Hilary Bell

Daughter of Australian theatrical legends John Bell and Anna Volska, Hilary Bell is an award winning playwright who has written for stage, radio, screen and music theatre. She is a graduate of the Juilliard Playwrights’ Studio, NIDA, and the Australian Film, Television and Radio School and has had her plays performed in Australia, Europe and the United States.

Her new work, Memmie Le Blanc, won the 2007 Inscription Award and will receive its World Premiere in Perth next month in a joint production between Deckchair Theatre and Vitalstatistix. She spoke to Australian Stage's Simon Piening about the new work.



Hilary BellYou grew up in a highly theatrical / literate household. Was it inevitable then that you would be involved in the theatre? Did you ever want to do anything else?
It wasn't inevitable, but it was certainly an available option from an early age. It took me until I was nineteen to realise I actually wanted to be a playwright – before that I'd been interested in theatre design, and also composing for musical theatre. Like a good teenager, I rebelled against expectations at one point and dedicated myself to wildlife conservation and animal rescue (issues still close to my heart). But nothing excited me as much as being in a space with other people as the house-lights go down, wondering what's about to happen.

Can you remember the first thing you wrote that actually got performed? What did it feel like seeing your work on stage? Is it any different now when you see your work performed?
My first 'grown-up' play was called Conversations With Jesus. It came out of the NIDA Playwrights' Studio in 1987, when I was 21, and went on to have a professional production in Sydney, which toured to the 1988 Brisbane Expo. As part of the Studio, Ken Healy took the group of writers to the country for a few days. We were seated around the kitchen table for the first reading of my play. I had to sit on my hands because I was trembling. I had lockjaw for the entire hour of the read. I hadn't anticipated that the stakes would be so high. I like to think in retrospect that this was so because I intuitively knew that the success of that reading would decide on my future as a playwright. Though perhaps that's fanciful.

The same excitement has charged every subsequent experience of sitting in the audience watching my own plays. Though I have to say it's never been as terrifying as that first around-the-kitchen-table reading.

In the 1970’s your parents were at the forefront of the fight for an Australian theatre that told Australian stories in an Australian vernacular. Do you think that fight has been largely won?
The fights' been won, and lost, and won again, and lost again, and is now gaining ground again. That is to say, the '70s and much of the '80s saw a flourishing of Australian plays, which has subsequently lost favour somewhat – though never completely. I think it's a good sign that when a company has very few Australian plays in their season, people do ask why; it's not taken for granted. And I don't believe in overlooking challenging international plays, nor the classics, in favour of an all-Australian palette – especially if these are told, as you say, in an Australian vernacular. But it's bewildering to me why we don't have the confidence in our artists that other countries have in theirs. Companies like Sydney's Griffin and Perth's Deckchair are crucial to the survival of Australian playwriting, because without productions of our plays, our writers don't get any better, and then there's the self-fulfilling prophecy: "We're not programming Australian plays because they're no good." Without Australian plays on our stages, we are culturally bereft.

You’ve followed in their footsteps to some extent with “7-ON” - a collective of 7 playwrights whose short works “The Seven Needs” form part of the 2007 Griffin Program. The ten-minute works, based on Maslow’s famous “Hierarchy of Human Needs,” are scattered throughout the Season, like bonus hidden tracks on a DVD.

Can you tell us about 7-ON - what are the aims? Where did the “Easter Egg” idea come from? Are there plans for more works or is it a one-off project?

