With kids on school holidays, Hilary Bell had a full schedule when I asked her if she’d talk with me for this project. Undeterred, Hilary offered up her kitchen table as a place for a chat. Over tea and cake, she told me about her love of Sondheim, her experiences at Julliard, what it was like growing up in a theatrical family, and why being a part of 7-On is so important to her.
“Being a playwright is always ultimately collaborative because you don’t write just for yourself, but for the many interpretations that come between you and the audience; but, there is a period where you can sit in your room for many months with no one to talk to. While I enjoy that, I am at a point where I am looking to work with dancers, and painters, and aerial acrobats, and see what else theatre can be.”
I am struck by the uniqueness of your style. It hardly seems to fit easily into a “category.” Do you have a way of describing your style?
For a long time, my aim was to never repeat what I had done. That was not because I wanted to dazzle and be brilliant, but to see what was out there and explore different possibilities. There are certainly things that I am attracted to: I love plays with songs or music. I love theatre that involves a physical component. I can also appreciate two people sitting in a chair for two hours, if it is good. I love spectacle, circus. I love intense, psychological dramas.
In my youth (though I am still very young!), I was hopping around to see what else was out there that I could taste and try, and hopefully bring whatever skills I had learned as a playwright from one project to another. But recently, I have started thinking about the importance of consolidating and refining what you have learned. There is a danger in skating over a wide area, rather than plumbing the depths of one area.
That being said, it depends on what is going on in your life, what excites you, what your obsessions are. Or, sometimes you are reacting to circumstances – coming off of a particular project that may have taken three years and was very intense, you might want to just write something that is silly and playful and takes three weeks to write.
Right now, I am interested in collaborating with other artists. I am working on a play for the Sydney Theatre Company with a puppeteer. That has been blissful. My husband is a composer, so we work together. I worked with a director called Julian Louis who runs NORPA in Lismore. He came to me with an idea to do an adaptation of Blood Wedding set in regional New South Wales. That was quite collaborative, especially to begin with. We assembled a group of performers. We had no money, so we put an ad in the paper and said, “anyone who wants to be part of this free workshop, come along.” That allowed us to work with quite a diverse range of people who included dancers, puppeteers, trained actors, performance artists, old hippies. It was fantastic.
Being a playwright is always ultimately collaborative because you don’t write just for yourself, but for the many interpretations that come between you and the audience; but, there is a period where you can sit in your room for many months with no one to talk to. While I enjoy that, I am at a point where I am looking to work with dancers, and painters, and aerial acrobats, and see what else theatre can be.
I don’t aim for a particular style. I aim for plays that I would go and see.
As a writer, where do you begin? Ideas, word, images, or somewhere else?
It changes from one play to another. It is rarely cerebral or intellectual. Sometimes it starts with a question … “what if you woke up one day and 100 years have passed since yesterday.” An idea like that might come from a dream I had or a fairy tale I read to the kids the night before.
It might be a feeling. When I moved back to Australiaafter nine years in the States, I constantly felt like Rip van Winkle. Certain things had not changed at all, and other things had changed in massive ways. Some were domestic things, like people ageing or children who’d grown up and left home. Certainly the theatre scene had changed a lot. It was very discombobulating. I wrote a play in response to this called Perfect Stranger. It is like a waking nightmare. The person is trying to get home and gradually realizes that home vanished a hundred years ago. So, sometimes ideas come from something I am living through.
Sometimes they come from something I see –a person walking across the road and the way they interact with their companion grabs my attention. It is an emotional reaction. I think, “why did I feel that?,” and then I will have to unravel it. It can be from a photograph. Biographies and autobiographies are very inspiring, not as a dramatization of a person’s life, but the way they looked at the world can open up possibilities.
I teach quite a bit, and one of my courses is an adaptation course. I give my students a classic play, and they have to come up with a personal response, which then leads to an adaptation. Those plays seep into my consciousness the more I teach them. I feel like I am writing something original, but then I realize that the roots are in Antigone or “The Visitor.”
The plays of yours that I have read had a strong historical component to them. Do you have an affinity for history?
