Some time ago, an American colleague dropped me a line to suggest that I get to know Ross Mueller and his plays. Reading his work, I was struck by the lyricism of his words and the diversity of form from one piece to another. Newly installed as the Artistic Director at Geelong’s Courthouse ARTS, the jovial and insightful Mueller etched out some time in his schedule to talk with me about a range of topics, including his process, his experience with overseas residencies, and how being an Artistic Director is impacting his work as a writer.
“When (audiences) are coming to a new work, it is important to give them something they haven’t expected, and that they are treated with respect.”
I read four of your plays; Zebra!, A Beautiful Gesture, Construction of the Human Heart, and, Concussion, and was struck by how stylistically different each one was. Can you tell me a bit about your process? Where do you start? And how do you find your way to the form?
When I approach a new work, I’m looking at story first. I come to find my way to the form through the content.
I feel that in theatre we have the opportunity to play with form more than you do in some other mediums. It’s about a community experience of taking an audience on a journey into a different world. If you can provide a different delivery mechanism or vehicle to get there, that’s sometimes a more interesting way of approaching the drama.
What’s your impetus when you start, then? Do you start with an idea or an image? Or something else?
I think I start with the story first. But, how do you get to the story first is the hard part of the question. It’s a cliché, but each one is different.
When I wrote Zebra!, for instance, I was in a bar in Manhattan, and I was talking to a couple of guys. One of them ended up revealing his darkest secrets to me for no particular reason. I don’t know why he did. It was one of those moments when the rest of the world seemed to drop out of focus and you realized that you were being told this for a reason. I was at the New Dramatists residency. I went back to the residence, and it was snowing all weekend. I just stayed in and wrote and wrote all weekend. At the end of three days, I felt like I had a play.
From that play, I have gone back and re-written it as an outline, and re-written it as a story, and thrown away characters, and brought characters back in. I wouldn’t call it redrafting, but more like re-landscaping. But ultimately, there are bits and pieces from that first exchange, like a couple of monologues that are central to the drama in the play. I’m sure I’ll redraft Zebra! again, but it is never going to lose those starting points. With a play like that, it was definitely a personal interchange. It was the urgency. In all cases, it needs to be a red light that goes off that says, “this is really important,” whether it is a personal thing or a global thing, or a socio-economic thing. It changes each time.
At what point in that process did you know that Zebra! was going to be one continuous scene in real time?
Relatively early on, I think. The first act was all real time, and then there was an interval and we skipped a couple of hours and went to a new location. Then, there was a third scene that was back into the original location. So, even on the first pass at it, I realized that it had to be concentrated and targeted on the time and place.
It was originally called Two Men in the Night, and I wanted it to be about these two guys in one place on that night.
It was probably twelve months later, that I realized that it had to be the one scene. I battled with that. At one point I think there were seven characters and it was set in a hotel. It’s been chiseled away. You’ve got a big piece of granite and you try to shape it into something with a sharp point.
On that note, I also noticed that, in your plays, you seem to tend to hold off on revealing important information about the story. Is a sense of mystery important to your work?
In film, formula becomes much more permanent in the development in the work. When the producer’s return is dependent upon the audience understanding, you have to work within the formula a lot more.
I think people come to the theatre for a different reason. When they are coming to see something written by Arthur Miller, or Shakespeare, or one of the great writers from a long time ago, they already know what the story is, anyway. But, when they are coming to a new work, it is important to give them something they haven’t expected, and that they are treated with respect.
When you are in the audience, you want to use your imagination. But, at a certain point you do want things to be crystallized.
When I was writing Construction of the Human Heart, I was very aware of where it was going to be performed. It was an intimate theatre space where the people who go there go every week. There was no point in writing something that was going to be even remotely something they had seen before. But, when I was writing Zebra!, I knew that I was writing for a mainstage subscriber audience. They are different contracts.
People come for different reasons, don’t they? I keep reminding my students that audiences come to a play with a variety of experiences and knowledge about the world, but also about the play. One of the most salient experiences I had was sitting in the audience for Concussion one night, and the lights were coming down for the opening scene. 99% of the audience was seated, but a few people raced in and sat down behind me, and one of them said, “what is this about?” The other one said, “I don’t know, but there is a lot of sex and swearing.” So, that’s it – you have to give some kind of space for people to get into the experience, and even just get their car keys organized!
Do you write with specific actors in mind?
