Alana Valentine is a multi award winning playwright with over 20 stage plays to her credit. For Parramatta Girls she was nominated for a NSW Premier's Literary Award and two Helpmann Awards, including best New Australian Work and Best Play, and her play Shafana and Aunt Sarrinah was nominated in the best Independent Production category at the 2009 Sydney Theatre Awards.
Alana talks to Australian Stage's Simon Piening about her latest work – Student Body.
You are a prolific writer with over 20 stage plays to your name, numerous radio plays and a number of short films. How did you get started as a writer? Why were you attracted to writing for performance? Where does the drive come from?
I love giving audiences the opportunity to be surprised and refreshed by the incredible diversity of people who I meet in my life but who are often not seen on Australian stages. I loved it when Belvoir Street patrons clutched my arm and said, 'I hate football but I loved your play,' referring to my play Run Rabbit Run. And the same with the Parramatta Girls play when people said to me 'Wow, these women are really funny even though they've been through so much pain.' I love affirming to myself and others in a theatre that life is more complex and people are more dimensional than we often fall into the habit of assuming. I have a passionate desire to unbalance assumptions and recalibrate the way people view 'the other', people who they have previously ignored or underestimated.
Your works display a strong interest in Australian social history and community inclusiveness. How did you become interested in those issues?
People often refer to playwrights who are interested in such issues as 'political writers' and while I don't resile from that tag at all I can honestly say that I am interested in diverse communities because I just get bored with plays about adulterous middle-class marriages. And I think it's more than bored too, I get angry because I want theatre to shake me out of my complacency and my phobias and my fears and my arrogance and I guess I trust that there are others who want theatre to do that for them as well. Certainly I am interested in the form of theatre and the dimensions of its artistry but I remain unsettled by a theatre which doesn't seize the opportunity to make a bit of mischief with the value systems of the audience.
You have tertiary qualifications in Museum Studies - indeed you have created works for the Sydney Museum, the National Maritime Museum, the Australian War Memorial and Sydney Jewish Museum amongst others. In developing your plays you often employ an extensive research and interview process, borrowing techniques from ‘verbatim’ theatre. Is that research and interview process something you particularly enjoy? Can you explain ‘verbatim’ theatre?
Verbatim is a constantly changing and diversifying technique which often privileges voices that are rarely heard on the Australian mainstage. But a lot of people are ignorant about the multiple forms of verbatim and think that it is just direct address quotes from real life, testimonials if you will, where people tell us their stories mostly in monologue form. Since I have two verbatim plays on the HSC syllabus this year I have been giving seminars for teachers who are teaching the subject and with them have been exploring the exciting ways in which verbatim is just as dramatic, just as suspenseful and humorous and carefully structured as much non-verbatim theatre. The thing that distinguises verbatim is really more the commitment and involvement of communities of interest in the presentation and research of the work and that's the part that I really love. I love putting a microphone in front of someone and saying let's for a moment shine a torch on your soul and let's for a moment stop and hear what you think is worthwhile about your life and your hopes and your experiences. I can't tell you the privilege and thrill of sharing moments like that with people who may never have talked so openly and deeply even to their best friend as they do to me. It's humbling.
You’ve worked with major companies like Belvoir, La Boite and Playbox, but you also have a clear commitment to small scale and independent companies, like New Theatre and the Alex Buzo Theatre Company. What do the small companies offer that you can’t get from the ‘big’ companies?
All companies offer you different resources and different audiences and I enjoy making work for them all. I suppose I have always resisted the idea of a heirarchy where the big companies are at the top and the smaller companies are tailing in their wake. My perspective is that different companies access different audiences and explore different philosophies of what makes good theatre and I find it exciting to be exposed and challenged by those competing philiosophies in different companies and AD's. So what attracts me to work for a company is not so much the size, although, let's be honest, its simply thrilling to have the resources to really explore highly imaginative ideas, but actually the vision of the AD and that can be incredibly exciting wherever that person is and however they are resourced. What attracts me to many small companies is the dynamism of the AD and General Manager and their vision for how theatre can work in their community.
Tell us about your latest work, Student Body for Boobook Theatre. What inspired the play?
When I was doing my Graduate Diploma in Museum Studies at Sydney University an International student said to me, 'We are like ghosts in your midst, most of you don't even see us.' I decided to explore the world he was offering to guide me through and Student Body is the result of my adventures down the international student rabbit hole! I've already talked about putting little heard voices on stage so that is true in this work as in the others. It's been such a buzz hanging out with Chinese and Indian and Malay and Thai and Indonesian students, I mean, when do most Australians get to do that? They have a funky take on Australia and Australians that is both challenging and very funny. I guess the play is about unrequited love....many of the students talked about how excited they were to get here and then how disappointed they were once they arrived. And they're all exploring their sexuality and identity and getting drunk and doing all the things other uni students do so the theme of unrequited love seemed like a good way to view the diversity of tales I was told.
So what’s next?
I am working on a joint ATYP/Tantrum commission called GROUNDED which is set in Newcastle. Last week I was helicoptered onto a Panamax class bulk carrier off the coast of Newcastle and stood on the bridge observing the work of a marine pilot guiding the ship into Newcastle Harbour. The play is about a girl who is obsessed with bulk carriers. So....how do you like that for extreme playwrighting? Who needs to sit at their desk when there are bulk carriers to be guided into harbour, eh?
Student Body by Alana Valentine, presented by Boobook Theatre, plays at the University of Melbourne until March 25, 2011. Further details»