Lisa Chat’s with Chris Naylor, writer of Dancing Naked in the Backyard. (Theatre Interview)
Dancing Naked in the Backyard
Interview with C.J Naylor
April 15 – 26 Tap Gallery
I managed to catch Chris at The World Bar a week or so ago, and we sat down to a glass of red wine each and a chat about Dancing Naked In The Backyard, which opens at the Tap Gallery tonight. This is the premiere of Dancing Naked in the Backyard; it touches on themes that are universal and has a very contemporary take on the idea of good fences making good neighbors. How high does your fence have to be when your neighbors balcony is taking its view from your backyard? When your home has become the scenery for the ten apartments that are looking down on you, and your life becomes the soap opera for their entertainment, tempers flare, people’s privacy in their own home is threatened and the scene is set for some provocative and fascinating theatre that may or may not include a belly dancer…
Lisa: So what is Dancing Naked in the Backyard about?
Chris: The title is a quote from the play. Nancy says it. She wants to have the freedom to dance in the backyard without people gawking at her. It’s about relationships in a small community and the impact that over-development and urban consolidation is having on those communities. It’s about Sydney in general, all our suburbs around Sydney, but also the world’s problems of big buildings moving in and destroying a neighbourhood.
Lisa: It’s a really interesting topic actually.
Chris: It’s everywhere you go, St Ives, Hornsby, poor old Waitara there, with its 1920’s homes next door to ten story buildings that have sprung up everywhere. It goes back to Bob Carr and even pre Bob Carr. It’s not just Australia, it’s everywhere. It’s a way of dealing with overpopulation in a city. We had a suburban sprawl that needed to be changed. What were they going to do? Were they going to pour money into new roads, new schools, water and infrastructure? No. The answer was to contain the population. So you contain it around the semi urban areas, where their hub is.
Problem is, then that destroys the neighbourhood. People who have been there for ten, twenty years, suddenly across the road find they have these huge buildings staring at them. A culture that has grown up in these communities becomes fragile and is now threatened.
Lisa: You can’t pick Manhattan up and plonk it in Hornsby and expect the same sort of cultural vibrancy to transplant along with the tall buildings. It doesn’t work that way.
Chris: Yeah. There are those who say in urban areas they can go up over ten and in other areas only as high as five or six storeys. In Dancing Naked in the Backyard it’s meant to only be a six storey building. Now if you’ve got a little 1920’s style house and you’re looking out your window… say across there (we both look at the four storey apartments across Bayswater road) and they’re only four storey, imagine if it was six storey buildings? They go right along uninterrupted. Now think of some suburbs and plonk them in it – Manly, Hornsby, Castle Hill etc. You’d see the impact.
That’s the background to the play and it goes right back to the heart of the question, what do we do with the population? How do we deal with this?
Lisa: Yes, that was my next question, what is the alternative?
Chris: An Idea kicking around for quite a while has been to create skyscraper cities. Le Corbusier the French architect believed the way to house a growing population was build up and have gardens and services in between. Each area would have its own apartments, its own gardens and then small business and services between. Sounds good right?
Lisa: It does actually.
Chris: But knowing business as it is, the buildings got closer and closer together with no gardens and few services. Consequently what we see today is just a whole lot of buildings butted up against each other. It’s too costly to build the garden cities. It’s easier to use the land to put more buildings up.
Lisa: Is there an opportunity for small business to interact with this problem in some way, and bridge a gap here, because you can build a community around village life.
Chris: Yes. If that happens! But this becomes the initial idea in the play. In Dancing Naked in the Backyard, this developer comes in, and he tries to do something different. He tries to create a village life. It sounds good with leafy corridors and water features but when it is submitted to council, council wants it to remain five or six storeys along road corridors. So it becomes complicated and people like Derwent, Cathy, Nancy and Harold have their lives turned upside down by this guy trying to build this development. So they decide to try to fight it.
Lisa: When I was reading about this, I remember writing change on the outside equals change on the inside, so when these people have such a strong environment change, it can’t help but change who they are.
Chris: Yes. That’s right. So it affects each person differently. Derwent is the one who tends to lead, he’s the most articulate, but Nancy and Harold take a part. Harold even gets duped by the developer. When the developer can’t get this thing through, he then goes for the five or six storey option but he needs Harold’s support (and land) so he offers him one of the apartments and Harold decides to take it and it ends up being the sort of deal he didn’t sign up for. He is duped by the developer. But that is not to say that the developer is all bad. He’s forced by the circumstances
Lisa: … Oh yes! They have their own agenda and they have deadlines and obligations to fulfil as well, and they’re not bad people, but that is the trick of these things isn’t it? There is no one evil enemy, the individual is never the problem; or rather the individual is a nice person too. What do you do when you find out the enemy is you, or thinks, looks and acts like you?
Chris: That’s the problem. They’re never quite sure who is bad. And it’s a good idea to start with, but like so many good ideas they don’t work out so well when they are put together in the real world.
Lisa: (laughs) Sometimes it’s not just a good idea that is required.