Yes, all the time. I am at a point in my career where those dream ideas are becoming reality, which is great. As a younger writer, when I wrote Construction of the Human Heart, I wrote it for those actors, and that was great. As a musician, you’re writing a part; the sax part or the drum part, and you end up doing the same thing in the theatre. You write parts for people and recognize their strengths, and want to extend them and provide opportunities in those roles. I find that a natural part of the process. But, I’m sure a lot of writers disagree.
When you see someone’s work that you really like, it is important to send them an email or find out their phone number and let them know. I think in Australia, we can be a little bit ungenerous with our praise for each other, especially across the field. If you really like somebody’s stuff, and you feel like you’d like to work with them, put it out there. Everyone is looking for work!
Tell me a bit about your background – what was your journey to becoming a playwright?
I was involved in theatre when I was a kid, and I always enjoyed it. I don’t know why I enjoyed it because I didn’t enjoy being on stage. I think I enjoyed the people I was with. And, I was engaged with the mechanics of it. I liked knowing what was going on backstage; that didn’t get in the way of my enjoyment.
When I went to University, I was heavily involved in bands and the music scene. I was always in original bands. I played in a lot of cover bands to make money, but the fun was always in writing new stuff. One thing led to another and I connected the dots between writing a song and writing a script. I ended up writing a short play, and a mate of mine who was doing a theatre studies course at a different university got it produced. I was so proud of that experience. And, I learned about the making process, and the idea that “I can do better than that.” If that play hadn’t been produced, I probably wouldn’t be doing this. There was someone who had faith in its ability to stand up, and I wanted to do it again.
Does your music background impact the kind of writer that you are?
I think so. I am quite aware of it in the way I work. I am always fed back from actors that my writing is rhythmic. I used to think that was accidental, but now I am quite aware that that is the way that I like to communicate. You can do that in a piece of theatre in a way that you can’t in a piece of television or film. The rhythms and arcs and movements with words are possible. Music has a huge impact on the way I view the world.
You are newly the Artistic Director of Courthouse ARTS. How are you finding the challenge of being an AD? It’s early still, but do you think that being on that side of the desk will impact you as a writer?
Good question. I did a residency at New Dramatists in New York. When I was there, I felt like I was part of a real organization that is focused on new writing, and not just putting shows together. It was a nurturing environment. Because you live there, you are seeing the inside of the organization and how people work. You are there when people are arriving for work and are part of the community. I felt that was the thing we were missing, not just in my life, but in the life of a lot of writers in this country. It struck a chord with me because it can be very isolating when you are working independently.
When I returned to Australia, I looked for opportunities to become part of an arts organization. I worked in the city council Arts and Culture department as a project officer. Then, this position as Artistic Director came up. I see it as a natural progression in what I’m trying to do in my career.
I think it can be a great balance because, as artists we can sometimes get too focused on what our role is in making the work, and forgetting that there is a company structure, which is sustaining the ten or twelve productions that are going on in the company, not just the one that you are working on. It is part of being part of a community and growing your responsibility to the work that is being produced.
It gives you a sense of the larger arts community?
I think it does, but also as a writer, it helps me grow because I get the chance to play with designers, and composers, and choreographers, who I wouldn’t normally get to work with. In my role as AD, I’ve constructed a series of Associate Artists for Courthouse ARTS. One is a designer, one is a choreographer, and one is a digital artist. If I was just a playwright working by myself, it would be a lot harder to come into contact with those inspirational people. Being with these artists on a daily basis changes the way that I look at my own work. That artistic conversation is really healthy. It creates new starting points for plays. It opens up the idea that it doesn’t have to start with the script, where I think that five years ago, I would have said that it did.
As a playwright, what is your wish list for Australian theatres? And what are they doing right?
My wish would be to give every new play that gets produced more than one season. In Australia, they tend to produce something and then say “we can’t produce it again.” If it was produced in Sydney, then they say, “we can’t produce it in Melbourne because we want something new.” I don’t think that’s how you make good work. The life of a play in the Northern Hemisphere is such that a play has more of a gypsy existence, going from one theatre to another. It might start on a university campus and then be produced into Off-Broadway or Chicago. In Australia, we do that in reverse. If there’s a successful new Australian play on the Mainstage, if it’s lucky it might tour to Albury or somewhere.
It seems to me that we would be making a far more sophisticated library of national work if we approached it with a more sophisticated understanding of what we are trying to do. In the American model, because there is essentially no government funding for new work, and it is almost all private or philanthropic donations, there seems to be a much more savvy understanding that we are trying to make something good here that is going to be able to make us some money year after year, rather than just filling a hole on a subscription brochure, which may fulfill a funding body requirement.
