Almost Face To Face is the latest dramatic monologue from peripatetic award-winning writer/performer Stephen House. It's been a couple of years since the South Australian drifter performed his quite powerful Appalling Behaviour here, so Australian Stage caught up with him to find out what he's been up to in that time, what drives him, and what to expect from his latest work.

Stephen HouseSo, what have you been up to since your last visit to Melbourne?
My last show, Appalling Behaviour, kept touring. I did an Adelaide return (local council shows), a Tasmania Theatre Company season and a season at The Street Theatre in Canberra. I then spent some time in Sydney. I did an incredible writing development project with some blind artists at Tutti Ensemble SA, and had an extended stint in Whyalla SA doing a community youth theatre project for D-faces Youth Arts. Then as I often do… I disappeared from Australia and spent many months in Bali, Thailand and India – travelling, writing and existing.

How was Appalling Behaviour received in those other cities?
The Hobart and Canberra seasons were both very successful and had incredible responses and reviews. It was wonderful to see it sit in a bigger company program at The Street Theatre (where it saw its 100th show). It always astounds me how that show pulls people in and sees them discuss what it means to them and what it says about our current world. It still feels like it’s an important theatre piece for the here and now. And that’s rewarding. Also, it was selected for publication by The Australian Script Centre.

Have you ever taken Appalling Behaviour overseas? Or is it something you would contemplate?
Well no, I haven’t, but just recently I’ve been in a conversation with a company in New York who are keen – which would be awesome. Also, for the last year or so I have been chatting to a company in India who are also keen. And if I do take it overseas next year I’m pretty sure I’d head to Edinburgh Fringe. I’ve never done an Edinburgh Fringe. So yes, it is kind of looking like maybe travelling overseas in 2015.

How long has travel been important to you?
I’ve been pretty much on the road since living in the back of my station wagon for a few years when I was an 18 year old hippie surfer. And I still am on the road (not in the back of the car... well, not too often these days). That’s about 35 years travelling. Fuck… where has my life gone! I’m always travelling. Though I do have occasional bouts where I settle in somewhere for a few months a time.

Why is travel so important to you?
I feel alive, challenged, inspired, amazed, free, on the very edge (sometimes), and excited. I’m addicted to being on the road, often alone, but not always. I love new people that come into my world for an hour, a day or night, or a month… or forever – crazy, beautiful encounters that come along, like unexpected gifts. But also sometimes I feel isolated, lonely, frightened, confused, excluded, and wondering what the hell I’m doing with my life. But all the feelings that go with just disappearing into the world and sometimes not knowing where I’m going are real, and make me feel so very much like I am living life.

In what circumstances do you feel excluded?
Just now and then in another place in the world, watching locals go about their familiar lives, it hits me that I am often an outsider, a wanderer, a nomad… this isn’t my place, or my home or my way. I have flown in like a migrating bird stopping off on a long flight to somewhere else. Excluded kind of; but that doesn’t always mean feeling bad though, sometimes it means just being on the outside of, looking in. It can also be empowering, to not be a part of something.

Do you feel you are more creatively stimulated when in a foreign country?
I’m quite creative wherever I am. Even in my new Melbourne life (a room I just scored in Brunswick Street), I will feel inspired, I’m sure. I often have a current project I’m working on when I travel. I’ve just come back from several months Indonesia and Thailand. I was learning lines for Almost Face To Face while I travelled. I was also thinking about my novel (still in thinking and writing stage). Often when I’m in another place I do have a new idea, so take a few notes. In fact the first draft of Almost Face To Face, was written years ago on an Australia Council Irish literature residency, then put it away and forgotten about. Sometimes it takes me years to get back to something that sprung into my mind while travelling around somewhere.

You don't exactly do the tourist thing when overseas, do you. Typically, what do you do when in a new city? What kind of experiences do seek out?
I’m generally looking for somewhere new that I want to live for a while, or returning to a place from before. I have a few regular stops. One is Rishikesh in India. In Rishikesh, I do Yoga classes with amazing masters, I wander alone along the banks on Ganges and bathe in her clean icy holy waters – direct from the Himalayas. I wander through dense city throngs and lose myself, completely. I catch up with old local mates, meet travellers from all over the world, and I write, think, and wonder. In big cities, I usually have different routines than in quieter places (more art, music, theatre, partying etc.) After Melbourne I’m heading back to Bali, where I’m making a life. My days there are often writing, swimming and surfing, and wonderful mates from all over Indonesia… and the world, other nomads. I also try to work out how the hell I’m going to survive! But don’t get me on to that! How the hell am I going to continue to survive, like this?

