Lisa Chat’s with Alex Broun, writer of November Spawned a Monster. (Theatre Interview)
November Spawned a Monster
Old Fitzroy Theatre
28 October through to 15 November – You can grab your tickets here
Mickey’s is an iconic Sydney institution these days, the kind of address you can invite someone to by saying “lets meet at that red cafe on Oxford Street!” It’s been there forever, and for a couple of gen-Xers like Alex Broun and myself, it was the perfect place to meet, grab a drink – lemon lime and bitters in my case, herb tea in his – and chew the fat about Alex’s forthcoming production. November Spawned a Monster is the companion piece to a play called Half a Person that had its debut in Adelaide in 2007. Half A Person is a play about a dude named William who is understandably obsessed with The Smiths and Morrissey, experiencing a series of events that lead him to become torn between two important characters in his life. November Spawned a Monster is not a sequel, but it is more of the story of William who we meet as he is left at the end of Half a Person. Now we will see William as he is forced to make some very important choices in his life that will help him with facing reality and, essentially choosing to grow up as a person. He is still obsessed with The Smiths and Morrissey, which play a big part in his life, but for gen-X’ers, that is an obsession the bulk of us completely understand.
Alex arrives right on time, dressed in black, distractingly good looking. He orders, and we launch right into our chat, me asking him right up front about his digging deep into his own years of addiction in order to formulate the character of William. “I had a time in my life when… I was very emotionally vulnerable, very emotionally lost, and I guess I turned to drugs and alcohol to change my mood to help me get through that time.” Despite the personal nature of his words, Alex is all business as he explains William is at a crossroads of sorts, faced with certain challenges that have presented them to him as a choice to either grow up or die. He pauses and smiles, then continues with an explanation that he understands William’s predicament so well, because he stood at the same crossroads earlier in his own life. “Drugs and alcohol is an escape from your feelings,” he tells me. “This is something that William goes through in this play.”
As a person who has not experienced substance abuse myself, I was interested in how Alex saw November Spawned a Monster crossing the often enormous gulf between those who live with a propensity for substance abuse and those for whom it is all theory, obviously because it is within this gulf that many of the toughest battles have to be fought – ‘just say no’ v’s empathic awareness if you like. Alex clearly and easily expressed his desire for the play to speak to those who might be experiencing substance abuse and tell them that there is a way out. “About ten percent of the population have addictive personalities. A number of them stop drinking or learn to control it, and can live a life. Others keep battling with drugs and drink their whole life and eventually succumb to it or somehow find a way to cope.” Other people can enjoy recreational drug use, as if it is a normal part of their life, able to rely on inner triggers that assist in indicating when it is time to cease. For them that is normal. “I personally know that I cant do that. If I have one drink, I am not going to be able to stop until I’m either passed out or get knocked out.” Everyone experiments with drugs and alcohol at some point, and most people have a moment of growing up through this experience, but for addicts, that experience is a lot more intense “as if we are missing a layer of skin.”
The challenge for those for whom control is “normal” is to not be a dick or an asshole about those who do not naturally have that level of control. I suggested to Alex that theatre was so powerful because it could give us a chance to live in another persons shoes regarding these important issues, and he agrees this is part of where the play gains its power. November Spawns a Monster makes it clear that William is not a bad person, but that his substance abuse prevents the maturity and the strength required to be the sort of person he wants to be. His behaviors are often bad – “there will be things that make the audience gasp” – but William himself is not a bad person and this comes through in the play.
“It is not a story about addiction,” Alex reminds me repeatedly. He has no desire to be a spokesperson for addiction, rather in working the play, collaboration with the likes of director Rob Chuter who is a person who wants the extreme from every theatrical experience, he mined himself for a truth that had to include his own experiences. Working on the play was a three year process with Rob who kept prompting for the honesty he could sense lay deep in Alex. “He kept pushing me to be honest and real.”
“Also, within this process is Felice Vaiani a woman with cerebral palsy who became very drawn to Half a Person, to the point where she saw herself as part of William’s life.” Morrissey’s song, ‘November Spawned a Monster’ is about a woman with cerebral palsy (“A hostage to Kindness and the wheels underneath her” is just one of the magnificent lines in this beautiful song) so to include part of Felice’s story, interwoven with his own as substance abuser, brought out the intensity Rob Chuter was gunning for all along. It is Felice’s story, her courage and her generosity in allowing Alex to include private and shocking details from her life, that forge the intersection between himself as William and Felice as if they’d always had a history. “I’m interested in telling a story collaboratively. I am interested in the input from the actors and the director, and not so precious about my own words… I guess it comes back to my belief that theatre is just much more interesting when there are lots of people telling the same story… my only insistence is on emotional truth.” A now relaxed, more impassioned Alex goes on to say he takes no refuge in the satirical or sardonic which he sees played out too much in Australian theatre.
“It’s very difficult to see past the surface of someone like Felice and relate to the real person inside.” Alex branches into the complicated relationship we have with differently abled people, reminding me of Foucault’s criticisms of the asylums as processes of normalisation built similarly to schools and jails, those other places where we work hard to normalise people. He talks about Felice’s beauty, her glamour and her sexuality which she is open about, and the difficulty he has with these concepts personally as he reflects all of us, seeing her for who she is past the twisted limb cage of what needs to be her “disability” for our own social comfort. “We must talk about the active sex lives of the differently abled,” Alex says. “It is a taboo subject, and one of the things we wanted to open up with this play… people shy away from it and cringe, but this is what this play is about… the barriers that stand in the way of these people and their natural relationship with life.” This comment reminded me of films in the past that deal with the differently abled human’s experience of sexuality and how the main stream “concern” usually comes back to an issue of duty of care, as if we have some right to that over the clearly articulated needs of the very real human creature before us. Alex spoke with dedicated zeal about the importance of the subject matter, reminding me constantly that these people have real stories and that everything in November Spawned a Monster has been taken from the real life experiences of the individuals Alex has mined for his gold.
There is no pause in the conversation at this stage, Alex easily talking his intense truths with fervor. I interrupt to take him back to the music of Morrissey, and the importance it plays in November Spawned a Monster, interested in his perspective on the way music rescues us from our internalised self loathing. Alex agrees, stating Morissey gave words to the experience he was having through his drug addled years, and still how the music reaches into his soul and satisfies all the needs we have for music to protect us against our self. “The songs are incredibly important, and in many ways drive the narrative… at times they represent the psychological journey of the characters and sometimes they represent what they’d like to communicate but can’t and some times they simply capture what is happening in the story.” This is the contradiction about the artist – particularly artists like Morisseey – that the person and their actions are separate from the work of art they’ve brought to the world. Morrissey’s qualities as a person have no impact on the power of the words and all they will represent in this play. In November Spawned a Monster, the songs will be performed by James Wright. “James Wright is a very good actor, but he is also a very good singer, so it is expected that the delivery of songs in this one will carry more weight.” Says Alex with enthusiasm.
William will mature out of the horror of his experiences in November Spawned a Monster. He will seek answers to life’s questions and he will know that he needs to separate himself from his addiction in order to know those answers. It is important to know that the person who writes this play, has lived these experiences. “It comes from a place of truth and it comes from a place of love.” says Alex. It’s worth knowing that the person who is the life of every party may be a very unhealthy individual, suffering in ways that are difficult to understand. “I’ve done something special if the next time you see someone like that, or the next time you see the person with cerebral palsy, you think that’s a human being, and they’re probably more intelligent, more articulate, and more gifted than me.”
“If we can take this from November Spawned a Monster, the play will have done its job.”
November Spawned a Monster is on at The Old Fitz from October 28 to November 15. Grab your tickets here.