An Australian expat in New York for the past several years, Alexandra Collier was introduced to me by a mutual friend who put us in touch for a well-timed coffee date while Alexandra visited Sydney for the Sydney Theatre Company reading of her play, Underland. After her return to the U.S., we coordinated international schedules to have this conversation about the influence expat life has on her artistic life, studying with Mac Wellman, and her upcoming collaborative show Off-Broadway at the Women’s Project.
I can write as many American characters as I like, I can write plays set in America, but my voice, my ear is Australian.
How long have you been living in the U.S.? What made you go there, in the first place?
I’ve been here six years in May. I moved here initially because I was training with the SITI Company. I did their six-week Saratoga training program upstate at Skidmore, so I came over to do that. I’d trained with them before in New York, and I just really loved New York. I had a really good time. I was basically an actor back then – ostensibly the SITI Company summer training in Skidmore is for actors, and directors and writers, but it’s more of an actor based training.
I packed up all my stuff in Australia, and I decided I was going to move to New York.
I didn’t properly say goodbye to people, I just said “See you later, I’ll be back, but don’t know when,” and hopefully it would work out. I was sort of naively optimistic about how it would be. I think that was a good thing, actually, because otherwise I would have never moved to New York, if I had known how much hard work it was going to be to set up a network and get visas and that sort of stuff.
I ended up staying, somehow, through trials and tribulations and good times and bad.
So, from training as an actor, when did you turn to playwriting?
I started writing when I was in Australia. When I was at Melbourne Uni, they had a really incredible theatre department there and the theatre department used to underwrite your shows, so my friends and I banded together and started a theatre company. We made shows together, so I was acting and I was writing. I was acting a lot, and I started to write stuff that I could perform in because I was noticing that, as an actor, you end up doing a lot of crappy roles, or you end up doing the bidding of other people, basically. So, I wrote this play called Still Waiting: It was set in a restaurant, and it was 3 characters – Madeline the waitress, a chef and another waiter. She had formed a love triangle between these two men and she wants to leave her job, and the same day keeps repeating itself over and over again so she can’t get out. I performed in that at La Mama in Melbourne. Prior to that, I sent it in for the RE ROSS Trust Playwrights Award and it was given $5000. I was one of the five winners that year, and I think it really legitimised what I was doing to a certain extent because before that I was really enjoying writing plays and had a lot of encouragement through my creative writing teachers at Melbourne University and Peta Murray, but then when I got this award, it gave me this kind of credibility in the sense that it was professional.
Those kind of awards can really change the way you feel about yourself as a playwright, especially an emerging playwright starting out. I’m indebted to that award, in that way.
I’m really indebted to my teachers. Teachers you rely on to tell you you’re good and to keep going, essentially.
Do you still perform?
No, I loved acting, but it’s a difficult profession, and I really didn’t have the patience to do work I wasn’t interested in. I also think it’s a terrifying profession, and it involves rejection in a way that is different to being a playwright, which also involves rejection, but you’re one step removed. You’re not that art. When you’re an actor, you are the piece of art – you’re everything.
I’d like to think if some illusionary role would come up that I would probably do it, but to be honest, I’m really not focusing on that in any way, and I don’t think I ever will.
I’d like to ask you about living overseas. Has that impacted you as a writer, either logistically in terms of language or in a more spiritual way?
That’s a really fantastic question, and it’s something that I think about all the time. Yes. Definitely, it has impacted me.
On a superficial level, there are colloquialisms that I’ve had to adjust. But, I think it’s a bigger shift than that: That only starts to open the can of worms, which is there’s something going on which I haven’t quite worked out yet, but it’s to do with the shift in geography. It interrupts your writing in a way that is simultaneously interesting and sometimes frustrating. Sometimes the interruption is the producer voice in your head saying, “this is not produceable on an American stage. Why are you writing an Australian character?”. Then sometimes the interruption is – you’re writing an American character, but you are an Australian, so you are searching around in this weird void trying to place the person and it’s really ephemeral. It’s hard to explain, but I think what I do often as a way to solve that (in my attempt to write plays that can be performed in America, that could be potentially American characters) is that I write plays that are set in other places. For instance Holy Day is about a couple traveling around the world. It’s almost like subconsciously I’m addressing this sense of dislocation by having two characters who are literally out of their usual comfort zone and are wrestling with a sense of alienation and culture shock. In a way, that play is the most amorphous because I think it could be read by Australian actors. I think it could be done by American actors. I think it could be probably any couple. There might be small shifts that would have to be made, but I think, in a way, it’s a legitimate play in that it’s universal, even though it’s got specific themes within it. You don’t want to write a play that’s so universal that it’s bland.
