminder of just how hard audiences are working in the dark of a theatre, how much consideration they give to the art they are seeing and how good it feels to be intellectually challenged by work. I’m very glad I didn’t slink away into the night. Enjoy. And thank you once again Too Many Weapons and Sipat Lawin.


Sarah Walker

SFB: Can you tell me what just happened in there?

Anatol: That’s probably the hardest question you could ask.

Josiah: Well the show itself – A Wake: Kids Killing Kids – is the second season of a performative lecture in the Next Wave Festival. So that’s the obvious thing.

Anatol: So what you saw before, was that a lecture as well?

Josiah: Yeah. Yeah. But without the Sipat Lawin ensemble.

Anatol: Okay. Yeah. So it would have been quite different.

Josiah: Yes. It was the four writers (whose names I always forget) but I know Jordan and David –

SFB: And Georgie –

Anatol: And Sam.

SFB: Team work. We got there.

Josiah: I remember last time I saw it with a couple of friends and the over-whelming experience that they had – not that I had personally but that they had – was watching these four white, elite-educated Australian artists talk about this fun show they made but didn’t consider and how it blew out of proportion and was quite dangerous. They were very critical of them as makers. Seeing it tonight was awesome because you had that extra perspective from the Sipat Lawin ensemble.

Anatol: I would have felt uncomfortable without Sipat Lawin, I think. It changes things a lot.

I was coming in slightly naive but with a slightly critical perspective because it is such a touchy subject. I wanted to step back and try to get an idea of what was happening and why they were talking about it and what that means for the work. Were they being critical of themselves or was it a defence? So I sort of oscillated between that and getting really into the story.

Josiah: It is a very engaging and compelling performance. The last one was also so engaging. You are there and you’re rocking along with the story.

Anatol: Does that (the compelling nature of the performance) stop you from engaging in a critical dialogue about it? I’m not either way on this but I’m taking different perspectives because I’m not quite sure where I actually stand myself and I’m trying to work it out.

Then there is the participatory nature of the original show, of Battalia Royale – well I could rant about participatory art in general –

SFB: Please do!

Anatol: Well what it can mean is that the artist doesn’t necessarily have to take full responsibility for what they are doing. It puts everything back on the audience. They can keep responsibility at arms length and say ‘you made this happen!’ For good and for bad.

SFB: Robert Reid has spoken about this on my blog and in various other interviews –

Josiah: He’s so cool.

SFB: That’s definitely going to make the cut. Rob talks about participatory theatre as engaging a totally different part of your brain to that cool analytical part that you watch traditional theatre with. It is the ‘what’s going on over there? I dropped my thingie!’ part of your brain. So Kids Killing Kids is engaging a completely different mode of thinking – a completely different part of the audiences’ brains – to how we would all respond if we were thrown into Battalia Royale, which, personally, I doubt I would survive as an audience member. I would not cope well. Just looking at the blood and the wounds at the beginning – and the wounds were laid out on a table! The table was wounded! Not an actual person! – and already I was like ‘oh dear. Mum Fleur is kicking in.’

Josiah: Well they were extraordinarily realistic. All the blood at the end? Part of me was going ‘wow! That’s really realistic!’ and the technical theatre part of me is going ‘I wonder what mixture they’re using?’

SFB: It looked runnier than the old chocolate sauce and food dye recipe. Good times. We could discuss that for a while.

Josiah: It is funny looking at the videos of Battalia Royale. When they showed first video (and it is the first time in the lecture that you’ve seen the actual show) you’re shown violence. Someone is scalped and is dying on the floor and someone is shot and there’s a samurai sword and it is very bloody. While that’s all happening there is a live audience cheering. I watched that going ‘haaaaa.’ In Kids Killing Kids they perform some of the scenes and, as an audience member here, you’re not going ‘kill them!’ You’re going ‘man! That scene is really hard.’ because we have all this context. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be an audience member in Manila. It looks like such an overwhelming experience.

I really liked Jordan saying at the end that you can be ethical and careful but if that prevents you from making something that is potentially nerve-touching, that could be negative as well.

