Matt Scholten is the Artistic Director of If Theatre. This week in collaboration with Theatre Works 2010 Selected Works, Daniel Keene’s 2007 play The Nightwatchman is being restaged for Melbourne audiences, directed by Scholten and performed by Roger Oakley, Zoe Ellerton-Ashley and Brad Williams.

Director Matt Scholten and Playwright Daniel Keene share a memory or three with Australian Stage's Paul Andrew.

The NighwatchmanMatt Scholten

Matt what is your earliest and fondest memory of theatre?
I think if what you’re asking me is what was my starting point in my relationship with theatre, then, to be honest, it’s not really about one particular moment. It’s a build up over time of moments, a slow realisation about how important, how intrinsic theatre is to my life, to who I am and how I want to communicate to the world. So it’s hard to discern one particular, solid, vivid memory.

Tell me about playwrights who capture your imagination?
I’m drawn most to writers who aspire to an emotional purity in the way they imagine their worlds. And so their worlds - their characters - have all the internal conflict, internal confusion that we have. And I really value the opportunity to explore this too when I engage with their writing. I think it’s a deceptively difficult place to write about, these worlds. It’s hard to write about characters where to be true to them you have to deeply explore things about yourself that you may not want to explore. Your own weaknesses and demons, for example. I think that takes a lot of emotional courage and strength, things that actually aren’t that easy to act upon. 

And directors?
They range. I’ve obviously been inspired and influenced by my training at VCA and the directors I’ve worked with there. Susanne recently gave me a copy of British director Katie Mitchell’s The Directors’ Craft: A Handbook for the Theatre. We’d been talking about her a lot and I’ve followed her work quite a bit. I really admire her attention to detail to every aspect, every step in making theatre. To the nuances of the work, the fine moments. I think theatre lives; it soars, in these fine moments.

Your directing journey so far?
I came to professional directing later in my life, even though I sort of always had a love of theatre and performing. I did everything I could to procrastinate and distract myself and worked for a long time in teaching and then the corporate world. In retrospect I think it was because I wondered if I was really good enough to get up in front of a bunch of talented, artistic people and lead them towards creating something together. That seemed very daunting. In many ways it still does. But I look at that now as a good thing and that it helps fuel my work. 

Tell me about IF Theatre - the vision, the ethos?
It’s a strange question, because it feels quite backward looking. The Nightwatchman is – in many ways sadly - the last show for If Theatre. Next year I start a new company, Appetite, with friend and collaborator Susanne Kean. But I think what’s interesting about the two – If Theatre and Appetite - is where they intersect, where they’re the same.

For me, I guess I’m really interested in a few fundamental things – exploring that emotional undercurrent in really great work, sort of like what I talked about before with writers. And exploring that in a collaborative way. I think they’re the two main things that will travel through from If Theatre to Appetite.

Susanne is interested in these things too; we sort of have the same vision for what theatre can be. What we want theatre to be. I think what Susanne brings as well in terms of her interest in particular kinds of work is a broader interest in how forces beyond our immediate view come to bear down on us in ways that we don’t even realise – you know, those big generational forces, generational changes. Social norms, history. Social change. All the big stuff. Somewhere between the two – between those intimate, virtually internal moments between and within us and those huge forces beyond our control and even our awareness – that’s where we’d like to find a home for Appetite.

How did you first come across upon Keene's work, by chance or by design?
Bit of both – I directed All Souls whilst I was studying at VCA.

We met briefly during All Souls and actually formed a closer working relationship when I directed Half And Half in 2008 which has evolved over time. We sort of have this ongoing conversation that happens whether I’m in rehearsal for one of his works, or not. That underpins the collaboration – that sense of him in the rehearsal room – when I come to directing one of his works. During the rehearsal period he pops in every now and again, but he’s not there the whole time. He’s there first day – for the first read – and comes in intermittently, but not often. We’ll talk almost daily on the phone, so he knows what’s going on. We’re both aware of keeping that fine balance of being true to his writing and creating a piece that is more than just his writing.

Daniel Keene

What is your own most memorable theatre experience so far?
I don’t think that there is a ‘most’ memorable, but I’ve seen quite a few productions that have stayed with me for years, that I still think about. One of the best I’ve seen was The Moscow Art Theatre’s production of The Seagull, which was produced here in Melbourne quite a number of years ago now. It was elegant, truthful, intelligent and deeply felt. Chambermade Opera’s production of The Fall Of The House Of Usher is another work that has stayed with me (it was one of the first productions in what is now known as the Merlyn Theatre at the Merlyn). Amazing design by Trina Parker. A La Mama production of Franz Kroetz’s play Farmyard is another work that I will never forget and that I think about quite often. The performances seemed so utterly truthful. Of course I’ve seen some bloody terrible things a well, which are also hard to forget!

You have been writing since 1979 - tell me about this time in your life what was urgent for you then?
What was ‘urgent’ was my desire to work in the theatre; I didn’t really know in what capacity. I’d tried acting, directing, and even a little designing. Unfortunately (or fortunately perhaps) I wasn’t very good at any of these things. I tried my hand at writing. I liked it and it seemed to like me. We’ve been friends ever since. 

Tell me something about the artists who inspired you at this time?
As a young man I was very fortunate to collaborate with Lindzee Smith, a director from The Pram Factory.  He was my ‘mentor’ you might say. He introduced me to all kinds of writing, to all kinds of possibilities for making theatre. His productions of Phil Motherwell’s Dreamers Of The Absolute, Peter Handke’s My Foot My Tutor and Sam Sheppard’s Cowboy Mouth remain some of the best, most exciting pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen. He was a genuine inspiration.

