I crossed paths with Lachlan Philpott when he was workshopping his mysterious and melodious new play, The Trouble With Harry, at Playwriting Australia’s National Script Workshop. Between then and when we recently sat down for a conversation at a Newtown cafe, he was nominated for a Helpmann Award for Best New Australian Work and opened the Melbourne production of his much lauded play Silent Disco, among other things. It’s a busy time to be Lachlan Philpott, and he talked to me about the realities of getting new work produced, his love of collaboration, and why the new play sector is like the airport.
“Theatre is one of the only places where you can play with language still, where people have to listen to it.”
Your play Silent Disco received a great deal of critical and audience acclaim. Has this play been a pivotal point in your career?
Definitely. It’s really exciting. A lot of theatre companies didn’t know whether it was going to work on stage, so I am very grateful to Griffin, HotHouse, and atyp for taking a risk on it. The audience’s response to it was really positive. It’s just been optioned for a film, which is amazing. I think it will make a really interesting film.
While I am thrilled about the film, strangely, the success of Silent Disco hasn’t led to more theatre work. Perhaps it is a bit naive to think that when you have something successful, all the theatre companies will contact you and say, “what are you working on?” or “we’d like to talk to you about writing something,” That hasn’t happened. None of them have asked. I admit I find that a little bit disappointing, but I also realize just how small the theatre world is, and how there are certain trends at the moment that work against anyone that isn’t considered a brand new voice. I don’t want to sound sour about it. That’s just the reality of the theatre scene. And, the success of the play has led to a lot of other work teaching, in film and possibly television.
Has the success changed at all how you think about what or how you’re writing?
Most playwrights learn about their craft by seeing their work on stage. With Silent Disco, I went quite a few times because I enjoyed it and was interested in seeing the way it grows, and seeing the bits that work or don’t work. In that way, it certainly influences what you’re writing. I hadn’t had anything on for awhile, so I wasn’t sure if what I was writing worked.
You tend to write the same stuff over and over again until you’ve seen it up on stage and can move on to a new phase.
Silent Disco was a bit of a shift from some of the other work I’d done because it was a bit simpler. It does reinforce that sense of the value of storytelling. Audiences respond to story. Audiences respond to character.
It also reinforced two things for me. One was that audiences will actually go with something that is a bit different. They’re smart enough to cope with that. The other thing is that Sydney audiences really like to see Sydney stories on stage. It’s very much like when we see a film that was filmed in our hometown, a place that we know well. There’s a connection to it when it’s acknowledged. When we see the place we spend our time in, we live in, and love in, and struggle in, it is quite nice to see that represented on stage. In that way, it was quite an interesting learning experience.
I know that you have been doing theatre for the better part of your life. Can you tell me about your evolution into playwriting?
My parents ran a youth theatre company when I was young. That opened up a passion for theatre as a place where I could belong and be myself. I wanted to act, and had numerous disasters and the realization that I was really bad. Then, I wanted to direct, and I still direct. Having a directing background can really inform the way that you write plays. When I was studying directing at VCA, I started writing, so that was about 10 years ago. I wrote a play at school that I hope no one has a copy of, or I’d be mortified.
I think it’s difficult to just be a playwright. For me, what informs or enriches my writing is doing other things. I’d been running a youth theatre in Newcastle, and left for other reasons and went into teaching. The experiences I had when teaching went into Silent Disco.
I am constantly asking questions about the role of the writer, because I reject the assumption that writers are best away by themselves in some farmhouse or whatever. Theatre companies should encourage relationships with writers and bring them on board as resident so that the writers become part of the community. It would be great if writers could work in other contexts, as well.
As I writer I need a connection to other people. The first one or two plays I wrote were about my own experience, and now I’m not interested in writing about me anymore. I’m interested in other people . In order to make that connection to their spirits and to get that onto the page, you need to be around them.
They’re quite big questions about what we’re expected to do and how we’re expected to work.
It’s a funny role, being a writer, isn’t it? You go into theatre because you like being around other people and like collaborating, but you have this job where you are in a room by yourself for a long time.
