Tim Stitz is excited that his play, a collaboration with writer Kelly Somes, LLOYD BECKMAN, Beekeeper has been selected for inclusion on the VCE Drama Syllabus. Paul Andrew gets some insight from the playwright about one of the necessities an author of autobiographical work must eventually face – what to include, what to leave behind.

Tim StitzIt is often said that smell is the primary sense to trigger memory – is this your experience Tim?
For me smells do illicit vivid memories and flash backs. They can take you back to a specific day, space and time whereas some smells conjure up abstract feelings of place and raw emotion. Freshly cut grass, the smell of coffee brewing and freshly baked bread give me the warm feeling of being comfortable and at home. I don't know if it's the smell of the Queensland dirt I remember but the combined feel and smell of the rich, red soil up there in south-east Queensland really takes me back to playing with my cousins on the farm midst the paw paw trees, bee boxes and then running to the Granny Flat for Grandma's potato scallops.

The smell of Grandad's honey extracting shed is also very iconic in my memory and a smell that I wanted to portray in the work. When we were doing research for the show Kelly and I were up at Hot House Theatre's 'Month in the Country' initiative in Albury/Wodonga (a residency program) and visited some beekeepers up there. We walked into a shed in Chiltern in northern Vic and I turned to Kelly and said, "this is it, this is the smell... can we recreate this for the show?"

So the smell of sweetness and honey is used in the show but it's not exactly the smell as I remember it (although sometimes when the lemon-scented gum is in full blossom you can catch the exact whiff I'm talking about!) I think all of the senses can illicit powerful memories in their own way. A piece of music can trigger an immediate and very visceral response in me – shivers up the spine, tears welling in my eyes. An artwork can do it for some people, a film, a photograph. That's what I love about art, it connects to us in such dynamic ways, and often is quite dependent on our mood at that particular time.

Tell me a little about the background to this collaboration between yourself and Kelly Somes – sharing insights must have been fascinating and difficult at times too?
Kelly and I met when I was working with a mutual friend and artist Talya Chalef at the VCA (she's currently living it up in New York City at Columbia Uni where she's doing her Masters – and incidentally she also took the iconic 'red char in the field' shot - her photography is stunning).

I was in Talya's graduation piece (she was doing Animateuring and Kelly was one of the directing post-grads in the same year). Kelly and I got talking and she then directed me in Still a Hero at La Mama in 2006 and because of her own work interest in memory and grief I approached her with my concept for Beekeeper. Our initial chats about our grandparents and our relationships with them rendered so much excellent material, in particular for the Grandson character in the piece. She was also able to meet Lloyd himself which certainly added to the development of the script. He charmed her as he does anyone he can bend the ear of.

"Based on a true story" – how do you yourself pitch this autobiographical play Tim?
It's been hard for me to pitch and write copy about the work itself. I guess because it's so close. The work is autobiographical and it's very much a mediation and picture of me at a certain time in my life. The Grandson character very much feels like Tim in his mid-20s – discovering my adult identity, seeing my grandparents beginning to decline and slip and I felt that a lot of my contemporaries were experiencing a similar feeling, especially to do with ageing.

Writing process, what did you love most about writing the work, and how many drafts did you write, distill?
I'm not at all used to being called a playwright. I suppose because the work is very much a devised beast, almost a verbatim piece that Kelly and I came at from the position of theatre-makers vs writers. The starting point was the audio from hours of interviews I'd recorded with Lloyd. In particular the stories of his early days of beekeeping which were/are so full of rich imagery of an older Australian, rural life. So much of the initial characterisation and impersonation of Lloyd's voice box came out of these tapes (I have a good ear for mimicry – I was always better at hearing music and playing it on the piano/oboe than sight-reading!) I transcribed bits that I thought would work theatrically and took them to Kelly.

We then had to edit things down and diffuse them throughout the work, and understandably the interviews were very conversational and true to form Grandad went off on regular and often confusing tangents. We've tried to keep a flavour of these diversions but we also needed to help the audience by moving the story along. We also had workshops with objects, sounds, music and smells that allowed us to devise material in and around the verbatim material. This was actually the hardest part of the process.

How to place the Grandson in the work? We toyed with the idea of getting rid of the Grandson character altogether and a couple of audience members from the early development showings offered this feedback. I did do a little bit of 'writing', sitting down at my computer and tapping out stuff, but it was very much free-flowing prose and only a little of it made it into the final playscript. It did however help us clarify the inter-generational placement of the work and the feeling and motivation of the Grandson character.

And indeed, editing autobiographical material, how did you decide on scenes to use and scenes not to use – by way of example perhaps?
Yep, this was a task. How do you condense a life into 60-minutes, especially without trivialising? And interact with all the issues the Grandson character is keen to explore? Early versions of the script featured my Grandma in the piece. The aging aspect of the work was very much wedded to the experience of watching her go into high maintenance care, then decline and finally slip away.

We had a story that Lloyd told of how she would go around to all the chemists in the local area and get them to make up scripts of Panadine Forte for her. When she was admitted to hospital with liver failure (and a bulk of other ailments) the truth about her addiction became apparent. That material was so rich but in the end, despite her vital role in Grandad's and my life, we decided that the play would be more focused as an exploration of inter-generational inheritance along the male line of the family, stretching from my great-grandfather Wilhelm who migrated to Australia from Germany, to Lloyd, then to my father Clark and then to me. And what happens when there is break in the line, such as my dad's untimely death?

The fascinating thing is that Grandad lost his own father (although much earlier in his life – he never really knew him). It was all well and good for me to ask about the factual family history but as soon as I asked about what it was like to not have known his father, and then to have lost his youngest son, I didn't or couldn't get the responses I wanted. I learnt the reality is that I will never get the response I wanted or needed at the time. This is the inter-generational difference and something that I'm much more at peace with than I was in my mid-20s.

Is there a scene you were very fond of or attached to that you needed to cut – if so tell me about this scene and how you edited it from the final work?
Probably some of the Jean, Grandma scenes. There was also a somewhat salacious story that was in earlier drafts of the script, one that Grandad had recounted to me, but had asked me to turn the tape off for. The story of the 'randy farmer' as we called it but eventually we cut it. I just didn't fit in the work comfortably and wasn't something that Lloyd would have easily revealed to a Granny Flat of strangers. Still, it was storytelling gold!

Lloyd Beckmann, Beekeeper, performed by Tim Stitz and directed by Kelly Somes plays at La Mama Courthouse until May 15, 2011. Further details»


Tamarama Rock Surfers at The Old Fitzroy Theatre
9-25 June 2011
129 Dowling Street, Woolloomooloo NSW (crn Catherdral & Dowling Sts)
Tues – Sat 8pm, Sun 5pm
$33 Full / $25 Concession
$40 Beer, Laksa and Show (BLS)
Cheap Tuesday – $21 Full / $29 BLS
Bookings: 02 8019 0282 or via www.rocksurfers.org

Brisbane Powerhouse – Turbine Studio
20-24 July 2011
119 Lamington Street, New Farm Qld
Wed – Thurs 7.15pm, Fri 7.15pm + 9.15pm,
Sat 2.15pm + 7.15pm, Sun 2.15pm
$25 Full / $18 Concession, Group (8+)
Bookings: 07 3358 8600 or via www.brisbanepowerhouse.org

Watch a video promo here»

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