Chatting with me by phone from her Footscray, VIC home, Shannon Murdoch was game enough to be my first ‘guinea pig’ for The Australian Theatre Project. We talked day jobs, new play development, and her recent Yale Drama Series Award.
“When The New York Times was trying to figure out where Footscray was, I knew life was not going to be the same.”
How do you describe your style?
I guess it is sort of a heightened realism. I don’t think about it when I’m writing, but it’s realism in a heightened emotional state.
I’ve read that your mother was a drama teacher. Was she your main inspiration for entering theatre?
I guess she was! She taught private speech and drama, which is a thing we do here in Australia. Little girls are taught to speak well, play scenes, and things like that. When I was 8, I came first in the state in an exam, and as a treat, she took me to Sydney to see Cats. This was before the big musicals came to Brisbane, where I lived.
It was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen in my entire life. It switched something in my brain. I can still remember so vividly when they came down off the stage and sang to me. I thought that was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen in my life. And, so, that was that!
Did you just go straight home and start writing plays?
I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a playwright, at that stage. It made me want to be around the stage. Writing didn’t come until much later in uni, but I acted all through school. I felt at home near the stage. It was where I was meant to be.
Who are the writers who impacted your formative years? Can you see their influence on your work?
Patrick White was the first one. I read his plays in high school and did not fully understand them, but something in them hit a nerve with me. I think it was that I didn’t understand them that made me like them more. I liked that he made me work for it. He didn’t spoon feed me his plays.
Once I got to uni, I was exposed to a lot of female writers. Naomi Wallace was a huge influence. Her lyrical writing just blew my head apart. Also, her women. One Flea Spare changed my life.
Also, Suzan-Lori Parks. The thing that I love about her is her staging. She’ll write these long stage directions like, “then, they lived happily ever after for a long time. And then they came back …” and that’s the staging. I thought, “you can do that??”
How did your formal training in uni and then later at NIDA influence you as a writer?
I went to Griffith University on the Gold Coast, which is about the best place to go to uni because it is near the beach. I did theatre. It was very “do it yourself.” If you wanted to stage a play in the car park, they’d let you. It was sort of a free-for-all for three years. That allowed me to try everything I wanted to, and allowed me to rethink what I knew theatre to be, at that time, and try out my own ideas. It was a primary grounding in theatre. I came out of it not knowing that I was a writer, but having written and acted a lot.
It was NIDA that trained me to be a writer. They trained me how to stage a scene, how to do an act break, and all of those things that I did not have a clue about. Both places trained me in different ways that led me to the same place.
How did you learn the business side of playwriting?
Trial and error. I learned early on that it was very hard to get plays in front of theatres and to Artistic Directors in this country. Then I learned that it is actually quite easy to get a 10-minuted play staged. So, I wrote a lot of 10-minute plays and had them staged – many in the U.S. – and went from there.
Someone along the way told me that the only rules you need are “write’ and “submit.” So, that’s what I did. I wrote and submitted. I send things off a lot, and that’s how I get things produced.
You write on your blog a lot, with some humor, about the devastation that is having a day job. In all seriousness, how dearly does the day job hinder your writing. And, what would your ideal conditions be if you did not have to have a day job?
I am lucky in that I temp. I usually temp for 6 or 7 weeks and then take the equivalent time off. It would be perfect if I did not have to do those 7 weeks because the tough thing is that you come home at the end of a 9-hour day, and you’re stuffed. There is no way that you can sit down and write for 4 hours. You can’t get into that headspace and have the time you need to moon about and think. All the writing has to happen on the weekends. When you’re home and writing full time, when it’s not happening, you have the time to take a walk or read a book. I think about all the ideas that get missed when you don’t have the time to dream.
Do you have essential collaborators or people whose notes you feel that you need to have? How important is collaboration to your process?
I have one in particular, a writer who I went to NIDA with. I don’t feel that I have to have it. I’ve taught myself to know when I’ve got it and when I don’t. I have to take the time and a lot of drafts. It is great when she is there, but I don’t need her. I think that can be a way of stopping you from getting the play out in the world. I have to know my voice and when things are done. I don’t want to get to the point when I don’t know when something is ready.
It can be hard for writers to get to that place of confidence.
Yes, but I think that sometimes you will get it wrong. That’s OK, too. It is OK to fail sometimes. If you work on something really hard and you get to the end of it, and something is missing – you don’t know what it is – maybe it is a failed attempt. That’s OK, too.
Let me ask you about the Yale Drama Series Award for New Light Shine. Congratulations on winning this year. Has it changed things for you professionally or personally?
Both. Once I got that phone call from Yale, I felt that my life was never going to be quite the same again. When The New York Times was trying to figure out where Footscray was, I knew life was not going to be the same.
It has exposed me and my work to a wider audience. It has made people pay attention. I don’t have to bash down so many doors. Some are now opened for me. I remember thinking when the phone call came, after it had settled down, this overwhelming sense of relief. It was like all these years of struggle and hard work had paid off. I wasn’t fooling myself. It’s been a few months now, and it has given me a whole heap of confidence that I know what I’m doing.
