An actor writes
AustralianPlays.org talks to emerging playwright Anna Houston
Anna Houston is a NIDA-trained actor, with credits including All Saints and Bell Shakespeare productions.
Her short play Vanessa Darling, written as part of the Griffin Theatre Company playwriting course, was one of six winners of PlayWriting Australia’s 2010 Kicking Down the Doors initiative for unpublished playwrights. Her short play Woman from the Desert, written with Jessica Manuel, was selected as a finalist in the 2006 Short & Sweet Festival.
Anna has recently returned from training at l’ecole Philippe Gaulier in Paris. Her play In the Garden was long-listed for the 2009 Patrick White Award. It will debut in July for Hook in Eye Theatre Productions as part of Deckchair Theatre's Umbrella program.
Violet is trapped in a destructive relationship with her high school teacher but will the secrets buried in the garden prevent her escape? The arrival in town of Violet’s old school friend Jack, forces her to contemplate following in the unsettled footsteps of her volatile mother. Meanwhile, Violet’s father prepares to sell their family home and possessions, stirring up memories with the dust.
How many plays have you had produced?
In the Garden is the first play that I've had produced. It's also the first full-length play I've written, which makes this particular production both thrilling and nerve wracking in equal measure.
What have you found different or challenging about writing this play?
Finding the discipline to write the story for the stage and respect the form of playwriting has been enormously challenging. I started work on this play about six years ago, dreaming around images and landscapes and the vaguest hints of character. Structurally, the play was very haphazard and misshapen. Luckily I had a few readings with friends that are actors, which helped me enormously to whip the play into some kind of dramatic shape.
What was your initial inspiration for the story?
I stumbled upon a beautiful Australian novel called The Mint Lawn by Gillian Mears about ten years ago on a university reading list. The novel triggered off an avalanche of memories and images for me, and I thought seriously about adapting the story for the stage. I couldn't confine the world of my play to that of the novel, however, as the characters of In the Garden kept straying into stranger and stranger landscapes. Over six years and countless drafts I invented a new world that nonetheless found its genesis in Gillian's novel.
Do you start with a theme, with a character, or with an image when you write a play?
I think all three inform each other, although the image of a place or person is usually what triggers story for me. I like to start with images that are strange and enigmatic and let story and character spill out from there.
Can you tell us a bit about the development of In the Garden and how it ended up being staged by Hook In Eye with Michelle directing?
I sent the script to Michelle Sowden about a year and a half ago. Michelle and I studied theatre together at university and bonded over an early obsession with all things Sam Shepard. We found we shared a similar taste and aesthetic, and have created a few pieces together over the years with Michelle directing and me either writing or acting. She liked the script, luckily, and submitted it for Deckchair. It was all a bit tricky in the stages leading up to the rehearsal period as I was living in Paris and we were still tinkering with the script. But we got there in the end!
|Photograph by Kristinn Hermanniusson © Hook in Eye Theatre Productions|
What’s it like transitioning from working as an actor to then becoming a playwright? Do you do both simultaneously, or do you find you spend a period of time being a writer and then a period of time being an actor again?
I started writing to keep myself creatively motivated between acting jobs, and there was definitely a big switching of gears as I transitioned from actor brain to writer brain. Over the years, however, I've invested more and more into playwriting, and I see the work of the actor and writer as very much part of the same world.
I don't think too many actors in Australia can afford to limit themselves to just one exploration of the medium. Most actors that I know also write or direct, or have their hand in some other kind of project.
It's also been encouraging to see so many more opportunities opening
up for emerging writers in the last couple of years. Transparency and
accessibility are hugely important in theatre, whether you're an actor,
writer, designer, whatever. It's easy to feel disillusioned when you
don't know what your pathway is, or what opportunities are open to you.
Is it important to you to attend rehearsals?
I would love to be at rehearsals, but I think it's probably a lot more freeing for the director and actors that I'm not. I write the dialogue as an actor and I would hate to be in the rehearsal room thinking, no, I would say the line like this! I also think it's important for actors to be able to play with a script, to pull it apart and be messy and irreverent with it. I'm fast discovering that a script must be able to stand up by itself. You have to trust that you've laid down a good blueprint for the company that needs no further writer input.
Will you be at the premiere of your play in July?
I'll be in Perth for opening night, absolutely. I can't wait to see the journey from my first draft of the play to its premiere production.
What’s your favourite Australian play and why?
I'm a big fan of Sydney playwright Nick Coyle. His plays are fantastical, surreal, funny and heartbreaking. I've worked with him as an actor and I adore bringing his work to life. I think his play Rommy is a beautiful work. I also love Lally Katz's play The Eisteddfod.
IN THE GARDEN
Written by Anna Houston
Directed by Michelle Sowden
14 - 30 July
Victoria Hall, Fremantle - WA
Presented by Hook in Eye Theatre Productions and Deckchair Theatre
Violet is trapped in a destructive relationship with her high school teacher but will the secrets buried in the garden prevent her escape?
Set in a small rural West Australian town in the 1980s and 1990s.
More info at www.deckchairtheatre.com.au