I don’t know why that is, but it is true. Of all the plays I have written, at least three-quarters have been non-contemporary. It offers a lot of freedom in that you can talk about contemporary issues through the prism. I don’t write topical/political plays by any means; but for instance, I am writing a for Black Swan Theatre Company in Perth about three English divers brought over to replace the Asian divers at the height of the White Australia policy. What interests me about it are the convolutions of racism, and it is also a very romantic and exotic story. It also happens to reflect what is going on in Australia now with the mining industry propping up the rest of the country, questions about refugees and immigration. These connections are interesting, but it is more the human aspect that grips me.
I do think it allows you to be more playful and less naturalistic. Historical stories with an exoticism inspire me.
What are some of your earliest and most memorable impressions of growing up in the theatre (Bell’s parents are the noted Australian actors John Bell and Anna Volska)?
As with any child, the world you live in is the norm. I took it for granted, but as I got to be older and see that not everybody had that same kind of childhood, I came to appreciate a lot of things about it. My parents always prioritized our family. We weren’t a theatre family like you see in movies – glamorous thespians with cigarette holders, and their children wondering when they are going to get dinner. It wasn’t like that at all.
We saw every play from a young age because it was impractical to leave us at home or get babysitters, so we saw early David Williamson plays, and Brecht, Chekhov, Shakespeare, Sam Shepard. Some of it I found boring and some of it gripped, inspired and excited me. I can see the influences of those plays on the plays I write now.
Again, bucking the stereotype of a theatrical family, my parents were very domestic and conservative – not politically or artistically – but we didn’t have a wild life. We had a lot of flamboyant and eccentric friends, but as a family, we were a very strong unit. I remember friends of mine from school would come over and they may never have met an out gay person before, and they found that quite shocking. Things like that were not strange to me.
Being around performers and being around rehearsals, seeing the hard work, sweat, blood, and tears that went into creating theatre meant that when I embarked on my career, I had a fairly realistic view of what was involved. Of course, I had starry eyes and big dreams about what I thought I would become. I thought I was going to be the next Stephen Sondheim. I cared most about musical theatre.
Was it inevitable that you would work in theatre? And how did you decide that playwriting was your area?
It was not inevitable. When I was a child, I was interested in visual arts and animals, so I was either going to be a conservationist or a painter. That being said, like all kids, my sister and our friends would put on shows on a regular basis, and make people pay to see them. We would get the Nimrod Theatre occasionally on a Sunday afternoon and do a show on the set of whatever was there.
Whatever my focus as a teenager, I was always writing plays – musicals, at the time. The defining moment for me was participating in Interplay, which still exists. I was in the first one – Interplay 1985 – so I would have been 18. It was an international festival for young playwrights. It was the first time that I had taken my work seriously and seen other people take it seriously. It didn’t deserve to be taken seriously – it was a pretty shocking piece of work! – but, that had an enormous effect on me, and I became excited about the possibilities of what could be done in the theatre. I was in art school at the time, and I thought, “I am in the wrong place.” I was offered a job at Shopfront Theatre, which was a youth theatre, as playwright in residence. It became very clear that I was in the right place. I set out wanting to write musical theatre, and then only write book and lyrics for musical theatre because I wasn’t a composer. Then I jumped over to straight playwriting, but music still plays an important role.
Were your parents supportive of your going into the theatre?
Very much so. I never had any of those questions that some of my friends had about, “when are you getting a real job? Why are you wasting your time?”. They were very encouraging and helped me.
There was an interesting period where I wondered if I was getting these breaks because I was good, or because they were helping me, or because people were curious to see what the daughter of my parents would do. That inspired me to move to the States to satisfy my anxiety that I could be anonymous and still succeed.
I am curious that you were writing musical theatre because there seems to be very little musical theatre in Australia. How did you get interested in musicals?
I always loved old Golden Age Fred and Ginger musicals when I was a child. Then, when I was about 13, I found this record on my parents’ shelf, which was Follies by Sondheim. It was a pastiche of the musicals that I loved. I was too young to understand that they were pastiches and were really about middle-aged people and their embittered relationships. I thought they were just great musical songs. When I started to understand that, I thought it was an interesting way to use songs – to comment on two things at the same time, and be able to talk about complex emotional, psychological situations in an entertaining song-and-dancey way. I was very intrigued by the possibilities of that. The next one I discovered was Sweeney Todd, which absolutely thrilled me. I went through listening to everything else of Sondheim’s.
