Three new works by award-winning Melbourne playwrights Paul Galloway, Melissa Reeves and Robert Reid will hit the streets at MTC’s 2011 Cybec Readings on 22, 23 and 24 November. Presented at the MTC Theatre Lawler Studio, the Cybec Readings have been supporting Melbourne playwrights since 2009 and are an invaluable step in the evolution of our nation’s new artistic works.
This year Reykjavik (Paul Galloway), Eating Alone (Robert Reid) and Happy Ending (Melissa Reeves) are on the dance card, and will be presented in rehearsed readings by some of Melbourne’s most notable actors. Paul Galloway and Robert Reid share their thoughts on their work, the process and the Cybec Readings.
What was it that prompted your new work?
Paul: I had long known about the Fischer-Spassky chess match in Reykjavik. I was a kid when it was on and I recall there being great excitement in the schoolyard among the nerdier kids. Some kids brought chess-sets to school and, I think, one teacher went through the games during the lunch hour. But at the time it sort of passed me by. But at the time I was writing Realism, I was reading anything with a Soviet background and I picked up a book called Bobby Fischer Goes to War, which is about the match in Reykjavik, not about the chess so much but all the background dramas, most of which were caused by the strange personality of Bobby Fischer. It’s a ripping good read and the drama of the match caught my imagination, in particular the situation that Spassky found himself in. He was the World champion against a very temperamental challenger on one side and a rigid Soviet bureaucracy on the other. I like stories in which the characters are placed in a squeeze. He was also a nice guy, though with a few problems and a fatal flaw. He seemed human to me, very simpatico; while his opponents seemed inhuman in a number of respects. So I started to see this story – which is usually told with Fischer as the hero – from Spassky’s point of view – man against machine. And that got me started.
Robert: Two of the most popular TV shows last year were Masterchef and The Biggest Loser. On one hand there is the festishisation of food, on the other there is a vicarious asceticism. There’s a disconnect there that, for me, centres on issues of power and control. The weight loss, exercise and beauty industries exploit that disconnect in a cycle that drives a ‘consume and purge’ economy but at the same time radically distorts body image and, by extension, identity. A result of that distortion is the emergence of the Pro-Anorexia communities online. As always, the catalyst for writing the play is an issue facing us at the moment that I believe needs to be talked about.
What sort of research did you delve in to on the topic?
Paul: I read everything about the match I could get my hands on. Bobby Fischer Goes to War was the prime source, but there are many books about the game and first-hand accounts from both sides. I spent some time at the Chess room at the State Library making notes. There is also a great amount online and you can go through every one of the games move-by-move while reading the commentaries. I must say that I am not a chess player of any description, but I tried to get a feel of what the commentators were writing about. Incidentally, you don’t need to know chess to follow the play. There are very few chess moves shown and, by my count, only two chess metaphors.
Robert: I’ve read a lot of the existing literature on anorexia (from the point of view of sufferers and survivors), body image theory and the politics of food. I’ve also focused on reading the online work of the pro-ana community and talking to people who’ve had direct experience of anorexia and other dysmorphic issues.
What, for you, is the next step in the evolution of this piece?
Paul: It’s always a matter with readings of seeing how it goes. I’ll be listening to the audience, sensing when interest flags. I don’t know about the audience but I find them useful. I like to think that my plays are in good shape by the time they get to a reading stage. To put a play in front of an audience without having some confidence in the material would be nerve-wracking. I will write the next draft on what I discover, then I will have to find a company to put it on.
Robert: After the reading? The next step will be to go back into the text, redrafting it to incorporate what I learn from the reading. After that, it’s a matter of trying to get it staged.
Is this work similar or different to your previous work?
Paul: For me, before I write the first line of dialogue, I must find the form of the piece. For example, in Realism, the action always had to unfold in real time, until the last twenty-minutes of the play which break that restraint. For me, the story could not be told otherwise – the form and the story go together. Similarly, I knew I could write Reykjavik once I realised that the whole thing could be told in short episodes narrated by three separate characters. So, my work is different every time because each story sets different technical and plotting problems to solve. Though, if I were to admit commonalities, they would be: a historical subject, a comic outlook and a facetious tone.
Robert: The staccato rhythm in the writing remains and I’ve tried to keep the same sense of humour throughout. I’ve also taken this piece as an opportunity to explore the symbolic structure embedded in the performance event to reflect the issues the narrative raises.
What advice would you give young writers in regards to writing plays, and getting them staged?
Paul: Find someone prepared to stage your bad plays. Keep writing until the plays are better (ten years should do it). Then find a better person prepared to stage your better plays. Keep writing until you sense you are good (this may never happen). Then find a good person prepared to stage your good plays – and so on. But first, find somewhere to be a bad playwright – you have to get your bad writing out of your system.
Robert: Be part of your community. Go out, see shows, meet actors and directors. Find the people you want to work with. You have to drive your own work if you want it to get to stage. Importantly, don’t feel like your only option is to work in traditional theatres. Any space where people gather is a space for performance.
How important are programs like The Cybec Readings in the development of new works?
Paul: For me, apart from giving me clues about what I should cut or rewrite, the great advantage of readings is that they boost my confidence. Even when things have gone badly, I have been left knowing what needs to be done. Theatre is the great collaboration and the great shared experience. A reading gets actors acting and an audience responding – it starts that process. It delivers momentum; you are on your way. That’s its importance to me. And might I add that it’s wonderful that organisations like the Cybec Foundation support that rather selfish process.
Robert: The public reading is an essential part of the development of any work. It’s easy to forget that writing for the stage is a social art. It needs actors and a director to interpret and challenge it and, even more importantly, it needs an audience to respond to it. There’s no clearer way to see where a script is working or not than putting in front of an audience.
The Cybec Readings
Venue: The MTC Theatre, Lawler Studio
Tickets: Adult $10 (or all 3 for $24)* / Under 30s $5
For bookings and full details on the plays visit www.mtc.com.au