We ask members of Melbourne Writers’ Theatre why they do what they do.
Q & A with MWT member ADELE SHELLEY
Q. When did you start writing, and why?
Theatre has always been my passion, but it wasn’t until the upending experience of becoming a parent nine years ago that I wrote my first play for adults “She’s My Baby”. In this piece I wrote about my greatest fear: losing a child – both the actual death of a baby, and the natural loss of a child as she turns into a teenager and pushes away from her parents. I think live theatre can be a very powerful medium for exploring questions about people and life.
Q. You are currently working on a play called ‘Wounded’. What inspired you to write this?
Research suggests that children exposed to physical abuse are at greater risk of adverse outcomes later in life, including exhibiting violent or aggressive behaviour themselves. The research has limitations, however, and indicates that there are many complicating factors. Importantly, many people who have experienced domestic violence do not repeat the cycle of violence. I am interested in understanding why some people are able to effectively change patterns of behaviour learned in childhood, while many of us struggle to move very far beyond the examples set by our parents. ‘Wounded’ explores one person’s attempt to escape the ghosts of her past.
Q. Your monologue Girls’ School Delights, recently performed to appreciative audiences in The Melbourne Monologues, was a humorous piece of writing. How would you classify ‘Wounded’ in terms of genre?
‘Wounded’ is definitely not a comedy! I think it’s part murder-mystery; part The Bill (yes – that old police drama – re-imagined for theatre); and part psychological thriller. The play invites the audience to think like detectives and piece together the facts of two related crime-scenes to uncover the truth about one woman’s existence.
Adele is currently redrafting ‘Wounded’, which will receive further workshopping at MWT during 2018. Her monologue Girls’ School Delights, performed by Cosima Gilbert, received enthusiastic reviews – these may be found here, along with information and photos about the show.
Q & A with MWT member ZOE BRINNAND
Q. You recently won Playtime Staged Readings 2017 for your script “My Big Fat Lesbian Greek Wedding”. What does winning this award mean to you, and for your future career?
A. It means so much! My plays thus far have focussed on queer female stories – I would love to get one on a main stage somewhere in Australia, and I believe this is a great step in that direction. It’s not only meaningful to me as a writer but this play is very personal. My partner is Greek and has faced great difficulty in coming out to her family and community. The play treats this issue with humour and humility and I hope it helps people see both the parent and child’s point of view in the coming out process.
Q. How important are opportunities such as Playtime for the nurturing and growth of LGBTIQ writers and theatre-makers?
A. These opportunities are so important! There are so many amazing stories out there that need to be told and Playtime showcases that. All the entrants were great. One day however, I hope that we won’t need competitions such as Playtime and that LGBTIQ stories will simply be part of the wider landscape of theatre.
Q. What do you love most about the act of writing?
A. I love escaping into the world of the characters and seeing things from their perspective. With this play, I initially felt that the mother character may be out of touch with modern views on homosexuality, but I’ve come to really love her, understand her, and empathise with her. I hope the audience will feel the same
PHOTO: Zoe Brinnand (courtesy Scott Clarke)
Q & A with MWT photographer JOHN EDWARDS
Q. Over the past three years with MWT, you have captured some important theatrical moments. Do you have a favourite?
A. I have lots of good memories, but my favourite photo would probably be the colour shot that was used in The World Without Birds – with the two female leads staring at the camera, a birdcage separating them. It was later turned into a B&W shot and used as the season image for the show.
Q. The ‘right’ image can sell a season. This is especially important in the case of a new play by an unknown or emerging playwright. In your opinion, what kinds of photo elements might encourage someone to go and see a show?
A. I think an image is best when it doesn’t give away the whole story – it keeps you guessing, and makes you ask. ‘I wonder what that’s about?’ Whether an image is successful depends on the audience it is trying to attract. A younger audience may be drawn to an image that is quite different from one that would appeal to an older audience – the photographer needs to keep the target audience in mind to some extent when planning the shot.
Q. Are some faces just more responsive to being photographed than others? Or do some performers simply display emotions more powerfully than others?
A. This is a hard one. Some faces are obviously more photogenic than others , and this plays a role in the way their power to attract; but an actor who is highly expressive is also attractive to a potential audience. What one observer perceives as a negative expression, eg. an ‘angry’ face, another person may find worth a second look – the expression may resonate on some level. Likewise, a face/facial expression that is completely at odds with the play title can make the play more intriguing or, conversely, act as a deterrent. The relationship between the photo subject and the audience is a complex one.
PHOTO: Hero image from The World Without Birds (2016).
Q &A with MWT member ALISON KNIGHT
Q. You hail from Manchester and have a background in teaching. Have either your origin or your earlier career influenced the way in which you write – eg. the subjects you tackle?
A. In common with many English people, I love humour that contains an element of absurdity, especially as reflected in everyday life. Teaching has allowed me to observe a wide spectrum of humanity within a confined setting that serves to intensify the attendant dramas. The fact that you can declaim a Shakespearian soliloquy with the same degree of passion with which you might assert territorial rights over a filing cabinet has always struck me as being ripe with comic potential.