It’s really funny. When you get to collaborate with actors, directors, or other creatives, it brings an alternative way of doing things that is more exciting, much easier, and much more enjoyable. But, we don’t seem to work that way very often.
I’ve been working on a play with a group of five actors on a project called The Alien Playground Project. We’re working together to create something on alien abductions in Sydney. It’s much more fun. You get together and socialize and feed into each other’s creativity. It’s a nice way to work.
Talking about collaboration, I wanted to ask you about working with Alyson Cambpell, who was working with you when we met at Playwriting Australia. I know she’s one of your closest collaborators. How does the collaboration with Alyson work?
It’s such a gift when you meet someone you can work with. We’re very close friends, and we work well together because we have similar aesthetic priorities. We have a disdain for unimaginably naturalistic theatre. With the backgrounds that we come from, we have a very different view from the normal hetero-normative dramaturgies that you get in a lot of work. For that reason, we have a lot of fun and make quite interesting work together.
As much as we may work together, the amount of work that we’ve been able to make has been impaired by distance. We lived together in Melbourne, and I moved back to Sydney. Alyson moved to Belfast. So, we’ve done a lot of work independent of each other, but when we do get to work together, it is fantastic.
She’s your theatre soulmate?
Yeah, definitely. With Alyson, I trust what she does with my work. She worked on my first play Bison in Melbourne in 2000. The next work that I did after I’d moved up to Sydney, she directed. I didn’t get there until the day before opening. When I landed in Melbourne, I went to the theatre and she said, “I’m sorry, you can’t come in and see it like this.” I was thinking, “why did I come down?” But, when I did see it, I was blown away by what she’d done, and her ability to make sense of it that, for me, everything I thought about Alyson was confirmed. I am always looking for a chance to work with her.
Do you have any other close collaborators?
I really enjoyed working with Lee (Lewis). We had a long time before the production to talk about ideas and then let things sit. That was quite a wonderful collaboration.
I’ve worked with Katrina Douglas a few times and that’s always a very fruitful collaboration.
I have also really enjoyed working with talented directors Amy Hardingham and Noel Jordan. Both of them are so amazingly giving and fun in the rehearsal room.
Writer mates Jane Bodie and Tanika Gupta constantly inspire me with their skill and bravery.
And Jane Fitzgerald is an extraordinary dramaturg who not only has no ego but defends the work under any circumstance.
A lot of it is about trusting and respecting each other’s work, but also being brave enough to speak up when something is not working. Or, when you’re disagreeing, that it doesn’t become a personal thing.
How important was the NIDA Playwrights Studio to you, either artistically, or in terms of working in the business? For you, what was the value of that program?
The biggest benefit for me doing that at that time was connecting with Francesca Smith, who is another valued collaborator. And, Lee Lewis was one of the directors at NIDA, at that time.
I struggled with the Studio because I felt like the focus was on “ a well made play’ which in that case meant a naturalistic one, There are a lot of assumptions about what a play is. Having studied at VCA where there’s a slightly different philosophy about what makes a performance text, and at NIDA at that point in my artistic journey, I struggled.
But, I think it was valuable. It is always good to get people together and talk about theatre writing. And the advantage of the Studio was that it let people who want to write plays, but cannot commit to full time study, go into rigorous study of playwriting without giving up their lives.
Do you think it is important for playwrights to study formally?
Any education is beneficial, but I think either you’re a playwright or you’re not a playwright. You have a particular voice and a connection to dialogue, or a keen visual sense. What education does is it encourages you.
For example, in the NIDA playwrights studio, Francesca was really supportive of what I was trying to do with my writing, at that point. I still had a ways to go, but there was something that I was trying to say that made what I was writing unique and she nurtured that in me. She is a gifted teacher.
I now teach a lot, and I struggle with the question with whether you can teach people to write, or not.
Since you’re struggling with that idea, what is your philosophy as a teacher of playwriting?
