Tom Holloway’s deceptively simple family drama Red Sky Morning captured my imagination unlike any play I’d read in ages. One of the most frequently produced playwrights in Australia today, I find Holloway’s work tends towards the provocative, often poking into dark crevices of human nature. He recently workshopped a new play, Faces Look Ugly, at Playwriting Australia’s National Play Festival, and we found a quiet corner in the midst of the busy Malthouse Theatre lobby to talk about his work, influences and process.
“If we don’t get a true understanding of something that’s dark, perhaps we can’t help, or do our best to prevent it happening more. Theatre is a safe place for that, and that’s something that I think is important for us to do, generally.”
Will you tell me a bit about your origins as a playwright? Were you involved in theatre before you started writing, or were you a writer who got into theatre?
I was born and grew up in Hobart in Tasmania, and I did a lot of theatre all the way through school. I always loved it, loved the story telling and the pretending.
Were you acting?
Yes. When I left school, I thought that I wanted to be an actor, before I realised that I was not very good at it. I also studied composition for a year at the conservatorium in Tasmania, and apart from not being very good at that, I also kept getting told I was trying too hard to tell stories through the music that I was writing. In the mid-nineties in Hobart, the one professional theatre company had gone bust. So apart from touring shows, there was no professional theatre to see. But there were venues – empty venues – and there’s a huge amount of amateur theatre in Tasmania. So, because there were empty venues and these amateur companies, there were lots of opportunities to be doing things on stage.
I’d always liked writing, and had written something for myself: I was obsessed with Sam Shepard as a teenager, so the first thing that I wrote was in American accents about crazy people in the middle of nowhere. A friend had wanted to do a kind of season of short works at one of these theatres, so I gave her that. That went on, and that just lead to another thing, which lead to another thing, which lead to another thing, and suddenly I found myself being a playwright.
It’s interesting that you loved Sam Shepard because it seems to me that he’s almost a cousin to that Tasmanian Gothic feeling. Do you think that your sense of place, coming from Tasmania, drew you to that kind of aesthetic?
I got introduced to Sam Shepard by a Drama teacher I had at school called Bill Johnstone who was from New York. If you were into Drama, he was a brilliant drama teacher – if you were not into theatre, he was a loon. He brought some Sam Shepard in one day for us to do and the first stuff that I got introduced to was not so much the crazy landscape stuff as the wild sixties and seventies playing with language kind of stuff. I just found it so cool. He was like a rock star.
From that, I read more, and there was definitely that thing about his work which is very Australian, about people being lost in this immense landscape. In Tasmania, the landscape is very different; whereas in some of Shepard’s plays, and in the rest of Australia, there’s nowhere to hide, in Tasmania there’s nowhere to get out. You’re just surrounded by dense, impenetrable landscapes. It was the opposite end of Sam Shepard, but there’s similarity and “simpatico,” to quote a Sam Shepard play.
The architecture of your work on the page is quite striking and unique to you. Would you talk about the idea of the architecture of your words on the page?
I got exposed to different ways of putting things on the page through reading the plays of Sarah Kane and Caryl Churchill, and people like that. I studied at the Royal Court, and we were having to read a lot of things while there, and I found it really interesting. When you read things, you don’t realise that so much of what you read is actually the publisher deciding how it looks on the page, not the playwright, so then when you see something that is clearly the playwright, you suddenly realise that this is another form of communication you have. You have the words and how the words look on the page. That’s something that I really try to explore.
I often think of a play script as being more like a manuscript than a novel – though there’s many novels that play a huge amount with form – but a manuscript, as with a music score, is for musicians to interpret for an audience, like a play script. The things that I put on the page are hopefully offers to actors and directors and designer to see how they will interpret that and take it further. So, it’s something I think about a great deal.
It’s often made up of things that I’ve stolen from other playwrights that I really love, like, there’s something I often do where I have a character’s name and no words after it, which I took from Suzan-Lori Parks. It just seems so much more of an active way to have a silence. There are things from David Harrower that I’ve “stolen,” as well, which I’ve kind of made my own because they’ve meant something to me and seemed like good ways to communicate.
Your play Love Me Tender is quite an invitation to directors and actors, as it has no assigned roles. Was that written in collaboration, or something you gave to the first cast and the first director and said “go with this”?
That work came from another work that I’d done called Don’t Say The Words at Griffin. Nick Marchand had put Matthew Lutton and I together on that. I didn’t know Matt before that, but it was instantly quite a positive working relationship. I just loved how free he was with how he interpreted my play and so, Griffin then commissioned Love Me Tender.
