Lisa chats with Emily Calder, Writer of “Cough” (Theatre article)
– written by Emily Calder
Performed by Unhappen Theatre Company.
10 April – 20 April
107 Projects (107 Redfern Street, Redfern)
“I say please because it makes people give me things.”
Emily and I met in a small cafe in the middle of Newtown.
It was a lovely meeting, feeling more like two friends chatting than an interview. After we’d gotten over not having found each other initially, we sat down and I asked her right away about her writing process and about her first experience of seeing one of her works performed on a stage.
The conversation flowed so naturally from that point, and I’ve recreated it below, as best I could:
Lisa – Tell me about Flightfall and what it was like to first see your work brought to life?
Emily – Director Mark Grentell and the cast and crew did an amazing job. Mark approached me to write Flightfall and then he produced and directed it so I’m eternally grateful to him! I think with that play, because it was my first play and I was swept up in the excitement, it was only after the production while I was reading a lovely bound copy Mark had given me, that I was able to step back and see some of the problems in my writing.
I could see where things were too obvious or there wasn’t enough subtext …. Different from watching it on the stage …. I think there were definitely moments watching it, when I thought… oh I think that monologue went a bit too far… or I wish I could change that… and that is interesting in itself, because as a writer you are almost wishing back some of the words but they’re already out there, even though that is exciting at the same time. It’s already beyond your reach anyway.
Lisa – And theatre is almost a celebration of the flaws because it is so immediate, so ephemeral, another thing I love about it is that unlike so many other art forms it is not recorded.
Emily – Yes. And I love the way it’s different every night. And even the noise within the theatre, the audience noise, the breathing, the little gasps, the external noise, the performance reacts to that. I just love that. I think it’s magical.
Lisa – Yes. And looking at your play you have mentioned how much you can see the mechanics of the writing improve over time, but what about seeing yourself, your younger self in the early writing?
Emily – I know what you mean. I think I was too close to Flightfall in some ways. But it was my first play and I’m still proud of it.
Lisa – You’d prefer a bit of distance between you and the text? Because there is an end to that closeness isn’t there? You can only put yourself in so many times before you become Augusten Burroughs. (Laughs)
Emily – Yes, exactly.
Lisa – So, with Cough, the play has come out of your experiences working in childcare, particularly the anxiety issue. When I read about the premise, it reminded me of The Slap – perhaps that is because I hadn’t read the play, but the relationship between our own children and other peoples children I thought was interesting.
Emily – There is a little element in there because one of the mothers, Julie, is quite down to earth and goes with the flow, until she finds out the centre is blaming her child, even though that isn’t necessarily true. She’s so flat out and frantic, and Jess is a bit of a brat, they all are at that age, but Jess is a little more of a brat. (Laughs) So Julie’s always about letting them find themselves, so when Isabelle, one of the other mums becomes more and more anxious, she disciplines Jess. But it is sort of justified… well maybe not justified…
Lisa – It’s a very difficult line to cross isn’t it?
Emily – … yeah… in a way she’s just really parenting because Julie isn’t, so she kind of snaps. I don’t think I would ever discipline another person’s child in front of them, but this mother feels the need to and that is understandable to a degree. So there is that element of similarity with The Slap.
Lisa – But you’re also addressing that issue of overprotection of children. Children are so interesting because they are not “us” and yet they represent an idealised perfect version of ourselves really. They aren’t us, but they are us. We see ourselves in the way they are perceived.
Emily – Exactly, and then you don’t understand everything that is going on either. I was watching a show actually about autism, they were tracking different families. One of these little boys was quite destructive in school and I felt for his mother who said I am so sick of looking like I am not a good mother, as if I am raising a bad child.
There is a lot of that in Cough. There is one child, Frank, and we never meet his parents, but Franks mother is present by the fact that she is openly judged by Isabelle who thinks frank is allowed to run wild and is a bad influence on the other kids in the centre.
Lisa – It is complicated, because the other side of that is managing the group of kids and trying to relate to children outside of the parents. You mentioned in another interview all the regulations and the paperwork, the “poo charts” the documenting of life and in some ways the insinuating of parents who are missing. The imposition of the adult on the world of the child’s, just seems to be getting stronger.
Emily – Yeah, that’s really interesting, because I get worried about parents opinions of the rules and my depiction of them as negative. I do know why certain rules are there, but I worry about parents thinking I don’t know what I’m talking about.
Lisa – Oh no! I’m a parent and I don’t get that feeling at all.
Emily – Oh good! In childcare centres you’re required to record a number of things throughout the day, including filling out poo charts and writing down how many servings kids eat at meal times. It all seemed extreme.
But obviously every child care centre has to comply with this, and it’s that whole conundrum of where does sanity end and obsession begin?
Lisa – Yes – what are we really doing here?
Emily – Yeah.