I am aware of the produceorial limitations of writing Australian plays here. Maybe I need to open my mind because, for instance, there’s a production company here that is producing my play Underland. They’re really excited about it. Americans have really loved that play, and it’s all Australian characters set in the desert in a small Australian town. But then other companies I’ve sent the play to have said, “Oh, we really like this play, but it’s so Australian and we produce American plays.” They don’t say American voices necessarily, they say “American plays,” so it means they like me and they would produce my work, but they want a play that somehow reflects whatever that means. You could debate forever what that means, and whether I could be arguably a legitimate American voice because I’ve lived here for six years, and I live in New York, and I write from here.
I think the other thing that happens is that you start to write American characters even if you don’t necessarily want to because you think you should, which comes back to the producer thing. There’s a play I’m working on at the moment called This Place Will Be My Salvation about an expat who moves to New York. There’s a cast of foreign characters – there’s a German character, there’s an Indian American character. Her parents act as voiceovers throughout, as well. It’s really about an expat experience, and I think that’s just me grappling and dealing with those same things. Setting it in New York makes it accessible to an audience here, in a way, but at the same time, I haven’t written in the stage directions – this is so weird because I don’t know why, on the first page of the character descriptions, I haven’t written ‘this character is Australian’ because I keep avoiding it. It’s this weird thing where I think, “Oh she could be British, maybe she could be this, maybe she could be that.” It’s total bullshit really, because there’s a part of me that’s avoiding the conundrum of Australian-ness in New York because nobody knows about Australia other than a few essential facts. In the US, nobody really has a rounded sense of what Australian culture is – there are very few cultural reference points that Americans and British people would refer to when they think of Australia, so there’s that sense of isolation, and that sense of ‘are we really wanted?’ which is a kind of Australian, self deprecating state of mind really.
And the other thing that’s happening is rhythm. I can write as many American characters as I like, I can write plays set in America, but my voice, my ear is Australian. I’m very Americanized in some ways – I can speak ‘American.’ I can say pavement instead of footpath and I can Americanize my accent if I’m in a cab, so that the driver knows where I’m going. But, I can’t fight against that voice. In a way, I don’t want to because I think, actually, that’s what people like about my writing. I think, essentially, why people respond to my work at all in New York is because there’s something about it that they like, and it’s probably because there’s some rhythmic thing in it. I think that’s true of every playwright whose work is responded to. Everyone has some sort of natural rhythm and voice. The best playwrights have a distinctive voice in some way, so I should be cultivating that, not fighting against it.
These are all the things I’m constantly dealing with. I’m writing a play at the moment for the Women’s Project that’s set in America – I mean it’s assumably set in America, we never even talked about setting it anywhere else. I’m writing these scenes and I’m thinking to myself, “hmm I wonder if this is Australian sounding?” There’s a little part of me that’s having that thought, and at the same time I think, ‘you know what? You can’t do anything about that.’ That will be maybe the wonderful disjunction between an American actor reading your words and what you’ve written on the page. Maybe that will create something new. That’s the hope – that you create something new by being an outsider – that you bring something quirky, and fresh and strange in a way that that opens up new possibilities. That’s the positive realm that I try and keep my mind in when I get too overwhelmed by this stuff.
It sounds like quite an artistic struggle to deal with.
It is, it is, but then I think that that’s probably what I’m interested in. That’s probably why I situated myself in another country. Because I find all this stuff fascinating, I put myself out of the comfort zone deliberately. I wanted to be able to wrestle with these things in my work and also in my daily life, with the sense of not quite belonging in a place. As a writer, that’s a typical state of being because a writer is always on the outside looking in. A writer observes, and there is no better way to observe than by forcing yourself outside of a culture. You can get sort of immune to it when you live in your own country. You fit in more, so you question less, perhaps, and the state of a writer is constantly questioning, observing, and not always taking things for granted. You can’t really take things for granted when you are not a citizen.
Since we share a grad school, I’d love to ask you about the playwriting program at Brooklyn College. What was the experience like, and will you tell me about anything particularly influential that you learned from Mac Wellman?