One of the things I love about theatre is that it takes a whole group of people to make a work live, so I like looking for opportunities to give other artists the space to do that with my scripts, and Love Me Tender was a bit of an experiment. It was also in response to some works like Attempts On Her Life by Martin Crimp, and some Caryl Churchill, and some post-dramatic script writing, especially non-narrative script writing. I was interested in embedding a backbone of a sense of narrative while trying to capture some of what I really loved about those works, the liberty of them. In terms of not saying who says what, or how many in the cast, it was big offers.
The play’s only had one production, though, so it would be fascinating to see another one to see if it really does stand up for that, or if any examination always ends up being that the same choices are made.
That would be an interesting science experiment.
Yes, exactly. I’ll just have to wait and see.
To go back to your coming up as a playwright – how important was it to you to study playwriting formally to you in terms of your growth? Do you think is important for playwrights to study formally?
Studying was really important to me, but my main my studies as a playwright were all very part time. I did a course at NIDA, but at that stage the NIDA playwriting course was one night a week for six months. Then going to the Royal Court was two lots of ten weeks, one night a week, again.
The thing that I really got from both of those courses was their links to theatre. The NIDA one was a place where there were actors and designers and directors, and I was seeing the things that they were putting on. And the Royal Court – I mean, it’s the Royal Court. And so, for me as a playwright, getting exposed to theatre is really important.
I do wonder if there are a few too many academic courses that are a little bit too far removed from the practical process of making theatre and the playwright. It’s really important for a playwright to know this stuff because we don’t get to spend a lot of time in the practical places putting on a play, but we need to know what’s involved in it. Those part-time courses were great for that. And at the Royal Court, it’s just the inspiration of being at The Royal Court, being on the other side of the world, and the things you get to see.
The other way that has been really important for me to learn, and continues to be, is reading scripts. Like you said about the form – the stuff I do on the page – you get to see how other writers put things on the page, when it’s not the publisher doing it, and you get the chance to really examine language and interrogate it in a different way to seeing a play. They’re both important to me.
Do you ask your friends to send you their scripts?
Yeah, I try to reading everything that I can get my hands on, and also I’m also quite a slut with my own plays. I like getting a lot of people to read them to get feedback from them.
Do you consider your process collaborative? How much collaboration do you like to have? Do you have some people who you particularly trust, that you have to give your play to get their feedback?
I’ve got a few wonderful working relationships that I’ve gotten to develop, which I’m very, very lucky to have. It’s really great to find another person you feel you share an understanding of the process with. I’ve got a couple of those, which is really wonderful. There’s also a lot of very generous people in theatre that I will send scripts to and they will read because they’re generous people that give up their time to read my plays on my demand, which is wonderful. So there are people like that that I will send things to. And, different people for different projects, as well, to get difference of opinion.
It’s really important for me to get other people’s feedback. I find a big part of my process is being pushed to talk about things. I think I have quite a lazy gene, a very powerful lazy gene, so having other people force me to work harder, whether it’s simply to articulate something better or to put more hours in work, is really good.
The work of yours that I’ve read is quite psychological and tends to be on the dark side. Is that something you’ve had to develop within yourself as a writer to really go to these really dark, intimate places, or does that come naturally?
I’m not sure. My first full length play was Beyond the Neck, which came from interviews from survivors and other people affected by the Port Arthur Massacre, which was I guess quite dark – or, I prefer to think of it as quite sensitive subject matter. I was very naive getting into that, but it had such a profound impact on me as a person, and as a writer: Getting exposed to the stories and the generosity of people who shared those stories, but also the power that the physical space of a theatre has at dealing with difficult subject matter, because you’re safe. You’re with other people. Other people are telling the story, so the weight is being shared.
I don’t think all theatre should be about dark stuff. It’s just as wonderful to get to see some kind of wonderful, flippant comedy that has us laughing with tears as it is to have us crying tears. The theatre can do that, and it can do it so well; so I think that really lead me to do that kind of stuff. Also, I think, it’s important for us to explore the darker sides of what we do, to get a better understanding of who we are as people, as a society, and as a community. Again, it’s not all we should do, but it can be very easy to shy away from it, and not get a true understanding of something. If we don’t get a true understanding of something that’s dark, perhaps we can’t help, or do our best to prevent it happening more. Theatre is a safe place for that, and that’s something that I think is important for us to do, generally.
That all sounds a bit lofty and nice. I also want to say that I like fart jokes.
We are having this discussion at a new play festival, and you’re probably exhausted from working on your play, which is being presented; so, do you like the development process? What is your ideal process of development, if you have one?
