TickTickBoom – Lisa chats with Melissa Lee Speyer (Theatre Interview)
I’ve known the team from Subtlenuance (Daniela Giorgi and Paul Gilchrist) for some time now, and a reoccurring subject in our (very many) late night chats has centrerd around an issue Australians seem to have with Australian writers. Even today, Australian writing is seen more as something to “encourage” as if it were good for us like a salad or a vitamin pill rather than a very real opportunity to explore issues that relate to our cultural identity and what it means to ‘be Australian.’ That doesn’t necessarily mean dealing with politically charged issues (although that is important), rather it means establishing a strong understanding of how we are the same and different from The Other of foreign lands and cultural identities. Perhaps if Australian’s were more sure of our own culture we’d feel less threatened by difference. Perhaps if we saw more Australian films, television and theatre we’d be less influenced by the U.K. and U.S.A. and gain confidence in making our own decisions internationally. In teaching ourselves how to love our newer Australians and our oldest Australians we may learn how to love ourselves a little better.
No one understands these topics better than Melissa Lee Speyer, one of the first winners of The Silver Gull award. Melissa claimed the prize in 2015 with TicTicBoom, which Subtlenuance are now bringing to the stage in Sydney, for us fortunate locals to enjoy. I was lucky enough to get the chance to chat with Melissa about TicTicBoom and about issues of diversity and what it is to be a writer in Australia. Below is the result of that conversation.
Subtlenuance have this to say about TickTickBoom:
It’s late 1996.
Sydney’s about to stage its first big NYE fireworks display.
The Internet is becoming a Thing.
Jodie and Clara are entering their final year of school.
And Clara has her whole life ahead of her.
Jodie has a damaged heart.
What can you learn of life if you’re given so little of it?
Bursting with heartbreak, humour and hope, this beautiful tale of female friendship won the 2015 Silver Gull Play Award.
Below are the details of the conversation I had with Melissa. TickTickBoom is on at The Actors Pulse in Redfern from 10 October. You can grab your tickets here. Enjoy!
LT: How does TickTickBoom reflect your desire to see more diversity in the arts?
MLS: The seed of the idea for TickTickBoom was planted in 2011. Leela Rottman was hospitalised with severe complications from her ongoing pulmonary hypertension. There was no hashtag for OscarsSoWhite or MeToo. Female stories were scarce. Stories about people with a disability were scarcer. I was the only non-white postgraduate at a certain theatre institution, and one of a very small handful of non-white students there at all. Nobody found that remarkable. After graduation, many assumed I’d write My Great Asian Story.
The landscape has shifted significantly since then; at the time, writing TickTickBoom was a direct response to that social context. I wanted “small” female stories and complex people with a disability to take centre-stage, to challenge martyr tropes; I wanted to explore sexuality and bitterness and existentialism through some underestimated young women. I wanted to explode the idea of what kind of story an “Asian” (Chinese-Malaysian, actually) writer is supposed to tell.
This all sounds really grandiose and “noble”. I wasn’t the first to do any of this, or to want to do it. I also wore my shirt inside out all of last weekend without realising (or washing it) and I frequently make well-intentioned mistakes when attempting to expand diversity in the arts, mistakes that have to be ironed out in development or in production. I guess sometimes it’s just important to try, and to cop it on the chin when you get it wrong.
LT: In the November 2017 UNHRC report on Australia’s human rights record, one of the key five points of concern were that all people in Australia should be able to live free from racism and religion intolerance. How can theatre impact a directive like that?
MLS: A part of me wants to say that it isn’t theatre’s job.
A part of me is pulling up a whiteboard and asking, how long have you got?
While I was studying, I was known as “the one who writes political theatre”. A lot of my work tries to balance advocacy with entertainment. Sometimes it works, sometimes it comes across as agit-prop. Sometimes the balance is in the eye of the beholder.