My father, in particular, encouraged that interest because he loves good music theatre. Sometimes he’d give me something and it wouldn’t hit the right button. For instance, I’ve never gotten into opera. There is a line you can pursue through musical theatre, and when it works there’s nothing like it. You can’t find it in straight theatre. That’s what drives me to keep trying.
Why do you think there is not more musical theatre in Australia?
It is weird. There have been a lot of failed attempts. There are a few really exciting groups starting up now – New Musicals Australia, Carnegie 18 in Melbourne, and a few other developmental opportunities.
I think partly because it is essentially a very American art form. We as Australians are attempting to find our voice without parroting a successful template. But, by the same token, Jazz is an essentially American art form and Australian Jazz is very unique and popular among aficionados; so, there’s no reason for it not to work.
We have very few music theatre role models here, people who have been doing it for 40 years, breaking molds, pushing boundaries, and have the experience and generosity to pass their knowledge, influence, and inspiration to a younger generation.
I think it is a combination of factors. Hopefully, it will change. There are very dedicated people out there who are devoting themselves to establishing a music theatre industry.
As an American, I am particularly interested in uncovering the differences between American and Australian theatre. Can you talk about differences you noticed during your time in the U.S.?
I saw a new American play here a month or so ago, and it shot me right back to when I lived in the States. It was the kind of play that you saw a lot there, family dramas about white middle class protagonists, usually male. Around them orbits the girlfriend, the best friend, the villain … I had not seen that with the clarity I did when I was there. Australians don’t necessarily write those types of plays.
As a playwright, I find it much easier to make a living here, even though there are far fewer teaching jobs. In the States, you have to be much more self-motivated and better about promoting yourself. Here, if you are good, people will scoop you up a bit and help push you along. There, no one is going to do that until you get to a certain level.
One thing that really struck me when I moved back was the independent scene, which had not existed at all when I left. When I came back, it was very established and healthy. It has gotten healthier as it has gone on. It was quite a shock to me because when I moved to the States, and I was at Julliard, we would get amazing actors reading our plays on a Saturday morning for free. I thought, “what is in it for them?” That would never happen in Australia. But then I understood that it is all about getting your name and face out there and making connections. Even if that connection is with a new, young playwright, because if they succeed, they might pick you up and take you with them.
At first it worried me that people were willing to work for nothing or forced to pay to put on their own productions, but now I can see that if it means the difference between production or no production, you have to. The only way to become a better writer is to get some runs on the boards. You can write a play a week, but if you don’t get them in front of an audience, you are not going to learn anything. I really admire and respect people who work in independent theatre.
There is the star hierarchy in the States. My husband, who is a jazz musician, made an interesting observation, which I think is also true in theatre, too. In the States, you will have a ‘star,’ accompanied by sidemen. In Australia, it is a lot more about an ensemble. You have groups with no front-man. They will all write the music and work together. You can see that across the board in the arts. Similarly, plays don’t necessarily feature one character orbited by others. They are often about a family or group. I think that is a fundamental difference between the two cultures, as well. One is not better or worse, they are just different approaches.
What differences have you noticed?
One thing I have seen is that it seems like almost two ends of the spectrum in terms of how plays are developed. In America, we like to develop new plays to death, whereas in Australia, it seems difficult for playwrights to find any development opportunities. Neither seems to be the happy middle ground.
When I lived there, I had one play that had 9 workshops and never moved on.
I have found that here, generally there are less development opportunities, but the next step is usually a production. Sometimes you do see things going on before they are ready, and did need one more workshop or draft. I know there are companies here who say that they are not going to develop anything unless they’re committed to producing it, which on one hand means no false hopes, but on the other deprives a writer of pushing a work along to the next stage in preparation to show other theatre companies.
Looking back on it, did being an expat change your writing at all?