7-On comprises Donna Abela, Vanessa Bates, Noelle Janaczewska, Verity Laughton, Ned Manning, Catherine Zimdahl and myself. It was born from a writers' group that met casually a few times. Discussion quickly turned from issues of craft to issues of politics: why were we all, as mid-career playwrights, finding ourselves dependent on the whims of others to do what we wanted to do? How have playwrights become so powerless? In this climate of 'hybrid', multimedia theatre, playwrights have fewer opportunities than ever. We also acknowledged that the very few crumbs tossed to playwrights in terms of grants caused divisiveness and envy. Inspired by such groups as 13P in New York and the Workhaus Collective in Minneapolis, we decided to band together and support each other as artists, to pool our resources and skills, and to commit to producing each other's work. Our original focus was less on collaborative projects than having a united voice. But two years after our inception, we have four or five project proposals bubbling away. It's been quite incredible what this solidarity has led to. We've become much stronger as individual artists in terms of what we'll put up with; we've attracted the interest of potential collaborators; we've inspired each other not only artistically but in terms of what we can achieve for Australian playwrights generally.
{xtypo_quote_right}I don't believe in overlooking challenging international plays, nor the classics, in favour of an all-Australian palette – especially if these are told in an Australian vernacular. But it's bewildering to me why we don't have the confidence in our artists that other countries have in theirs{/xtypo_quote_right}
Another benefit to our seven-headed group is the fact that while one person's web-savvy, another can write great grant applications, and another has contacts at a particular theatre, while someone else has the time to do research on everyone else's behalf. So we are able to achieve a lot more together than we could alone.

As for 'The Seven Needs', it's been a fantastic experience seeing them one by one through the Griffin's season, and we're grateful to Nick Marchand, who took on the project sight unseen on the strength of our track records. (The 'Easter egg hunt' was Nick's idea.) What we want now is to see the seven playlets done as one evening, and are looking for a theatre company to programme it.

We're in the process of creating a web-page, but meanwhile you can check out our blog: http://sevenon.blogspot.com

Your latest work, Memmie Le Blanc, is the story of a feral child who was found in the Champagne region of France in 1731. Can you tell us a bit about Memmie Le Blanc?
I read a wonderful book called 'Savage Girls and Wild Boys' by Michael Newton, which is where I first heard of Memmie. She is unusual in the gallery of feral children (already unusual!) in that she learnt to speak, and to 'pass' as a normal person, although apparently a vestigial wildness remained in her eyes. She was captured and forcibly civilised. She was taken in by a duke, who passed her onto a viscount, who gave her to the nuns, who put her in a hospital… with periods in between of great uncertainty. It seemed that her fate was to be continually taken up and abandoned, her hopes forever raised and dashed. She turns up occasionally in contemporaneous accounts, and while there are great gaps in her history, she can be followed through to her destitute middle-age.

Your story is an invention, but based on the true story - what was it about her story that attracted you to it?
I was deeply moved by the story of her several abandonments, and intrigued by the idea that once she was brought into the fold of human society, society then had a responsibility to take care of her – and this was not done. It seemed to me an extraordinary paradox that this child had been able to survive through European winters, hunting her own food, keeping out of the reach of wolves and bears – yet once she was 'saved', she was dependent on others for every crust of bread. More than that, reclamation entailed the destroying of not only her incredible physical prowess, but also her basic health, so that she lost teeth, nails and hair, and was irrevocably weakened.

On the other hand, it begs the question of what civilisation means, what it means to be human. I don't romanticise the idea of the 'nature child' – there's a terrible loss in the undiscovered potential of a mind, of selflessness, of the reciprocity of love. Civilisation gives us these things.

I began Memmie Le Blanc when my children were aged two and four, and questions of civilising were at the forefront of my mind. So much of it is arbitrary, or contradictory, or hypocritical. Yet, we need it to protect ourselves from chaos. Yet, it's made of air, it's in our minds, it doesn't really exist – you see how ephemeral it is in a situation like the New Orleans Superdome, where it took less than a day for desperate human beings to revert to robbery, rape and murder.

So what’s next for you?
A number of things! I'm writing a musical called Do Good And You Will Be Happy, with composer Phillip Johnston, about E.W. Cole and Cole's Funny Picture Books. I've been working on a play for NORPA in Lismore, called The Bloody Bride, inspired by Lorca's Blood Wedding, which has a group-devised, physical theatre element. I'm under commission to write a play for Yale Rep in the United States. I'm adapting Alex Miller's novel Journey To The Stone Country for the screen. And 7-On's projects include a theatrical response to the recent exhibition, 'City of Shadows,' comprising Sydney police photographs, as well as a large-scale adaptation of Nietzsche's 'Thus Spake Zarathustra'.


For further information on Memmie Le Blanc click here»

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