The winner of The Patrick White Playwrights' Fellowship was announced at a special event at Sydney Theatre Company on Friday 18 May, 2012. Patricia Cornelius was honoured with the year-long $25,000 Fellowship which is designed to acknowledge one individual for their commitment and dedication to Australian playwriting throughout their career.

In 2006 Patricia Cornelius won the Patrick White Playwrights' Award with her play Do Not Go Gentle. Other plays include The Call (Melbourne Workers Theatre, Griffin), Love (Hothouse/Malthouse) Fever (co-written, Melbourne Workers Theatre), Boy Overboard (ATYP) and Who's Afraid of the Working Class? (Co-written with Andrew Bovell, Christos Tsiolkas, Melissa Reeves and Irine Vela for Melbourne Workers Theatre).

Paul Andrew speaks to Patricia Cornelius.

pat_corn_phil_kav_intAn early theatre memory?
I rarely went to the theatre when I was growing up. Very occasionally I went with a neighbour to a big extravaganza like Oklahoma and I marvelled at them, I remember, I thought they were so grand, the music and the big sets and I think I found them quite joyous.

Then again there were very few joys growing up in the 50s. In year 12 I went with girlfriends to the city and saw Hair and it blew me away. So courageous and out there. I remember afterwards three rather daggy but exalted girls screeching Hairrrr at the top of our lungs as we walked down Bourke street.

What had a greater impact on me was later again when I was at Rusden State College and doing drama and had gone with other students to see a play in a weird and dark space that wasn't a theatre some place in Carlton, in an old factory space. I was afraid. I was so out of my depth and yet captivated by the actors who moved strangely as if possessed and I felt mesmerised and totally bamboozled by it but learned that there was other glorious way for the body to express.

Is there one playwright or play that continues to inspire you?
I can still recite the opening of Jean Genet's The Maids. I once played Claire and the play sits with me still. It's a delight. It's treacherous. It is a wonderful work for actors. It is a fantastic work to hold dear as a playwright. What you see is never what you get. The layers and complexities in character and in the story take you into deep and difficult places and yet it's never ponderous or heavy.

Did you have a teacher or mentor early in your career that helped you immeasurably?
It took awhile for me to find my footing as a playwright. I was shy of announcing myself as such for a long time. When I worked with Melbourne Workers Theatre, I met many playwrights and other theatre practitioners and they became great collaborators and friends.

It was a time when we met and talked and argued and got drunk on the wonder of making new work. I rely on them still to read or listen to my work at its early stages in the knowledge that thankfully, and sometimes, unfortunately, will give me honest and critical feedback. It's so important to find colleagues like these when you write for the theatre, to find like-minded artists who share a common understanding of the theatre as a place of both the joyous and the miserable.

You are a co-founding member of Melbourne Worker's Theatre?
I was a co-founder with Steve Payne and Michael White. Steve and I had worked together as actors at Arena Theatre Company and he introduced me to Michael. We met and talked about the kind of theatre that would match our political concerns.

We wanted to create works that would address the attacks on trades unions and works that were about giving voice to the marginalised and the working class. We wanted to do this but without being an agit-propagandist company. We wanted the stories to be rich and vibrant, and contradictory and complex. We wonderfully wanted a lot. I wanted to make theatre that was punchy, that was contemporary, and that was about stuff that got ignored and yet was filled with dramatic and powerful stuff.
{xtypo_quote_right}Often theatre companies make or present theatre that doesn't matter to anyone. What matters is if their subscription audience is happy. I don't get it...{/xtypo_quote_right}
And what is most satisfying to you now about the Melbourne Worker's Theatre on reflection?
The most important thing was to be part of a company that shared the same ideals. We wanted to make a theatre that mattered. You'd think that would be what most theatre companies wanted but it's not.

Often theatre companies make or present theatre that doesn't matter to anyone. What matters is if their subscription audience is happy. I don't get it. To think on what matters is difficult. To think on how you make theatre without becoming didactic (mind you I love a bit of didacticism nowadays) is the challenge.