Yes, it did. With dialogue and language, I didn’t want to start writing in American because it didn’t feel truthful to me. Yet, if I wrote a naturalistic play in my own tongue, it would sound awkward on the tongues of American actors. That was one of the things that led to me writing in a less naturalistic style. If people are speaking in a way that isn’t Australian and isn’t American, but is something more heightened or formal or playful, then I can jump over that obstacle.
Also, I had such an amazing experience at Julliard. I worked with Chris Durang and Marsha Norman there. Subsequently, I worked with people like Neil Pepe at the Atlantic, Anna Shapiro at Steppenwolf, Liz Diamond – terrific directors, dramaturgs, and actors. Also, I learned so much from going to the theatre a lot. Having exposure to all that made me a better writer.
As I was saying before about not being able to be complacent there, naturally I am very shy and not comfortable about promoting myself, and I had to get better about that. I brought that home, and I think some of that led to us forming 7-On. We said, let’s not sit around waiting for people to knock on our door. Let’s create our own opportunities. Those are things I wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t gone to the States.
Who were your classmates at Julliard?
In my first year, there was David Lindsay-Abaire, Alex Tolk, Jessica Goldberg, Ron Fitzgerald, Daniel Goldfarb, and Bob Kerr. The second year included Brooke Berman and Michael Winn.
Did you feed each other a lot, as writers?
Yes, there was a lot of cross-pollination. The way the classes were structured, there was no homework. Whoever had done work would bring it in. Chris and Marsha would comment on our work, and then the other writers would respond, as well.
It was interesting because all of these people have very distinct styles and voices. We were all given the freedom to take what we love and run with it, even though they weren’t necessarily plays Chris or Marsha would have written.
Those two are so different in their writing styles. It must have been interesting to study with such diverse writers.
It was. And, it was the opposite of what you would imagine. Chris’s plays are so outrageous and funny, but he is quite shy and quiet. He spoke when he had something important to say, and usually deferred to Marsha. Marsha, who wrote ‘Night Mother, is loud, and wacky, and funny, and warm. It’s like your Jungian shadow comes out in your writing to compliment what you are in real life.
You mentioned the formation of 7-On. What has being a member of that group meant to you?
It is really important. I had lived here all my life until 1996 and had 10 years of professional experience before I left, so it wasn’t like I was being flung into a new city or culture when I came back, although things had changed quite a lot. For that first year, 7-On provided an artistic home. All of the others were also mid-career writers struggling with the same frustrations. We were all approaching or over 40, and it was all about who was 20, and hot, and hadn’t been discovered yet. It was still the Howard years, and there was a lot of hostility towards the arts. It felt great to get together with another six writers and say, “why are we doing this? What do we care about? What do we want to do? What is good and what is problematic?” We made a pact not to let it be an opportunity to whinge. Yes, it is a place to air grievances, but it is essentially a constructive, pro-active thing.
13P had just started when I left New York, and I was interested in the idea of a group of writers getting together to produce the plays that they really wanted to produce and no one else would. When we started, that was one of the things we thought we were going to do. We thought, let’s create a calling card, and we wrote 7 ten-minute plays. Then, we started getting ideas for plays that we wouldn’t necessarily do on our own, but would be augmented by seven different voices. There was an exhibit of old police photographs that we loved. It was about our city and ordinary people, not the Tilly Devines and Kate Leighs, but about real people struggling in this city that is now so gentrified and renovated, but the locations in the images are still recognizable. This is a project that you could do as a lone playwright, but there is something exciting about seven people writing in different voices to create a sprawling site-specific work. We have also done an adaptation of Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
As 7-On has developed, it has become less of a ‘support group,’ and more of an opportunity to create work that we would not do on our own. There are seven different minds, seven different sets of experience, seven different sets of connections, seven different ways of looking at the world.
Another reason we set it up was there were things going on that we weren’t happy about. You would see in the paper, “where are all of the Australian playwrights?” Now, it is “where are all the women playwrights?” Back then people said, “there must not be any good writers because we are not seeing any on our stages.” We were so riled by this. But, if I had written a letter to the paper signed “Hilary Bell,” it would be just one sour-grapes writer, but we felt like under the aegis of 7-On, we were speaking for a larger group than just ourselves and could respond to industry issues with a bit more authority.