Lisa – So tell me more about the anxiety aspect of Cough. Are you talking about the sense of fear for the health of a child?
Emily – My sort of take on this, because I am not being anti parent or anti child care, this is more about society in general, becoming increasingly fearful of something happening to the child, but also to achieve the best for the child, that image of the perfect parent particularly. There is the anxiety in the parents in terms of a lack of control, everyone is anxious, and I suppose when you have a child it’s your identity as well, and I guess it’s all just hyped up to another level.
Lisa – I agree. There is a strange thing that goes on between the responsibility which is so enormous, and possibly this is where the helicopter parenting comes in, but as a person who has a child, I can say that the responsibility is very burdensome. It feels like a huge weight and something I still haven’t gotten used to; and then the shadow of that is the “well I can do it better” thing, the feeling that you can out parent the parent next to you as an antidote to the anxiety.
Emily – Exactly! I think as well it is that really interesting thing. I said in an interview the other day, when I was asked what I had learnt in working with kids, how child care has formed me, and I actually thought about this more after, and one of the most interesting things, is that despite the pleasure I have already gotten from being with kids in babysitting and Nannying, after child care centre, there were so many things to fill in, it seemed to extreme and at odds with the creative world around, and I suppose that’s what struck me, when I started looking after kids and after, I started to get very worried about the way I was interacting with the kids, I began to question my own interactions with the children all the time. And that made me wonder about the overregulation. I felt the anxiety myself.
Lisa – Right. Because you’re not a mother and yet you are feeling that.
Emily – I think I will be a neurotic mother, because I am worried about my cat! (laughs) It is completely understandable that people get so anxious about their child; it’s such a precious little thing…
Lisa – … so much can go wrong.
Emily – Yes, but I actually questions where we draw the line between that anxiety and acting on it.
Lisa – I have cats too and I think that is a fair analogy. (Laughs) Has writing Cough and being involved in childcare professionally changed your attitude to having children?
Emily – The time in childcare was just a brief period, but that and Nannying was very exhausting, I kept thinking I don’t know how parents do this, it was the most exhausted I’d been in my life. I was looking after kids so much, I said to my partner “I think I need to not do so much child care just now, because I’m worried I will never have my own kids.”
Lisa – (Laughs) Absolutely, so that is affecting your own decisions.
Emily – Yeah, but that came up as well when I was still writing the play. I used to take kids to the park all the time and there was a group of mums there, and the children would play in the dirt with their trucks, and the mums would tell their kids not to play in the dirt with the kids I was caring for. And experiences like that, that made me feel like I was doing something wrong by allowing kids to get dirty… climbing trees… I never see kids climbing trees anymore. Did you have any experiences like that as a mother?
Lisa – It happened to me with the bike riding. I used to ride bikes with my childhood friends as much as possible. I couldn’t pay my kid to get into bikes. He’s into computers and gaming and it took me a long time to accept that he wanted to play indoors and that I couldn’t force the bike on him. Part of me is sad that he didn’t get to have the bike experience, but then I have to remind myself that I have never had the experience he takes so much joy from either.
Emily – I don’t worry about that so much at all. I think it’s more when you’re in the park or something, and kids aren’t allowed to get dirty or climb trees. There is a danger fear that removes fun while the kids are trying to create it.
Lisa – …and all the parks being turfed with sponge now, instead of grass, sand or dirt.
Emily – Yeah.
Lisa – It’s interesting isn’t it, because you look at that and you think I had so much fun doing all that and they’re missing out. And then as an adult, you look back on what you got up to as a kid and you ask yourself, “How did I not die?”
Emily – Yeah I know! I started reading Mamma Mia after I wrote the play, and there are so many comments about this issue. One article was about a mum who was so upset because she said my street is so wonderful because all the kids hang out in it, and play and there is no pool, etc … and then someone said to her I can’t believe you allow the kids to wander in the street. And this mum had to defend herself and say “Well it’s a cul de sac and its safe.” And then there were so many comments stating things are so much more dangerous these days, and others saying, but isn’t that just because of reportage? Doesn’t it just reflect access to information?
Lisa – Yes and our perpetual passion for some sort of doomsday.
Emily – Yes
Lisa – Actually people will say things to justify their anxiety won’t they?
Emily – Yes. I agree.
Lisa – That reminds me of an article I read a long time ago that stayed with me that talked about how much subliminally we actually hate our children, for their imposition, the dependence, the lack of freedom, the impact on adult behaviours (such as flirting, drinking and casual drug use, sex) that children are exempt from and therefore impose that exemptions on their parents. They are shut out and we feel guilty, or they are invited and we feel evil or worst of all we abstain and feel resentful. I think this has something to do with the anxiety; you overcompensate with protection when who you are really protecting these little people from is you.
Emily – That’s really interesting.
