I kept hearing praise for Patricia Cornelius’s play Do Not Go Gentle. After it won this year’s prestigious New South Wales Premier Literary Prize, I was determined to get my hands on a copy of the script. In true theatrical small-world form, it was a colleague from the States who put me in touch with Patricia. I ended up having this lively, animated phone conversation with her.
“People can sneer at the notion of theatre as a political tool, but it has to be part of the fabric, trying to shift and contest notions that are out there.”
Did you begin your career in theatre as a playwright, or did you start out in other roles in the theatre?
I worked as an actor for some time. It took me by surprise that I started to write. For a long time, I didn’t have the audacity to call myself a writer. I called myself an actor who wrote a bit. I bridged those two for awhile until I became more confident. I wanted to do it more so that I could call myself a playwright.
Has your background as an actor proven important to your playwriting?
So much. I have heard disparaging comments about playwrights who have been actors, and that took me by surprise because I always found it such a fantastic quality to have. I love actors, and I loved acting. I wasn’t that great at it. I was too afraid. I knew what excited me, and I know that giving the actor control is so important. Especially for female actors – I write with them in mind all the time.
I read out loud as I write because I like to hear the language and rhythms.
Structurally, I was behind the eight-ball for a long time. There are skills in playwriting that are quite independent from my experience as an actor.
Did you ever study playwriting formally?
So, you learned as you went.
Like a lot of fledgling playwrights, I began with the monologue. I found the monologue easy as a beginning point, but in retrospect, I think it is much more difficult. I found dialogue really difficult, so I wrote plays for awhile that were just slabs of monologue. Dialogue is the trickiest thing to write. Now, I find it the most enjoyable.
Why do you think dialogue is the hardest to write?
The artifice of the world of theatre is more and more at odds with contemporary and technological advancements. Sometimes you sit in the theatre and you hear a ‘song,’ and I just think, ‘don’t do it!’ That moment, for an actor to be able to ‘sing,’ is excruciating. It is really hit and miss. It feels dated and odd. With dialogue, you can’t sit in the naturalistic world anymore. The language has to take you by surprise and have a weight.
Can you tell me about Melbourne Workers Theatre, which you co-founded?
That company was a great passion. It was a wonderful time. It was a matching of my political beliefs with my art. It was full of fighting, and screaming, and wonderful moments, and all of us trying to work out the vision we wanted to share.
It’s so sad that we have so few small and middle range companies anymore because it offered me, and many other writers, an apprenticeship. You had to deal with a certain audience, and often the plays weren’t in the theatre, but in workplaces. You learned the ropes of how to manipulate text, design, and create content around the situation that your play was being thrust about in.
Was it an ‘everyone is painting the sets at 2 in the morning’ environment?
It wasn’t quite as romantic as that. Because it was a union based company, we talked a lot about unions and supported unionism. We weren’t a propaganda theatre, and were quite critical about unions, but we were very clear about our roles. Union people were paid for that work.
Do you have the sense that theatre change our world politically and socially?
Now, sometimes, I am amazed at how crap it is. I sometimes have a bout of going to the theatre where I get enthused again, or someone gives me a series of free tickets, and I can feel an amazing malaise because it is more and more not about anything, or it is about the same things. I feel saddened by a lot of mainstream theatre. The world is in a dire place, and I don’t think that every piece of theatre has to be dire, but I am interested in the real world. The drama for me is how it is writhing in pain. Not to go there in the theatre seems peculiar. When I see work that connects politically, emotionally, passionately, and creatively with moments in the world that are important, I think it can be terribly powerful. I feel empowered.
People can sneer at the notion of theatre as a political tool, but it has to be part of the fabric, trying to shift and contest notions that are out there.
From what I have read of your work, I noticed a theme of your giving voice to people who don’t often have much of a voice in society. Is that a conscious aim of yours?
I don’t consciously do it, but it is something that Melbourne’s Workers Theatre would say – that we give voice to those who are disenfranchised.
I am more interested in a working class perspective. That is conscious. I don’t write middle class plays. I have the privilege of the middle class, but I don’t feel comfortable. Though, I don’t think I exactly have it – I am getting a bit uppity by saying that!
While I was researching for this interview, I became quite fascinated by the story of Do Not Go Gentle, having won the Patrick White Award in 2007, but not being produced until last year, and then winning the NSW Premier’s Literary Award. It seems strange to me that a play so lauded would be so underrepresented on Australian stages. Were there logistical reasons or did it thematically simply not sit well with the theatres around the country?
I think there is an assumption that old people are not ‘sexy.’ I also think that people find it very hard to read the metaphor. People find it hard to understand that people can be talking at odds with the environment. I have had people read it and say, “why don’t you set it in a nursing home?” Here, I have spent eight months trying not to set it in a nursing home! I think play reading in Australia is a bit of a problem.
To write a play about old people in a nursing home – it is a dire situation, and you know the jokes. It is not being disrespectful, but trying to give old people an acute individuality and fine detail.
I think Do Not Go Gentle is a hard play because it is about coming to the end of your life and feeling like it hasn’t been lived well. I sit in that play and think that I am making people very uncomfortable with the material. No one wants to consider that their life could have been better, or that they’ve been cheated. We are cheated. We are cheated all the time
It had a fantastic production in Melbourne at a small company who so championed and loved it. I felt loved by them because they were furious when funding didn’t come quickly and easily. Then, when people see it, I think that maybe it will have a bigger life – especially because the big companies can use and repay the stable of older actors who they have used for years and years. As people age, the roles become the ones who make cranky comments or go to sleep at an inappropriate time. They’re terrible roles! You’d think that they’d want to honor these actors, but they don’t.