I love the development process. I think it’s integral for a playwright to get to hear a script. You don’t really know what you’ve written until it’s up in front of an audience. Hearing it gives you some very big clues. It’s very different to hear a script than to read it, so that’s really important.
Also, like I said, I feel like it’s an important part of my process of writing to be pushed. Having other people in the room giving up their time, and skill and knowledge makes you do that. Also, as I said, people in theatre can be incredibly generous, and actors will come up with something about a character you’re writing that you never would have thought of because they’re actors and they take on character. Dramaturgs are fantastic at being able to almost see what you’re trying to do before you know what you’re trying to do, and so there’s a lot of ideas that you can then steal and claim as your own.
Scripts can get lost in a development process, if that’s all they ever get, but an ideal world – a play of mine Red Sky Morning was a dream project. I got to work with Sam Strong, another of those people I have a great working relationship with. It was perfect. I had a first draft of something I gave to Sam when he was at Red Stitch. Red Stitch got three of their ensemble members on board because it was a three-hander. We then had 18 months of work, me getting to work one on one with Sam, and going back to the same actors at different times, then to have a few more days work on the script. They were heavily involved in the creation of those characters because they’re making these generous offers and they’re developing with them. We applied for different types of money hoping we’d get some, and were very lucky to get a number of them, so we were really well resourced. Then, Red Stitch took it through to production with the same actors, so I got this work where I got one on one, periods of one on one feedback, periods of getting it in the room and developed, and then got to see it hit the stage. That production had lives for two years, it toured the country, and for me it was an example of what happens when you manage to get the resources and you have a good working relationship with people. You can create some pretty special work.
Do you think there’s such a thing as an Australian aesthetic or character in theatre?
I think we’re going through a bit of a wonderful – I don’t want to say “renaissance” because that feels like it’s reflecting back – but there’s something going on in Australian theatre at the moment which we haven’t had happen for a long time. There’s been a lot of handing over of the guard, creatively, so maybe what is an Australian play or what is an Australian voice is in a bit of flux again.
We’ve just sat through readings of some Scottish plays, and the Scottish writers were talking about how they were amazed at how quickly the actors just jumped in to doing these plays: I think there can be a fearlessness within Australian theatre, which maybe comes from our lack of history, in some ways. We’ve got nothing to be weighed down by – there’s problems with that – but because we’ve got no thick thing to be weighed down by, we’re willing to try anything. The con of that is perhaps that because we don’t have this weight of history behind us, we don’t know what we’re really saying, or responding to in each of those works, so things can get lost very easily. But, I think there’s a lot of generosity and a lot of courage within the industry, within people being willing to try stuff, which is fantastic.
Do you have things that you wish we could aspire to or do better in Australian theatre? And, conversely, what do you think Australian theatre does really well?
Well first of all, I think we do a lot of things a lot better than what we give ourselves credit for. Speaking as an Australian playwright, I think there are actually quite a lot of new plays that reach the stage at every level, from the state theatre companies through to the small and medium. There is a lot of opportunity. At the very least, you can find a venue for a fringe show and put it on yourself. When I’m overseas, I go to lots of things, and I’m often surprised – it often makes me feel better about the work we do here. There is something very interesting about Australian work, and very different to what I see overseas.
What could we do better? I don’t know. Resources; but then, you work with the resources you have. If you have a lot of resources, you have a responsibility to do the best with them, Sebastian Born has been talking about The National in London here a lot – he says they’re very well resourced, which means that they have that huge responsibility to do excellent work, and I think that’s very true. But, you know, maybe it’s our job to find those resources, as opposed to just saying “bring them to us.” We’ve got to find them.
We’ve such a dispersed population geographically, such a relatively small population in comparison to our geographic size. That brings lots of limitations and maybe we don’t quite find the ways to think of that as a strength, yet. I don’t know what it is, but is there a way that we can use that more as a strength to develop a different kind of work? And can we find a way to be more comfortable about the city/country divide? Maybe it’s because I come from a regional capital city which is a bit of an oxymoron: the city I was in was a capital city, as well as small town surrounded by the country. The mountains literally surround Hobart. So maybe that’s something we could do more – better dialogue, and finding out the kind of work that could thrive between those areas.
What projects do you have coming up that you’d like to mention?
Red Stitch is about to do Beyond the Neck from mid-March. For me, it’s an incredibly personal play. I tear up just thinking about it. The fact that this work is getting to be seen by Victorians is really important to me. Victoria had the highest proportion of victims from the Port Arthur Massacre, and there are things here like the Allanah and Madeline Foundation, which is a children’s charity that is named after two of the victims of the massacre. And, Red Stitch is an amazing company, so come and see the play.