Beyond the happy mystery
AustralianPlays.org talks to emerging playwright Joanna Erskine
Joanna Erskine is an emerging playwright based in Sydney. Her writing career began after winning the 2002 Sydney Theatre Company Young Playwrights Award for her first play Waiting for the 9.07, directed by Geordie Brookman and starring Geoff Morrell and Rebecca Massey.
Since then, she has had numerous short plays produced and in 2008 was
selected for Playwriting Australia’s National Script Workshop in
Canberra for her first full-length work, K.I.J.E.
K.I.J.E. will be presented in July as part of Tamarama Rock Surfers 2011 season.
Joanna writes a blog focusing on playwriting, Cluster.
K.I.J.E. is your first produced full-length play. How many short plays have you had produced?
I'd say I’ve written about 15 short plays and plenty of monologues and shorter pieces, and I’m lucky to have most of them produced or performed as staged readings.
Some of the productions have been for atyp (Tell It Like It Isn’t – my monologue Boot), Brand Spanking New at the New Theatre (Little Mouse and Ham And Eg), Slide Bar for Four Faces of Love (Bye Bye Baby), short pieces for Stories from the 428 at Sidetrack Theatre, NIDA Parade Space (Clippings), Griffin Theatre’s 24 hour play generator (Foot) and the ones I directed myself while at Macquarie University. I have also co-written one of Bell Shakespeare’s touring Actors At Work plays for 2011 (Midsummer Madness). My first play was Waiting for the 9.07 which was staged by STC in Wharf 1 as winner of the STC Young Playwrights Award.
All of these productions have been amongst a collection of plays, and with that comes the security of knowing the audience isn’t there just to see your work. That’s not the case for K.I.J.E. which is slightly terrifying!
Were there some key lessons you took from those experiences? What has it been like making the transition to a longer form?
As I've discovered, nothing can prepare you for the writing and rehearsal of a full-length play. With full-length plays there are so many layers, characters are so fleshed out, deep chasms can appear which need to be solved, which in short plays can often remain a happy mystery for an audience. There’s so much more room for error and so a great deal of work goes into clarity of plot, character and detail. With short plays, the rehearsal process is a quick one and there is often no time to deconstruct the play as you would a full-length, so you rehearse what’s on the page and make minor changes as necessary. It’s also much more of an emotional process, as in the case of K.I.J.E., these characters have been with me for four years and finally seeing them come to life, and sometimes do things you never thought they would do, is challenging but exciting.
|Actor TJ Power (photograph by Caitlin Porter)|
The inspiration behind K.I.J.E. is unusual, being Yury Tynanov’s 1927 novella Lieutenant Kije. How did this concept present itself to you? How do you imagine your way into a setting and characters that are fairly removed from your own life?
I write from outside of my own experience. Of course I draw upon my own life for inspiration, but I am much more interested in what I don’t know. I don’t think audiences want to be handed their world on a plate. I write to understand the world we live in. I have written plays about post-natal depression, car accidents, the loss of children, refugee experience, existential crises, and in the case of K.I.J.E., soldiers in a war. These are all things I’ve never experienced, and so I write to understand from the character’s point of view, what it is like to experience.
I was introduced to the story of Lieutenant Kije by my father, who was playing Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije Suite at home one day (the music written for the movie of the original novella). I asked him what the music was and he told me the story of Kije and I was hooked. The story stayed in my mind for a while until I became fascinated by the horrific images that emerged several years ago of US and Australian soldiers in the Middle East jokingly posing with mutilated bodies. I knew they were not connecting with their reality, and wondered what had happened to them to be so transported from reality in that moment. I then remembered the story of Kije and the two melded together and I had my original idea – a story where fiction becomes more real than reality.
Can you tell us a bit about the development of the script, and also how you ended up with this company to produce it, with Sarah Giles as director?
I started writing K.I.J.E. at the beginning of 2008, just after I finished at NIDA. When I was about halfway through the first draft I was accepted into Playwriting Australia’s National Script Workshop. I was paired up with a NIDA director by Chris Mead, who happened to be Sarah Giles. We hadn’t met before this and after our initial meeting found that we were on exactly the same wavelength in regards to K.I.J.E. I had very clear views on what the play was about which she shared, and after an amazing workshop with PWA, decided to stay as a team and get a production up.
So it’s been a four year relationship getting this off the ground, including some setbacks along the way. It’s a cliché but I think it’s all happened for a reason. I'm actually glad we didn't end up staging the play two years ago for instance, because it’s come leaps and bounds from then.
|Actor Wade Briggs (photograph by Caitlin Porter)|
As a NIDA graduate and someone who’s been involved in a number of development processes, do you believe that you’ve been ‘taught’ how to be a playwright? Or are these group situations valuable more for the moral support they offer?
I wouldn’t say anyone has ever taught me how to write a play, and I don’t think it’s actually possible. When I started at NIDA I had written several short plays and thought I knew what I was doing, but found I still had a lot to learn. At NIDA each writer’s individual style was nurtured, and we were given weekly tasks to write scenes or monologues with given circumstances, which gave us a rigorous understanding of how good writing functions. In this course we were taught early on how to give constructive feedback which was incredibly helpful and supportive. We learnt how to accept and politely reject unhelpful feedback.