Can you tell me a bit about the impetus for New Light Shine?
I have no idea where it actually came from! I was working a temp job, and I was really bored. I was having one of those days when you think, “my life is going nowhere and I’m stuck doing this for the rest of my life…” I went outside for a cigarette and the voices of Joe and Peregrine came into my head and started talking. They were in a jail, talking about their mother. That was all I had – about 5 lines of dialogue. It started as two people talking and grew from there.
That reminds me of something I heard John Guare once say. He said that when he starts a play, it’s like he’s in a hotel room and can hear the people in the next room. Their voices start out muffled and then get clearer and clearer. Do you usually start with the characters’ voices like that?
Yes, I think so. It’s interesting, though, that New Light Shine broke its mold in my head. Not once during the writing did I say, “What is this about?” “What am I trying to say?” I just went with it and tried to tell story of these four people. I told myself not to worry what it was about, that’s not up to me. I just told the story and let other people work out what it is about.
It seems like this is a breakthrough piece for you. Did you know it was going to be that when you were writing it?
I didn’t know that it was going to do what it has done, but when I got to the draft that it is now, I did feel that this was the closest to how I want to write. It was a lot funnier than a lot of my other scripts. It was a nice blend of being dark and about something serious, but also having all these laugh moments. I thought that this was the closest to the line where I want it to be.
It must be nice to get recognition for something that is pivotal for you, too.
Yes, all the stars aligned for about five seconds and I was in the right place at the right time!
Let me ask you about Australian theatre and writing. This may be an unfair question, but do you think there is such a thing as an Australian character or sensibility in writing?
I don’t think there is an actual Australian style. It’s only been about 40 years since David Williamson, Jack Hibberd, and those Australian writers said, “we don’t want to hear British voices on stage anymore.” That’s not a huge amount of time to define who we are, yet.
But, I do think things have started to change in the last five years. We’re seeing a lot more of the younger writers starting to get on the mainstages. I think in the next five years, the whole face of Australian theatre will change.
That is interesting because I have noticed a shift even from last season to this. When I came here last year, I saw a lot of American writing on Australian stages, and I was disappointed because I wanted to see Australian writing. But, this year, I’ve noticed much more Australian writing on stage.
It is strange how we still have that feeling that we’re not quite as good as the Americans or British, as if it’s been on the West End or Broadway, we have to have it. We don’t trust ourselves yet, but maybe we’re making something that is just as good.
It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy, too. If Australian writers aren’t programmed, then they don’t get the experience.
Yes, that’s the whole conversation that’s happening with women writers, as well.
I did want to ask you your thoughts on how we get more women writers on stage.
I can’t believe how many arguments I have had with male writers about this in the last six months. I have been called every name under the sun because I dared to say that maybe if we made it mandatory for theatres that are being funded by the government to program women, that maybe we could begin to right this wrong. I don’t know if that is the answer, but something has to change and shift in people’s thinking of what is a good play and how to read a play. The only way it is going to happen is if theatres have the balls to say that they are going to put this stuff on. That’s the way that things change. You put plays on stage and say, “this is a new way to look at how a ‘well-made play’ is done.” It will change how people think about plays.
Shifting gears (because we could talk about this problem of women writers all night), what companies or writers in Australia are doing some of your favorite work today?
I quite like what Malthouse in Melbourne is doing down here. They’re not doing the type of work I write, text-based work, but they’re taking theatre into some new and strange places. On the Mainstage, they program some out-there stuff. They take a chance, and I really like it.
I also really like Vitalstatistix in Adelaide. They do great stuff.
Finally, a question about new play development. In the U.S., we are obsessed with “developing” every play to death. I don’t know if that happens as much here. Can you speak about new play development in Australia? And, what type of development do you find helpful?
We kind of have the opposite problem here. All we really have is Playwriting Australia. Our theatres don’t seem to like to invest in developing a play. They like to have plays arrive well-made on their doorstep, which doesn’t ever happen. The only development I’ve had in Australia, aside from Playwriting Australia, is what I have organized myself. That seems to be the way it works here. We don’t seem to value staged readings or the need for writers to hear their words out loud as part of the writing process.
Again, Malthouse likes to give a theatre company of young artists, say, three months to do what they want. I think that is fantastic. But, as a theatre company, that is not normal to let a writer go in and muck about for a week with a play. I don’t know a theatre company in Australia that is allowing that.
What productions or publications do you have coming up?
I just had a short play published by JAC Publishing in the U.S. called Act Accordingly:
There will be a night of my one-act plays produced by Copacetic Theatre in San Diego in September.
And then, of course, New Light Shine, is getting a reading at Yale Rep in September.
Shannon Murdoch blogs at www.shannonmurdoch.blogspot.com and is on Twitter at @shanmurdoch.