Interview: Lally Katz ~ theatre notes

Monday, November 29, 2010

Interview: Lally Katz

Next year, Lally Katz is probably the most produced playwright in Australia (although Shakespeare might give her a run for her money). She has three new plays coming up on main stages through 2011 - Neighbourhood Watch at Belvoir St, Return To Earth at the MTC and A Golem Story at the Malthouse. Who would have thought that this least classifiable of playwrights should have become a mainstream fixture?

But before any of that happens, she is premiering a new play in New York with The Production Company. This theatre company was founded by artistic director Mark Armstrong and Nicolle Bradford to forge exchanges between US and Australian playwrights, producing work from both. Since 2004 it has quietly built a solid indie reputation, most recently with highly praised productions of Patricia Cornelius's Love and Blair Singer's The Most Damaging Wound. Seasons of short plays under an umbrella called The Australia Project have introduced names like Van Badham, Ross Mueller, Wesley Enoch and many others to American audiences. Lally's play, Goodbye New York, Goodbye Heart, started life as one of the shorter plays in The Australia Project, and she has extended it for this production.

Now over to Lally, who has generously shared her thoughts on writing plays, New York and sharks over several emails during the past week...

AC: Why are you in New York?

LK: I am in New York to attend rehearsals of my play Goodbye New York, Goodbye Heart which is being produced by The Production Company. They're a really great company in New York, who are very committed to putting on Australian works- which is wonderful! I came here to come to rehearsals and work with the company and cast. I've worked with the director, Oliver Butler before in a collaboration with Stuck Pigs and his brilliant company The Debate Society. I was really excited when Mark Armstrong, the artistic director of The Production Company, suggested that Oliver direct the play. It's a really good fit.

I'm having a ball here. For a while I was going to every single rehearsal and doing constant rewrites, but now I've kind of banned myself from rehearsal so that I stop rewriting and give the actors a chance to learn their lines. Although I went tonight. And I'm going tomorrow night. So I guess it's not a very successful ban... Especially since already I'm planning on doing a couple of rewrites. I keep hearing Australian actor Luke Mullins in my head saying, "Rewriting doesn't necessarily make it better- sometimes it just makes it different". But still, I feel there are just a few more rewrites that really will make it better!

I am also seeing as much theatre as I can while I'm here. I went to Chicago where Neil Armfield's opera Midsummer Night's Dream was opening in this amazing, glamorous building. Damien Cooper had done the lights and Dale Ferguson had designed it. It was pretty exciting seeing an opening in Chicago, and seeing all these people on the other side of the world stunned by the work of Australian artists. While I was there I also attended the Steppenwolf New Writing Festival with my friend/agent Jean Mostyn. We both were really blown away by the plays we saw. It's a really different style to plays that I'm familiar with and I really felt I learnt from it. In New York, I haven't been able to see as much theatre because I've been rehearsing every night (or hanging out with my grandparents in New Jersey), but I did see Will Eno's Middletown, which was stunning.

Your plays recently seem full of Goodbye (Goodbye New York, Goodbye Heart; Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd) or its opposite, like Return to Earth. Does this reflect a preoccupation with transition, from childhood to adulthood, or at least from some state of innocence to a state of knowing?

That's a great question! It's funny, because these are the sorts of questions that you don't think about much in your day-to-day conscious mind - but it's kind of your core story - or a core story in your life. I think I am constantly in a state of transition between innocence and knowing. It is like every situation in life is an epiphany both about the world and myself in the world that I'm on the crest of finding out. Those scenes from life often end up in my writing.

For a long time I thought of things as endings. I guess I thought of life as a series of eras, that came to an end. I feel differently now. I don't feel like things are usually as final as they seem at the time. I guess for years I was seeing life as a play. My friend Martina Murray and I talk a lot about that - how we're subconsciously trying to bring everything to conclusion constantly so that it fits the format of a play - and to us that has been reality. Now I see life a little bit more like television, you have a strange episode with someone, but there will be something different next week. Mac Wellman, this really great New York playwright, said to me once when I was asking his advice on my romantic life and on something which I saw as definite disastrous end, and he said: 'Things don't always have to be so final. You don't have to make things be so final". This was a huge realisation and comfort to me. I hadn't realised it was a choice.

I don't know if that's really answering your question. I guess my writing and my life cross over all the time. And the past fifteen years have been a long transition from childhood to adulthood for me. So there have been all these kind of goodbyes to innocence. I guess I feel more like an adult now. And it's nice. Maybe that is why I feel like the next plays that I write will be less about transition and more about people in the lives that they're in.

But in terms of the Goodbye.. plays, yes, I think both those plays have transitions from innocence to knowing in them. Both Vaudeville... and Goodbye New York, Goodbye Heart have the characters realising that they have to let go of their forced innocence or unrealistic or unlivable ideals in order to move to the next phase of conscience or life.