The best part about developments and workshopping is having actors to read the roles. It’s then that you can hear the play in a way you’ve never heard it before, and issues often become very clear. I’m also a member of some excellent playwriting collectives including ISM, where we often read each other’s work and offer dramaturgical advice and moral support. Listening to and being inspired by other writers is a how I learn best.
Have you attended many of the rehearsals for this play? Has the script changed much during this time?
Absolutely. I've been in rehearsal room whenever my time allows as I currently work full time. Even though I’ve been working on this play for four years, we didn’t present the ‘final draft’ to the actors on day one of rehearsals. It was the finished play, but we knew we still had a way to go with it and things to iron out, clarify, explore, etc. The entire first week was purely development – workshopping the scenes and rewriting – and now rehearsals are underway we are still rewriting and tweaking sections as necessary.
If I’m not in the room, Sarah will meet with me in person or on Skype and talk through all the issues that have arisen that day. We then talk through possible solutions that may have come from the actors, and I will spend a few hours rewriting and tweaking accordingly. She will test it out in the room, then report back on how it went, as well as new changes from that day. And so the cycle continues!
The essential narrative and characters have stayed the same, however we’ve made some significant changes – cut and reordered scenes, reworked sections, heightened stakes, and so on. It’s quite scary as a writer to digest so many changes in such a short timeframe, although it’s all for the best and the script is tighter than ever. I’m currently working with Sarah and the actors on a rewrite of the final scene which is very exciting. We gave the actors a few different scenarios to improvise from and have already made some great discoveries. It’s such a joy to be working with actors who are interested in new writing and I love working with them as they are like ‘mini-dramaturges’ for their characters.
|Playwright Joanna Erskine (photograph by Caitlin Porter)|
Have you spent much time working with dramaturgs? Did you on this play and, if so, what was that process like?
For K.I.J.E. I’ve had several developments and workshops where I’ve received dramaturgical advice, however we didn’t have a set dramaturg for the play. The interesting thing about this process is that the director, Sarah Giles, has been working with me since 2008 on the play and has acted as director/dramaturg. It’s been a very interesting process, with the person responsible for realising the play on stage also responsible for guiding me to ensure the words on the page will translate to stage in the best way possible. It means now when we’re in rehearsals, both of us know the drafts and evolution of the play inside-out and if need be, can refer back to them and revive things that were lost! Sarah has much more of an insider, in-depth knowledge of the play than a normal director would.
You're someone who's very involved in the playwriting scene in general, both as a practitioner and with your blog. What do you think of the current climate in Australia, the type of works that are being produced and what may be lacking?
From the time when I started Cluster, I think the situation has improved significantly for Australian playwrights. The furore over programming Australian, and specifically female writers, has made companies very aware of their creative choices and if you look at seasons being programmed you can already see the progress. There is still a huge glut of re-worked classics in our theatres, but Australian stories are starting to pop their heads through more and more.
I do feel strongly that there is a danger in regards to opportunities for emerging playwrights. Anyone looking at the situation would think things are very positive, as there are a myriad of opportunities for emerging artists, for workshops and developments. What is happening though, is there is an abundance of over-workshopped new plays out there with no hope for a production – the real test of a new play. In my case, it’s taken three years for K.I.J.E. to be programmed, and that’s not that long in the scheme of things. It’s turned into a bottleneck effect – too many plays and not enough stages or companies willing to test out new writers. It’s heartening that there are companies out there like TRS who will take a chance on someone’s first full-length play and who champion new Australian work. We need more like them.
|Director Sarah Giles (photograph by Caitlin Porter)|
What are your ambitions as a playwright?
I started out as a young writer determined to achieve amazing feats at an early age, a la the incredible Tommy Murphy. By last year when I turned 25 and hadn’t achieved a fraction of what Tommy had done, I realised that I wanted to write for my whole life, so why the rush? I’m not a prolific writer, I like to spend a decent amount of time with my stories and characters, take a few months away from them, then come back with new eyes. That said, I’m currently working on a range of projects, not all of them plays. I’m of the belief that writers should have plenty of pots on the boil, and I work best when I’m busy.
What’s your favourite Australian play, and why?
This is always so tough! To be honest I couldn’t pinpoint one favourite, although I’ll mention a few. The incredible, heart-wrenching classic Summer Of The Seventeenth Doll, the brutal, groundbreaking The Removalists. And from recent years, Kate Mulvany’s stunning and personal triumph, The Seed, and Michael Gow’s Toy Symphony blew me away when I saw Neil Armfield’s production at Belvoir – a real ‘writer’s play’, so uniquely Australian and simply magical.
Written by Joanna Erskine
Directed by Sarah Giles
7 - 30 July
The Old Fitzroy Theatre, Woolloomooloo - NSW
Presented by Crow Crow Productions and Eliza Ocaña in association with Tamarama Rock Surfers
One little white lie....what could go wrong?
Four soldiers in training escape their barracks one night to graffiti a wall in an attempt to engage with an enemy they’ve been training to fight - but have never seen. They make up a tag using the first letter of each of their names, Konrad, Irving, Jono and Ed; K.I.J.E. When their superior catches them he mistakes the tag for a name; the solider Kije is born. Proving a convenience at first, this soldier gets more and more out of hand until the four boys who invented him are faced with a world they are wildly unprepared for.
How do you get rid of someone who doesn’t exist?
More info at http://rocksurfers.org