Companies should have a greater conversation between each other and recognize that new work doesn’t end on opening night. That’s just a step in the process.
From what I can see in Sydney, there seems to be a lot more commitment to the craft. If you look at what’s going on at Griffin with Sam Strong and at STC with Polly Rowe, they know how to read plays, and they know that writers need to be developed by being produced. The experience that Lachlan Philpott had with Silent Disco is a great example of an imaginative collaboration between two companies to develop new Australian work. That it was between ATYP and Griffin makes so much sense to me. They were saying, not only are we developing a writer, but we are developing an audience for that writer. That’s not happening in Melbourne. I don’t know how you are going to fix the problem with new work that some Melbourne companies seem to perceive they have if you are not going to be developing an audience for new work, as well.
When Playbox was around, they were a small to medium sized company that produced eight new Australian plays a year. Those plays, be they good or bad, were put on so that people would pay half of what people paid for a ticket to see an MTC show, so they were developing an audience for this work. Those writers would then become the Hannie Raysons and Joanna Murray-Smiths who went on to the mainstages.
It’s a complex history and a complex narrative:Melbourne has always been the capital of new writing, but I think it stalled with the Baby Boomers. Sydney, under the guidance of Cate and Andrew at STC, seem to have opened their doors to risk, and audiences are engaged by that.
But, STC still is doing a lot more international work than some of the writers I’ve spoken to are comfortable with.
Yes, but there is also Griffin and Belvoir, and ATYP with FreshInk. Playwriting Australia is right there in Redfern. There are a lot of different avenues to develop work in that city, more than exist in Melbourne. If you want to win a prize, there is the Patrick White and the Griffin Award. If Melbourne is the capital of new writing, why doesn’t MTC offer a prize?
How do you find the state of development? Do you find development opportunities?
It’s pretty haphazard. The development opportunities I’ve had, I always welcome, but there seems to be a disconnect between the concept of development and production. I think what PlayWriting Australia is trying to do is, in some ways, working. In some ways it is an ideal model. But, the companies they are pitching the work to I don’t think are embracing it as the ideal model. A lot of development ends up happening in a vacuum. I’ve done a lot of great development, but unless it is leading to a company that is going to produce it, is it still a great development?
You can develop a play to a reading, and the reading is great, but it is really hard to take something that was a good reading and turn it into an equally good production because there is an expectation that it needs to change or “get better.” So often I have been to a reading and walked away thinking if that was the production, I would have been quite happy.
How do you solve the problems? Have a company invest more than emotionally, but financially, in the work. You know that, no matter what the reading looks like, it is still going to be produced next year. Then, you will get a lot more out of that reading.
You’ve had a couple of significant overseas residencies with New Dramatists and The Royal Court. How did those experiences of being in residence with international companies enlighten or impact you?
They were both essential to making me the writer and person I am. I look back on it now, and I was really fortunate. I can’t believe how lucky I was because there are so few opportunities like that.
The Royal Court happened at a time in my life when I was pretty sure that I was going to give up. I was on the plane going over, feeling like maybe they should have given it to someone else. I got half way across and realized that I was the one on the plane, and I’d better make the most of it because someone else was going to miss out because they didn’t get the chance. I embraced it, and it was the right choice all the way through. The opportunity to live and work there regenerated me as a creative person and enlightened me to the possibilities of what being a playwright could be. Getting to work with David Hare, Patrick Marber, Caryl Churchill – you are in the room with them for half a day and it changes your life because they are the reasons I wanted to be a writer. I realized those chances don’t come along again.
It was the same thing with New Dramatists. That was a different time in my life and a different level of experience as a writer. The irony was that I was still going over there thinking that I needed to give it up and get a real job. When I was in New York, I was aware that I wasn’t going to have the opportunity to work with a lot of different writers, but I was going to have the opportunity to be the writer that I am in that city. I knew that what I wrote over there had to make some money for me when I got back home. I was lucky.
What projects are you working on now?
I am under commission for Sydney Theatre Company right now, and am writing a play called 140 Characters.
140 Characters? Is it about Twitter?
It’s about the different faces we wear for different people in our lives. One person can be a completely different character for their lover, or wife, or friends. Twitter and social media have highlighted that fact. What your Facebook page is is completely different to who you are in the office. Or, what your anonymous Twitter account is about can be completely different to who you are on Facebook. I love the concept of condensation of communication – that whatever we communicate has to be less than 140 characters.
A mate of mine asked if each sentence of dialogue is going to be 140 characters or less. I think that will probably be taking it one step too far!