You’re a playwright who collaborates closely in rehearsal. How important is collaboration to your writing? Do you write for particular performers?

I do collaborate closely in rehearsal. I think it's a really important part of my writing. When I'm writing a play I see it in real life. I never see a stage, or set or lights, or anything - I just see it in the world, really happening (this can be a bit of a challenge for directors because it can make some things quite hard to stage!) So then when rehearsal begins, I start to see what it is onstage.

So if I'm in rehearsals, then I usually end up making lots of little - and sometimes big changes to the script- this is often in response to offers that the director or the actors make. Sometimes I can go too far with it. On a lot of the productions that I've done with Chris Kohn, the two of us would get really into making changes and trying new stuff, and eventually the actors would have to say, "No more. We open in two days". And then we'd know the jig was up!

I've been working really closely with Oliver Butler who's directing Goodbye New York, Goodbye Heart on making shifts in the script - and really closely with the actors too. I hadn't met any of these actors before, so now as they become more concrete in my mind, they become the characters I see when I write changes and do edits - which shifts the overall script too. I guess with some scripts you wouldn't want them to shift too much. And in that case, I think it's better for the writer not to be in rehearsal too much. Because when the writer is in rehearsal things are up for grabs a bit - because there's always the potential that things can change. At the moment, I'm probably going to every second rehearsal so that they have the time they need away from me, but I can still be making little tiny alterations.

In terms of writing for specific actors, that's something I really enjoy. Because you have the format for the character straight away. I think it actually costs you less creative blood as a writer in a way, because already the character is sort of alive, because you're seeing the actor in there. We created Black Swan of Trespass for the original cast that did it, and the parts of Abalone and Gerture in The Eisteddfod were written for Luke Mullins and Jessamy Dyer - though I didn't actually get to know either of them until later and wasn't even in rehearsals because I was overseas (Luke thinks that sometimes the process works better when I am overseas!)

I wrote Neighbourhood Watch which is on at Belvoir next year specifically for Robyn Nevin. I had a whole life adventure with my neighbour because I was looking for a character to write for Robyn. That was really fun. I've also spent a lot of time meeting with Robyn and talking about the character and the world of the play. She's been really involved in it from the beginning, which has been just brilliant. It's so exciting to work with actors to create these lives together.

That's a play that I don't want to be changing much in rehearsal because it's a big production, and very complicated for the actors - especially Robyn because her character speaks a very different kind of English - almost like her own language. So Simon Stone who's directing it, Eamon Flack from Belvoir and I have been meeting regularly, doing developments on the script, so that it's a really finished play by the time we get into rehearsals. I also did a lot of work on it with Julian Meyrick - and Belvoir did a reading of it.

Actually, I don't think any of my plays next year will be having many changes in rehearsal. I guess that is always the aim - that they're really finished! Developments really help this. The Malthouse as usual, have been great making sure that A Golem Story has had plenty of developments and readings. Also I was meeting regularly with Michael Kantor for a lot of this year going through the script. And Return to Earth at the MTC has had quite a few developments and readings with RE Ross Trust and Playwriting Australia, so we know what it is theatrically. Neither of those plays will have to have many changes during rehearsal. I'll still be in the room for all three of those plays - as much as the director wants me in there for - but it will probably be more to assist in questions about tone than actually making changes in the script.

We haven't made huge changes in Goodbye New York, Goodbye Heart, just little ones - but they always feel huge when you're doing it. It's exciting to come to New York and work with a bunch of people that I don't know and find that we have very similar emotional, tonal and aesthetic theatrical instincts. Before coming to New York Oliver and I were emailing and skyping a lot about the script, so we were really on the same page when I got here. Mark Armstrong, the Artistic Director of The Production Company has been really involved with the script too, ever since first commissioning a version of it in 2007. So again, there's been lots of opportunity to be in the world of the play before rehearsals began.

I've veered way off, but I guess what I'm saying is, sometimes I start off writing for a particular actor - or sometimes I begin to write for them during the process - and then sometimes the play is just itself and it's a finished product before the production begins (though perhaps it's had development and readings). They're all such different ways of working. I think when doing shows within big companies it's better if you can have the script as stable as possible before rehearsal begins, because there's so much else going on in the production. But one thing is, you never really know what a show is until you see it. I guess that's a reason why multiple seasons are great - because the production and the script together have a chance to evolve and strengthen.

How do you first begin to imagine a play? Does it just begin with a line? Or do you think about what shape it might be, or what it might feel like?

It begins in different ways. But it will usually start off being a collection of different things that all end up all forming the pieces of a world or a story together. Goodbye New York, Goodbye Heart first started the last time I was in New York, four years ago. We were tech-ing a development we'd been doing and I wasn't needed. I asked if I should stay or go to the top of the Empire State Building, and Oliver Butler (who is directing GNYGH- through no connection to this story) said, "Why don't you go to the Empire State Building? You'll probably have an adventure that you end up writing about". So I started walking there. It was twilight, about to be dark. And, as I was walking there were these two girls walking ahead of me. And I thought I heard one of them say to the other, in this sort of knowing voice, "Yeah, but you thought Star Wars was never ending".