Your new play... tell us a little about it.
A fragile travelling writer arrives in Dublin after a devastating stint in Paris. His trip to Dublin is not without a few dangerous elements. He quickly falls into a chaotic underworld, inhabited by off-beat characters, and finds himself living in a small upstairs room with a woman trapped there by the way her life has gone. But he ventures out on to the street and falls further into the hidden underbelly of Dublin. His creative muddled and indulgent life sees him fall into this new world and write it all down (again). But nothing comes without repercussions and consequences, and he is finally forced to face up to what he has become in life. It’s a play about having the courage to move on from what is no longer needed or valid, and having the empathy and understanding to realise that not everyone else can do that. Some of us are trapped by who and what we are, and always will be. And that’s ok. The play hits that home, I think.

So how autobiographical is it?
There is a part of me and my story in every work I create. Even Appalling Behaviour had more elements of me in it than people could ever know. There are parts of me and my life in all of my plays, and there are parts that grew from those parts and took their own life. My characters are not me, but they are a big part of me and my life, and I’m a big part of them and their life. But I never reveal too much about what (exact) part is me and real. I fall into worlds and write about them. I utterly live the worlds I write about.

What kind of play is
Almost Face To Face? Drama? Comedy? Other?
It’s a drama with elements of stream of consciousness story-telling and streaks of dark comedy. But others are better judges of that than me.

Given that
Almost Face To Face is set in Ireland, a country famed for its story tellers, do you thing you will take it to Ireland?
I would love to take it to Ireland, and have thought about it. If fact regarding your question, the story telling tradition of Ireland had an effect on the style of this play and my inspiration for writing it. I performed a story telling type piece in Dublin many years ago. That experience has always stayed with me and had an effect on me as a writer performer, as did my time living in Ireland.

The dramatic monologue (it is what you do, isn't it?) would appear to be the most difficult form of story telling. Why do you do it when you could simply write a story to be read or a play for actors to perform?

Each time I embark on this journey with this form, I think why, why, why? It is so hard to crack. You can’t tell, not completely. It needs to be crafted in a way that some things are told, some are discovered and that the story filters out through a range of forms working together. Maybe the reason I do it is that it is such a challenge to get right. I love literary challenges. I never know if it is working until I get it in front of an audience. Its okay if they don’t like it (not everyone falls into the unusual worlds that do), but if they are with my story and engaged, then it has worked. That’s what I aim for. That they follow my story and want to know what happens. Dramatic Monologue for an hour alone on stage is a real challenge. Ah, scary! Why am I doing this, again?

What kinds of people will Almost Face To Face appeal to most?
I like to think that it’s a moving, human, sad and sometimes funny and beautiful story bubbling out of the underworld of Dublin. I think (and hope) that most people who see it will be taken on a real ride, somewhere special. My work is written for everyone; not only those who like to take risks. People that are interested in the human experience and condition should go with this work.

Do you have a line or passage from the play that encapsulates its spirit?
I don’t know if it encapsulates the spirit of the play but it encapsulates that moment of the play, and it’s a piece that often brings tears to my eyes, performing it…

"Don’t’ go, he says. His call is like a knife in my heart. I so want take him away from this and them – from all that I am and have been too… find some of what is dragging me to escape and try for change and offer it up to him. But I can’t… I just don’t know how to give him anything at all, except money… I’m incapable… because I am struggling so hard to somehow help myself… to try to not be what I‘ve been for so, so long… that I have nothing left to help him along. And I’m nearly an old man. Fuck, what happened? Where do the years go?"

Written and performed by Stephen House

Directed by Peter Green

Venue: La Mama Theatre | 205 Faraday Street Carlton
Dates: 17 – 28 September, 2014
Tickets: $25 – $15
Bookings: 03 9347 6142

Part of the 2014 Melbourne Fringe Festival

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