Six of Australia’s young and emerging artists will present the second round of Melbourne Theatre Company’s Cybec Readings later this month. Australian Stage’s Paul Andrew spoke with Writer Michele Lee and Director/Dramaturg Sarah McCusker who are one of the three creative pairings selected to develop a new script.

Michele Lee is a Melbourne based writer whose produced works include, kiss me where you punch me, Oversexed, Sneakers, The Talking Vagina and Love. In 2009, she completed an Asialink Literature Program residency in Laos and developed the one-act plays Fall and The watering hole. In 2010 her play The Cellar Children received Arts Victoria funding to develop it into a full-length play called Apple. Sarah McCusker is a NIDA directing graduate with numerous credits to her name including One Cloud by Shannon Murdoch, The Bones Love Gringo by Tom McLachlan and A Glass of Twilight by Daniel Keene. She has worked with Company B Belvoir, St Martins Youth Theatre and is currently working on the development of a new project with Back to Back Theatre Company.

Michele, describe your play in seven words?
It’s a comedy about friendship and escape.

Roundabout - tell me about your new script?
ML: The idea for the play started out with a conversation about the Herman Rockefeller case – this was the case with the murder of Herman Rockefeller by two ‘swingers’, here in Melbourne. When Sarah and I were first meeting, these two individuals were being sentenced so there was media attention about the case.

I think we both agreed that there was enough media sensationalisation and that we didn’t want to create a true crime sort of play that would add to the hype and misperceptions (for example, Herman visiting a couple for sex wasn’t technically even swinging). One thing we talked about was that the swinging community can tend to be quite suburban, and this interested me, the idea of urban vs. suburban in Australia.

I felt that this was a broader canvas to work with than going behind the scenes of a swingers’ party, and it became a starting point for a play where one character has lived her life overseas while her best friend has stayed living in the same neighbourhood. I chose Canberra as the setting because I think it’s a city that many Australians already perceive to be quite banal, a place you’d want to leave, a giant sprawling suburban town. Also, I’m from Canberra so it gave me ready knowledge to use in fleshing out the details of the setting and the world.

Regarding the name, well, roundabouts are a Canberra motif so it was an obvious choice. Perhaps a cheap gag! There is also a theme of cycles and circles in the play, and structurally I was trying to keep this motion in mind when putting the play together.

Have you got a funny roundabout story?
Hmm, aside from being terrified by the roundabout here in Melbourne that connects Flemington Road, Royal Parade, Elizabeth Street and Peel Street, no, I don’t have any funny stories. But having lived 23 years in Canberra, I have been through many, many roundabouts.

Canberra sounds like Roundabout heaven?
True. There are popular perceptions of what Canberra is like. Essentially, that it’s boring, and the play works with these ‘perceptions’. Whenever I tell people I’m from Canberra, I get a sympathetic look and a sort of knowing understanding about why I moved to Melbourne. I’m proud to say I’m from Canberra; it’s where I grew up. It will always be my true home.

But, of course, I acknowledge it is relatively slower in pace than Melbourne or Sydney. Canberra is a planned city. Picked as the nation’s capital, to settle the rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney, I think the planners thought they’d better not stuff Canberra up and so they really made sure Canberra was ordered. This meant that it was developed in townships, with a major shopping centre at the heart of the township, and small shopping centres in the heart of each suburb. Each town is about 15 minutes drive from one another. So, the orderliness of the place has meant that you don’t get the beautiful, wonderful, organic development that other towns have. And everything is really spaced out. So, the place seems empty.

And, the public transport sucks. Cars, baby. That’s the way to go in Canberra.

Is there poetry for you in Canberra?
The play is Williamsonesque, really. In that, it is deliberately very naturalistic. And it deliberately has a lot of educated, middle class people talking to one another about educated, middle class things.

But I’ve found that the poetry has slipped in quite easily, with imagery of homecoming, escape, and mountains for example. Canberra is nestled in mountain. And it is this natural landscape has become a motif, rather than the roundabouts actually.

Tell me about your writing journey so far?
Well, with this particular piece the journey’s been quite pain-free. I mean, I’m working on tightening the script at the moment and there are certainly things I can see that I would have done differently, that I could have picked a different play to write even! But, regardless, this play hasn’t been too nerve-wracking, even though it is the longest play I’ve written (a big two-acter).

