Chris Aronsten's play Human Resources was staged at the Darlinghurst Theatre in 2006 (Siren Theatre Company, directed by Kate Gaul) and was shortlisted for both the Premier's Literary Award and the Philip Parsons Young Playwright's Award. Human Resources was also staged at the Dog Theatre, Footscray in 2009 (Acto-matic 3000, directed by Matt Scholten). In 2012, two of Chris's new plays will be staged in Sydney: Malice Toward None at the Old Fitzroy Theatre and The Lunch Hour at the Darlinghurst Theatre.
Chris describe the play in six words?
Four addicts, three monologues, one carrot.
Your writer's training?
I spent two years in the NIDA Playwrights' Studio then did a BA in screenwriting at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School.
What you value most now about that training?
Having some basic technique to fall back on when things get difficult.
Is there a particular wisdom you recall learning from this time?
No one thing sticks out. I remember studying some great plays and realising that no line is wasted and every line moves the drama forward. I think good training forces you to ask yourself hard questions about your writing: Must this piece be a play? Where is the drama? What do the characters want? Does the story start in the right place? Does every character have a journey? Why is this scene here?
Your earliest theatre memory?
I clearly remember being at Marian St Theatre with my Grandmother watching a pantomime. It must have been Snow White. And instead of poisoned apples, there were raspberry tartlet biscuits. The evil queen offered these to the kids in the audience – and I was way too scared to eat one. I was terrified. My grandmother, Joan Aronsten, is also a writer and we are kindred spirits in that sense. We both think the same way. We're always observing people and thinking how we can turn it into material.
The playwrights who inspire you?
I was very taken by Alan Bennett's Talking Heads monologues when first I saw them performed. They really struck a real chord with me. I think because he is so funny people overlook how dark his material is. It takes great skill to cloak something dark in a humorous shell. And of course being funny is just so much harder than being serious. I also love Edward Albee. His use of language is so precise and musical. I love the circular neuroses of his characters, and their valiant and baroque attempts to deny reality. I recently read Edward Bond's Saved and was struck by how modern and wonderful it was. In general, I love British plays and films from the 60's.
How do you begin writing a play?
Usually I begin with a general scenario or a character. But getting the character's voice is everything. I find if I can get that right, the plot will just flow.
Tell me how the writing and development on your earlier plays has helped – or indeed hindered – writing this work?
My first show, Human Resources was a monologue show. I learned a lot from the experience. One of the most important lessons was finding someone who I could trust to help me develop my work. Over time, I have developed a wonderful working relationship with director Kate Gaul. Writing is a lonely occupation at times. You reach the limits of your objectivity and you need someone to give you honest feedback and inspire you to take it to the next stage.
Three interwoven monologues, fringe dwellers, vice – tell me about Kings Cross as the setting for Malice?
I've lived in the Kings Cross area for a long time. Its' a place that draws together a very diverse population in a high density setting – drug addicts, lawyers, young families all co-exist there. A lot of drama comes out of all those conflicting needs. The Cross used to be a haven for artists, but high rents have largely ended that.
The artists who live there now are either financially successful or – like me – work other jobs in order to survive. I wanted Malice Toward None to give voice to some of the residents of Kings Cross you never hear from. I wanted to give them half an hour on stage to tell their story.
How did each of the four characters enter your imagination?
The character of Cathy is someone I met at a Surry Hills shopping centre. She and her partner in crime had just been kicked out for stealing. Her partner told the fascinated crowd outside that she had been cast in a film as a methadone addict, and was staying in character all the time. He said, "That makes it really hard to do normal things." Pete is based on a story I read about "Smurfs" in the newspaper. Smurfs are pensioners who buy cold and flu tablets and on-sell them to drug manufacturers. Jane and Janet are based on a story I heard at a BBQ.
Self-delusion and identity are central conceits in the play?
True. I see self-delusion as something we all do to cope with the reality of life. It's often gruelling to be at the coal face of life's hard truths, so I think we take little holidays from reality. Of course it can become a problem. You can sink too far into self-delusion. For me identity is something you decide as way of defining yourself. I suppose it's something we come up with as we ponder what our purpose is in life. I identify as a writer. That can be difficult, because when you create an identity, it's easy to pin all your self esteem on that one thing.
Tell me about the character Cathy?
Even now, five days into the run, I am still fascinated with Cathy. People aren't sure if she's a junkie pretending to be an actress, or an actress researching a role. There's an ambiguity there that's very compelling.
Does Kings Cross serve as a reality check for Cathy?
The gap between what Cathy tells the audience and what the audience sees in front of them grows ever wider as the monologue progresses. In that space between the reality of Kings Cross and Cathy's version of The Cross is the self-delusion that is at the heart of the play.
The intersecting of monologues like these can create a powerful comic or tragic effect, your thoughts?
These monologues are linked by location and theme, but not by character. So I've chosen a slightly abstract way to weave them together. There are structural similarities too: generally I've tried to use comedy to draw the audience into each story before I explore the darker side of the character. I've tried to avoid being too literal about the connection between the characters because I think this allows the audience make the connection themselves.
A favourite line?
It changes every night, but I think it might currently be "Fetch me a bonnet and watch me go."
A funny moment during the rehearsals?
Skye Wansey (Cathy) has a habit of going into character in social situations. I've been in shops with her and she suddenly becomes Cathy. But I think the highlight might have been when she sourced part of her costume from an abandoned car.
MALICE TOWARD NONE by Chris Aronsten is now playing at The Old Fitzroy Theatre, Woolloomooloo. Further details»
Top Right – the cast of Malice Toward None