Aidan Fennessy is an award-winning writer, director and dramaturg; he's also an actor with credits in such stalwarts as Neighbours and Blue Heelers, not to mention other popular Australian television series and films. His latest play The Way Things Work, which Aidan wrote and is directing, opens at Red Stitch Actors Theatre in St Kilda on 4 February. Aidan took time out from rehearsals to speak with Jan Chandler about writing and directing.
Aidan has received a number of awards for writing. Chilling and Killing My Annabel Lee won the 1997 Wal Cherry Award for best unproduced play and was short-listed for the Premier's Literary Award. Together with Jim Russell and Marty Sheargold, he devised, performed and directed the Barry Award-winning The Trade for the 2002 Melbourne International Comedy Festival. In 2010 his play Brutopia won the Griffin Award and two years later National Interest, inspired by the deaths of five Australian jounalists in East Timor, was awarded the Premiers Literary Awards – Peoples Choice Award. His directing credits include a wide range of work by other playwrights, including Alan Ayckbourne, David Mamet, Lally Katz and Ross Mueller. Aidan was co-founder of Chameleon Theatre and has worked with Hothouse Theatre, the Store Room Theatre Workshop and the Melbourne Theatre Company.
As a playwright Aidan's writing varies across a range of styles including drama, mystery thrillers, comedy, and even a chamber musical, What Rhymes with Cars and Girls (2015). And now he's written The Way Things Work, described as a jigsaw comedy/thriller. Aidan says he fears repetition and enjoys 'the challenge that comes with doing different types of genres'. He has worked very hard to avoid developing any particular style or preference, believing that novelty is important not only for writers but also for audiences. Politics weaves its way in and out of his work, although its popularity waxes and wanes. However 'theatre is a political arena ... one of those environments where it is safe to be political', where you are able to thrash out ideas, see what the arguments are and plan a course of action; something that isn't so easy in the heat of real life.
As a director Aidan enjoys directing his own work, something that he says is slightly frowned upon within an industry that is so highly specialised. He laughingly comments that it is normally 'the directors who cannot write who frown upon you directing your own work. 'The irony is I don't feel particular ownership over it, I don't feel it's my work.' He approaches every work he directs in the same way, critical of the writing and with his eyes open to whatever points of interpretation come along. 'You have to be open to the further possibilites of the script, not just those you saw on the first read, or when you first wrote it.' And there are benefits, particularly for the cast and other creatives, in that they have immediate access to the authorial intention. 'Actors liberally pepper you with questions about what was behind it, why did you think this, what is the meaning of this … resource-wise it's all there ready to go.' The only real pitfall is other people's perceptions, but then that doesn't seem to prevent auteur film directors; it's a peculiarity of theatre that people think you should be either a writer or a director.
On the occasions when others direct his work, Aidan finds the experience liberating or frustrating, depending, he laughs, on who you're working with. Sometimes directors 'want to author the play rather than just direct it; will have certain ideas they want to impose on the work.' The problem with this approach is that they end up trying to say something with the play that either wasn't there at the start, or that doesn't fit the writing. Aidan believes that good directors have a number of important qualities. They understand the protocols around directing; the artistic stakeholders involved. They have 'good taste' understanding when to pull the levers of a play so that the comedy, drama or tragedy is brought fully alive. And, one of the underrated elements of directing, they have musicality; the ability to understand the music of language. And they try 'to direct the play that's on the page, not the one that's in their head'.
Of late Aidan's focus has returned to writing. As a solitary pursuit he finds it difficult to talk about what excites him about writing, the moments of discovery that drive him. 'Just being able to track down characters and a structure and a narrative in a compelling way, that's the highlight; that's why we do it. But it's not really until actors get their teeth [into the work] that you kinda go: “Oh, that works [or] Oh no, I haven't got that right yet!” Writing [for the stage] is just a precursary note to a production, so it's always trying to breach that imaginary gap between what those “cues” on the page are indicating and then seeing it stood up and realised. That's exciting, if it works.' He doesn't have a favourite from among his works: 'It's funny … you write them, you leave them alone for a bit, and then you go back to them and you wonder where on earth they came from [laughter] Where did I conceive this child and for what purpose? It's lovely to be surprised by your work but … it's still a bit of a mystery to me'.
So where did he conceive The Way Things Work? The idea occurred some time ago and, as happens, Aidan didn't get around to tracking it down until recently. He traces it back to the turn of the 21st Century when 'everything seemed to be very male oriented'. The war heroes, sporting heroes, political heroes we were holding up were all men and each of them in their own way, after their shining moments, crashed to amid allegations of corruption of one kind or another. Aidan began wondering about why and 'how men behave with each other and hence, the way things work'. As the youngest of seven boys he's had a long history of male interaction; he remembers being a four year old boy with six bigger brothers throwing him around. 'I thought it was time to shine a light on men.'
Aidan describes The Way Things Work as a comedy with 'this lovely narrative about corruption that runs right through the different stratas of society, and within that there's, hopefully, pretty high comic moments as well ... Dramatically what I'm doing is trying to get the audience to laugh and then question why they are laughing and why it was so easy for them to laugh.' The title of the play is grimly mocking; 'Ah well it's just the way things work!' is often used as an excuse for all sorts of appalling behaviour. Now whenever Aidan turns on the radio he hears 'lines from my play being spoken, about corruption, oversights, public spending', so it seems that his play is just right for this moment in time.
The Way Things Work is a two hander, with each actor playing three different characters in performances that Aidan describes as 'beautiful'. So audiences can expect to have a good laugh whilst savouring the pleasure of watching actors do what they do best. Aidan hopes they will leave the theatre with a systemic view of the way things work, one that they can then question or not as they choose.
The Way Things Work by Aidan Fennessy, opens at Red Stitch Actors Theatre in St Kilda on 4 February 2017. Further details»
Top right – (l-r) Joe Petruzzi, Aidan Fennessy and Peter Houghton. Photo – Earl Carter