How significant an event was winning the NSW Premier Literary Award for Do Not Go Gentle to you, particularly after the no-award controversy of the year before?
It was really significant. One, it is really good money. It puts the wolves at bay for awhile. But also, it was about the play not getting a life. It has had so many readings, and I think – it does not need another reading! It lifted me out of a miserableness about it. I am really fond of it. It is the play about which I feel the most proud. I love the metaphor. It was a good journey to have, writing that play.
We do suffer cringe very badly. We are not looking at our own very respectfully. We have bouts of it, but then turn our backs on it. It is a stingy time, and very stingy for women playwrights.
Yes, I wonder if you have any thoughts about how the status of female playwrights and how it can improve?
I have been on an Internet group of Australian women playwrights talking about this. When the statistics came out earlier this year, it was a slap in the face. First, how few new Australian plays are being produced. And, how unbelievably few of those are women playwrights.
I think that the quota system is fine. You have to have equal numbers. Some women get nervous about that, as if that means that we only got the work on because we are female. Well, they’re getting the work on mostly because they are male. I think quotas are great.
There is a lot of vitriol about this discussion. Some people are very angry about the idea of quotas.
The idea that you have to be fair is very threatening. It is an alien concept to a lot of people.
Part of the vitriol is because there is just not enough Australian work being produced.
Do you think it has gotten better in terms of the amount of Australian work, or does it ebb and flow?
I think it’s gotten worse. It is a really conservative time. We are looking outward, looking to import the fairly conventional plays that did well-enough in New York or London. We are looking for voices that are marvelous, fantastic, and challenging – as long as they are not our own. I think it’s really bleak.
In addition to women’s voices, in your perspective, whose voices or stories are most glaringly underrepresented on Australian stages today?
You rarely go to mainstream theatre and see anyone who is not white.
For my play, The Call, it is hard to even look for actors: you don’t have to be working class, but you have to know how to talk. Your voice carries your class. It is really hard to find people who can transcend their own class, as an actor – let alone be from a working class background because theatre does not go into those schools. Class changes everything – your body, the way you hold yourself.
That is the same for the migrant voice. “Migrant” is so old fashioned because this is really 3rd generation Australian, or more. They don’t have “the look,” and will only be cast in stuff that is about a generic notion of the migrant with a stilted accent. The look on our stages is appallingly racist.
I don’t necessarily want to write about the migrant experience, in terms of recent migration, but I want my plays to be inhabited by the real Australia. Even just introducing names that have a non-Anglo flavour can help.
There was a time when there was a real surge for the people who work in the theatre from an Indigenous background, but then we reached a stage when we said, ‘we’ve done that.’ You get these fabulous Indigenous actors – actors who happen to be Indigenous, and they don’t get work because there are not “Indigenous plays.” Well, they can be in the play!
I don’t write Indigenous stories because I respect the request of a lot of Indigenous cultural elders to make room for them to tell their stories. But, I want to write plays where there is a real representation of the country. That is more amorphous.
Cultural and racial blindness in casting is not in mainstream theatre at all.
How do Australian theatres do at supporting playwrights, and do you have a wish list for what they can do better?
There is a trend at the moment that is very anti-text. There is also a trend about translation that suggests all the fine works have already been written, and we need to reinterpret them in a contemporary context for them to keep living. This isn’t new, but it’s as if it is, at the moment.
I think there is a fear here of having a text that is dense. It feels like there is a big shift away from honoring the text, and towards work that is non-verbal.
It’s like in film. When you write for film, you do most of the work, but you are dispensable. They don’t care about you because they’ll just get someone else. In theatre, the pay is terrible, but at least you were honored – you get asked if you want to change something, and you can be rigid or not with that request. But now, there is an auteur notion of the director.
I would be championing the writer again, and trusting voices like Steven Snell and Melissa Reeves and Andrew Bevell – that those voices are going to carry some weight.
Is Melbourne a uniquely friendly city for theatre artists in Australia?
We’ve had a real history of alternative theatre. We have La Mama, which is like how New Yorkonce felt about its La Mama. It is such a fantastic, vibrant little center. A lot of it is really awful, but there are people trying out stuff, starting stuff, and beginning. And there are old faithfuls who come back and use that tiny space because it is so beautiful and difficult with its intimacy. We also had the Pram Factory, so we’ve had a lot of alternative theatre.
We have also not had all of the stepping stones to the mainstream. Most people now think that you do your work to “finally make it to the mainstream,” but honestly, to get to mainstream can be the death of you. I’d love to have the support and money in terms of having a play in a visible and big theatre, but there’s something that happens to a lot of theatre in the mainstream that kills it. I think that’s a real trap for a lot of playwrights. You can start tempering your plays to accommodate the audiences of the bigger companies. That happens everywhere, in Melbourne there’s a real vibrancy of smaller companies erupting and demanding their space.
I read that you are working on a play about international adoption. Can you tell me anything about that project?
It’s a play I’ve wanted to do for awhile. I haven’t started to write it, but it is a fairly developed idea. I know how dangerous it is. I have mentioned it to a few people who have ended up yelling at me. I was a bit clumsy in my thought about how delicate an issue adoption is. You’ve either been adopted or have adopted a child, and feel vulnerable about anyone’s criticism.
I am looking at international adoption because Whites adopt babies from other cultures, but it is not reversed. They are relinquishing babies that they cannot afford to keep. I am interested in the idea of cultural identification and kids who have a connection to their homeland without ever having had any contact with it.
What upcoming productions or publications do you have?
Do Not Go Gentle and The Berry Man are being published by Currency Press in a volume in November.
I wrote a piece with Christopher Tsiolkas – he wrote a play called Ugly and I wrote a play called Slut – it is done under an umbrella title, Tenderness. That is being done in Footscray.