Most of my teaching tends to remind people about the importance of play and connecting to their imagination. And, to make a play that could only have been written by them. I challenge writers to reject the idea that you have to come up with new stuff all the time because plays take a long time to get right and there is real value in following that through. I remind them that it takes a long time to find your voice and try to support them
I am very interested in how people connect to their own voice. We say that a lot, but what does it actually mean to help someone connect to their own voice? I think a lot of that is helping people come to an understanding of who they are and what’s made them who they are, what certain things have shaped their lives, how they look at the world, and how they pass how they see the world on.
When you ask somebody what inspires them to write a play, that first moment that they know they are going to write a play, you get a range of answers, but generally you can narrow it down to a few different types of writers. I’m interested in looking at that and what that means, because if you are not a person who is necessarily attracted to a narrative, you will struggle in a world where almost everything is pitched in a narrative sense. People say, “what is your play about?,” and expect you to come up with the plot line, even if you’re actually writing a play about a place or a play that deals with an issue. You can help writers who are still very good writers, but who don’t think about work with such a narrative focus , to keep their style, but negotiate the theatre world, so that they and their plays don’t get ignored.
I also want to encourage writers to make work that is important. There’s nothing more depressing than seeing work that doesn’t have something important to say. Small is OK, but it has to be in an imaginative realm, or have an emotional or affecting sense.
Yes, I’ve seen a lot of writers who have their stock in trade in being clever and witty. I’m bored with that.
Totally. Also, I think there are some writers out there who literally say, “what do you want me to write? I can write any style. I can write any story.” I don’t understand how writers can do that. I think there are only a certain number of stories that I can write. When I write, I want to be invested enough to really care about the work that I’m doing.
Your work is quite ambitious in its use of language. How do you begin to get your mind around the particularities of dialogue for each new world you are working in?
I guess I enjoy playing with language. I enjoy listening to other people talk. Also, when I’m writing, I tend to think of the play almost as a musical score, rather than words on a page. I must be quite aural as a thinker. I am quite particular about the meter of the language or particular words.
Right, it’s also very clear that those cadences and rhythms are an important part of your work. How do you work towards that? Do you read aloud or listen to music?
I do read a lot of it out loud. But, I’ve done that with a few plays, and if I continue to do it, I think it might begin to get a bit repetitious. If you are striving to communicate a particular mood or intensity in a moment, this is one of the only elements of the play that you can trust to develop it, given that the actors and directors do their job.
I’ve seen a lot of theatre where, if you put a lot of those ideas into stage directions, it can be undermined by poor choices. If it’s actually in the text, it becomes more difficult to undermine that.
Theatre is one of the only places where you can play with language still, where people have to listen to it. People play with language much more visually now. If you look at the evolution of text messaging and how quickly the lexicon changes, it is very interesting, but not something that is in the theatre.
I loved that about Silent Disco, that it shows how our mode of communication has really changed, and that changes even the way we think about communicating.
Yes, and it is generational. Young people adapt to new technology faster, and everyone else tries to catch up. I think that is a successful element of that play. Goodness knows how long that will resonate. It moves so fast that in five years time, someone will look at it, and think, what is this about!
Speaking of young people, will you tell me about Fresh Ink and the work you did with the Australian Theatre for Young People?
Fresh Ink is a program that I ran for a few years. I loved working with the talented emerging writers the program attracted, but I left last year to pursue other projects. Fresh Ink is a theatre writers’ program, which is about connecting young writers to their voice. There is a huge amount of emerging writers programs now, but when it was first established, there were less.
The idea was to focus on the writer, rather than the writing. I think this is something that we can learn about in other areas of the sector: To make the investment in the writer, and allowing him to be a writer, to fail, so that everything does not ride on the success of one play.
Though, even when your play is successful, it seems that no one wants to see your next play. In the wake of Silent Disco, I have had a huge amount of trouble getting any company to read the next play I’d written. I found it a bit frustrating. It seems like no one is reading plays. I am sure they are time poor, but if theatre companies are not reading plays, and that’s their whole business, where are they getting there repertoire? It’s a bit mysterious.
The other thing I really like about Fresh Ink was that we matched writers up with a mentor for a year. Mentorship is really valuable. When you are working with somebody who has a lot of experience, what they can offer you is really exciting.