For some reason, that really caught my imagination. And I kept saying it out loud to myself, over and over again as I walked to the Empire State Building, "Yeah... But you thought Star Wars was never ending". I wanted to find out what it meant.

On that same trip, Luke Mullins and I walked from where we were staying across the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan to rehearsal everyday. And as we would walk over the bridge, I would think about how buildings in New York looked so set. So deeply placed. It was like they had become as much of a part of the world as cliff faces, or mountains. Like the buildings of New York had become nature.

Again - on that same trip - it was my last day in New York and I was walking by myself - (basically all these things revolved around me either walking by myself or with Luke Mullins) through Fashion Avenue and near Central Park. And I was looking at all the buildings - it was a really hot day. And I was looking at that big, beautiful glass Apple store near Central Park, and I was thinking, "It's all going to go. All this stuff - this permanent stuff they built isn't going to last". I don't know why I thought it, but it was such a big feeling. I'd also been seeing this guy in New York - just briefly, and I was a little sad to be leaving because of that. So I kept thinking in my head, Goodbye New York, Goodbye Heart. I knew all these things fit together.

Then, back in Australia, maybe a year later, I was reading online about different teenagers who had committed suicide and left all this stuff on their myspace pages. And then their friends had made all these tributes on their myspace pages. And I thought it was like they had committed suicide on the internet. But at the same time, they were also continuing to live on the internet.

It was around this time, that The Production Company asked me to write a short play for their season featuring all Australian writers. It was a great season - with lots of writers who I love in it. I won't say who, because I'm so scared I'll forget someone. So anyway, they asked us all to write something on what our experience of New York was, as an Australian. So I started writing - I knew it was going to have some of this stuff in it. The shape and life of it had begun that first time I heard the Star Wars thing. It was like all these things, plus some other stuff from my life at that time, were like connect the dots in this story. However, this first script was really short, and was kind of just the beginning and end of a much bigger story.

Three years later when Mark Armstrong, the Production Company's artistic director asked me to write a full length version of the play, I had lived or seen, or heard all the missing dots that needed to be connected to form the whole shape of the play. And then of course, things change shape again in rehearsal.

That is one specific example, but often my writing will take that shape. Though it is rare for me to write something as a short play and then extend it later. It was right for this project.

Neighbourhood Watch began with a conversation with Robyn about writing a character for her, then grew when I met my neighbour Anna, and then every experience I had fed into it from there. I always feel like I end up having to live every play. I guess it's fair though - because you want the play to be alive.

Finally (I can't resist) - why is it that the thing that you fear most about flying is sharks?

I love this question! I have actually been talking to my cousin Eli about this a lot! And he's been really helpful about this phobia. When we were moving from Miami to Canberra when I was eight and three quarters years old, I somehow tricked my parents into letting me get the book Jaws the Revenge at the airport. It was a great book. I was engrossed in it, all through the long, long flight. So straight away, there as an association with sharks and planes.

I shared this experience with my six year old brother, by reading him sections as we flew. Then after that, we bought the video of Jaws and my brother and I would watch it everyday after school. Then Jill got killed by a shark on Baywatch and I taped it. Now my brother and I would watch Jaws everyday after school and the part of Baywatch where Jill got attacked. Then I would make my brother come outside to our circular, above ground pool, where I would make him be the person in the water that the shark was circling and I would then pretend to be Jill going in to rescue him, where I would then act out the gory attack, pretending I was Jill, getting eaten.

Somehow, the end result of this is, that my brother and I are both terrified of this: Being on a plane. Flying over the ocean. Then the plane goes down, over the sea. You pass out - or you're knocked unconscious. You wake up, realising you're alive. But then you look around, and everything is dark. The plane is filling up with water. The only light is those safety lights that lead to the exit - flashing on and off, making a kind of buzzing noise. And then you see, in the flashes, swimming up the aisle - a shark.

That is my worst nightmare. It is also my brother's. Both of us dream about it. All the time.

Picture: Publicity image for Goodbye New York, Goodbye Heart. Photo: Julie Skarrat

Goodbye New York, Goodbye Heart opens on December 2 at HERE Arts Center 145 Sixth Avenue, NYC. Details and bookings here.


Anonymous said...

I probably shouldn't be linking in videos to feed fears, but this is why you should be scared of planes and sharks

Emily Sexton said...

Oh my, that last answer is the best thing I've read today. I'm so glad you asked Alison.

Alison Croggon said...

Me too, Emily. And maybe we'll put a phobia warning on that video. (Which is...bizarre, but not as bizarre as Sharks In Venice).