Anatol: See I felt uncomfortable about that particular line. I just feel that, if you take that argument to its limits, it can become dangerous. Self-censoring and saying ‘that’s too provocative’ is different than –

Josiah: ‘I’m just going to throw ethics out the window and just go crazy.’

Anatol: Yeah, there’s ethics but there is also –

SFB: Responsibility.

Anatol: Kind of responsibility, yeah! But not like ‘am I touching nerves with the audience’ more like ‘why do I want to make this?’

A friend interrupts: We’re going. See you at the bar?

Josiah: Yeah. Yeah. I’ll text you!

The friends leave.

Josiah: To me. You’re welcome to join us, by the way.

SFB: Thank you. I’ll see how I’m going. (I totally went home and took anti-histamines like the old lady I am.)

Josiah: One question that came up (a question they tried to engage with last time when it was just the four of them without the Sipat Lawin ensemble and didn’t really have an answer for) was ‘why make this work?’ Having seen their show I now approach a lot of shows with that question. Why now? I get that you are adapting Oscar Wilde to the stage or I get that you want to re-stage a Patrick White play or I get that Stephen Sewell is really interesting but it is a play from the 80s so why now? It is a very useful critical question that I brought away from the last season. It is so great to have the Sipat Lawin ensemble here because I feel like you have much more of an understanding of the ‘why.’ That wasn’t very well represented in the last one.

SFB: I think deliberately. They almost played up their naivety. They are four incredibly cluey makers but I think they played up the blundering white kids thing. They played that up and I think that was partly them not wanting to appropriate the story that wasn’t theirs to tell: the experience of performing Battalia Royale night after night and engaging with the audience as fellow Filipinos. I think they deliberately played that naivety out of respect for their collaborators, and that was incredibly brave and selfless of them because it provoked more heated discussion than if they had played themselves as all-knowing. But it meant audiences might leave questioning their motivations and their sanity.

This time I felt really satisfied by their engagement with the work. And they got to me. My chest hurts from just watching that. My breath isn’t right yet. It affected me physically.

Josiah: Some of the testimonies from the Sipat Lawin ensemble were heart-breaking. One of the actresses talking about playing her role and asking ‘why is the audience cheering? I have a character who is very real to me. I’m getting brutally murdered on stage and this audience is cheering for my death. That feels wrong but, at the same time, I want to continue making this work.’

I was watching her get tears in her eyes and I’m like ‘oh my God!’

SFB: Well there are still things that trouble me. While I do feel so much more confident in the work they were making, I think they needed more support than they were getting. She said she wished she had been able to engage more with her fellow actors. That broke my heart. We are in the process of casting a really intense play that has audience participation and we are so aware of finding an ensemble that will support each other. That will have each other’s backs on stage and when working with the audience. It did ring some warning bells for me that she felt isolated. So there are some things I’m sure they would do differently if they came back to it ten years later but there was a driving passion and commitment and urgency behind the work that I now understand when I didn’t last time.

Let’s wrap it up. Tell me how you are feeling after having seen that.

Josiah: Slightly over-whelmed and –

Anatol: Provoked.

Josiah: Provoked.

SFB: Well thank you for talking to me whilst you were still so over-whelmed and your heart rate was still up. Thank you for letting me drag you out to sit on the carpet and speak to me for eighteen minutes and… three seconds.


Performance photography from Battalia Royale

Thank you to my lovely proof-reader, Andy Taylor. 

conversation, My own plays, Politics, Theatre

in conversation: on where we are going, the inarticulate and what artists can bring to debate

Programming note: This conversation with David Finnigan is different enough in mood that I feel I need to set the scene a little. Everyone I’ve spoken to for this series so far has been someone I know very well. I have assistant directed for John Kachoyan and Suzanne Chaundy and next up will be Sayraphim Lothian and Rob Reid who is directing one of my plays in the new year. The Monash students I had only known for a few days but we were all very drunk and this accelerates things. This was only the second conversation I had ever had with David but I’d been admiring his brain from afar for some time and knew I had to get in a conversation before he disappeared overseas for some months. So imagine us sitting in a tiny, very noisy cafe, preparing to get to know each other with an audio recorder on the table between us. We talked for more than an hour and it was beautiful and personal and revealing and almost entirely too intimate to share. This is from the only twenty minutes of it that I actually recorded. Usually I try to edit myself out of the conversation as much as possible but it felt wrong to let David reveal this alone so there’s a whole lot of me rambling at the end of this. Enjoy. And David, thank you once again, for a beautiful conversation.

