It was late night for Christine Evans, and morning the next day for me when we spoke – she in her Providence, Rhode Island home, and I in Sydney. I was particularly keen to get Christine’s insights on the differences and similarities between Australian and American theatre because she has been living in the U.S. for over a decade, which gives her a unique cultural vantage point. Not only did she tell me about Australian theatre, but she gave me new glimpses into my own native culture, from her “in-between” perspective.
“Making the transition has forced me to be an internationalist. I feel that I don’t quite belong anywhere. It is the collisions between things that really catch my ear and eye now.”
How long have you been in the U.S. and what brought you there?
I have been here nearly 11 years. I moved over here to do the MFA in Playwriting at Brown, thanks to a Fulbright Scholarship. After the MFA, I had only been here two years, and I felt that I was only starting to get my feet, so I stayed on for a PhD. That turned out to be a more grueling commitment than I’d imagined.
Somewhere along the track, I met my now husband, who is an American. I came to study, and life happened. I am still in Providence.
You and I have done the opposite Australian/U.S. expat move. I can certainly see many differences in theatres from my perspective. I wonder what you see as some of the main differences from your experience.
My first impression on coming here was that there was amazing opportunity and positivity. I think partly that was culturally misleading – Australians don’t tend to be as overtly enthusiastic as Americans.
But, in any case, the landscape has changed dramatically in the 11 years I’ve been here. There’s been an escalating crisis in the American theatre. Opportunities have been shrinking for playwrights and theatres have been facing major financial challenges. That has been a hard thing to see happening.
One of the huge differences is that there are so many cities in America with different theatre scenes. There is a lot of recent energy around playwrights putting on their own work. The scene that I first worked in back in Australia is physical, dance, and circus-based theatre. That kind of work is strong in Australia I think, because it’s such a small country (population wise) that people put energy into work that translates, and then put money into touring. So physical theatre and performance (what’s called performance in Oz and perhaps ensemble, devised or non-text based theatre in the US) is stronger in Australia. It is also better funded.
In terms of tone, one of the cultural differences for me, coming to America, is the incredible saturation of religion in big ways and small. I have been so surprised at how difficult it is to put anything dark in tone on stage in the States. When sending out scripts, so often the comment I’ve received is, “where is the redemption?,” which is not a question I ever came across in Australia. I think Australia is closer to the British view that you can put difficult things on stage and ask the audience to digest it. Here, it seems to be that you need to have redemption and spiritual uplift.
The other thing about American theatre that is quite challenging for a foreigner is the incredible emphasis on American stories – American history, American character. It is surprising in such a big country with people from all over the world, that it is so inward focused. American exceptionalism seeps in everywhere, even in places that would consciously disavow it.
Having said that, there is incredible energy here. And the Latino theatre, Black theatre, and Asian writers in this country are so rich. And an amazing range of fabulous women are coming through; there’s a coalescing of strong forces for putting the playwright back in the room—on salary—and for confronting the absurd underrepresentation of writers who happen to be female. That is very exciting. These newest initiatives (Arena Stage’s playwrights’ residencies and the push to be accountable to women writers) were in large part ignited by Julia Jordan’s commissioned survey of women playwrights’ underrepresentation (about 17%–Dismal!!!) and by Todd London’s book, Outrageous Fortune which described in ugly detail the impossibility for playwrights of making a living, and posed the simple question: Why are managers, directors, literary staff etc. on salary when the primary artists aren’t? But back to the diversity of writing here: When I first got here and encountered some of the Latino writers, I was blown away by the energy and beauty of some of that work.
Yes, I have encountered that many people in Australia are not very familiar with writers like Jose Rivera and Nilo Cruz.
And even less so with Migdalia Cruz, Maria Irene Fornes, Elaine Romero, Tanya Saracho….There is not a big Spanish speaking population in Australia. It is such a different demographic mix. On the surface it looks similar, but it is actually very different.
