Clare Mendes is a Melbourne-based novelist, sometimes television script-writer and playwright. Her next work is Trash Goes Down The River. Written prior to certain events that took place earlier this year on the streets of one of the world's most liveable cities, it promises to be as topical as it is entertaining. What follows is a lengthy (but oh-so-engaging) discussion so I'm ending this intro here.
How has your day been? What have you been up to?
By 7.15am I was on the 18th floor of a Collins Street multinational. This play about homelessness is largely being funded by my corporate clients – this is the reality of being a writer in Australia. There was a homeless man setting up in front of Dior as I came back down the hill – even Collins Street isn’t trying to hide the problem any more. I went home to two sleeping cats, a pile of washing and a few hours spent on MWT projects; I run Melbourne Writers’ Theatre and we have two shows coming up, plus one in Fringe, which is exciting. Then a newspaper had asked me to write an article on TRASH so I did that. This is a typical day for me – business mixed with creative pleasure, constantly switching from one to the other like a coin that keeps flipping over. I love it.
How are you feeling leading up to opening night of Trash Goes Down The River?
To be honest, I haven’t had much time to think about it. I handed this script over to my director (Elizabeth Walley) at the first rehearsal, and I feel like it’s hers now. I saw her a couple of days ago and she said she had changed some lines, and hoped I would be okay with the changes – I just said I trusted her and then went back to the task of marketing. TRASH is a product now; it needs to be sold. Actors are entitled to perform in front of good houses – apart from which, if your audience numbers are low, there’s almost no point having written the play because the thing you wanted to say with it won’t be heard by enough people. Having said that, if I take a moment out from it all to look ahead to opening night, I do feel quietly excited. TRASH will be opened by Simon McKeon AO, who is respected for his contributions to social justice in this country and currently holds an advisory role with The Big Issue, and for our guest speaker we are honoured to have Vicky Vacondios (‘You Can’t Ask That’ – ABC iview), a formerly homeless mother-of-three who now speaks publicly about issues relating to homelessness. So yes, now that you mention it, I am definitely looking forward to 14th June.
Rehearsals have been going well? What can you tell us about the cast and crew?
I’ve put them in a nice rehearsal space – it has a marble stairwell and leadlight windows and natural light flooding in. TRASH has a cast of three – Alec Gilbert, Emma Cox and Clare Larman. They’re all highly intelligent, all erudite and articulate. This is perhaps another reason why I have detached from the script; these are smart actors and thinking human beings and I trust them with my words. Clare Larman, who will be playing Trash, posed for a very long time in a city doorway on a freezing Sunday afternoon to give us that striking image. She doesn’t seem to flinch from things. Alec (Rich) has a real power to him but also a tenderness in the way he deals with people, which is quite similar to the character he is playing. Emma (Melody) is unbelievable. She read the part of Melody at the public reading we did of TRASH at La Mama Courthouse back in 2015, so she has lived with this character for a while now and there’s no one else I would have asked. Our Lighting Designer is Bronwyn Pringle – she has worked at Bluestone before and likes its spiritual ambience; well, it is an old Wesleyan church – and Left Bauer Productions are producing this show, which I am happy about as they intuitively understand theatre like this and have a lot of vision. My director is ELIZABETH. Capital letters. Elizabeth is also Resident Director at Melbourne Writers’ Theatre. Slick, stark, intelligent direction, always.
Have you re-worked the play much since the readings at La Mama a couple of years ago? If so, in what ways?
Gosh yes – it’s a different play. From memory, after receiving the feedback from that reading I churned out a few drafts that were fairly interchangeable, but late last year I did a further draft which pretty much constituted a rewrite. A dramaturge who had happened to read the script had flagged a problem with Trash. In the earlier drafts, Trash was a silent character who conveyed all of her thoughts and intentions through actions, mime – I wanted to reinforce the fact that the homeless have no voice. But this dramaturge said quite bluntly, ‘Your character doesn’t work in her current state – for an audience to relate to her and feel for her, she needs a voice,’ and in case she’s reading this I’ll name her: Emilie Collyer. Thanks Emilie. It was sound advice which I took on board, because Trash now talks. This puts her on an equal footing with her co-stars, and really, with society.