Ingredients: Window seats in a cafe over-looking Brunswick street, two cups of peppermint tea and two shy, nervous and excited humans, David Finnigan, writer, producer and pharmacy assistant and myself.


Promo shot for MKA by Sarah Walker

SFB: So why theatre?

David: It helped with social phobias and imposes deadlines. I don’t know how I would have gone writing anything if I hadn’t had theatres booked and casts waiting for scripts. That gives focus. There is something really lovely about sitting in a room and writing for people who are talking back to you. Writing for a group of other people to do stuff with is really liberating. Then there is the selfish factor: when it works, other people take your words and take them further than you ever could. That is great. Then you can slap your name on it again and get the credit.

SFB: Part of the conversation with John and Lou that I didn’t use was John saying (something along the lines of) ‘I find playwrights so fascinating because it is like they’ve decided to be a recluse and then chickened out.’ We’ve chosen the most social form of writing. We aren’t novelists who can lock themselves away in a cabin in a mountain and emerge with a masterpiece. It is about talking to and working with people.

David: Yes. For what I do, perhaps more so than for what you do. I don’t know how you wrote yours the face but I’m guessing that was primarily in isolation. What I usually do is stuff that has some sort of interactivity component and also a science bent. For the last eight or nine years I’ve been working with research scientists, usually from CSIRO – climate scientists, system theorists, game theorists, resilience theorists – building shows that are interactive plays or live games around science concepts. That’s closer to the heart of my practice.

SFB: And what do the arts have to add to that conversation?

David: I feel like I’m doing it because of that lock-in. I presented a table at the Independent Theatre Forum back in ’09 I think. The topic was ‘Why the fuck do you keep going?’ We invited people up to talk about why they persisted in the industry with so little pay and very little respect and no long-term career options in a lot of cases. People had lots of different answers. Some said that it was their responsibility to be the shamans of the tribe or to keep up story-telling practices or variations and some people said that they do it for that moment of transcendence or flow; that beautiful moment that happen every few month or years. But the majority of people said that they did it because they had over-trained in that area and under-trained anywhere else. People have post-grad qualifications in theatre and have spent ten years working in it and they feel they can’t start from scratch. That was by far the most common reason people had for doing theatre. That is a factor for me. I do performance around these topics because that’s what I’m best at.

Image by Adam Thomas

In the early 90s there was this general consensus on the idea of changing climate. There were the beginnings of an understanding of what might be done. Then the science community got hit sideways by this incredibly sophisticated propaganda assault from the carbon lobby that none of them were prepared for. They were meteorologists who, up until that point, had had no reason to be in the spotlight, being assaulted by these incredibly clever, incredibly well-paid hacks and propagandarists. Twenty-years later they are just beginning to push back against that. As far as I’m concerned, artists have the requisite skills to be able to slide in the gap there; to be able to talk about the future in a way that is meaningful and resonant. So everything I do – the majority of what I do and what I’m interested in – is stuff around the future and what is going to happen to us in the next fifty – a hundred years. I feel like that is a thing worth talking about but I’m still trying to figure out the best way to communicate it. If there is a single theme in everything I’ve done, that’s probably as close as I can come to describing it.

What about you? Do you have an area of interest that you find yourself returning to?

SFB: I don’t know. It has changed. Most recently… I love good words but I sort of struggle to make myself inarticulate. I am very articulate, obviously, but I’m also dyslexic and I get really frustrated when people dismiss others for spelling something wrong and it is particularly lefties on the internet who do it. It drives me nuts to see them – my people, the people I identify with – saying ‘you used the wrong form of ‘your’ and therefore you are a terrible person and the contents of your brain is worthless!’ I love creating characters that an audience will dismiss as dumb or obnoxious. I want people to jump to decisions about them; to form conclusions and then, maybe, come around to see the value of them. Or, like the photographer in yours the face, people will judge him by page two, then get drawn into his mind but by the end they are saying ‘oh no, he is actually a cunt’.

