Phillip Kavanagh is the winner of The Patrick White Playwrights' Award, a $7,500 prize for an unproduced script, for his play Little Borders. Phillip Kavanagh is a Sydney-based playwright from Adelaide. Little Borders is his first play and was written as the creative component of a Master of Arts thesis at Flinders University. It received further development through PlayWriting Australia's National Script Workshop. Phillip was the 2011 recipient of the Colin Thiele Creative Writing Scholarship, awarded by Carclew Youth Arts. He is currently completing a Graduate Diploma of Dramatic Art (Playwriting) at NIDA.
Tell me a little about your research and study objectives at Flinders University and in particular your award-winning play Little Border's.
Little Borders was written as the creative component of my Masters thesis at Flinders University. In addition to writing the play, I wrote an exegesis exploring the research that informed it, and the process of creative development. In the end, the exegesis was about twice the length of the play itself.
What was great about this environment is that my supervisors, Associate Professor Robert Phiddian and Dr Jonathan Bollen, gave me free reign to write whatever I wanted to. However, knowing that I would need to justify every choice I made, and that the research component would be so crucial to the end product, had a profound effect on my creative process.
The sociological bent of the first half of my exegesis, investigating the proliferation of gated communities in the Western world and the climate of fear and anxiety they reflect, hugely informed the world, discourse, and characters of Little Borders.
I was then lucky enough to receive Faculty funding for a development of the play with Director/Dramaturg Corey McMahon and actors Elena Carapetis and Craig Behenna, and further development through Playwriting Australia's National Script Workshop with director Iain Sinclair and Dramaturg Leticia Caceres.
The work that was done in these developments formed the focus of the second half of my exegesis. In reflecting on these developments, I was able to make further headway on the play, in response to this critical reflection. It was an interesting way of working, and I found the academic research greatly informed the creative process, and product.
The play has a satiric tenor – what do you adore most about the satirical?
For this play, a satirical tone opened up so many possibilities for both the subject and its theatrical treatment. I was able to revel in the grotesqueness of the characters; they are joyfully horrible. But at the same time as mounting this satiric attack-exposing the absurdity of these powerful, privileged characters being crippled by fear of victimization-I was able to bring the play's menace to the surface. For me, the play is at its most interesting when the satire is almost forgotten, and we're compelled to feel just how palpably real Elle and Steve's fear is.
It underlies an allegorical reading for the play's setting. The borders are drawn around their suburb, but they also extend and contract. As the borders allegorically extent to the edges of the country, Elle and Steve grow to represent a nation in fear of invasion from a menacing, threatening Other (sic). As the borders contract to the personal space, they surround Elle and Steve as individuals, incapable of sharing the extent of their crises even with each other, as they each escape to the private sanctuary of soliloquy.
Describe your play in seven words?
A satiric thriller about fearing the world.
The Macbeths as upwardly mobile Australian DINKs.
How did the idea for Little Borders come about?
Several years ago, my family home in Adelaide was knocked down and rebuilt. The suburb was once a new development, built onto what had originally been swampland. Over the years, the house had begun to sink; the kitchen was slightly lower than the adjacent rooms, and a crack ran through the length of the ceiling. Despite the suburb's swampy foundations, our street was pristine. It was quiet, lined with trees, and curved alongside a man-made lake. People jogged. They walked their dogs. They smiled at strangers.
While our family home was being rebuilt, we moved to a rental property in a nearby suburb. The house was on a main road. We woke up at night to the sound of motorists loudly hammering their horns. My brother and I started walking to the corner store barefoot, in board shorts, to buy frozen peas and schnitzels.
We came home one day to find the house across the street sealed off by police tape, with hazmat-suited officers wandering in and out. The same prostitute kept making conversation with me at the bus stop. She was very friendly-and liked that I was half-Maltese, as she herself was born in Greece and was planning to return there later that year – but it was still a bizarre culture shock.
When we finally moved back to our rebuilt home, I remained fascinated with the idea of suburbs that are geographically close, but socioeconomically divided. I overheard our smiling, jogging, dog-walking neighbours talking in racially incensed language about the new residents of the housing commission homes down the road, reminding each other to lock their cars at night.
At the same time, both major political parties were battling it out over the issue of asylum seekers, with each leader attempting to court votes by promising a stronger brand of xenophobia than their opponent. From both sides, the message was clear: Boat People are approaching fast, they pose a threat to our national security, and the only rational response is mass panic.
I became interested in exploring how these notions of class difference and fear of outsiders clashed with the image of Australia as an egalitarian nation that celebrates its multiculturalism. At some point in my research, I struck upon the idea of setting the play in a gated community, which gave these issues potency, etching them into the physical world of the play. It was from this point that Little Borders really started to take shape.
The play's title is so evocative?
When I first pitched the play in my research proposal, I did have another title in mind, and it was very much a working title I was looking to make redundant. I cringe at it now. Good Fences. "Oh, like the poem. 'Make good neighbours.' " Yeah. Yeah...
It certainly spoke to the discourse of the play, but it was too contrived for me to ever want it to be the actual title. In my research proposal, I stressed that this point, mentioning the title in one breath and brushing it away in the other with a reference to a film of the same name, starring Whoopi Goldberg and Danny Glover. In the end, the title was actually coined by my partner, Corey, who worked as the dramaturg and director of the first creative development. He started listing off several alternative titles that made me cringe a lot less, and as soon as he said Little Borders a light bulb went off. It speaks to the plot, to the satiric allegory, and it also has a nice ring to it.