Brooklyn College’s MFA program has totally changed my life, and I say that without any sense of Oprah or sentiment. It’s just completely true for a number of reasons. For one, it instantly gave me a community of playwrights to be connected to, to work with, to be encouraged by, to have deadlines with. I made some really important friends through that program, and it really just plugged me into this theatre scene in New York that was happening, that I was really struggling to find my feet in, in some ways, because I was doing it all on my own. It’s made me an infinitely more happy person in New York, which is great.
I think community is everything. It’s really the most interesting thing I find about reading history. I’ve been reading a bit of history lately, so I was reading about Samuel Johnson: He was depressed, he was sick, he was poor his entire life, he was incredibly brilliant, but he suffered from terrible procrastination, like all writers, and yet the thing that got him through, or got him published, were his friends. I think that’s true of any profession – you just have to be plugged in with a group of people. You have to be connected to people, and you can’t do things on your own. You can’t actually be brilliant on your own, there’s no such thing as being brilliant on your own. You can be as brilliant as you like, but unless people are helping you, unless people are connected to you and you’re working with others, it doesn’t ever translate into the world. I always find that really fascinating, when you read about people who have been successful, and you think, “Who were there friends, and who were these people connected to?” People help each other in the world, people encourage each other. It’s so simple, but it’s so profound. So that is one huge element of it.
What have I learned from Mac? Many, many things, too innumerable to list. Probably the main things are: He really forces you to look at a play in a different way, he accepts plays for what they are, so he takes the play on its own terms and tries to figure it out. He’s not trying to change it or fix it, necessarily. He really teaches you to do that, which is a very difficult task and most people don’t approach plays like that. Most people approach plays thinking, “Let’s fix this.” I’m not saying he never comes in with his opinion and says, “you should do this.” He does. He breaks his own rules all the time, but he teaches you to evaluate plays on their own terms, so you look at the strange creature that the play is, and you find your own language for talking about it, your own individual language.
Every workshop we read one person’s play aloud. Then, everyone has to go around the room and give feedback by themselves. It’s not a conversation, and you really have to find a way to talk about how you understood the play. It’s almost impossible to describe how to do that because it’s almost impossible to do it, in some ways. But, it’s a very liberating thing. It’s not that there’s no judgment, but you immediately assume the thing is of value, you immediately assume the thing is idiosyncratic to the person who wrote it, and having those two assumptions is very liberating. I also learned to give less feedback, to say less things because you realize, as a person who’s getting feedback, that you can get totally overwhelmed with too much, so to be kind to the playwright, and to be egoless yourself by not talking for twenty minutes because you want to hear the sound of your own voice and sound intelligent, which we all do in the room. You need to just say a couple of things, and Mac’s really big on that.
Also, the ideas of structure are not things he adheres to in traditional ways at all, so he doesn’t want you to be thinking about mundane questions like, “Does this make sense? Why does this character do this to that character?” He firmly believes that people are contradictory, plays can be weird things, and that there are other universes that you create. He often says this whole thing about “possible worlds,” that any world you can think up exists. I think if you negotiate a play in that way, and you just look at the thing as though it has value and worth before you even pull it to pieces and examine it, that’s a good way to approach things. He’s very encouraging in that sense. He’s been really supportive and encouraging of me and believed in my work. He treats everyone as though they’re a name. He has this thing about naming people – he goes around the room and he always says your name. He’ll have some silly nickname for you, but there’s no touchy feely element to it. He just confers this sense of professionalism upon you – that you wrote this play, wrote it for a reason, and then let’s talk about how I understand what you wrote. “This is what I’m seeing,” that’s all he’s really saying. Not, “Do this,” but ‘This is what I’m seeing,’ which is very hard to do.
I can’t really speak highly enough of Mac because I think he is really a genius, and his mind works in wonderful, and quirky, and strange ways that are sometimes impossible to follow; but, he would say something fascinating every class about someone’s work, and you’ll always be scribbling it down hurriedly – ‘Oh that makes so much sense,” because the statements have a sort of universal truth to them that you can apply to your own work. In that way, you really get something out of every workshop with him.
Will you tell me, also, about the Women’s Project Lab? What’s is that experience like? Is there anything important about the fact that it’s women, or is that tangential?
The experience has been fantastic. It’s really opened up so many career possibilities for me in New York. It’s given me amazing mentors like Megan (Carter) and Julie (Crosby). And again, it’s plugging me into this community of people. Out of this experience, I got an agent and my plays have been read by more people. I’ve learned professional skills, how to pitch myself in ways I didn’t know how to do before. So, I think the lab is really invaluable.