Did you discover any sort of language challenges moving from Australia to the U.S.?
Yes, more than I expected. I have written things in my plays that people have gone a long time without telling me, such as “knickers.” Also small things things like “heat” and “heating.” There are so many subtle things that are different.
The other thing that has taken me a long time to develop is a sense of regional voice. There are so many more regional voices in the U.S. At first, I could not tell the difference between any American accents, and now I am amazed that I could not tell the difference between a Southern voice and a Northern one. It takes time to figure out the cultural distinctions.
Have you experienced a difference in the new play development processes between the two countries?
I had an almost dream experience before I left Australia. I was a musician and worked in ensembles as a musician and performer for a long time before I crossed over into playwriting. I wrote a tone poem play that was a performance piece with music. Someone suggested that I put it into what was then called PlayWorks, which was an organization strictly for developing the work of women writers. I worked with a dramaturg called Keith Gallasch, who is now the editor of RealTime Arts magazine. He is a wonderful dramaturg, and we worked on this for a couple of years to develop it from its beginnings as a sound poem to a full-length play. I had a workshop at the Center for Performance Studies, and the people from Vitalstatistix in Adelaide decided to produce it on the strength of that workshop. I worked very closely with the director of the production, and then it traveled to Belvoir and then the International Festival of the Arts in Adelaide. It was a dream process, and I was incredibly lucky.
I worked very well with the dramaturg, and then worked with Rosalba Clemente, a director I adore with whom I had worked in three previous shows. I directed the music for my play, as well. It was very integrated, and I loved working that way. I don’t think that was typical. It came out of me working in the theatre in other areas.
I am going back to that way of working now. I am trying to work more collaboratively with other people again, after spending a long time trying to develop my writing.
Why is that? Do you enjoy working that way or are you looking for more of a sense of control over your work?
Both of those things, but also because I think we are living through the death throes of a certain way of making theatre in this country. The “put a script in an envelope and send it to a theatre” model is broken. Theatres are desperately trying to pay the rent, and in actuality, playwrights get invited to work with theatres by having a relationship with the theatre or having a name that will sell tickets. Many writers I know are thinking about how to be entrepreneurs in the theatre and how to find people to work with, rather than fighting for opportunities that are so tiny—or frankly, fake; a shell game played by theatres to get “development” funding.
Being outside of Australiafor some time now, can you identify any characteristics of your writing that are culturally Australian?
I think I have a very dark sense of humor, which is partly me, but I also come from a country with a more stringent sense of humor, in general.
I write a lot of physical space and image in my plays, and that comes from my background in the Australian physical theatre. That performance strand and mise- en-scene is very strong in Australia.
While I was here, I did write one play that was set in an Australian detention center, which got produced in San Francisco. I wrote that play out of outrage at what was happening in Australia with the detention of refugees. I am sure that I would not have written that play if I had been in Australia. I felt I had more liberty and distance here. Some of what has happened to my voice has come from being an expatriate. That is not exactly about having an Australian voice, but it is about being in the in-between space which makes you write differently.
A bizarre thing that happens as an Australian, which I don’t think can happen the other way around, is that when I came here, my whole country disappeared off the map. As an American, you can’t go somewhere and not see your country in the news. As an Australian, I came here and everything I was reading about everyday politics and so forth was just gone. It was incredibly disorienting to feel that my entire political/social world had disappeared. Suddenly, my country was just a cliché about poisonous animals or earthquakes and fires, occasionally. I don’t know what it has done to my writing, but it was certainly an experience.
Do you stay in touch with the Australian theatre community?
I do. As you know, it is incredibly far; but, I still put my plays in for prizes. When I go back, I still talk to some of my dear friends and collaborators about trying to do things together. I have had some of my plays produced by student and community groups in Australia that I haven’t seen, so that’s an odd feeling—not knowing how they went. I also did a show at Downstairs Belvoir (Pussy Boy) while I was living here.