I think all performance-based storytelling teaches us something about the world and expands the way we think about our position in it. Consciously or unconsciously, all such work responds to, reflects back and grapples with the norms of the moment, because that work exists within that context. Every now and then you get a work that really shakes up social values in a tangible way, like Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette or The Handmaid’s Tale. But even the smaller stories shift our thinking in subtle ways.
Comedy is often an obvious marker of what is “now okay” and what isn’t – people either laugh or they don’t. The Honeymooners comedic catch-phase “One of these days, Alice! Pow! Right in the kisser!” highlighted 1950s social insensitivity to the threat of domestic violence. White actors portraying Chinese or Japanese characters, such as Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s was commonplace and broadly acceptable at the time, both as professional practice and as comedy. Reactions to both those examples are different now than they were then.
If you want to live in a world free of racism and religious intolerance, and bigotry in general, I’d say start by reflecting those values into the world, in everything you do. Every change has its impact, large or small. Theatre’s one way of many.
Sounds trite, but hey. And it’s not easy – there are individuals who I’m fairly intolerant of. But not because of the “group” of people they belong to, just because those specific people are jerks and I’m obviously right #tolerance #ihavealltheanswers #smughypocrisy
LT: How does TickTickBoom address some issues you have with some Australian theatre?
MLS: Do I have issues with Australian theatre? Why, what has Australian theatre been saying about me?
Beyond what I have already said about diversity – I guess I wrote a two-hander set almost exclusively in one location because I knew my first play wouldn’t get staged if it were an epic requiring significant location changes and a massive cast. Which is sad, because that’s the scale Australian theatre practitioners must learn how to create within, if we’re going to compete with Netflix and YouTube. Sure, first-time creators should start small and cut their teeth on something achievable that demonstrates their craft skill. But it’s a shame that independent theatre is forced into such tiny nooks and such a narrow scale and that shows have to compete for so few production spaces. At least in the UK there are theatre pubs, properly set up for independent work to get a low-stakes premiere and to learn to grow from there. In Australia, that’s the full extent of our playing space, and in Sydney in particular, spaces are very controlled and curated. Getting a new Australian play up and in front of an audience isn’t easy.
Also, when you talk to people outside the industry, why does Australian theatre feel to them like something they “should” (but won’t) experience, rather than something they crave? I’m not sure whether my play addresses this issue, but my first answer is, make something entertaining. Thankfully, subtlenuance is working hard to make that happen.
LT: For you, what would a well-established properly diverse Australian artistic culture look like?
MLS: Like my daughter’s preschool. A massive mix of ages, genders, races, shapes, socio-economic backgrounds, levels of ability. Families with two mums or two dads. None of that matters – everyone’s too busy playing together, eating together, making art together. Jerks are pulled up pretty quickly, everyone apologises to each other if anyone gets hurt and nobody holds a grudge. Sharing is caring. Everyone tries their best to remember their manners, and it’s ok if you wet your pants because accidents happen. And there’s a slide!
LT: Where did your drive to write TickTickBoom come from?
MLS: In a way, TickTickBoom has a desired audience of only one, because I wrote this play for Leela Rottman. She has pulmonary hypertension, a potentially fatal complication of, in her case, having been born with small holes in her heart. It’s a condition that is shared by Jodie, the main character, but while they are both very intelligent young women, that’s where the similarities end.
I wasn’t “inspired” to write this by Leela, or because I find her situation “inspiring”. I wrote it to express to her how much I wanted everything for her to be “okay”, and to explore what “being okay” really is. It exists to tell her that someone cares, and someone’s listening and trying hard to understand. I wanted to talk about invisible disability, so maybe someone somewhere might not be an impatient dick to someone else who’s quietly out of breath on the station steps during peak hour, or whatever. For me, it was about two people muddling through the unfairness of life and stuff together. But a little more articulately and less flippantly than that.
Also I’ve loved writing since I was five. So there’s that.
TickTickBoom by Melissa Lee Speyer
10 – 20 Oct
The Actor’s Pulse