Footscray-based playwright Shannon Murdoch was recently announced as the winner of the 2011 Yale Drama Series Award for Emerging Playwrights, for her play New Light Shine – a work about four small-town lives linked through a violent crime and their hopeless attempts to erase the past and build new lives.
The Yale Drama Series comes with a $10,000 prize and has previously been judged by theatre luminaries such as Edward Albee and David Hare. In 2011 the sole judge was acclaimed playwright John Guare, who has received an Obie, New York Drama Critics Circle Award and Tony nominations for both House of Blue Leaves and Six Degrees of Separation, which also won the Olivier Award for Best Play. In addition, he is a Tony Award winner for his libretto for Two Gentlemen of Verona.
Paul Andrew chats with Shannon Murdoch about her writing.
Shannon tell me a little about your motivations for entering the Yale Drama Series Award, how did it come about?
Mostly a sense of “what do I have to lose?” It’s a great competition that is pretty much open to anyone anywhere who is writing plays. I think everyone should submit. Entries close on August 15.
What do you love the most about the play as a literary form?
The spaces you are forced to leave. Because it is collaborative, and only works if that collaboration is respected, the moments of blank space left for the actors, director, designers and the audience to fill are just as important as the words.
Tell me about a piece of theatre you enjoyed recently that knocked your boots off?
I have two.
I really loved Thyestes at the Malthouse last year. I walked down St Kilda Road afterwards needing to put pen to paper. Any theatre that makes you want to go and make more theatre is worth its weight in gold.
I’ve also just read a book of plays by Rajiv Joseph, an American playwright, which knocked my boots off. Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, which is playing on Broadway at the moment, is about the best play about war that I’ve come across. It’s brutal, funny, and full of heart. And there’s a talking tiger who swears like a trucker. I’m pretty sure you can’t ask for more than that.
What do you feel makes theatre enchanting today?
Tenacity. It continues to bloom, to reinvent, to surprise, shock, reflect and antagonise, even though people seem to believe it is a dying art form.
It is said that smell is the primary sensory trigger for memory?
Maybe not a memory trigger, but more of a reality check. If you want someone to ruin your most precious memories of childhood, go talk to your siblings. But I don’t recommend it. It’s not good for your soul, and you won’t come out of it any closer to the truth.
Why are we so enchanted by memory?
I think memory is a need, up there with food, shelter and love. It’s how we know who we are, how we choose our friends and enemies, how we interact with the world. But memory is not truth. It’s subjective, fractured, and faulty.
That was the starting point in exploring memory in this play. I wanted to look at what happens when one memory is put under the microscope to see where the truth lies.
Memory is also often the subject of confusion, disagreement and divergence for families?
I think my experiences are similar to every other person on the planet – these small and seemingly inconsequential experiences that become wars of ownership within families. The war is rarely about the actual experience in dispute. It’s more about acknowledging the different effects of the experience on the people involved.
Tell me about your earliest and most fond experience of theatre?
My mum took me to see Cats when I was eight. It blew my head apart. The spectacle alone was enough to switch something in my brain and never switch it off again. But then the actors came down from the stage and into the audience and sang right in front of my face. Well, that was it. I was a goner.
Tell me about your very early experiences of reading a play?
My mum was a speech and drama teacher so there were always plays in the house, and plays being read and spoken and pulled apart. My first memory of tackling a play was helping my mum learn lines for a drama exam from Patrick White’s The Ham Funeral. I can still quote huge chunks of this play from my mum walking around the house saying these lines over and over again, struggling with them, trying to make them sing. I didn’t think about writing plays for a long time after that, but I did get accidental training in how important the words you put on the page are.
Tell me about two playwrights you are particularly passionate about?
I seem to find, on average, a new playwright every week that gets me excited. But two of my perpetual favourites are Alma de Groen for her unflinching look at women who challenge and question their role in society, and Naomi Wallace for her language.
You studied at Griffith University – tell me something about local playwrights who inspire you?
Australian playwrights seem to be breeding in record numbers and taking theatre in so many interesting and diverse directions. I was just at the National Play Festival and the breadth of stories being tackled by Australian playwrights is breathtaking. It would be a crime not to see all of these plays on Australian stages in the very near future.