It is slim, and it’s hard to continue the connection without figuring out how to do an exchange, which is on my list of things to do at some time.
One thing both countries have in common is the poor state of opportunities for female playwrights. Do you have any thoughts you’d like to share on the whys and how to fix of this problem?
There are so many factors involved.
Firstly, I don’t think that there is a conspiracy to shut out female writers. It is a confluence of a lot of cultural forces that work in that direction. It is amazing that is it so much more the case in theatre than in say, fiction. Theatre is a more social form. Theatres tend to be run by male artistic directors. Things in theatre happen through relationships. People tend to form relationships with people they are comfortable with, and the people they are comfortable with tend to be like themselves – unless they have been booted along to have a diversity category, meaning people who are not like themselves in various categories. That argument has not been one that’s worked for women: as Therese Rebeck relates, funders and theatres have flat-out told her that “diversity” doesn’t apply to women. Which is obviously crap, because the numbers prove the discrimination is real and egregious. But at least some of those slots have been opened up in America for other groups, which is a really good thing—even if it feels token, it’s a start.
It is also the confluence of marketing with art making. In a way, a lot of the not-for-profit theatre in America, through economic crisis and dwindling audiences, has slid over to a de facto for-profit model of trying to find ways of selling product, while pretending that there is a mission for a general good in order to get the tax breaks and funding. That means selling the product of a writer’s name. That is usually done through the categories of “hot” and “young,” or a particular kind of diversity slot. Or, the default idea of the male writer. That effectively wipes out women from a lot of marketing “hotness.”
I think, too, men have historically been a lot more active about sending out their work.
Also, the misogynistic state of reviewing: A male voice is seen as more authoritative. The bar for women to succeed is higher, and the bar for failure is lower, as well. Women are more readily seen as ‘failing’ at writing. If they try what may be seen from a male writer as “bold, experimental” tactics, a woman is often seen as not knowing what she is doing. Even in the best of all cases, I think that men get more favorable reviews than women on balance because of that bias.
All said, like most writers I know I am so tired of the gender issue. I want to be seen and treated equally as a playwright, period. I write about all kinds of people and worlds, and a lot of my plays are large-scale pieces about war and politics—my interests are not defined by my gender. However, there’s another whole conversation to be had about gender, hegemony and their relationship to realism as a form.
Will you tell me about the anthologies from the Women’s Project Playwrights’ Lab you co-edited?
99% of the credit goes to lead editor Alexis Clements, who really put in the sweat and the hours.
That said, we really wanted to make an anthology of the work from our Lab group, partly to get our voices out there. The plays featured are by an amazing range of writers, working at all levels from tiny basement theatres to major regional and international houses.
We also wanted to celebrate our two years in the Lab, and do an experiment in self-publishing.
Who are the artists – theatrical or otherwise – who have been most influential on you as an artist?
I have a big love of Balkan music. I had early travel and exposure to that music, and being in bands has made me a musical thinker, in terms of how I write. Linsey Pollak introduced me to a left-field musical universe and an approach to creativity that I still cherish. In Australia, working with Keith Gallasch and Rosalba Clemente taught me how to shape something for the stage. Slogging around in an animal costume with a children’s theatre company deepened my resolve to become a writer, not a performer. The performance strand in Australia—The Sydney Front, Legs on the Wall, The Party Line and so many others—have given me a love for the visceral and the explosive, reversible image. Jenny Kemp introduced me to Maria Irene Fornes and to a way of living on and with the page to generate material. Playing in rock bands addicted me to the pulse of the room, and the need for rhythm in all things staged.
In terms of the theatre, there are so many writers that I love. Caryl Churchill was a big influence for me. She’s amazing. She does bold things with structure and form, and it changes with every play she writes. She never stops experimenting.