You wrote the play before the Flinders Street homeless were moved along earlier this year. How did it make you feel when action was taken to remove them?
You know, it was a bit dreamlike to watch the police and the City step in, and then the protests and the scaffolding going up along Flinders Street. That was the only thing I hadn’t predicted, the scaffolding – everything else had been forewarned by Melody in TRASH. I was at a chess tournament when the protests around the Australian Open broke out and I picked up a newspaper that one of the players had finished with – I’d seen a headline relating to the homeless camps along Flinders Street, something about them being broken up. I texted Elizabeth and asked if she had seen today's papers. The events came thick and fast after that; every day there was a new headline, a new travesty. I took a collection of these newspaper articles along to the first rehearsal and laid them across the table, so that we could all understand where TRASH had come from – in the end, it wasn’t just plucked from the air.
Homelessness is obviously a serious problem, but evicting homeless people, so to speak, has only displaced them, hasn't it? It hasn't really solved the problem.
As I see it, the solution to this problem lies in the provision of affordable housing and a LOT more of it. And to be fair, the City’s disbanding of people sleeping rough in the CBD has been delivered with a fair degree of transparency and an emphasis on finding solutions. COM staff don’t roam around the city at dawn looking for homeless people to dislodge – to some extent they are still turning a blind eye to rough sleepers, and their policy is to only ‘move on’ an ‘illegal camper’ in the presence of a representative from a recognised charity/housing provider who can provide the affected person with some kind of action plan and support towards the next step. But you are correct – eviction without any back-up plan will never be a solution. It just moves the problem further uptown, or, in the case of TRASH, further upstream.
It struck me that there is such sad irony in the fact that Melbourne is frequently listed as one of the world's most liveable cities, yet we have such an obvious problem with homelessness. What are your thoughts on this?
I was speaking to someone about this recently, someone who has a broader comprehension of the situation than many of us do. He cited the widespread lack of affordable housing in Melbourne as the source of our homelessness problem, and he also suggested some more contentious reasons for Melbourne’s current homelessness predicament. The rising number of foreign-owned investment properties, the rental of which are often mis-managed by landlords, for instance – it is a fact that there are houses and apartments throughout Melbourne currently sitting vacant while people sleep on the footpaths in front of them. There is also a widespread and accepted lack of scrutiny of both foreign and domestic landlords, which creates a free-for-all mentality in which landlords can charge whatever rents they want without any requirement to operate within a reasonable ratio of what is ‘affordable’ for a low-income, or no-income, citizen of this city. The problem is not with Melbourne, which is indeed a most liveable city – it is with the laws, and the lawmakers, around and beneath which Melbourne operates.
I haven't been down to Flinders Street recently. Do you know what it's like down there at the moment?
There’s really not much there at all – it’s barren. The train station is covered in scaffolding, from the Clocks right down to the Elizabeth Street entrance, and this is reinforced by cyclone fencing that covers half of the footpath. So the life that was there has vanished – to where, I’m not sure. Homeless people tend to look for better cover when the weather cools down; those who were camped along this street in the heat of the summer are possibly now living under cover a few blocks away, or it’s possible that the scaffolding has broken their resolve. I suspect, as do many, that it was intended to do this. It was also perhaps intended to restore Melbourne’s reputation as the World’s Most Liveable City for the tourists who serve as our weekly retainer. I think if they saw Flinders Street right now, they wouldn’t bother sticking around for the City Sightseeing tour but would hop on a bus to the Great Ocean Road. Apart from commuters and scaffolding, there is very little to see.
I do remember walking along Flinders Street very early each morning, during winter, and seeing one particular guy most mornings rugged up in a thick doona, looking quite snug and protected against the chill. One morning, his doona was gone, probably stolen. He was in his same place, but no longer protected against the cold. I took an old sleeping bag with me to work the next morning but he wasn't there. It brought home to me how hopeless the situation is. Do you feel it's a hopeless situation?