I’m still working on all this. When I started writing that play I wrote the character of Emmy phonetically or – how someone might spell if they were quite illiterate and just sounding out their words. But I didn’t know the accent well enough. It was meant to be Detroit but I started writing her in England and Raimondo (Cortese) said it was like reading Ali G: a Londoner trying to be gangster. That wasn’t what I was going for so I went back to writing her with correct spelling and left it to the actor and director to create the voice. But I am fascinated by playwrights who can do that; who can write beautifully in that colloquial voice in a really unashamed way. In Australia, we get very anxious about appropriating someone else’s voice – the white privilege fear. The danger is that we are all so scared of telling someone else’s story wrong that we only write white, middle class stories.

Please go and have a read of David’s blog. I would particularly suggest you have a look at his entry on the responses to Kids Killing KidsIt is a fascinating look at just how disparate reviewer’s opinions can be. And here he is doing some outstanding poetry. 

Thanks to my proof-reader for today, Cat Commander.


David with Jordan Prosser in ‘Kids Killing Kids’, image by Sarah Walker


conversation, interview, Theatre

in conversation: on finding life within classics, directing up poles and bravery

Ingredients: White wine, a sunny courtyard, theatre/opera director and chair of Theatre Works, Suzanne Chaundy and School for Birds.

Suzanne: I’ve never done anything except direct theatre. That’s been my entire life. I know! I know! I got quite a lot of work straight out of NIDA which was lucky for me. I was the Student Theatre co-ordinator out at La Trobe. I got to meet a lot of people and work out how I needed to budget and managed to direct some things and work with young directors there. I got an Australia Council director’s development grant out of that and that’s where I fairly cannily went to myself ‘well, if I’m going to be a director I need to be able to do more than just direct theatre because there’s not going to be enough work for me.’ That’s when I went off and did a traineeship in opera. That set me up to be able to step from theatre to opera and back again.

It all blew apart in the mid-90s. I was feeling really majorly burnt out. I was doing this large-scale, commercial theatre and not getting to do the shows that I wanted to do. When I was doing the shows I wanted to do I was looking around the audience and going ‘I’m doing this for my peer group! I’m not actually doing this for anybody else.’ I had a big crisis about that. At the same time Rod (Roderick Poole), my partner had been working in street theatre with Primary Source. He developed the group Strange Fruit with the performers up the poles. They had a European tour coming up. It had been fairly improvised up until then but I said to him that they needed something a lot more solid to take. I directed that and then ended up working with Strange Fruit for ten years. It was the complete opposite because we played totally in public arenas to people that we didn’t know at all. People who had no investment in being there! Either they stayed or they walked away. It put you right on your metal. It was a fantastic experience.


Strange Fruit

There was a chance that I could have taken over as artistic director, and I did do an interim period of it, but I did have to search in my heart and say ‘do I want to spend the rest of my life directing people up poles?’ I was developing a permanent neck injury! It was becoming artistically difficult because the poles had had a few commissions. There had been The Field, The Spheres and you found that in the market place, people didn’t want anything new. The Australian festival scene felt like they had done Strange Fruit. It was starting to feel like we were running a production house rather than a living, breathing, creative organisation. So I walked away.

SFB: How do you think your work with Anthill Theatre has informed your re-interpreting classics?

Suzanne: It has influenced the interpretation of the classics and my work with text and translation and working with actors from multifarious cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Anthill was a melting pot and quite revolutionary in its day. When it went, we all thought that it had made such an impact on the scene and that actors like Jacek Koman and Alex Menglet who were regulars had broken down those barriers but I felt that they went up again for a while. It became very white bread and very conservative.

It was a disaster that Anthill died. It was a shining light in the Australian theatre scene. It was ten years ahead of its time and nobody understood it until it was gone.


Suzanne’s production of ‘The Maids’ for Perilous Productions, 2013

SFB: Is there something you think that Australia could do to counter our racial conservatism? Is there a fix? A hypothetical button you could press?