For me, a lot of English writers are influential. Sarah Kane blew my mind when I encountered her work. Edward Bond. Also, some German writers like Botho Strauss. In the States, there are so many writers I think are wonderful. Discovering some of the Latino writers like Jose Rivera, Octavio Solis, Migdalia Cruz, Maria Irene Fornes, and the whole tradition that came from there. Suzan-Lori Parks’ early plays were a huge revelation to me. Naomi Wallace, Erik Ehn, Naomi Iizuka, Charlotte Meehan. W. David Hancock is an unheralded genius of the stage in my opinion. The Nature Theatre of Oklahoma. Forced Entertainmnent. Dah Teatar.
What makes you want to write for the theatre?
Lately, it is a question I have been asking myself!
It is one of those addictive things. There is a joy in seeing something come together on stage, which is unsurpassed. I am social, and I like doing things with other people. When it comes together, it is the most amazing and wonderful thing.
It’s really joyful to me when people connect with my plays. Not everyone does, but when they do, they tend to connect very strongly. I love that.
It’s hard to get it right, and it is endlessly fascinating to try to figure out how to do it.
Reading some of your work, I noticed that it is quite ambitious in terms of theatricality, use of physical space, and metaphor. Have you ever had experiences in which the images in your imagination were surpassed by what was created on stage?
It is so mixed! Some part of my love, and entanglement, and fascination, and frustration with theatre has to do with the way that what is in your mind is never what is on stage. That is the live-ness of the form. Sometimes it is better.
Usually, in preview week, I want to go home and die. I think it is never going to come together, and I am thinking – why did I not just keep this beautiful world in my head? Somehow, if it works, it comes together. It is like a death and rebirth. For me, not seeing exactly what is in my mind is why I am in the theatre. Other people breathe something into it. It is like they respond to an offer I make. That makes it like jazz. There is this ossified world that is only in my head and then this thing that is only a play happens. That is terrible, and it always makes me cry. But then this thing that is a play takes on its own life and becomes something beyond what I have put on the page. Something new is born.
It is so much about finding a simpatico director. Some people don’t like having a lot of imagery on the page. They think the playwright should just write words. That is not how I think. I do think spatially, as well. When it works, it is great.
Do you like to work with the same people?
I do, but I like to work with new ones as well. There are some people I know I want to work with and I have been in conversation with them for two years trying to find the right thing.
It has to do with the feeling in the room. You have to feel that the soul of the thing that you’re trying to do is alive. That matters to me more than anything.
You have a production of Trojan Barbie coming up in London?
I do, yes. It is quite exciting because it just had a show there in Warwick in March. It is having its second production in London on the West End.
What do you think people respond to in that play?
I hope a lot of things, but you never know.
In a way, that play, despite its enormous cast has been easier for people to connect to because it goes into unfamiliar places from a solid peg of the familiar. The anchor is the story of the Trojan Women, but then I do something surprising with it by colliding it with a story of a modern tourist.
It is unusual, and that attracts people’s interest, but it has a solid basis of familiarity.
There is an anxiety about our place in the world, as first world people in the middle of these wars. I am trying to figure out what that is, morally and ethically. This play, in a lateral way, opens that space of anxiety for people to be in it inside of the story. It is about how you do deal with complete cultural dislocation, and the fact that someone’s bad tourist adventure is someone else’s complete tragedy.
It’s funny because everyone tells you to write small cast plays with simple sets, and this play of mine is the one that has done the best, and it is enormous.
Coming back to your question about being Australian in America, Trojan Barbie has people from many different countries colliding. Making the transition has forced me to be an internationalist. I feel that I don’t quite belong anywhere. It is the collisions between things that really catch my ear and eye now.
Aside from the upcoming production of Trojan Barbie, do you have any other projects coming up?
I am a resident artist at HERE Arts Center and I’m working on a piece called You Are Dead, You Are Here, which is a new media collaboration with a director and designer.
Christine Evans’ website is: http://www.christine-evans-playwright.com/