Q. Tell us about the hardest thing you’ve ever had to write (or, if that’s too hard, the piece of writing you’re proudest of)
A. I’ve had a number of challenging assignments – cutting “King Lear” down to 75 minutes, for instance! However, the most difficult piece I have written was my novel, “Peter Stone”. Some parts involved synthesising a fair amount of research before moulding the details into a form that was both literary and historically accurate. The revision process was a grind. I reworked many sections following advice from a manuscript assessor. I axed 8,000 words (that hurt!) and added 13,000. And then there was the nit-picking phase: fixing the typos, checking for consistency of detail and ensuring that I hadn’t overused particular words. But there comes a time when you’ve done the very best you can – and then you have to let it go.
Q. What do you want audiences to take from the monologue “How Does Your Garden Grow”?
A. A stern moral imperative: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s cucumbers.”
PHOTOS: Alison Knight (top) and a scene from Committed (2016).
- Alison Knight author Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/alialight88/?fref=ts
- Link to novel on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Peter-Stone-Alison-Knight-ebook/dp/B017H0099C
Q&A with MWT member LOUISE BAXTER
Q. How does your background as a journalist influence the way in which you approach the writing of a play – if at all?Journalism is a great training ground for writers of any form. You are forced to become economical with words, adapt to a range of subjects, and work within the constraints of industry standards and in-house style – a valuable skillset for creative writers, who have both the blessing and curse of boundless choice. With playwriting, I tend to use the same methodical approach that I’ve used in publishing – starting with a concept or topic, I make a lot of notes about themes, characters, plot points etc. and then fill in the gaps with quite extensive research, to ensure I am well immersed in the subject matter. That learned discipline and attention to detail has made me a much better writer. Essentially, journalism whipped me into shape!
Q. Have you uncovered many stories and interview subjects that you feel would make compelling theatre viewing, and which you are burning to write about?
Last year, I was working on an investigative feature about the cycle of domestic violence, with a focus on the emotional and psychological scars of survivors. I conducted a series of interviews with counsellors, refuge managers and women who were brave and generous enough to share their stories. Sadly, the feature didn’t end up running, but I would love to explore theatre as a platform for this issue – it’s a very personal one for me, and I want to present the complex psychology of abuse in a way that audiences can understand. There are still so many misconceptions and unhealthy assumptions that only feed the problem.
Q. Why did you write “The Man in the Moon”?
When Neil Armstrong passed away in 2012, it got me thinking about how you would ever re-adjust to ‘normal’ life after experiencing such a historic, defining moment. Particularly in 1969, at a time of such political, social and cultural revolution; it must have been so jarring to witness the height of technological progress, but then have to endure the old-fashioned thinking of the time. I’m sure that most people can relate to at least moments of uncertainty, wondering ‘what it’s all about’, so the Astronaut’s existential crisis is just a more theatrical version. I hope those core themes come through and resonate with the audience in a way that provokes thought and discussion.
- Louise’s monologue “Man in the Moon” will be performed at The Melbourne Monologues (8th – 13th November 2016
Q&A with MWT member MAZZ RYAN
A. I was 17 years old when the idea to be a writer first hit me. I was in awe of the way people could make words come to life in the novels I was reading. I didn’t act upon that desire until I was 39, and going through a pretty rough time. I threw in the towel, left my career and went to Uni for the first time to take up a Performing Arts Degree in Launceston, Tasmania. I loved theatre and had always wanted to ac,t but I also had the firm idea that I wanted to write plays. The desire to write was there first, but the actuality of acting came before I put words to paper.
A. I am constantly coming up with ideas for scripts that have situations and human behaviours to explore. I have many beginnings with endings, but it’s often the middle which holds me up and drags out the process. So, rather than a script I’m burning to write, it’s more like the many scripts I’m burning to finish.
PIC: Mazz Ryan reading at Eat My Words III (La Mama Courthouse, June 2016).
Q&A with MWT member SARINA CASSINO
A. It was 2013 and prior to the Royal Commission. The Holy See was about to launch its own investigation into the allegations made against the Catholic Church. It had turned a blind eye for so long, so why would it start to “see” now? I thought. Hence, PENANCE.
PENANCE was presented as a rehearsed reading on Monday 4th April 2016 at 7pm at La Mama Courthouse.
Q&A with Carmen Saarelaht
Q&A with MWT member BRUCE SHEARER
Q&A with MWT member JANE CAFARELLA
Q&A with MWT member KATHERINE PHELPS
Peace in the Park (Monologue Soiree 2014) delivered a humorous political message, and your latest piece, Anbu Ramanathan, addresses the problems faced by refugees. Is “issues-based” writing what you do best?
I write from who I am. I care about social and environmental issues, but the only way to write about them is to be directly involved. Otherwise, it is too easy to devolve into propaganda. I am inspired by director Ariane Mnouchkine who offered her theatre as space for the homeless in France. Once I am immersed in an issue, I can write about anything and what I am concerned about naturally comes out. I write a lot of comedy, but usually some sort of message is integral.
Which is more important to you – entertaining audiences, or moving them to action?