I wrote my first plays when I was doing drama at college (years 11 and 12 in the ACT). I wrote some plays at uni, and was even nominated for a local theatre writing award. But I really kicked off with being more serious about playwriting when I arrived in Melbourne. The starting point was doing a writing mentorship with Express Media in 2005/06, working with a wonderful woman; Gorkem Acaroglu who was my mentor and dramaturg.

After this, I established a theatre collective, Theatre in Bars, at RMIT. I did this with a friend of mine, a performer called Alia Vryens. I was studying the writing and editing diploma at RMIT, on top of working full-time. I worked two part-time jobs usually, doing marketing communications stuff or writing and editing (I studied Advertising at the Uni of Canberra.) Anyway, through the collective I got the chance to direct and produce a variety of stuff, including plays of mine.

After this, I’ve had a few development grants and residencies. The MTC is the second commission I’ve done, the first one being a 20-minute play with St Martins in their playwrights’ studio.

Which writers inspire you?
I’m bad, I confess. I haven’t read the full catalogue of any one playwright’s work. But, there are individual pieces I’ve read that have had me going “Wow, I wish I could have written that” by writers such as David Mamet, David Hare, Edward Albee, Harold Pinter, Carol Churchill, Sarah Kane, Patrick Marber, Martin McDonough. I think Tom Holloway, a young Australian playwright, is breath-taking.

I am inspired by Huraki Murakami, Charles Bukowski, Dave Eggers, Graham Greene, Franz Kafka, and George Orwell. I like TV shows such as The Wire, 30 Rock, True Blood. I like Asian cinema, and I like Wong Kar Wai. I like Ang Lee’s work - before and after - he went to Hollywood.

I just saw The Social Network. The screenplay was great. Now I’m going to have to make some time to watch The West Wing. I like the lyrics to Radiohead songs. I like pop music. It’s a whole range of textual influences, but it’s probably largely Western influences. And it’s probably quite muscular and masculine writing I like, stuff that is pretty unsentimental. I guess I am a child of my generation, with ‘high’, ‘low’ and ‘pop’ cultural influences.

How do you feel about being selected for this year's Cybec readings?
I think it is absolutely essential that a large company like the MTC provides pathways for writers to connect with the company. It gives the company exposure to new writers, it gives audiences exposure to the work of new writers, and it gives us insight into the needs of a big state company.

A big company like the MTC really has a responsibility to be creating contemporary stories, as well as showing audiences classic and international works – but in staying contemporary, it needs to connect with the next generation of artists, including playwrights. One thing I really enjoy about the connection with the MTC is the focus on thinking about writing for larger stages and an international focus, in that the company works with international artists. It provides me a more global perspective too, that there are markets for our work outside of Australia.

There is a lot of ongoing conversation about the role of the playwright in Australian theatre, and I think this is connected into an ongoing conversation about how theatre is made. When Playbox changed over into the Malthouse, we lost a writers’ theatre here in Melbourne. However, the direction that that company has gone in, as far as pathways for younger artists, is to be commended. They are allowing opportunities particularly for emerging theatre ensembles to practice; this is great – because obviously text is made in this way too, by a group and not necessarily in the way that I work.

But there is a gap too, and I think the MTC is filling this by creating a program to develop writers and develop relationships between writers and dramaturges/directors. Of course this fits in more broadly into the heritage of theatre production, because it really honours the role of the playwright.

What stories do you feel are most urgent now?
I’d like to see more non-Anglo stories on the main stages. I’m Asian, not everything I write will be about Asian people, but I am conscious that the stage is very white.

Also, I think in general that it is absolutely a necessary experience to see theatre. I think we always need stories that talk to the heart, the head and the gut, that bring audiences together in communion with storytellers. It is such an electric experience; it is really about gathering and community. And it’s urgent that we do more of this, so we stay connected to each other!

What is your most secret fantasy surrounding this November reading?
Hmm, it’s probably not a secret fantasy! I want to seats to be filled, and for people to leave each reading with a sense of being changed, of being affected.

Sarah, tell me about your own experiences of Canberra?
I’ve only been there once and that was when I was high school for a student theatre festival. Amusingly enough, the thing I remember most clearly is the amount of roundabouts and the fact that when I tried to get to Parliament House, the path I was walking on suddenly stopped.