In the National Script Workshop, Iain really wanted me to consider the title Two Doors Down, because the characters say those words ... quite a lot. But I couldn't get the thought out of my head that, every time the characters said that phrase, Ron Howard would speak in voice over, "Hey! That's the name of the play!" So Little Borders stuck.
Is it based on true life characters – or are Elle and Steve composite characters?
The characters very much began as satiric constructs. They're manifestations of a fear of crime and Others, although these Others are in a state of flux – they are, at various points in the play, their Muslim neighbours, a barking dog, and the man and the woman who live two doors down. The first scene, in which Elle and Steve justify why they deserve to be a part of the community, and why they need the protection offered by the walls, shows the things they place values on – the things they see as signifiers of cultural sophistication. It's from this façade of preside that masks overwhelming fear that the characters were drawn.
Tell me something about the two characters Elle and Steve?
Elle begins the play in a state of heightened paranoia. Although Steve shares her fear to some extent, he begins by assuming the role of protector. As the play progresses, we see that he doesn't fit this alpha-male role in the slightest. For all his blustering machismo, when he is faced with any real threat, he is crippled with impotence. He spends the play battling with what he thinks it means to be a real man, versus the reality of who he actually is. The biggest conflict between comes from Steve slowly succumbing to the fear that consumes Elle from the opening scene. Amongst this, they also harbour secrets from each other that set each of them on separate journeys for much of the play.
A walled community is the conceit of the play?
The idea of physically walling yourself off from the outside world in order to protect yourself from it was infinitely fascinating to me. The more I read about gated communities the more perplexed and intrigued I became. It gives such a concrete metaphor to the idea of border protection in a larger sense, but it also suggests the modern age of fear of crime, of how we are all compelled to engage in whatever means necessary we can manage in order to ensure our own safety from an endless list of potential threats. By drawing a clear line between Us and Them, I was able to play with the fear of having that line breached, and the possibility that the real threat might be lurking very close to home.
Winning the Patrick White Playwright's Award, how does it feel?
I feel really humbled to be in the presence of such fantastic past winners. When Polly Rowe [Sydney Theatre Company Literary Manager] rang me to tell me I'd won, I think I said 'thank you' about twenty eight times. It was a very nice phone call.
And, I hope this award will lead to a production of the play in 2013. I think the development process has been instrumental in achieving a script that I'm happy with, but now I really just want the play to be seen by an audience. I think, for my own professional development, the experience of seeing how my work is received in production will be essential to my future practice as a playwright.
Tell me about the funniest thing that happened during the development of Little Borders.
I'm not sure if funny is quite the right word, but I did fall violently ill during the National Script Workshop. My brain was in overdrive for the first week, and I wasn't sleeping, so I ran myself into the ground. On the Friday, I woke up with a migraine and called in sick. From there, I got progressively worse until I couldn't move without needing to vomit.
My partner had just flown back to Adelaide, and rang all of my Sydney-based relatives to see if anyone could come help me. My Uncle Tony came to my hotel with fresh food, drinks, and Tulsi tea. I also rang for a doctor who sent hotel staff to purchase a ridiculous number of medications for pain, congestion and nausea. He also lectured me about fluid intake. In the end, I only missed one day of the development and spent my weekend in bed. I think I still have the doctor's receipt somewhere. I should really find it and to claim half the cost back on Medicare.
Your NIDA course, how is the course aiding – or indeed challenging – your writer's development?
The course is fantastic. I've learnt so much in the past few months, not only about the history and possibilities of the theatrical form, but also about my own creative process. I think this is something I'll never stop learning about, and it's an incredibly challenging thing to get my head around, particularly when it's not working.
But the head of our course, Jane Bodie, is incredibly supportive and inspiring, and there is such a strong sense of collegiality amongst all of the writers. We're all there to bounce ideas off each other and swap writing as we go, and if we're struggling with something, chances are someone else is struggling with the exact same thing, so we're all there to support each other through it.
What words of advice would you proffer a young or new playwright writing their first play?
One of the most useful things I've found repeated by a number of our teachers this year is "writing a play is hard." There is something incredibly comforting in this thought. It gets me through writing a bad first draft when I need to, because I can remind myself that the first draft is only one step in a bigger process. And, even when it's tough, it's worth persevering, because eventually it will fall into place.
I think the other piece of advice; advice that I keep needing to remind myself of at the moment, is to return to what excites you about the play you're writing, and let that excitement feed into the work. Hopefully, it will become infectious.
Read our interview with Patricia Cornelius, winner of The Patrick White Playwrights' Fellowship. Read more»
Top right – Patricia Cornelius (The Patrick White Playwrights' Fellow) and Phillip Kavanagh (The 2011 Patrick White Playwrights' Award Winner). Photo – Grant Sparkes-Carroll
Bottom right – Andrew Upton (STC Co Artistic Director), Patricia Cornelius (The Patrick White Playwrights' Fellow), Phillip Kavanagh (The 2011 Patrick White Playwrights' Award Winner) and Polly Rowe (STC Literary Manager). Photo – Grant Sparkes-Carroll