The writers who mattered to me then, still matter to me: Pinter, Beckett, Shakespeare, Handke, Chekhov, Brecht, Buchner, Miller, and Ionesco ... the list goes on. And there are always new writers to discover.

What is most urgent for you now as a playwright?
As always to be a better playwright.

And tell me something about artists who inspire you now?
Again, there are many writers, and directors and actors that I find ‘inspiring’, although I’m not sure that’s the right word. Perhaps ‘stimulating’ would be a better choice. Being in rehearsals with Peter Evans and the cast of Life Without Me was a real joy; working with Matt on The Nightwatchman has been, as usual, a very rewarding experience. What makes working with these people stimulating is the truthfulness of their work, their dedication to the always difficult and consuming process of making a piece of theatre, and their emotional and intellectual generosity.

And are there plays that you perceive as cornerstones of in your artistic life?
Shakespeare’s Lear stands out among others. 

Pinter’s The Homecoming; Buchner’s Woyzec; Kroetz’s Through The Leaves; Ibsen’s Brand; Miller’s Death Of A Salesman; Nowra’s Inner Voices; Beckett’s Endgame; O’Neil’s Long Days Journey Into Night; Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis; Hibberd’s A Stretch Of The Imagination; Von Horvath’s Kasimir And Karoline; Koltes’ Roberto Zucco; Barker’s Victory; Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya; Harrower’s Knives In Hens; Mamet’s American Buffalo ... etc.  Should I go on?

Do you have a technique or pattern that has emerged over these years of writing?
I begin with a blank page and silence. I wait to see what emerges. I try to decide as little as possible beforehand.

Memory is such a formidable aspect of the human condition - what are some of your thoughts about memory - and thoughts on other authors writing about memory too perhaps - about the role memory plays in living life well, understanding ourselves and each other, relating well?
To answer this question I’d have to write a play.
{xtypo_quote_right}Memory is the mother of all art. Nostalgia and sentimentality are its (deadly) enemies
– Daniel Keene{/xtypo_quote_right}
Do you feel that memory, including nostalgia and sentimentality, is an opportunity for contemplation and consolation?
Memory is the mother of all art. Nostalgia and sentimentality are its (deadly) enemies.

Was there a person or a time in your life that directly or indirectly inspired The Nightwatchman?
The play was inspired by the French actors and director that I was writing it for, especially by Maurice Deschamps, a blind actor who had played Albert Speer in my play The Architect’s Walk at the Avignon Festival. He was a marvelous man and a very, very fine actor. He passed away only a year or so ago. The play is dedicated to him.

On a more personal note, I think that the play draws its emotional energy from my own feelings about the death of my father. He died quite a number of years ago, and the play itself doesn’t directly relate to that event. But the sense of loss, of departure, that pervades the play has a lot to do with my own feelings about losing someone that I loved very deeply.   

And your character Bill - tell me about him. Is he a mélange of true life characters?
I never base my characters on real people.

When you observe one of your productions being staged locally or overseas, does it help inspire new writing, new themes, and new characters?
Yes, if the production is interesting, if it challenges the text, if it goes beyond what I was able to imagine the production would be like. I also find watching good actors at work very exciting, especially if they are able to take the character that they are playing (and that I have written) into physical and emotional territory that I hadn’t expected. Of course, the actors work must begin with finding a way to be truthful to the text, but they shouldn’t be enslaved by it.  

Can you tell me about the two European productions of your plays Scissors, Paper Rock at Théâtre de la Colline, Paris and Dreamers at the Théâtre National de Toulouse?
Scissors, Paper, Rock is still touring France, Dreamers doesn’t open until next year. I saw Scissors in Paris a few months ago. It’s a beautiful production of the play, and quite unforgiving. I think it’s perhaps one of the finest realisations of one of my plays. Carlo Brandt’s performance as the central character is one of those ‘once in a lifetime’ things. It was a privilege to witness his performance at La Colline. It gave me goosebumps every time I saw it, and I saw it half a dozen times. It’s seems pointless to try to describe the production.

I have been working on Dreamers for about two years. When I was last in Toulouse I spent two weeks with the director (Sebastian Bournac) and my translator (Severine Magois) refining the text. It was a very intense period of close work, going through the play line by line. I met the cast and the designer. The production is now in rehearsal. The rehearsal period is quite long. The play opens at the National Theatre of Toulouse in March 2011, after which it will tour to several cities around France. Commitments here in Australia permitting, I hope to be in Toulouse for the premiere.

There has been a popular interest in your work in Europe, why do you feel this is?
I don’t write plays with ‘Australian settings’. I avoid the vernacular and the parochial. I’ve never been interested in being an ‘Australian Playwright’; I’ve simply wanted to be a playwright. I can’t choose my nationality, but I can choose my profession. In saying that, I should make it clear that I’m quite proud to be an Australian and I think that Melbourne is one of the best places in the world to live; it’s also one of the most exciting places to be at the moment as far as theatre is concerned. The theatre (and dance) that is being made in Melbourne is some of the best you’ll see anywhere on the planet.

And does it help you understand yourself in a deeper way too perhaps?
I gave up trying to understand myself a long time ago. Now I just put up with myself.

What simple wisdom(s) might you offer another writer setting out on a career of writing plays?
Read plays. Write every day. See plays. Keep notes. Read plays. Remember that you are writing for the actor’s voice and that the words you write will be heard. See plays. Read more plays. Dream about plays. See more plays. Talk about plays. Study stagecraft. When you’re writing a play, read it out loud. And read poetry, lots of it. Did I mention that you should read plays?   

The Nightwatchman by Daniel Keene, directed by Matt Scholten opens Thursday 25 November, 2010 at Theatreworks. Further information»

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