I mentioned that I write a lot of comedy. I have been involved in social action for over thirty years. I have known so many people who burn out and become cynical. Ask any clown doctor or terminally ill patient: joy and laughter are critical to our well-being. If you are in it for the long run, if you are willing to help make changes you may not see in your lifetime but perhaps in your children’s lifetimes, then you have to learn how to find balance and resilience in your life. We need to smile, play, love…and take action. I try to embrace both entertainment and inspiring people to care and engage. It’s good to practise creating what we want on the other side of that wall of darkness. I want a world of universal goodwill, joy, and peace.
Tell us what inspires you.
Nature inspires me. The diversity of humanity inspires me: I love chatting with people on trains. Children inspire me: I love their unfettered creativity. People like Desmond Tutu, Jane Goodall, Jim Henson, Martin Luther King Jr, Mohandas Gandhi, and Hayao Miyazaki inspire me.
*Photo: Katherine at the Peace One Day walk
Katherine’s script Anbu Ramanathan: A Refugee’s Experience was presented at Eat My Words! on 9th February. Her monologue Peace In The Park was performed at the 2014 Monologue Soiree and most recently at the second Monologue Soiree show, held on 16th March.
Q&A with MWT Resident Writer JILL MOYLAN
What was your inspiration for Ghost Dad?
Ghost Dad was a combination of ideas from Amanda and myself. Amanda had written a monologue about an elderly man going for his driver’s licence renewal and I had a passing idea about what would it be like if you had to live with your parents forever. These two ideas became our Ghost Dad!
What do you want the audience to feel when they watch your work?
I want the audience to feel a sense of recognition when they watch my work, for them to identify with the characters and what they are going through. So, although it’s taken to a heightened, fantastical level, I like to try and make the characters and their relationships as real as possible.
What kind of writing gives you the most pleasure?
I get most pleasure from my writing whenever I solve the problem of what my characters are going to do next. I like figuring out the cause and effect of each action, making sure the character’s motivations are clear and make sense. When this works, the story feels inevitable, like a row of dominoes falling over.
Ghost Dad, co-written by Jill Moylan and Amanda Miha, was performed in Dark Light, MWT’s 2014 Season of Plays.
Q&A with MWT Resident Writer AMANDA MIHA
In your opinion, do the best plays entertain, educate or just resonate?
I don’t think a play can educate or entertain without resonating first. The more it resonates, the more it will educate and entertain.
You wrote Ghost Dad with Jill Moylan. Do some ideas lend themselves more to collaboration than others?
Part of the reason we were able to collaborate is that we’ve been giving feedback on each other’s scripts for so long. We understand each other when it comes to writing, and what we are trying to achieve.
Ghost Dad was convenient because there were six scenes. So we wrote and took charge of three scenes each, and it all felt equally equal. In my opinion, any idea lends itself to collaboration as long as everyone gets along and understands each other. It makes writing and problem-solving so much quicker and less daunting.
What is the best piece of advice you can give to new playwrights?
Learn everything you can about the craft of story-telling, then forget it all and write something that is true to your voice. Never doubt your voice, and never compare yourself with anyone. Just focus on your work and what is exciting to you.
But at the same time, be open to feedback and never assume you’ve done a good enough job – you can always improve your craft. Don’t be bitter. Make your work better. Just keep pushing your craft and re-writing. You’ll surprise yourself with just how good your script can be.
You can see Amanda and Jill’s play Ghost Dad in DARKLIGHT, MWT’s 2014 Season of Plays.Clare Mendes
Q&A with MWT Resident Writer Jeannie Haughton
Tell us about a play that has had a lasting impact on you.
My own plays are the most indelibly imprinted on my brain due to the stress, dare I say trauma, of producing the stage productions: shoestring budget, working with volunteers who are juggling jobs families and other interests, in fact, every catastrophe from last minute illness to legal action. However, I am an avid theatre-goer too, and it takes a lot to impress me. Recently, the 2014 Malthouse production of Patrick White’s Night on Bald Mountain left me gobsmacked and envy-green of the brilliant set, direction and acting.
Do you think theatre is a more powerful vehicle for delivering a message than prose?
It can be. It always has been for me. But it does have to be brilliantly executed – there are so many aspects of theatre that have to excel seamlessly, all at the same time, and for the entire performance. Audiences can be generous or unforgiving but poor elements, such as weak script, under-rehearsed or inadequate acting, tech balls-ups, and less than inspired direction can all get in the way of the message reaching them.
Is there anything that you are afraid or reluctant to write about?
Living, writing, producing in a regional area means that I am not anonymous. I meet/work with the audience every day (and so do family members). I am not afraid of reactions, it’s more that I want to take the audience on a journey, have something to think about or discuss afterwards, and I have to say it, some country audiences are more easily shocked than those in the city. While I swear like a trooper, and do use bad language where needed, I believe excessive bad language in a script needs careful consideration, as it does impact on a larger than you think percentage of audience, such that it actually gets in the way of the message/ impact of the play. It becomes a barrier to reaching them. I also want audiences to come back. But I am not afraid as such of actual topics.