Meet some of MWT’s playwrights, and gain an insight into their plays, processes, inspirations, and current and future projects.
Q & A with CERISE DE GELDER ‘Hostage’
HOSTAGE was presented by MWT at Gasworks Arts Park on 4th – 8th October 2022. We asked Cerise de Gelder, the writer of HOSTAGE, some questions about her work.
How did you write HOSTAGE? What did your process involve?
‘Hostage’ started as a ten-minute play with a mixed gender cast performed as a part of Birnam Wood’s Play Six in 2017. Originally, it was one of a group of plays called ‘600 Seconds’ in which something of importance is going to transpire in ten minutes – in this case one person is possibly going to die. Someone suggested it would make a good full length play, and I liked the idea of a shrinking cast where someone disappears at the end of each scene but we don’t know who it’s going to be. Then I decided it would be much more fun to make the whole cast female.
HOSTAGE has an all-female cast. Is it important to you to explore female stories and experiences?
I think we can all agree that in the past strong female roles for women have been thin on the ground in theatre/TV/movies, particularly for older women. This is gradually changing as we all start to realise that women have intriguing lives and personalities too – what a revelation! As an older female writer, the varied and complex relationships between women is obviously something that I’ve experienced firsthand and always find fascinating to explore. The workplace dynamic is a particularly interesting one for me as I worked for over thirty years in a predominately female profession.
The lead character in HOSTAGE is Julia, played by Charmaine Gorman. Who, or what, inspired this feisty woman?
Julia is a potpourri of many of the spiky, powerful, fearless, funny, wonderful older women that I’ve had the honour of knowing in my life – women who have seen it all, done most of it, and lived to tell the tale. She’s a hard nut to crack but she’s the friend I’d like to have beside me in any crisis.
Cerise de Gelder (photo supplied by playwright).
Q & A with ALISON CAMPBELL RATE ‘Knife Edge’
Alison’s play ‘Knife Edge’ is undergoing development through MWT’s 2022 Page to Stage dramaturgical program.
Your latest play ‘Knife Edge’ is currently receiving further development through the Page to Stage dramaturgical program. What inspired you to write this play? What do you want audiences to know?
Knife Edge explores what can lie under the surface of our relationships and what may be required if we are to get down there and work things out. I wanted to try out a different structure from the linear narrative I’ve used previously. In Knife Edge the focus shifts between two sets of characters, building separate stories that should ultimately meet and complement each other. The challenge became finding the right points to bring the characters and stories together in ways that didn’t compromise the individual story arcs and wasn’t too obvious, and which also revealed the shared, or meta narrative. The semi fractured style created by shifting focus from one couple to another is intended to reflect the difficulty we all face in getting to the heart of our own story, let alone the story of another.
Thinking back to your earlier produced plays The Peppercorn Tree (2010) and Counting Sparrows (2017), how has your writing style evolved over the years? Can you pinpoint any specific factors or experiences that have shaped your development?
I’ve been fortunate to have 4 plays produced but still feel as though I’m a beginner when I’m at the start of a new piece because it takes a long time to find what I call my ‘through line’. As already mentioned, for this play I deliberately tested myself by moving away from the linear structure which was a comfortable way to work when I first started writing plays.
I’m not prolific. I usually begin with an image or metaphor in mind. The writing process is then a long drawn out search for characters who can uncover that image or metaphor and grow because of it – not always willingly. Writing short stories has helped me with the ‘show don’t tell’ essentials and I’ve also done a lot of acting and feel comfortable slipping into the actor’s mind when writing for the stage. I’m often inspired by conversations I have with people or by what I observe, in myself and in others. I’ve also worked around counsellors for 3 decades and their insights into human behaviour have been invaluable.
You are also a short story writer and biographer. Does playwriting bring you any special feeling or ‘reward’ that you don’t receive from these other forms?
The immediacy of live performance is like no other. Witnessing an audience reacting to a story you have crafted is the ultimate reward, like being present at the birth of a child. It’s also the best test of your script because it reveals what is working and what needs tweaking.
Alison Campbell Rate (supplied by writer)
Q & A with INNA TSYRLIN ‘Tatiana, Dragon and Friend’
Inna Tsrylin’s play ‘Tatiana, Dragon and Friend’ was one of four new scripts developed in MWT’s Page to Stage dramaturgical program in 2021.