The other important thing about being part of a company like MWT is the commitment to making the play work. It's economically driven in that the company was poor and could only invest in a small number of works in a year and they had to succeed, everybody pulled together to make them work, and mostly they did. This kind of commitment is rare now. New works needs nourishment and persistent attention to make them fine.

How has your long-term involvement in MWT served you well Patricia?
I did a kind of playwrighting apprenticeship with MWT. It gave me great support to deal with huge and irregular problems with plays that would travel to different workplaces and to audiences who spoke languages other than English, and who were not necessarily polite when they had their lunch interrupted.

The performances had edge, they also had to have an authentic voice and to hit the truth about the experience of working class life or we would've been hissed and booed and sent on our way. I write mostly for theatre spaces now. If only the audiences could be moved enough to hiss and boo.

I have just finished reading your 2009 play The Call, and was mindful of your background while reading it, such a passionate story about finding Islam. What do you adore most about that play now on reflection?
The Call was inspired by the plight of David Hicks. I wanted to write about this rather ordinary man who dreamed of himself as an adventurer who wanted to be part of something that asked something of him. I was interested in the call.

The call to adventure, to the exotic, to the unknown, to God, anything that might get you away from the tedium of the factory floor and domestic life. I also felt, like so many, that David Hicks had been dealt a mean and backward blow by our government and wanted to examine that as well.

Tell me about something that is vivid for you now?
When you write a lot of plays you notice there are certain preoccupations that emerge in the works quite often. One I know, a simple but quite important one to me, is the yearning that we all have for a life that is more vibrant, more satisfying and more decent. I think that yearning is sometimes beyond articulation, it is more a sense that there's more to be had and if only it could articulated it could be achieved. I think that the world does not allow its people enough, give us much scope to dream.

I still write with a class consciousness but there are many things that I think need to be said about Australia. This is the country I live in and there are many things that are crap about it. I want to face up to how crap we are. I don't want us to be crap. The most important concern is to address the unrelenting prejudice against Indigenous Australians and to disturb the continued view of ourselves as decent white people separate from our Asian neighbours. 

As a politically mindful artist, what fuels your discontent right now, and how can this be changed for the better?
Theatre is the place to unsettle people. It's the place to bother them. It's about drama, it's about conflict, feeling threatened in terms of what you think. It should scratch at you. It should provoke. And as much as that seems uncomfortable, I believe that it's the very stuff we love about theatre. We like to be agitated. To be entertained is great but to be entertained and thrilled or shocked or rocked or disturbed is just wonderful.

Tell me a little about the work you are developing now?
I'm am just about to finish the first draft of a play called Big Heart and it's looking at cultural and other forms of identity. I can't talk about it properly yet. It's too fresh.

Winning the Patrick White Fellowship is such an honour – what does it mean to you Patricia in terms of your career so far, and how does it assist you with your passion for and commitment to assisting and mentoring other industry professionals?
The fellowship is a wonderful acknowledgement of my work. It feels absolutely amazing to gain an award which honours Patrick White, the playwright. When you discover how difficult it was for him to have his plays produced it is somewhat heartening. It's what we know too of Dorothy Hewett and others who struggled to have their works put on. It's heartening because one can so easily feel that what they write is of no value, that it's not popular or just plainly not good enough when really it has always been a struggle. We don't honour our artists enough and we don't support them. We still suffer the boring old cultural cringe and choose the tried and true works from Broadway and London before we consider our own. We're stupid sometimes.

Read our interview with Phillip Kavanagh, winner of The Patrick White Playwrights' Award. Read more»

Image credit:–
Top right – Patricia Cornelius (The Patrick White Playwrights' Fellow) and Phillip Kavanagh (The 2011 Patrick White Playwrights' Award Winner). Photo – Grant Sparkes-Carroll

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