I’m sorry you had that experience, but it’s a profound one to have had. No, I don’t think this situation is unfixable. For some members of our population, it’s just going to take a long, long time to break the cycle. There are many degrees of homelessness, and a man sleeping in a doona on Flinders Street cannot be put into the same basket, or offered the same solutions, as a woman in the suburbs who is couch-surfing with her kids. An infinite number of variables need to be addressed, not the least of which are the physical and mental health of the homeless person requiring assistance and the events which have led that person to this point. Your fellow with the doona, and the rough sleepers like him, can be helped out of homelessness, but not with a one-size-fits-all solution. You would not approach a person living in a house and say, ‘Here is a generic solution to your problem which I am really hoping will fit you’ – you would have a lengthy consultation with that person to ascertain her or his individual wants and needs, strengths and fragilities. Homeless people are individuals, and individual problems necessitate an individual approach. Our homeless need tailored solutions, and they need people who will stay by their sides as they attempt to implement these solutions. In the end, they just need people.
Have you been following the situation or any individuals affected by it?
Yes, I follow Melbourne’s homelessness situation every day. It’s impossible not to if you have your eyes open. I’ve noticed that the media coverage of this issue has really dropped off as the year has gone on – more than one person has suggested to me that June is a very good time to present TRASH, simply because issues like this fall off the radar when they lose their ‘spectacle’ factor. Homelessness in the CBD is not as visible as it was in the summer months – this is not because the problem has been ameliorated but because it’s harder for our homeless to live on the streets as winter approaches. They will go somewhere warmer, perhaps onto a friend’s couch or into a car or onto a train. I have a friend who is fortunate to be in public housing now but was on the streets for some time, and also slept rough whilst pregnant. The child she gave birth to is beautiful, but my friend’s adolescence is gone – you don’t get those years back, and you don’t fully recover from them. When she has to send her kids overnight somewhere, she sends them with enough clothes and belongings for a week – in case they find themselves homeless, perhaps. She has described to me very bluntly how it was and how it is. It’s another planet, the twilight world of the homeless.
Can you tell us a little about the main characters in your play?
They are all trapped in an intricate, three-way social catastrophe. The happiness of each one depends on how much leeway the others will allow them to develop the ambition they are desperate trying to fulfil. Trash, real name Dianne, is quietly ambitious. The last thing she wants is to be sleeping on a stretch of concrete on Elizabeth Street – it’s not how she imagined life at 56 – but a combination of domestic violence, debt, unemployment and abandonment by family have led her to this point. A different ambition has led Melody to Trash. A perfectionist who is constantly scrutinising her life and her body to pinpoint the reason for her perceived failures, she dreams of a world that is ordered and clean – of a city that sparkles. Trash, sitting on her piece of filthy cardboard, is thwarting Melody’s goal, and her husband Rich seems to be deliberately sabotaging it. As the Deputy Lord Mayor, Rich has his own ambitions, his own plans for making Melbourne sparkle again – unfortunately he is too low on confidence, too much of a people-pleaser, to fulfil these by himself. To succeed, Rich needs Melody’s strength; for Melody to succeed, she needs Trash to yield. For Trash, success will only be possible when this unhealthy, unhappy, co-dependent man and woman make the decision to support each other. What these people really need is to stay a long, long way away from each other and try to make it on their own. But that’s not possible in this situation. In sickness and in health, for better or for worse, they are fused together.
How much research did you do in writing the play and what form did it take?
I didn’t do any research while I was writing TRASH – the material I needed was in front of me, in the doorways, and at the time of writing the first draft back in 2015 there was very little in the way of a public conversation relating to homelessness, so TRASH was just an imaginative ‘what if’ story that I had fun writing. That may sound flippant, given the topic, but it was fun to write about this uptight, neurotic events manager (Melody) organising her Big City Clean-Up, her council teams at the ready with their brooms and mops – I had no inkling that this scene would one day play out for real. I just wrote a play about what I was seeing as I sat waiting on Elizabeth Street each night for my tram home, and how it made me feel – and then how it made Melody and Rich feel. It was just a little dystopic play. But research, yes – once the very real events of January and February started to roll out like a grubby red carpet, I began to research quite obsessively, trawling the daily media for news relating to Melbourne’s homelessness crisis. Those grim headlines meant that a lot of the fanciful events described in my play could now be presented as facts. So suddenly, for example, Melody had a justification for ordering her Clean-Up of the city’s homeless camps – because in February 2017 the City of Melbourne passed a by-law making it illegal for people to ‘leave items unattended in public’ – and so on. From January onwards, each time a new initiative, protest or arrest was reported in the daily media, I would take this information and cede it back into TRASH. I don’t know what you call that kind of research-in-reverse, but I hope I didn’t miss anything.