Question: Do you think that a playwright’s best work can ever be written in isolation – without being read by, workshopped with or reflected upon by one’s artistic peers – or will it just be a completely different play that is produced?
As a medium, theatre is meant to be performed and lives on stage. There are a few geniuses out there who can write in isolation and bring a polished draft for the actors to rehearse, but honestly, what’s the fun in that? When I’ve been in the rehearsal room and the director suggests “how about we try this” or when an actor says “let me take it again because I realised what this scene is about”, that’s the gold. Unlocking moments in the play, digging deeper into the characters, creating theatrical images, all of these may start with words on a page, but the real magic is when you have bodies in the room. It’s a brilliant medium because as a playwright you work not only with your own imagination and craft, but with other artists and all their tools, all in the service of the play.
Question: Thinking back across your playwriting journey to date – do any of your produced plays spring to mind as having had an easier/shorter journey from start to finish than another? To what do you attribute that ease or brevity of development?
Most plays follow a similar journey for me in the sense that the first draft is written fairly quickly, and then it’s the beautiful and gruelling task of re-writing. The adage that writing is rewriting could not be more accurate to describe my process. I agonise over a line, then I realise I have a bigger problem with character development, then I go through a phase of not knowing how to fix anything, then I wake up way too earlier realising that the answers to all the problems in the play were there all along and I need to run to the computer and get back to writing. I try to develop a relationship with the play so that the characters start to speak to me and it’s them, not me, who start to reveal things about themselves; I’m just there to transcribe.
Question: How do your cultural and linguistic origins influence your writing practice? And do you feel that this influence, in some or all cases, is an unconscious or automatic one?
My Soviet Jewish background is all over my work. First, it’s the reason I took up writing, there are too many Russian and Jewish playwrights to name, but their influence on me is very present in my artistic journey. Second, there is a lot of rich material to mine in my cultural and linguistic background which is what, I hope, gives me a unique voice. Plus, I grew up in Australia and have lived overseas for a while, all of these experiences have given me plenty to write about. All of the writers I admire lived very rich and even tumultuous lives, which is why they wrote. Authenticity and truth are vital to any art form, and you can only gleam those truths from engaging with life and digging into who you are as a person.
Inna Tsrylin (photo supplied by Inna)
Q & A with MICHAEL OLSEN ‘The Forgotten Return’ & ‘Sapling’
Michael’s monologue ‘The Forgotten Return’ and his short play ‘Sapling’ will both be performed in MWT’s Season 2020 (November 2020). We asked Michael for an insight into his playwriting life and journey.
Q. You have a lot of produced plays to your credit. Which of these would you describe as your favourite – and what makes it so?
Isn’t that like asking a parent who their favourite child is? The parent is supposed to say they love all their children equally. In a sense I’m the same: I love all my plays equally—but even without a blowtorch to the soles of my feet there are some more equal than others. My favourite pieces go back to the beginning: Cannibals of the Heart (eight scenes all based around the theme of betrayal); Double Tap (my first one-act play) about two young men about to graduate from assassin school; and of course Two Women & A Chair (because this one went around the world, was so theatrical, and was the first of my works to be published).
Q. Where does a play ‘start’ for you? With an idea, a character, a line, a question needing an answer – where?
A play can start from anything, anywhere, at any time. You really need to be awake to all possibilities. That’s why the notebook and pen are an essential part of this writer’s toolbox: it doesn’t really mean anything until it’s down on the page. Once it’s down on the page, that’s when the hard work really begins. As Hemingway once said: “The first draft of anything is shit.”
Q. Tell us about other jobs you have done in your life, and how they rank in relation to your role as a Playwright.
Nothing has equalled the role of writer. I haven’t really seen myself having a career. I have usually seen each of my jobs (public servant, administrator, factory worker) as a means to support my passion. The challenge, as always, is to write the best you can, communicate the best you can, give an actor a challenge, hand over to a director a piece and say: “Make this work even better.” The thrill is always to finally see and know your work is making that essential connection with the audience
Michael Olsen, pictured with his author photo at Daring Dog Monologues (November 2019)
A scene from Two Women and a Chair
A scene from The Last Dance of the Plum Sisters
Photos supplied by Michael Olsen.