With atyp, like a lot of youth theatre companies, there is a lot of risk taking that goes on. They are not programming for subscribers. They don’t have to make work that fills boxes in the same way as other companies. Ultimately, youth theatre in Australia is vibrant and edgy. I’ve always really enjoyed working in youth theatre.
What other artists – theatrical or otherwise – have been influential to you, as a writer?
I get a lot of inspiration from other art forms. I probably get more inspiration from experiencing other art forms than from seeing a lot of theatre. Seeing theatre can often be a reminder of how we have lost our imaginations.
I love getting lost in art galleries. I listen to a lot of music, though some of it is really terrible. People laugh when they look at my ipod track lists. I really love hip hop music.
Talking about theatre artists though, there are a lot of people whose work I really admire. Caryl Churchill. She’s extraordinary. She’s never fallen into the trap of becoming predictable. She is consistently brilliant and plays in so many different ways.
There are a lot of British playwrights that I really like. And there are some really exciting Australian writers, who I wish would get programmed more. There are some really interesting voices out there.
I’m going to the States next year for a residency, so I have been reading a lot more contemporary American playwrights, and there is some really interesting stuff going on there; though, I think Australian audiences are a bit closer to British audiences, and a lot of mainstream American writing seems too manipulative on the audience, which doesn’t work here. It’s a bit like American television 10 years ago. In theatre that’s probably changed, too, but we don’t necessarily get those plays here.
I think many people don’t know how to read those non-mainstream plays.
In America it is much more of a reading culture. They seem to have readings, readings, readings of plays that never get on. How many readings can you do of one play before you think it is good or bad and you decide that you’re going to do it or not?
I think that here we have the opposite. People don’t know how to read work, particularly if it is complex. If they don’t get it the first time or can’t visualize it on stage, they get frightened. I think if you read a work and there’s something in it that you love, and you can’t see it on stage, that is what would make me want to direct it. As a director I can’t bear the thought of reading something once and knowing how it will all work.
Do you have a wish list for what Australian theatres can do better in terms of new writing? And what are they doing right?
Reading plays would be a really good start. Committing to Literary Managers; we have two Literary Managers in Sydney, which is great, but it worries me that the demands on them are probably so varied that they might not actually get the opportunity to do much reading. It would be fantastic if there was an opportunity for more reading to happen. A lot of the playwriting development that exists is set up so that people can come at the end and hear a play read, and decide whether they are going to program it, or not. I can’t help but think that maybe they could read it themselves in their offices, and we could shift the focus of development, so that it’s actually about development, not about creating a performance that looks like it’s development.
Shifting the focus back onto writers and not onto writing, so that people have a bit more time to develop work. Also, taking away the obsession with new work. A lot of the funding models we are working under seem to work so that you can get funded to develop something new, but you can’t get funding to continue working on something that has been staged once and needs more work, which will ultimately be a stronger work, in the end. The focus is on, “let’s make more new work,” but none of it will ever see the stage a second time, which doesn’t make any sense at all. Look at the amount of work that has been written and staged, and is good, and could go on.
At the moment, I know four writers who are writing plays about teenage girls and sexuality. I don’t understand how that is happening. I don’t think companies communicate with each other. You have a lot of doubling up of commissions.
The other thing is that there is a lot of focus now on emerging writers, emerging arts grants, and support for emerging artists. I think it’s fantastic, but there’s no point in supporting emerging artists if once they have emerged, they have no career opportunities. It would be like the forest industry growing saplings over and over again and wondering why there wasn’t any wood. There has to be a sustainability model across the board. Why fund so much in that part of the sector when there’s nowhere to go after that? There’s a lot of work that ends up nowhere. You have a lot of developmental programs for emerging writers where they write short plays, and then … it’s like the airport – you know when you are sitting on a plane where you are waiting for people, and they keep calling and calling names. You think, it’s an airport, where can people go? It’s like there’s a door that opens where these people get sucked out. It’s like that with plays, but there’s more plays sucked out than get on the plane. There are all of these plays that may have had a reading or half a life or a compromised independent production – that’s not taking anything away from the work that’s being done in the independent sector – but it’s often just a start.
