Kitchen table interview: Daniel Keene ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Kitchen table interview: Daniel Keene

For the first time I can remember, Daniel Keene has two productions on at once in his home town. One, the comedy Life Without Me, opened last month at the Melbourne Theatre Company to enthusiastic reviews and sell-out audiences as part of the Melbourne Festival. The other, the delicate generational drama The Nightwatchman, opens later this month at Theatre Works in St Kilda as an independent production.

Since he lives in the same house as I do, I sneakily exploited our proximity to ask him some questions.

And, eventually, he answered them.

AC: To Elizabethans, says the critic Jan Kott, the world was the stage and the stage was the world. What world is your stage? What does it become in the hands of others?

DK: The stage is a frame. I like the frame to be simple and unornamented.

To put it a different way: the stage is a metaphor. It doesn’t need any other metaphors added to it.

The theatre is a pragmatic art. When I write a play, the action of the play has to happen somewhere. In a room? On a street corner? Both? I make fundamental delineations.

When I imagine a play, I imagine a bare stage, a source of light, an actor. Depending on the content of the play, I might call what I imagine ‘the lobby of a hotel’ or ‘the kitchen of a suburban house’ or ‘a building site’. In other words, I locate my actor standing lit on a bare stage in the world outside of the theatre. I am suggesting a simple recognition, nothing more or less. Once that recognition has occurred, we can all get on with the play. In other words, we can ask ‘what will happen?’

I write plays for the hands of others; the hands that make them and the hands that applaud (or don't applaud) them. A play is a casting off.

When we speak of poetry in the theatre, what do we mean? You read a lot of poetry, and sometimes write it yourself. What is the difference between a poem and a work for the theatre?

In a very, very basic way, a poem and a work for the theatre share a need for rhythm: the striking arrival of the next line, the feeling of inevitability when the line ends (an inevitability that is created by the line itself).

Perhaps it’s simply that I think every line in a play deserves the same attention as every line in a poem.

Is writing plays another kind of thinking?

Yes. It’s a very delicate, very crude way of thinking.

Who are the writers who matter most to you?

I keep discovering them. But there is no ‘most’.

What do you seek to make? Do you want anything? Do you simply arrive with empty hands?

I don't seek to make anything in particular. When I begin to write a play I never know what I’m going to make. I sometimes surprise myself and actually write a play. I abandon more plays than I finish. I sometimes have, as Beckett once said, 'the itch to make but nothing to say'. I think it's a kind of pathology. I don't understand it and have avoided trying to.

Empty hands? Yes, always. To want nothing, to know nothing, to bring nothing. And then the making. It’s a kind of magic, as is baking a cake or building a house.

For as long as you have been a playwright, you have worked closely with particular actors. How important is the actor to your imagining of a play?

The art of the theatre is the art of the word made flesh.

I am always aware that I am writing for the voice. I think that perhaps poets might have the same awareness. But where for a poet the voice is their own firstly (familiar), and secondly that of the reader (unknown), the voice(s) I am writing for belongs to a known other: it is not my voice, but it is a voice that I know, that I can hear as I write, the voice of the actor. I can hear what I imagine are the possibilities of that voice. I am not talking about the interpretation of the lines, but their music, their rhythm and cadence, their tone and volume. You could say that the voice is an instrument that I am writing for. The more familiar I am with that instrument, the more freedom I have. I can write lines that I myself could never say, lines whose expression is beyond my capacity even to imagine uttering them.

The voice comes from the actor’s body. When I write for the actor’s voice I am writing for his/her body. Generally, I don’t write many stage directions. I want the language itself to (literally) move the actor, for the voice and the body of the actor to become one energy, one dynamic expression of the language, without the ‘prompting’ of prescriptive directions. In other words, I want the act of speaking the lines that I write to propel the actor’s body, I want the act of speaking to bring the actor’s body to life.

Is the actor, alone and vulnerable on a stage, caught in the light before the eyes of an audience, the secret of the humanity of your theatre?

There is no secret. The actor, alone and vulnerable on a stage, caught in the light before the eyes of an audience is the beginning and the end of the theatre that I want to make.

In its exploration of the possibilities of absurdist comedy, Life Without Me strikes me as a play with a close relationship to Half and Half (2002), a two hander which you also wrote specifically for specific actors, in this case Robert Menzies and Dan Spielman. Comedy has always been an important part of the dramas you write, as far back as Silent Partner (1991). How important is it to laugh?

People often forget that in almost everything I have written there are moments of comedy (I call them ‘the funny bits’). Perhaps they forget because this comedy rarely lasts until the end of the play. In my plays laughter is usually the prologue to its opposite. Comedy makes the audience more open to what is occurring on stage (makes them more vulnerable to it). I try to create that openness by offering the possibility of laughter. Comedy is an invitation that I extend.

How important is it to grieve?

To grieve is to openly acknowledge our mortality. I think grief should be embraced. The acknowledgment of our mortality may be all that can save the human race from itself.

The theatre can be a place that opens a space for grieving. To put it another way: I take it that a metaphor can be understood as a displacement of reality that allows that reality to be more clearly perceived. The theatre is a place where metaphors are literally made in front of our eyes, where they exist only at a particular time and in a particular place. When the performance is over, nothing remains except our memory of it. It is as if the performance shares the mortality of its audience. This fact is in itself a metaphor (which may in fact lead us back to ‘all the world’s a stage’). If to grieve is to acknowledge our mortality, then the theatre can be the place where that acknowledgment is made manifest, where we can, literally, experience that acknowledgment as an emotional, intellectual and physical event in time and space.

That’s at least the beginning of an answer to your question.

Picture: Robert Menzies and Kerry Walker in Life Without Me. Photo: Jeff Busby

Life Without Me, directed by Peter Evans, is playing at the Sumner Theatre, MTC Theatre, until November 21. The Nightwatchman, directed by Matt Scholten, opens at Theatre Works, St Kilda, on November 24 and runs until December 12. Details and bookings online here.

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