Lisa – I don’t suggest for one minute that anyone really wants to hurt their child. But how can this not be going on under the surface of each parent at some level, inside all of us really. This took me through many dark times when I recognised that I was going though something very normal, and not to act on it, but that it exists.
Emily – I think that comes through in the character Isabelle, because in Cough, I really don’t want people to sit there and think “Oh this is just bagging out parents”, but I wanted these sorts of ideas to come out. Therefore the character I worked the hardest on is Isabelle, because she’s the driving force, she is the anxious, overprotective mother – she’s actually wonderful! She’s this wonderful, funny woman, and she’s pretty hilarious to begin with, she’s kind of hiding her anxiety, but you know when the skinks take over the play ground… it’s actually triggered when the kids are climbing a tree, and why wouldn’t it be? It’s crazy, and Julie is trying to tell her its fine (a tree that sprung up overnight) and because Franks mum laughed it off, and everyone in the centre seems to love her, she gives a permission that Isabelle doesn’t approve of. But I actually feel really sorry for Isabelle in a way because she gets picked on a bit by the other characters, you know they bitch behind her back because she’s quite sensitive about how much Isla is eating …
Lisa – Which is such an understandable fear.
Emily -Yeah. And so, I really wanted to make her character one where we could identify with her anxiety and obviously she gets really obsessed and Isla almost becomes demonic in response to her mother’s anxiety. Isabelle comes to the centre one day and her child is behaving wild, grabbing at food and reaching for more… and there is whole thing about the horror in a child. Because they can be little monsters. At the child care I worked at that’s what I found so fascinating. On my first day I was struck by the competitive nature of kids, it was a real jungle, they really have to… they create groups…. and then they fight over buckets and spades and … they’re gorgeous of course… but there was a real jungle feel to the competitiveness.
Lisa – Why do you think it’s so extremely difficult to talk about the negative side of the nature of children. Even in our conversation here you and I are constantly quantifying everything with “I love them” or “They’re angels really” as if we’re anxious to say anything of what we see of children’s dark side. Can’t question the purity of children?
Emily – It’s something to do with what you were saying about parents and their identity, and almost the idea that the child is them in a clean form.
Lisa – Like kids are the fresh start.
Emily – Actually that’s been really interesting in rehearsals, because in all the children’s scenes, the kids are little brats at times. So the adults play their kids, or rather they are dolls that they manipulate that morph into flesh and blood.
Lisa – WOW!
Emily – But they can be little brats, you know, kids can say horrible things, violent things, stuff like ripping you from your head to your toes – it’s really bloody language, and you know they’re rude to the child care worker, and there are questions in the play about if this behaviour is ok, how to we question it properly? I find it really hard to know if the behaviour is normal or not. And when we were rehearsing, the cast were saying “Oh my god, they’re such little brats, they’re scary, they’re demons.”And I was saying, “Well that’s what they’re like. They can be savages. They are savages really.”
Lisa – They’re human beings who haven’t been properly domesticated yet.
Emily – But I think that’s interesting about why we can’t just say that kids are like that.
Lisa – Yes, it always needs to be qualified. You can’t speak honestly about the behaviours of children as if they’re independent human beings.
Emily – And I think it is linked to the fact that you don’t want to be seen as a non caring, non nurturing person, that with children you should be all loving all the time and anything else shows up as something bad inside of you.
Lisa – Yeah. The kid is supposed to bring out something different inside of you. The other thing we haven’t discussed, and I’m interested to see if this comes out in your play, is what happens to our relationship with our own parents, and when you have a child it changes the way you look at your parents. It’s a strange thing that happens.
Emily – I did have that in the back of my mind with Isabelle, because she’s so involved … Isabelle particularly because she is so insecure, and therefore she gets very strident, and at the same time its justified, and this is what I like about the play, in that it goes into different aspects of danger. That shifting of perception when you have children. But with Isabelle she notices deficiencies in her own upbringing, and therefore feels the opposite, that her mother was too vague and distant, and she is being the opposite with her own child.
I know when I have kids, I might step back a bit, now that I think about it.
Lisa – Yes, as a parent you definitely react against your perception of the negatives in your own upbringing and you want to make that different for your own child. I also wanted to ask you about your input as a non parent. I think the observation of a person with no children is valuable because they are not inside the experience. But in this conversation you have mentioned a couple of times, a certain anxiety about writing a play on this subject when you haven’t had kids.
Emily – I am definitely the observer, as you said, I think working in a child care caner you do have a unique opportunity to see children with parents then children as they are separate from their parents and then when the parents return, and there is a real contrast. Obviously the majority of the parents are really chilled out etc, and cool.
I know when I am anxious; I blow things out of proportion as a response to anxiety.
Lisa – When you were just saying the parents seem so cool, and yet this seems like a strange juxtaposition against the rules and monitoring etc. Can you imagine, if in the workplace, somebody said the government are really nervous about your daily routine, so we’re going to take photos of you all day, we’re going to record everything you ate at lunch…. I mean we would be horrified. It’s an extreme example, but it does create a bit of perspective.
