Broken – Lisa chat’s with Mary Anne Butler (Theatre interview)
Broken is the next exciting play for the Darlinghurst Theatre Company and one for which we have been eagerly awaiting. Winner of the 2016 drama prize at the Victorian literary awards, subsequently going on to win the Literature Prize and being the first play to do so makes this a must for the 2016 audience circuit. Check out the blurb:
Broken is a haunting story of resilience and hope that taps straight into the heart of the Australian landscape. A near fatal car crash on an isolated road in the Australian Central Desert traps Ash in her car. Ash is rescued by a stranger and as the fateful night unfolds, three worlds collide.
Broken is on at The Eternity Playhouse Theatre in Darlinghurst from 3 August to 28 August. You can grab your tickets here.
I was lucky enough to get a chance to ask writer Mary Anne Butler some questions about this beautiful play that will hopefully give us some more insight into what we can look forward to.
LT: While not an Australian Gothic piece of Literature, Broken includes the wide Northern Territory landscape with inner turmoil, turning the desert into a kind of eerie cage or entrapment for your pro Did you experience the terrifying, awesome and overwhelming presence of the Australian landscape in the same way your characters do while you were writing Broken?
MAB: I drove from Alice Springs to Glen Helen one day; a distance of about 130klm along a remote highway. On the way back my radiator over-heated, and I didn’t have enough water to refill it. I stood by my car and there was no traffic, either way. As night started to fall, I got an incredible sense of how alone I was out there, and it both terrified and fascinated me. The temperature started to plummet, Dingos called across the landscape with their thin, eerie, high-pitched yowl, and I thought I was done for.
A lovely bloke with a sensible water container eventually turned up and helped me out, but that moment of being utterly insignificant in that vast landscape stayed with me. As Broken took shape, the desert became a character in its own right. The car crash which sets off the chain of events in Broken is set exactly where my car broke down.
LT: Would you want Broken to be thought of as having gothic elements?
MAB: Not specifically gothic. It’s more elements of magic realism for me. I’m a huge fan of Jenny Kemp’s writing workshops where she brings in ‘left-of-field’ provocations which writers can incorporate into their work. It leads to surprising offers – invitations into other worlds – which in turn can generate incredibly strong imagery. I also love great poetry: Pablo Neruda, Seamus Heaney, Oodgeroo Noonuccal. Immersing myself in poetry while writing a play can really lift and hone the language for me, crystallising my imagery and taking the characters into other realms. If gothic creeps in through all this fertile ground, it’s just one of many other elements.
LT: How does a playwright transfer the enormous endlessness of the desert to the intimate and interior world of the theatre?
MAB: I’m not very visually intelligent, and fortunately that literal transference is not my job, that’s the director’s job! If I stop to think about the transition from page to stage while writing, it can paralyse me. My job is to try and write what is absolutely true for me – to try and capture the images in my head as clearly as possible – and then hand them over for interpretation to those who have strong visual and aural intelligence. In this case, director Shannon Murphy and her truly awesome design team.
I read a lot of plays. Sarah Ruhl, Andrew Bovell and Mark O’Rowe in particular have taught me that you can put ANYTHING on stage [respectively: raining elevators, falling fish, demons on cranes] and the audience will go with you, as long as the story’s core is strong and true.
LT: What is the most difficult aspect of writing about the experience of being in the Australian desert?
MAB: Living it. This country’s vast and isolated landscapes are the settings for all three of my plays and I drive my campervan to extraordinary out-of-the-way places in order to experience these extremes. I’ll engage with local folk and explore local landscapes to achieve veracity for the worlds I write about. I’m fascinated by people who choose to spend large chunks of their lives in isolated areas where access to shops, entertainment, schools, airports etc – is limited. It’s a kind of self-imposed austerity, yet they’re surrounded by another kind of rich-ness not readily accessible to city-dwellers. Every person I’ve met who chooses to live this way has a myriad of unique and strange stories to tell. I love doing these trips, but doing them alone can sometimes be a bit challenging.
LT: How do you use your language style to give the audience an experience of consensus that has them recognize pieces of themselves in your characters in Broken?
MAB: The dominant theme in all my works is resilience. I put my characters through some pretty dark stuff – loss, grief, despair – to see how they bounce back and I think everyone on this planet recognizes these states, so for me the consensus is assumed from the start, by choosing universal themes or states. I also love black comedy. The language and circumstances of my work often originate from a character in despair, which I then juxtapose with elements of magic realism – or absurdity – to create black comedy. This makes the work less relentless, hence more accessible and relatable for an audience.
A specific example of this is my play Highway of Lost Hearts, which has a Dog who talks. The Dog has a pretty wry sense of humour, so in moments of crisis for the human character, I’ll chuck in a Doggy truism, offering the audience an alternate perspective to the protagonist -who takes herself a little too seriously. This in turn allows the audience to step out of a sometimes heavy world, to find comic and emotional relief – or catharsis – in the Dog’s quirky philosophy. And this in turn offers up recognition.
In Broken, Ham tells Ash to ‘bite down on something’ as he binds her broken ankle. He’s the nearest thing to her, so she bites down on him. Every time I’ve seen the show being performed, there’s a massive laugh of recognition at this moment – which breaks the dramatic tension when the audience probably most needs a break. This leads to consensus, because at that moment we’re all on exactly the same page in terms of needing some light relief.
LT: How did writing Broken transform you as the playwright? How did Broken change you forever?
MAB: I think Broken made me sit inside myself, finally. Like many people, I struggle with myself: Am I doing the right things with my life? Could I be better at this? At being a playwright? At being a person? Broken affirmed my voice as a playwright, which in turn let me settle inside myself as a person. I think all artists go through massive stages of self doubt, and Broken taught me that the capacity for this level of work is in me, that I should trust that voice and keep going in my playwriting journey. It taught me that three and a half years to write 12,000 words is okay, if they’re the right words in the right order – so I’ve learned to trust my own process more. It’s made me more resilient. The lesson to self through Broken is just to hang in there. The work will find the right home at the right time. My job is just to keep going on the next ones, and stay true to them in the same way.
I’ve also connected with so many truly beautiful people through this play. It’s on in two capital cities at the same time, so I’m flying from one to the other to see it in rehearsals, and then again for openings – getting to know the diverse creatives, casts, crews and companies involved. And what a privilege that is.
LT: Do you ever write deliberately for independent theatre? Why or why not?
MAB: I live in Darwin. While we have the awesome Brown’s Mart Theatre, which offers financial and practical production and development support, the reality is that we have no professional, MPAG or fully funded theatre companies in the NT, and no full time dedicated theatre producers. I’m part of Knock-em-Down Theatre, one of the many NT based independent theatre companies. Self-producing means that considerations such as cast size, set costs, touring capacity etc are a massive part of the challenges we face, and while this makes it tough in some ways for a theatre industry to flourish, in other ways I actually love these constraints. They force me to come up with creative solutions. We can also afford to take a lot of risks with the work, because that’s what our audiences are used to, and respond well to – so there’s a great diversity of theatre forms and stories being told up there. It’s pretty awesome to be part of a community of focused, driven artists who genuinely support and champion each other at all levels and stages of the work, rather than competing.
Thank you so much Mary Anne Butler for that visit into the writing process, and that insight into indie theatre in Darwin. Broken is on at The Eternity Playhouse Theatre in Darlinghurst from 3 August to 28 August. You can grab your tickets here.