Playwright Lally Katz is an original voice in Australian theatre, film and television. She speaks to Australian Stage's Paul Andrew about her one-woman show, Stories I Want To Tell You In Person, opening this week at Melbourne's Malthouse Theatre.

Lally KatzLally is there an early stage memory you have that continues to inspire you and/or inform your writing?

There used to be more when I was younger. I think when I was a teenager and in my early 20’s I wrote from the essence or the feeling of childhood a lot. Almost all my writing came from a childhood feeling. I think that’s less now.

But certainly it’s still there somewhat. I think in the characters I write that are from myself or inspired by myself there’s still a real childlike feel. But often I write plays about other people now. 

So they are usually inspired from the time that I meet them, or the stories they tell me about themselves. But even in the stuff I write about myself now, it’s less specific memories, than a sort of feeling of childhood. 

Fascinating – is there a particular memory you have of a time, place, event or person when you knew absolutely that you needed to write for the stage?
There was one when I was fourteen years old and I was caving with my year nine class. We were in the punchbowl cave at Wee Jasper. You have to abseil forty metres into it. And at the bottom of the entrance is a fake grave made out of rocks.

Someone must have made it as a joke once. But it’s the first thing you see when you abseil in (at least it was in 1992). I was very scared of that grave. I was also scared of abseiling and caving, but I didn’t want to miss out. I remember sliding through the dark corridors and stepping over the never ending holes, and hearing the chimes of the bats flying into the part of the cave called The Ballroom Chamber.

It was like they were making music for a ball in there. When it was time to leave, we had to climb up the forty meters on a very thin silver ladder. I was so scared of going up this ladder. I had dreaded it from the moment I abseiled into the cave. There was some sort of technical problem, the ladder was twisted or something. We stuck down there for about two hours. During this time, I became more and more afraid of the grave that was there next to us.

I began to wonder what or who was really in it. One of the teachers climbed up and fixed the ladder. My friend Dee said that she and I would be the last ones to go up, that we where happy to stay down there. I started to cry. I didn’t usually cry. So they sent me up in the middle. I was scared, but I started to climb up the rocks and the silver ladder.

When I reached the top I sat in the mouth of the cave and watched the remaining students climb up. The torches on our helmets hit onto the cave wall and I could see very clearly portraits of young women. Not in poses. Just how they had looked. They’re long hair. They’re sad eyes.

The life that was in them.

And I realised who they were. They were girls who had been taken into the cave, by this half bat, half man creature. He was buried once in the grave at the bottom of the cave and then he had come out and took these girls and their life and it was how he survived in the cave. He loved them all. He cried when each one was finished. But that’s what he did.  

I knew straight away that I would write about that. And I thought to myself that I would write it as a play, so I could just have them talking without having too many descriptions.

Tell me about your passion for fabulous fables?
My favourite fable – and I think it is a fable… Is called The Thirteen Clocks.
Everything in it is very simple, but also very true and very scary. There’s a cold duke who lives at the top of the hill and he’s so cold that all the clocks in his castle are frozen on 13 o’clock. And there’s a creature called the Total, that gleeps. And when it gleeps, it is horrifying.

Also a kid’s movie called ‘The Last Unicorn’ stays with me. Again, I am not sure if that is a fable, but it feels like one.

Tell me something particular about fables like this that lingers languorously in your consciousness?
To be honest, I don’t know how much I think of either of them anymore. But I guess they become part of your development, part of who you are. I loved in the Thirteen Clocks how a woman cries tears of diamonds when she’s sad, but now she won’t cry anymore. So the hero in the book makes her cry tears of laughter, but the diamonds don’t last. I use tears as a currency in my kids’ play Starchaser and there’s a difference in that between tears of sadness and laughter. Also in The Last Unicorn I always remember a bit where one of the characters was telling the unicorn who had transformed into a woman to avoid being run into the sea by the red bulls, that he knew she was a unicorn because he could see his reflection in her eyes. That has always stayed with me. And I look for reflections in people’s eyes. Not necessarily to see if they’re a unicorn, but to see if there’s just reflections in everyone’s eyes.

Your definition of "the imagination"?
To me imagination is mathematics meets magic. We’re all the sums and parts of our experiences – what we’ve seen, who we know, what we’ve heard. That’s the mathematics. But then you add magic to that – a slightly different angle – or curve that’s unexplainable – or something else entirely, and that’s magic. To me that’s imagination. Its role I think is in helping us to understand the ordinary. Or to grasp at things. It’s sort of its own law and sort of part of everything. I think it matters because we learn through imagination. Humans grow through it.

Tell me something about your own writing process Lally – about A Golem Story for example – is there an (archetypal) image that once appeared in your imagination, a character, a line of dialogue, a composite character and so forth that you then in turn unpacked, explored, navigated, streamed?
I was looking for the characters for that play, so my eyes were kind of open to it. And I was walking by Hyde Park in Sydney. A man waiting for a bus asked me if I was Jewish. I thought he was a Rabbi. I said yes (even though I’m only half and on the wrong side).  He told me he needed to talk to me and could I follow him into the park.

I thought, ‘Oh wow – this man’s going to give me my play! He’s going to give me all the answers!’ So I followed him deeper and deeper into the park. Suddenly I got the sinking feeling that he wasn’t asking me to come into the park to give me the word of God.

I got very scared thinking he wanted to kill me (probably he was just trying to pick me up) and I ran away from him and out of the park. I thought to myself, ‘Darn, I thought he was going to give me the play.’ And then I realised he had. The opening conversation in A Golem Story comes from the conversation I had with this man. It was a gift.

How did you arrive at the title for this play, it has a delightful testimonial aspect to it?
We actually had a lot of back and forthing about the title. Belvoir were into one title and the Malthouse were into another and I would change my mind constantly depending on who I talked to last.

Finally we decided to come up with a new title and I made a big list of titles. Stories I Want to Tell You in Person was one of them. I’d written it down because I thought that no matter what, that was definitely what the show would be (I hadn’t written the show yet – part of why it was so hard for everyone to agree on a title). 

The director of the show, Anne-Louise Sarks saw that title in the list and said she liked that one. Marion Potts and Ralph Myers liked that one too. So we went with it!  And that really is what the show is – me telling people stories in person!

What is your definition of a curse?
I’ve got a few definitions, but I guess one is some sort of personal myth or belief that you hold about yourself that is stopping you from doing something that you want to do.

Tell me something about one or two of the curses contained in this work?
They’re pretty vague, because the psychics who told me I had them were a bit vague about it. Just basically a curse that was stopping me from having everything I dreamed of – from having it all. A curse that stopped me from being able to be a writer and to have love.

Mystical and esoteric traditions are present in every culture; here in Australia we are blessed to have such a magical melange of diverse cultural traditions – what are your thoughts about this?
I think Australia is a great place to write in. I feel really lucky to have moved here when I was a kid. I think the artistic world is so faraway geographically from the rest of the world that you have the chance to really develop your own voice.

Malthouse Theatre and Belvoir present
Written and Performed by Lally Katz

Venue: Beckett Theatre, Malthouse
Season: 9 – 25 August, 2013
Tickets: $30 – $59 (including booking fee)

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