The only bad thing is that you never make any money because you have to divide it seven ways!
Do you have a wish list for Australian theatres in terms of what they can do better or more of to support new writing? And what do they do well?
One thing that happens a little bit, but can happen a lot more, is developing playwrights, rather than plays. Committing to a playwright allows for the fact that not everything they do is going to work. If you want playwrights to push the boundaries out and be bigger risk-takers, you have to accept that not everything is going to come off. When something does fail, rather than washing your hands of that person, if you believe in them, you should give them another chance.
The difficulty is, when the pie is so small, you’re doing that at the exclusion of new writers or writers that haven’t had any opportunities. So, if we’re talking wish-list, then we’re talking about a bigger pie.
I mourn the lost playwright-residencies that we used to have in this country. They were so valuable. They allowed writers to understand what it meant to write for actors, or for a budget, or for a particular space, and not feel like you were a hovering visitor, but part of the family in a very real way. It would be wonderful if every theatre company could offer a playwriting residence for a year.
Everything they are accused of not doing, I think they are trying to do. I can see companies trying to create development opportunities and, if there is a writer they are interested in, to give them a few breaks. I know they are trying to do more Australian works.
Some, not all, are trying to encourage a greater participation by women writers. I think they need to try harder. If work is good and done well, subscribers ultimately will be happy with what they get. We shouldn’t be pandering to what we think they will want.
Because I am on the Board of a theatre company, I know you can’t just say, “do more” because I know what the reality is. But, I do think that incrementally we need to be pushing the borders out in terms of the kind of work we’re doing, the kind of audiences we are involving. It is a very middle class white scene out there. It would be good if we could encourage different kinds of audiences, which also means encouraging different kinds of writers to be involved in the industry.
I did a show last year with Paul Capsis called Angela’s Kitchen at Griffin, and we had Maltese in the theatre every night, who had never gone to the theatre. We need to ensure that a wider cross-section of stories are being told, and that people are seeing their own lives reflected. I don’t think that means we need less of what we have now, we just need to broaden.
Do you feel a sense of responsibility towards the next generation of Australian playwrights?
I have not necessarily thought of it as a responsibility, but I think that if it weren’t for the opportunities and encouragement given me by the previous generation of playwrights, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing now. I always say yes to mentoring, or reading younger writers’ plays, or teaching a playwriting class in high school, if I can.
Though, I feel like I haven’t fulfilled my promise, yet. My time hasn’t come and gone. That was one of the big shocks when I came back. I was in my late 30s, and it was all about the 20 year olds. I was getting a message that our wave had passed. I thought, I am just coming to grips with what I am doing. I was just paddling in the shallows before, and now I know what I am trying to do. To mature as a writer takes a long time. To stop being imitative or derivative and learn what you want to do and how to do it – you can be in your 60s before you even get a sniff of it. It’s a real worry to overlook older artists, it’s these who have finally come to grips with their craft.
Make sure there is a balance of encouraging younger, emerging artists and continuing to invest in, not only my generation, but the John Romerils, and the Steven Sewells, the Louis Nowras and Alma De Groens.
Finally, what projects do you have coming up?
The Pearl Kings is the play I mentioned earlier, about the divers in Broome. It is for Black Swan Theatre Company. It goes on as part of the Perth Festival in February.
I am writing a play called The Splinter for Sydney Theatre Company directed by Sarah Goodes and A A lice Osborne, the puppeteer. That will go on in August next year.
I am also writing a play for The National in London. With their Connections program, they ask established writers to write plays for young people to perform. It has mostly been UK writers, but this year they have approached international writers. I will go over there at the end of the year for that.
There is also a musical about E.W. Cole that I am developing with my husband Phillip, which is called Do Good and You Will Be Happy.
And, 7-On is doing a project about friendship called “Platonic,” directed by Augusta Supple. That is a way of creating an opportunity for ourselves, to write and produce short plays without waiting for theatre companies to say yes or no. We’re taking it to the people, straight to their living rooms.