Suzanne: It just takes people making bold decisions, right down to who comes through the drama schools. I think there needs to be a bit of positive discrimination at times. Sometimes you need to push it through and make it really noticeable. It just has to be seen so that it can work.

SFB: There is such a fear of talking about it. There was the case of Julian Meyrick’s production of Pinter’s The Birthday Party where none of the reviews even mentioned that it was an indigenous cast. They all tore him apart but nobody could say it. When you have a culture that can’t even use words that designate race it makes it hard to have a dialogue.

You work so much with opera and older texts, adaptations of older texts. Could you talk about how that feels to work with a living playwright in the room verses a… decidedly unliving one?

Suzanne: It depends. When I talked to Lucinda (Coxon) about Herding Cats this year, in some ways I almost wished I hadn’t. She didn’t mind what I did but it kind of over-clarified things for me and answered questions in a way that I didn’t really need to have them answered.

This year I’ve just done this quite interesting project adapting an American playwright’s work on domestic violence to Australian vernacular. We had a lot – a lot, a lot – of dialogue about that via Skype and talking to the Australian writing team.

I don’t think it is safer (working with a living playwright). It is just a different dynamic. I think I get drawn to the older texts because of that interest in the universal themes. Delving back in that history is amazing. Asking ‘this play or this opera was written thirty, forty, sixty, hundreds of years ago and what has actually changed?’


‘Beyond the Neck’ at Red Stitch, 2012

SFB: It is an amazing feeling when you find something so entirely recognisable, when you yell ‘that’s me! That’s me!’ at a four-hundred-year-old text.

Suzanne: Yes, to find the life in it. In opera you are so often called upon to do repertoire – it is your bread and butter – so you are constantly re-interpreting in terms of current practice and current events. I like to look at new translations, new ways of expressing old thoughts.

SFB: How do you reconcile making opera relevant to today’s world with the very conservative audience that often goes to see it?

Suzanne: Yeah it’s great. You really irritate them. Then every now and again you make them really happy when they have that beautiful moment when they go ‘ahhh! I thought I wasn’t going to like this but I really enjoyed it!’

You can’t be scared. You have to do your work really well. There’s been a lot operas that have been squeezed into production concepts for the sake of having a concept. I would much rather do a traditional production than do something that I can’t conceptually realise. If you can with, pin-point accuracy, find justification for everything that happens, that shows the true beauty of the art-form because it can transcend time and space.

It reminds me of Anthill’s radical reinterpretations of the classics – well I don’t know how radical they were but they were very true and very simple and very steeped in Poor Theatre because that’s what we were. We couldn’t afford any of that stuff.

There was a production of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll that Jean-Pierre (Mignon) did. It was terribly audacious that this Frenchman would do a production of The Great Australian Play. He filled it with Mahler’s Eighth, using the tableaus of Paul Delvaux and the men were in Edwardian dress and the girls were like Grecian goddesses with fallen columns and everything like in Delvaux’s paintings and it was absolutely f-ing brilliant. Ray Lawler himself came to see it. There was great fear in the audience about what Ray would say. Ray said it was like being in a house that he knew really well and opening a door and finding a room that he never knew existed there. That’s had a lot of an effect on what I do. I want to find that magic door.

SFB: I think the phrase ‘so-and-so would turn in his grave’ is so damaging. Brecht wouldn’t want people to be stuck fifty, sixty years ago. He wanted his work to feel radical, in whatever epoch they were being staged. Likewise Shakespeare. They weren’t writing to be a museum piece. They were writing to be cutting edge.

Suzanne: I’ve just coming from working on La Traviata. When it was first staged it got booed off the stage. People loathed it. People now think of it as terribly traditional but it was so radical. Same with Wagner. He had to build his own theatre to put his stuff on!

SFB: Yes. In the space of thirty years, The Rite of Spring went from causing riots to being used in Disney’s Fantasia. It became children’s music in the space of thirty years!

Suzanne: Which goes to show that you just have to have faith in what you are making. Making compromises and catering too much to what will be satisfactory to the public is never going to advance the art-form or you as an artist.