What drew you to Michele’s script?
Michele and I worked on this from scratch so it’s not so much me being drawn to a pre-existing script but rather working with a writer on creating something mutually interesting from its inception.

The play's premise and what do you love about it?
My take on this script is that it’s about women’s’ friendships and what happens when shared childhood history is at odds with where you end up as an adult. It is also about loss and the grieving of that loss whether through actual death or through regret for a life that never came to pass. I love playwriting that incorporates strong roles for women and there are three great women in this script.

What challenges you in the script?
In its current draft, there are a few sex scenes and I can’t help but feel ‘how the hell am I going to stage that?’

Tell me about your Director's journey so far?
I’ve been directing for 15 years and I got my start, probably quite badly, at the previously mentioned theatre festival in Canberra. Later at Melbourne Uni, I fell in with the student theatre crowd and began directing in earnest whilst my studies languished on the side. I did my post grad directing training at NIDA in 2005 and have been directing professionally since then.

Which two Director's and Director's (and their work too) inspire you and why so, tell me about this in some detail?
Neil Armfield and Bruce Gladwin both of whom I have been fortunate enough to sit in rehearsals with. I consider both to be quietly genius in the way they create theatre.

Neil is the reason I chose to become a director in the first place…I saw his production of ‘Angels in America’ when I was still at school and thought “I want to do what that guy with the glasses in the program does”. His work is whimsical and nuanced and actors love him. Through him, I discovered that whilst the writer is the author of the script, the director is the author of the production.

In more recent years, I have been perpetually inspired by Bruce Gladwin’s work at Back to Back in Geelong. His work is deceptively simple, beautiful and chock full of humanity. He’s another director whose actors love him.

Tell me something about your very initial conversations, about what sort of journey you imagined in bringing Roundabout from concept to stage?
Our initial conversations were basically us both generally rambling about how we see the world, our respective values and interests and the kind of theatre that we love. The idea behind this very general start was to find central themes which interested both of us as director and writer, and the idea of adults returning to their childhood home and early friendships was one of those.

Tell me about any earlier readings you had (if at all), and what these readings with actors revealed?
We’ve had no readings so the rehearsal day before the reading will be the first time either of us has heard the script read aloud by actors. It’s very exciting!

Provide me with an overview of what the various stages of these readings entail, from seed to stage?
I can only speak about my process with Michele because every writer/dramaturg team for the readings is likely to have had their own. But for us, it was about that general first series of conversations and then once we’d found a few things that interested us both, Michele started drafting. My role during this phase was asking questions about character and structure and trying to tease out her intention for the piece. Subsequent to this, we have discussed potential cuts and edits and I have been working with Aidan Fennessy to cast the actors and finalise arrangements for the reading itself.

Throughout the process we have both been regularly meeting the group as a whole and swapping ideas and suggestions for each others’ work.

Whilst we will be presenting a public outcome of over 5 months of creative work, this is just the first phase in the potential development of all these scripts. So maybe they will have a further life, maybe they won’t…only time will tell.

What do you feel actors bring to a script during a reading; tell me about these wonderful and sometimes daunting moments of illumination?
Actors bring that final element to the script development process and that is - of course - performance.

I think it’s easy for directors and writers to get so caught up in the words and the ideas behind a piece that they forget it will be performed, so when actors get their hands on it and ask totally different questions to make this happen, it is both enlightening and hugely useful.

Actors are a rare breed and bring unique creativity to everything they do so I’m very much looking forward to that aspect of the process.

Tell me about the actors involved? Natasha Jacobs
We will have six performers, three men and three women, and whilst offers are being sent out as we speak, no final confirmation is available right now.
[Editor's note: the cast for Roundabout have now been announced - Natasha Jacobs (pictured left) and Dylan Young (cover)]

Tell me about what you are learning so far about the script development process?
That dramaturgy is about asking the right questions at the right time, that this is easier said than done and that I’m likely to be learning about script development for the rest of my career.

Roundabout by Michele Lee, directed by Sarah McCusker, will be staged Thursday 18 November 7pm as part of The Cybec Readings.

The Cybec Readings

Roundabout: Thursday 18 November 7pm
The Gully: Friday 19 November 7pm
If I Can Dream: Saturday 20 November 7pm

Venue: The MTC Theatre, Lawler Studio
Tickets: Adult $10 | Under 30s $5
Bookings: (03) 8688 0800 | | at the door

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