Q & A with LOUISE HOPEWELL ‘The Future of Organics’
‘The Future of Organics’ was performed in Six Degrees at a Hot Melbourne Market (November 2019). It was Louise’s first produced play, and this Q&A was conducted on the eve of the Season.
Q. You are relatively new to playwriting, but an experienced writer beyond plays. Tell us a bit more about this.
Having had all the creativity educated out of me, I made a conscious decision a few years back to start living more creatively. Since then I’ve dabbled in a range of different writing forms and styles. I’ve had some short stories and flash fiction published and I also write a lot of haiku—that’s modern image-colliding haiku, nothing like the formulaic 5-7-5 form kids learn in primary school. I’m a passionate theatre-goer, but had never considered writing a play until a friend told me about the In One Act program run by Yarra Libraries and Melbourne Writers Theatre. I participated in this program in 2018 and now I’m hooked on the short play form. I also enjoy writing songs and one day I’d love to have a go at writing a musical.
Q. How does writing a play specifically challenge you?
Telling a story predominantly through dialogue is a real challenge and I’ve found myself grappling with how to convey the characters’ backstories and inner worlds. Also, playwriting is a very collaborative process and I’ve had to open myself up to receiving public feedback on my work. The robot character, Scamp, did not have an active role in the first draft of The Future of Organics. At the script’s first outing—a MWT script development session—I got the feedback ‘we want to see the robot.’ I went home with absolutely no idea how I was going to write a robot character into my play, however I gave it a go and feel my play is stronger (and funnier) as a result. Finally, I’ve learnt that theatre is a team effort and, as a writer, I have to let go of my work. I’ve handed my script over to the talented Melbourne Writers’ Theatre directors and actors who will make it their play too. I can’t wait to see what they do with it!
Q. What will audiences feel when they watch your short play The Future of Organics?
In The Future of Organics, Scamp is an adorable, highly huggable robot, but he has a dark side too. I want audiences to be entertained but I also hope they leave the theatre reflecting on the type of society we want to create for future generations and the role of artificial intelligence in that future.
Louise Hopewell – supplied by Louise
A scene from The Future of Organics – credit: John A. Edwards
In late 2018, MWT’s Brooke Fairley interviewed the six MWT writers whose work had been selected for The Melbourne Monologues, which ran from 27th November – 2nd December at La Mama Courthouse. Below, these writers talk about their writing, their creative process, and the inspiration for their scripts.
Q & A with BRUCE SHEARER ‘Angry Dancing’
Q. Bruce, is it your preference to write monologues or do you typically write in other styles?
I like to write poetry, plays and short stories, but I have always enjoyed writing monologues as well. It is an interesting challenge portraying theatrical works with just one actor. I find that the material often selects the form and it is also interesting to adapt material into other forms.
Q. There’s something primal about Angry Dancing. Where did the concept of catharsis through dance come from?
Dance opens up all sorts of theatrical options when it is combined with the spoken word and in this Monologue it is all about letting go into the healing of the dance.
Q. Rawl is a flamboyant character. Do you expect the audience to feel confronted or encouraged by his rhetoric?I want the audience to feel the power of Rawl and the willingness of the character to challenge, confront, tickle and test them, while teasing out and exposing some of their own issues.
Q & A with ALISON KNIGHT ‘The Unspeakable Beauty of Falling’
Q. Alison, what is your preferred style of writing?
I’m not sure I have a preferred style. I range from quirky comedies to darker psychological pieces, usually laced with a liberal dose of black humour. This monologue, however, is more reflective in style and not at all funny – or at least I hope not!
Q. The Unspeakable Beauty of Falling is a thought provoking monologue. What inspired it?
I was fascinated by the 9/11 photograph of the Falling Man, haunted particularly by the contrast between the aesthetic qualities of the shot and the reality of the Man’s appalling experience. When he leapt from the North Tower, he knew he would fall, but did he still hope to evade death somehow by flying? How could I relate this to my own experiences and to those of others?
Q. You draw parallels between abandonment and falling. Where did this idea come from?
As a child, I longed to fly, though even then I realised flying offered both the promise of exhilaration and the possibility (probability?) of falling, of failure. I wanted to explore this duality in both literal and metaphorical terms. It’s about having the courage to take a leap irrespective of the outcome – and sometimes you’re left to face the challenge on your own, without a safety net. I find a certain beauty in heroic failure.