As for whether it’s important that’s it women, I think the Women’s Project consciously is fighting against being pigeonholed as a theatre company that deals with women’s issues because they don’t. I think they have an interest in plays that are incredibly diverse, and the thing that unifies them is that they happen to be written by women. It’s called the Women’s Project and that name in some ways has limited the way other people have thought about the company, which perhaps says more about people, and more about gender stereotypes than it does about the Women’s Project.
But as for whether it’s important that it’s all women – being in a lab in a room full of women, communicating with a room full of women, is different. I can’t deny it. It’s different than sitting in a room that’s mixed gender or a room that’s more men. It is different because, although I don’t think you can make reductionist statements about gender, there is a lot of communicating that goes on about communicating. We’re more considered in the way we communicate, which can be a blessing and a curse. We’re more in tune with, perhaps, how our thoughts and feelings are received, and how other people are feeling. Someone’s going to stick me in the eye for saying all this, but that has definitely come into play in this process when we’ve been making this show. We’ve all noticed this – sometimes it drives us nuts -”Do we have to communicate about everything because we’re a bunch of women in a room?” And then other times, it’s appreciated because we understand each other.
I think there are a lot of challenges in making a group show, and one of them is that you have to work out what your common language is, and we’ve done that.
Do you stay connected to the Australian theatre scene?
To a certain extent, I try to. I was just, as you know, in Australia doing a workshop of my play with Sydney Theatre Company in their Rough Draft Program. I would love to keep working in Australia. The difficulty is that I’m not there, but if I could have a foot in both worlds, that would be great.
One thing that a lot of Australian playwrights I’ve talked to who have gone to the States for any period of time talk about is their shock at the “development hell,” and how a playwright can have reading after reading and then never get produced. Is that something that you’ve experienced?
I don’t know if I can parallel that with Australia because I was working with a group of people who were very DIY, putting up shows, so maybe if I’d stayed in Australia ten years into my career, I’d be better placed to talk about what the comparison was. But in terms of having that experience here, I think that is true to some extent. It can be really enjoyable to develop your plays. It can be fun to hear them read aloud. It can be useful, but it is funny because I have been living here for six years, and I’ve had maybe three productions, and with all of those I’ve been involved. One of them was produced by The Production Company, so I didn’t have to do a lot other than be the writer – they commissioned me. One of them was The Weasel Project which is sort of through Brooklyn College. The model for that is one year you produce, and the next year you’re produced, so there’s been a self production element to everything I’ve done. Or, there’s been a down and dirty, being involved element. I think it is a struggle to get out of that.
Certainly, there is a play I worked on for years called Deathless, which has never seen a production but has been shortlisted for numerous things. It’s always been well received, it’s had some readings, it’s had some development, but after awhile, I just got exhausted with it, with rewriting it. The more I rewrote it, the worse it started to get. It just became over-considered, and I think that’s the danger – knowing when to stop. You get this opportunity, someone says, “Do you want to come to this conference?’ and you think, ‘Sure I would love to do that,’ but is that really what the play needs at that point? That’s something you really have to evaluate.
There are some plays where people have offered me those opportunities – of course I’m don’t want to say no because they’re a stepping stone. I guess the way I solve this is that I try to only apply for things with plays I really think need work, because I don’t want to overwrite. I think that’s a huge danger. Unfortunately, sometimes you have to take one step back to take one step forward. So, you get into some sort of prestigious conference, then it might be with a play that’s more developed – I mean that’s not been my experience because I haven’t gone to the O’Neill or any of those kinds of places, yet – but I do wonder about that. How developed are these plays that playwrights like us are sending as so-called “plays to be developed.” I guess you have to play the game to a certain extent in order to be noticed by people.
I don’t know if I have the answer to that. I have very mixed feeling about the development hell, because I know people complain about it all the time, but I feel very grateful for the opportunities I’ve had. But, I’m also desperate for a production. Every playwright just wants to see their work on stage because you can’t become a better playwright until you see your work performed, but there’s no way you get better until you get something staged. A reading is not a play. I definitely feel strongly about that.
And, it sounds like all that development work that happens in the States is really antithetical to what you’ve been working on in your grad program, in terms of just accepting the play as it is.
Right. I do have that dramaturgical issue with it, which is that I don’t always agree with “fixing things.”
What are you working on that you have coming up?
I’m in the throes of working on the Women’s Project show, We Play For the Gods, and I think it’s going to be great. It’s been a lot of hard work and I think it’s really going to come together. That’s going to be on in June at the Cherry Lane.