Does the play suggest any solution or is it more about drawing attention to the problem and perhaps giving a voice to the homeless?
Melody, Rich and Trash come up with some cracking solutions to homelessness – judge them as you see fit. Within this interview, I’ve suggested a few of my own solutions. I rarely do something just to ‘give a voice’ to it – I am solutions-driven rather than creatively driven – but in this case I think my job was to draw the public’s attention to something that is important and then step back into the shadows. I have people coming to this show who can tell you what to do about homelessness. Simon McKeon and Vicky Vacondios, as I mentioned earlier, and on Sunday 18th June Launch Housing will be delivering an address just before the 5pm matinee. They have concrete answers, and that show is a 100% fundraiser for Launch Housing. Open Canvas will be displaying artwork by disadvantaged and homeless artists throughout the TRASH season, with an exhibition in the space on Saturday 17th; at any session of the show you can buy one of these pieces of art, all proceeds going back to the artist, so there is another solution. And for the show on Thursday 18th June we’re collecting funds for Vinnie’s, who have their CEO Sleepout on the same night, and that’s a third solution.
What kind of audience do you think will be drawn to the play?
I’ve thought a lot about this. I’m asking Melburnians to come to Footscray in the middle of winter to see a play about an issue they thought they’d dealt with back in February. Even that word is enough to put some people off: ‘issue’. A colleague who loves independent theatre and always supports my work looked at the flyer for TRASH last week and said, ‘Hmm. I don’t know, Clare … I probably need something more cheerful at the moment.’ I really think she won’t be coming, which is a pity because she likes comedy and there are a lot of funny lines in this script. And creatively, TRASH is fairly out-of-the-box – here are these two women on a ferry chugging towards Utopia, and there’s barely any set, the set will be created by Bronwyn’s lighting and a soundscape that is currently being created. It’s magnetising – a bit hypnotic. There are frequent moments of beauty throughout the play, too. If that all sounds too harrowing for some people, I don’t mind if they stay home, but the rest of you should come.
How do you think audiences will feel after seeing the play?
I think they’ll think, ‘That was 80-minutes of very good theatre and Clare’s done herself a disservice by pitching it as a play about homelessness. If she’d pitched it as a compelling drama about three people trapped in a knife’s-edge situation, she would’ve sold more tickets.’ I know how it’s done – I used to work in advertising. But remember that we’re aiming to raise awareness of the homelessness crisis with this play, or rather, to reignite awareness, and beyond this we want TRASH to raise money for the three organisations who have partnered with us – Launch Housing, Open Canvas, Vinnies. To do this effectively, I need to mention the issue first and the art second. But TRASH GOES DOWN THE RIVER is definitely art.
Do you have a quote from the play that best captures its spirit?
At the first rehearsal, I said to the director and actors: ‘Do what you want with this play. Change what needs to be changed. But there’s one line I want left exactly as is.’ Upon arriving at that line, Elizabeth gave me a look and the actors started shaking their heads and saying, ‘No, Melody can’t say that’ and ‘I really don’t think we can have Trash doing that’ and ‘When was the last time a homeless person did that to you, Clare?’
‘That was the line,’ I said. It goes like this: “I can remember the exact moment when I identified that thing in her, that X-factor. She spat at me, hard – it landed this close to my mouth – and I thought, “There’s something about this woman.”
The last I heard, that line was back in. Good.
Trash Goes Down The River by Clare Mendes plays June 13 – 24, 2017, at the Bluestone Church Arts Space, Footscray. Bookings – www.trybooking.com/PTJQ