Q & A with NEIL McGOVERN ‘Sometimes’
Q. Sometimes is a very lyrical monologue. what inspired it?
A touch of my lips, as I began to drift, and to think, and to realise just what I was doing.
Q. Is it fair to suggest that it is about the desire to connect deeply with other people and a reluctance to admit to this?
Yes. I’d say the desire to connect deeply with yourself and with other people, alongside the fear
of being mis-understood. A touch of the lips can be a reminder that, essentially, we are sensual
beings but, unfortunately, sensuality can be a mis-guided term for some…sometimes.
Q. The character in Sometimes is entirely without description. Is this because you want it to be open to interpretation, because you can imagine almost anyone having those desires, or for another reason entirely?
Again your question makes a great answer for me. I believe there is a touch of sensuality in all
of us, which is interpreted in the various ways that each of us have.
Q & A with BROOKE FAIRLEY ‘3 out of 9’
Q. This is a rich and energised piece of writing. It has a poetic, spoken word quality to it. Is this your usual writing style?
No. Well, sometimes. Admittedly, it wasn’t by design, it just kind of happened that way. When I realised that there was potential for alliteration and rhyming etc, I just went with it.
Q. Your protagonist is a cat. Was it a challenge to get inside a cat’s head, or did it come easily to you?
She’s some kind of hybrid, perhaps human examining life through the prism of a cat. It’s pretty abstract, and best not to consider too literally. I’ve had a cat who had kittens. I know how they behave, so I suppose it was quite easy.
Q. What has writing this script taught you about yourself, the things that give you pleasure and the things you think you need?Writing gives me pleasure – when it works! It’s taught me not be self-conscious about writing truthfully, that I need a new pillow, and that I can pull writing out of my a#%e at the last minute when I put my mind to it.
Q & A with CHRISTINE CROYDEN ‘The Diamond Bracelet’
Q. Christine, what inspired you to write a period piece?
The Diamond Bracelet is a monologue from my new play UNDERGROUND, which is opening on International Women’s Day in 2018 at Gasworks in Melbourne, then touring. It’s part of Nancy Wake’s backstory, set during WW2 in France during the German occupation. Sabine is a German undercover agent and cabaret artist, who has been sent into a French Resistance circuit to gather information and kill.
Q. Your character Sabine in The Diamond Bracelet could be painted as villain or victim. How did you imagine she might be interpreted?
Yes, she is an ambivalent young woman living during one of history’s darkest periods. And as she was born German she’s on the wrong side of history but she is a thinking, feeling human being, and I want to explore the complexity of that.
Q. Your use, and choice, of song is an evocative tool. Do you often use music in your writing?
Yes. I always use music and lyrics in my plays and I enjoy writing lyrics myself. Marlene’s Dietrich’s version of ‘Falling in love again’, written by Friedrich Hollaender, is one of my favorites from this period. A period that I have spent many years researching both the history and music of, especially in Paris last year while I was working with a French theatre company. The title of the song in German is ‘I am, from head to toe, ready for love’, which I prefer as it is more present and passionate, but it will be sung in English for this production. I am very much looking forward to seeing what Elizabeth Walley, our director, and her daughter Isabella Gilbert do with this piece.
Q & A with MARTIN RICE ‘The Charon’
Q. Death and the death of a loved one is such a difficult topic to consider as deeply as you have in The Charon. Was the writing process a difficult one?
Surprisingly, it wasn’t that difficult. After the death of my Father, I felt that there were many positive experiences to be had from seeing death up close and that I wanted to express that. I hope the monologue comes across this way.
Q. There are so many metaphors in The Charon that fit together so nicely. Where did the idea of the beard come from?
As a bearded man myself, I had written a little about the subject but everything seemed to fall in to place after I read about the ‘Charon’ the ferryman of Hades who transports the dead across the river styx. It fit y purpose nicely.
Q. Alex is very introspective. Is this typical of the characters you write or a by-product of the theme of the piece?
I think a lot of my writing is introspective, but Alex is certainly so. This also has to do with trying to make sense of death, and also as a result of the monologue being made up of different parts from a much longer piece.