Emily – I know! It goes against my early experiences of child care when I was so amazed by what a beautiful world it was, the kids were so interesting, and it was filled with games and joy and ideas and creative moments and then suddenly a clip board was thrust in my hand and I was to record how many servings each child ate at morning tea. And suddenly I was taken out of that world, I couldn’t communicate with every child properly I couldn’t chat, I was just controlling and recording. It seemed so unnecessary.
Lisa – It’s not the professionals who want that, it’s the parents, and between the parents.
Emily – Yeah. One of the most disturbing things I’ve heard recently is about a cake police and kids can’t have birthday candles in childcare centres anymore because of germs. And the reason the play is called Cough, is because of that sort of idea, that something is being spread around the centre that needs to be stopped, needs to be controlled. There is some stuff in there about anti-bacterial wipes and vaccinations as well.
Lisa – Children are like prostitutes in that they bear the burden of all our undisclosed problems.
Emily – (Laughs)
Lisa – Prostitutes are the symbol of the corrupt, the worst in society and children are the symbol of the pure, the best in society and each bear the burden of our ugly secrets in similar ways.
Emily – That’s interesting. And that’s the character of Frank, and he perfectly personifies that idea, he’s a bit naughty, but by the end of the play he has gone really demonic. And the actor that plays him, Tom Christophersen, is very funny because he plays him quite demonic, inspired a bit by The Omen.
Lisa – (Laughs) That’s perfect! That’s what we want from our theatre.
Emily – Another aspect is the litigious burden that hangs over everything. They don’t seem to have this need to regulate so heavily in Europe, but that corresponds to the way we run our society anyway.
Lisa – Oh! I forgot to ask you about that. Isn’t that just an oppressive force, that whole suing thing. It controls and dictates medicine, in fact every important aspect of our life, because the professional can be sued over something terribly serious.
Emily – Yeah. So I guess everyone is so worried about law suits.
Lisa – My brother is in child care, and he told me about huge issues they had at their centre with Facebook, people’s concerns about who was getting access to the site, who could see a photo of the children, so they took the videos down, they took the images of children don they removed children’s names, and the address of the centre, and in the end they just took down the Facebook all together. The same thing with a vegetable garden – parents were too worried about what might be in the soil, pesticides and plant varieties and so they just took the vegetable garden away.
Talk about the oppression of the strong over the vulnerable.
Emily – That was interesting the point you made about if this happened to adults. I think that would make a good play.
Lisa – (Laughs) I guess mothers feel bad as well that they’re not home with their kids, and therefore the hyper control is about guilt at not being a stay at home mum.
Emily – Totally! That’s a key point and that is what I saw when I tried to really look at the anxiety deeply. This is something one of the fathers, Clive experiences. He gets really anxious about the sand. Julie has a lot on her plate and she allows Jess to get away with quite a bit. Secretly she worries that she is a neglectful mother. Isabelle asks her about the poo charts one day and Julie confesses she never looks at them. Isabelle often makes Julie feel guilty
Lisa – Here at the end of our lovely chat, is there something you’d like to say about Cough before we end off? We’ve focussed very intensely on the anxiety and parenting thing, but I wanted to ask you to have the last word about other aspects of the play.
Emily – I think Cough is very funny. That is something to remember. The actors are funny and we’ve all been laughing a lot so I’m allowed to say that now!
The surreal takes over. A tree springs up out of nowhere and the kids start climbing it. There’s creeping sand, skink outbreaks and a monster called Brian. Lots of crazy, disturbing, uncontrollable events occur in the play. It all comes back to society’s perception of what is dangerous and what is not, and the whole aspect of child’s play and what that is and how as adults we need to bring a bit more of that in. Maybe allowing more chaos to exist.
Lisa – We lose sight of the value of what is created when you step away from the real.
Emily – Yes. Exactly. And James (Dalton) is so collaborative, it’s exciting watching the play come together alongside the strong creative voices working on it. Jimmy has been a dramaturge from the start on Cough and he is very collaborative anyway, and he just brings out the best in everyone. I just get so excited, because when Jimmy and I were originally talking about having no budget, or at least a limited budget and Jimmy wanted to be sure I was ok with going with something very low-fi with the play, and I was like yeah! That was what I imagined. It’s a play about kids! It’s a play about creating something magical out of nothing. Everything is very DIY, but I really love that, and I love people creating out of simple sets.
Lisa – 107 Projects lends itself to that also, it’s a perfect space. I love it there.
Emily – I love it too, it’s cozy…
Lisa – … and people are out the back making music and art and then there is the art gallery….
Emily – … and the new bar…
Lisa – Oh! How exciting! (laughs) That’s a great idea.