Chris: Yeah, a bit more thought perhaps. So we’re faced with this right across Sydney, right across the world, simply because there are too many people living in cities, we’re going to have to find another way to deal with the population. There is a larger picture that needs to be taken note of. As city populations increase so environmental degradation increases. A whole plethora of impacts occur.
Lisa: That reminds me of Parramatta, and that’s been under the so called planning brilliance you describe, where it was going to be all these things, and now its soulless and sad out there, with all the locals eating at chain stores that could be anywhere and aren’t special to the area at all. In theory this planning idea should have worked in Parramatta.
Chris: Yes, it should have worked. The ideal would be to retain what is special about the area, work out what has heritage value and restore and preserve it. The spirit of Parramatta isn’t there. This is what Dancing Naked in the Backyard is about, the gutting of the spirit of a place. This is the problem Nancy and Harold face.
Lisa: So is all this based on eco passion?
Chris: (laughs) Well, I’ve noticed this and I had my own experience of going to council and having to fight for some things. I even used the words from the title of the play, arguing I should be able to ‘dance naked in the backyard’ without having people in big buildings gawking down at me.
Lisa: (Laughs) I bet that went down well. So my next question is about your masters of philosophy? It’s a personal interest of mine.
Chris: Well its sort of adjacent to this. It is in Modern History and on immigration to Australia. Part of the research was on how immigration impacts on Sydney’s infrastructure. However, the main focus of the Masters was on migrant tension as a result of Immigration. The white Australia polices. Racism gets repackaged in survival language in order to tell us we’re being good when we’re being racist. The idea is that white is central to Australia and that all other races are “the other”. The foundation of Australia is that we are a white nation.
Lisa: There was a nice little monologue at the Short and Sweet festival called “Is it Because I’m Indian”, by Rajendra Moodley about a second generation Indian man who is an actor, asking an agency for representation and they turn him away with the statement “we already have an Indian.” That hit me between the eyes that statement, it really brought it home for me.
Chris: It’s ridiculous, but that’s the attitude. They were so worried about being invaded by another country. They decided, early on, that this was going to be a white nation. This was going on all over the world, in the Americas and in South Africa. It has to do with white superiority.
Lisa: I was going to ask you if all this was tied to colonization and our very own cultural cringe! London needs to approve of everything in the arts, and it’s still true today.
Chris: Essentially people saw themselves as British in Australian. In 1901 we weren’t even Australian; we were still Queenslanders or Victorians etc.
Lisa: Really the Second World War is the absolute manifestation of what we all really think anyway. So the Germans, in World War Two, spoke on our behalf in many ways. That’s quite shocking. We like to think of that as a German problem – we’re on the “Jews side”, not the German’s side.
Chris: There are a lot of books about the history of whiteness and things like that. You see it in the similarities between the Klu Klux Klan and Nazi Germany.
I think we’re diverting from the play.
Lisa: That’s all so interesting, I am fascinated by it. But yes, we should get back to the wonderful play. I was interested to see how collaboration was for you? I know that Brave New Word do a lot of collaborative work. How did you manage all that?
Chris: It was no problem at all. When they got it, it was about draft 10. We finished on draft 18. However, for a lot of this I was working with a dramaturg. There were bits that Travis (Travis Kecek is the director of Dancing Naked in the Backyard) wanted to remove, some that he wanted to trim and more to add. I would go away and rewrite according to his requests.
Lisa: So which writers inspire you? Who do you read?
Chris: Oscar Wilde is a favourite. Mamet, Sam Shepherd, Alan Ayckbourn – he’s quite prolific, I’m trying to work through his plays.
Lisa: So is Dancing Naked in the Backyard funny? I didn’t realise that.
Chris: It’s a serious comedy. It has this serious intent and then has comedic, satirical patches to it.
Lisa: What made you start writing plays?
Chris: I’m an avid film buff, and I think it has extended out of that. But I’m more determined to write and work it out through the plays. You have to write these things very low budget because companies don’t have much money. It’s one of the constraints.
Lisa: Nothing is properly subsidized in this country.
Chris: In theatre if you can meet costs, then you are lucky. There is a bit of money coming into this one.
Lisa: Luke Holmes seems to have so much energy and determination; there is a strong sense of everything being possible around him.
Chris: Oh yeah! They’re very committed. Travis is also really committed. He’s very good.
Lisa: Is this the first time you’ve been able to see one of your plays performed?
Chris: I’ve seen shorter versions, but this is the first properly full length one.
Lisa: Oh that’s a big deal. Congratulations. That is really exciting. Is there anything you’d like to say about Dancing Naked in the Backyard before we finish up here?
Chris: I did a lot of research on selling techniques and the art of persuasion, particularly in working on the developer, as he has to sell the property. So some of the principles he put forward he actually uses in the play – maybe that’s positive or not. How you sell something in a way that people do not know they’re being persuaded… well…
Lisa: … yes?
Chris: Say no more! You’ll have to find out in the play.