Describe 'New Light Shine' in seven words?
Tell me something brief about the setting of the play, was it inspired by a true place?
It’s not inspired by any one place. When I was writing the play, I thought of it as one of those suburbs that people have no reason to go to unless they find themselves living there.
Tell me a little about each of the characters – Anna, Peregrine, Joe and Oscar – how are they similar, how are they different?
Oscar is a great big walking warning on what happens when you only play at being a grownup.
Anna takes ambition to the level of martial art, and refuses to see the damage she creates as she screams her way to her goal.
Joe is an innocent that shows how destructive being innocent can be.
Peregrine, more than any other character, knows exactly who she is. Everyone around her is intent on changing her, but she never moves an inch from her true self.
Tell me about what lies at the very heart of the sibling relationship in the play?
The breakthrough that came with this play was when I realised that all Joe wanted was for his sister, Peregrine, to come home. The violence, the horror, and the inevitable sadness, stems from this simple wish that Joe can never articulate.
How do you feel this work is a transition from your earlier plays, and is this a conscious transition perhaps?
I don’t think there is a huge transition from earlier plays – I guess it’s more a case of the more you do something the better you become. There’s a lot more comedy in New Light Shine than in earlier plays which helped balance some of the darker elements of the play.
Do you feel like there is a recurring theme or motif in your writing now?
I constantly find myself obsessed with women who are not playing it by the rules, and the price they always have to pay for it.
Tell me about how it felt when you received the news about winning the Yale award?
Shock, mostly. And then there was an overwhelming sense of relief. All this hard work, all those rejections, all that mustered self-belief to get to the desk every day and keep pounding out the words suddenly seemed completely worth it.
Award judges in the recent past have included John Guare, and playwrights Edward Albee, and David Hare; exciting stuff, what did the judges have to say about your work?
John Guare was the sole judge for 2011. He said: "The raw, haunting, richly poetic, deeply emotional, New Light Shine affected me as no other entry did."
I could pretty much die happy now.
'Raw' was one comment made by John Guare – are they speaking about your turn of phrase, the language?
You would probably have to ask John Guare about that one – he’s the one that described it that way. But this draft that won, came out in a rush. I wrote it in a weekend in some sort of fury of frustration and inspiration, which didn’t allow for any self-editing or to question what I was putting on the page.
Where did you write the play in Footscray, a sense I had while reading your work, if so did this sense of place have some bearing on your writing?
Most of my plays, including New Light Shine, have been written in Footscray, and I’m sure that living in this unique place has infected my writing. You can’t walk to the supermarket in Footscray without stumbling into a great story.
Tell me about the actors you would dearly love to see cast in these roles if it were possible?
To be honest, I haven’t really thought about it. That seems like having your dessert before you’ve eaten your dinner.
Is there a production of your work due in Melbourne this year?
No, there isn’t. Funnily enough, and for reasons I don’t fully understand, my work has had much more success in America than in Australia. I don’t spend much time trying to figure out why, I’m just happy that anyone, anywhere, likes my work enough to produce it.
What are you working on now?
One is about an urban planner who thinks that the only future for neighbourhoods is to turn them into parks.
The other is based on a true story about a murderer who was given six life sentences, and is campaigning to get a release date, even though that date will be long after he will be dead. I’m pretty sure it’s going to be about hope.
What insight(s) would you share now with a new writer to plays with some of their own family contentions and discontent?
Focus on the emotions, rather than the people or the situation. With emotions as your starting point, you give yourself more choices and more scope on where to take the story.
What do you tell yourself each day that enables you to write your best – a mantra, a quote, a wisdom?
I have a quote from the playwright Adam Rapp above my desk:
“… You have to realise that there’s nothing in it other than the love of doing it. I fell in love with playwriting because it’s a magical space that stories could happen in. There’s no money; it’s about poverty. So if you don’t enjoy sitting in a chair and trying to figure out how to make people not leave, or leave, or do things to each other, you’re probably not going to like it.”
Submissions for the 2012 Yale Drama Series
Submissions for the 2012 Yale Drama Series competition must be postmarked no earlier than 1 June 2011 and no later than 15 August 2011. The competition is open to any original, unpublished and unproduced full-length play in English. For complete contest rules please visit http://yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/drama.asp