And to repeat myself, many people in Australia aren’t particularly good readers of plays. It would be great for people to talk about what they do when they read a play. How do they see a play on the stage, and if they can’t see it on the stage, what do they do to imagine it on the stage? I think there are a number of writers out there whose work has been misunderstood as unstageable. The number of times that people have turned to me, and said, “it’s not going to work on the stage,” or “it’s a radio play.” I don’t think that’s true, but what can you say? I think there are probably a lot of other writers out there who have the same experience. If we don’t experiment with form, then we’ll just have the same play over and over again, and no one is going to want to see that. When people are experimenting, they need to be encouraged. We owe it to them to see whether it works on the stage.
I wish we did more site specific work. I wish we didn’t feel the need to produce a full length season where every theatre opens the same week, and it’s all based around getting subscribers. There must be models for other theatre companies.
But, as much as we complain about the lack of Australian work on stage, I think that there are still a lot of opportunities for writers to get work up. Audiences are really generous. We’ve got quite a lot of venues in Sydney. It pales in comparison to parts of Europe and even in the States, but it is quite a vibrant scene. There are some really exciting people working in Sydney. There’s a lot of inspiration to be found in the work that people are creating.
Which companies are you most excited by right now?
The work that Sydney Dance Company just did was extraordinary. There’s something that Rafael Bonachela, the Artistic Director is doing with the company, which is a balance of bringing in international artists, but still connecting with Sydney. People view the work as their company, it’s a Sydney company, Sydney Dance. Some people will say it’s very highbrow and expensive, and that might be true. There is a lot of grassroots work that is going on, in addition to Sydney Dance, that I think is really interesting, as well.
I feel constant disappointment with Sydney Theatre Company. I think that they are not Sydney Theatre Company. I think they are trying to be Sydney Festival or an international company, and if you are a Sydney artist, and you want to approach them about your work, it is very difficult. MTC, at least, are staging some Melbourne writers. All the other state theatre companies have some sort of loyalty to the people of their state. Maybe they have a different mandate, but I feel that if you are a local artist, and you want to negotiate with Sydney Theatre Company, it is difficult and frustrating.
There is exciting stuff going on at the other theatre companies. I think what Sam Strong is doing at Griffin is building audiences. The amount of people that are going through the doors at Griffin is drastically increased. I feel a sense of community from the people who work there. As an artist working there, you feel very welcome, and like you are a part of something important.
What is the residency in the States that you mentioned earlier?
I got an Australia Council literature residency to go to the States in 2012. It is five months next year to work in San Francisco. I am going to work on a brand new play about furries. I will also do an adaptation – or translation – I’m not sure what the right term is – of Silent Disco. I am going into schools in the Bay area to see if it is possible to do an adaptation into an American context. Silent Disco won an award over there earlier this year, so they brought me over for the reading and I made some good connections. I will also work with The Playwrights Foundation which operate by engaging writers in a different play development model which is more writer centered. I hope to bring what I learn back to Australia and influence some changes here.
We need to get better at is getting our work staged internationally, whether that is sending over an Australian play or adapting. There is no point trusting this task to the major theatre companies here. So I see this residency as an opportunity for me to make connections for Australian writers and to be an ambassador for Australian writers and their works.
That is going to be a lot of fun.
I’m not sure I’m going to want to come back!
What other projects or publications do you have coming up?
Silent Disco looks like touring further in 2012. I am hopeful the film will go ahead as well.
My play Truck Stop, developed with Katrina Douglas and Francesca Smith will premiere in Australia in 2012.
Colder is being translated into Spanish and I hope it will go to stage in Argentina in 2012.
I am currently developing a new script for atyp, which challenges assumptions about aging, which is based on the incredible story of the DJ Mammy Rock.
I am working on a television program with Jonothan Gavin and Declan Greene which is called Dungoona.
My play The Trouble With Harry, which was developed as part of the PlayWriting Australia National Script Workshop will be performed in the UK later this year. It’s a play about Sydney’s history but nobody here is interested in producing it.
I have a few other projects on the go, too. It all sounds quite busy!