Interview: Mary Anne Butler

Scenes from the Top End: Mary Anne Butler

Mary Anne Butler

Mary Anne Butler’s award winning play Broken (2016) advances by way of short, sharp sentences, just a few words per line. It crosses 37 pages and includes minimal spoken dialogue. There are no stage directions.  Instead active verbs cross the boundaries of interior monologue, narration and setting – leaving the reader to wonder whether a character said or did what he or she was thinking.  The effects are imaginary images appearing behind or before real actions on stage. Short phrases orchestrate a poetic rhythm and lyricism to Butler’s work, yet there is much that remains unsaid and, ultimately unrealised in the lives of Ash, Ham and Mia. The lives of this trio intersect as cyclical continuums looped by two tragic events: Ash’s car crash on Namatjira Drive at the beginning of the play and Mia’s miscarriages and still-birth at its end. Ham is at the centre of this circle of destructive love, pivoting between Ash and Mia’s material and imaginary worlds. The fragments that structure Broken point to the ways in which the three character’s lives are, and will remain, broken.

In 2012, Butler won the NT Literary Awards Screenwriting prize for her feature screenplay Hopetown. Her play, Highway of Lost Hearts, sold out at the 2012 Darwin Festival and by popular demand played a return season in 2013 and toured nationally for three months in 2014, including five sell-out performances at Geelong’s massive GPAC Theatre. Last month, Butler was jointly awarded the Chief Minister’s Territory Read Book of the year for Highway of Lost Hearts.  This was a separate award to the NT Literary Awards but announced at the same event. I confirmed with the award organiser, NT Writers Centre and it is the first time a play has won the Chief Minister’s book award and the first time the prize was jointly awarded (Clare Atkins was the other winner for Nona and Me). Butler’s newest play, Things You Can’t Walk Away From was shortlisted for the Brown’s Mart Theatre Award as part of the NT Literary Awards.

This year Broken won the 2016 Victorian Premier’s Prize for Literature and the Victorian Premier’s Award for Drama. It was the first time that a play has ever taken these two prizes, and the first time a play has been awarded the Prize for Literature. Broken played at Sydney’s Darlinghurst Theatre through August 2016. I recently spoke with Butler several times in Darwin about Broken and her work more broadly. 

Tell us about the three main characters of Broken. Who are they and what do they want?

At the start of the play, Ham is a FIFO – a ‘Fly In, Fly Out’ miner – working in the Northern Territory’s Central Desert. Except he’s a DIDO – he drives in. These people tend to work two weeks on, one week off, so they’re home one week out of three. When we first meet her Ash is an environmental biologist, out here studying the mulgara, a small carnivorous marsupial which lives out in the central desert. Ash has a car rollover and Ham, who’s coming back from his mine shift, spots it and tends to her. Meanwhile, at home Ham’s wife Mia is going through some pretty traumatic medical stuff. But at the start all three characters are at major turning points in their lives, all of them a bit broken. We follow their course through this and, in some ways – out the other side of this broken-ness. They all seek a whole-ness, which is elusive for them. At the end of the play Ham grabs onto something barely there in his relationship with Mia. He chooses to stick it out rather than move away. I didn’t think that was going to be the end – but that’s how it turned out.

Who nominated you for the Victorian Premier’s awards?

I was in Dublin on a Churchill Fellowship and something had distressed me in terms of yet another rejection for Broken from a southern mainstream theatre company. I remember feeling the frustration of being a regional playwright and no one beyond Darwin seeing the play when it premiered here in 2015. Yet it was such a cracking production. Sometimes it feels like our work up here is invisible, and that can be challenging on a number of levels. So I asked myself, well what are you going to do about it? I sulked for two days and then got back on the horse and thought; right. Maybe I’ll just Google the significant literary prizes. I did that and literally applied for the Victorian Premier’s and the NSW Premier’s Awards a week before they were due. I was in Dublin with a week to go before their deadline so I got on to my brother Michael and asked him if he could please take time out of his very important job to send my application via express post. It arrived there at the eleventh hour and was shortlisted for that award, but yes – it won the two Victorian awards. It really was a last minute ‘on spec’ action, so when it got nominated it all felt a bit surreal. Kind of a lesson to self to just take a punt.

I never thought for a minute that Broken would win because historically a play has never won it before. So when they called my name I just stood there. I could see the name Broken and, then my name flashing up on the large screen but it didn’t sink in. My sister started screaming, the crowd went absolutely off and I felt like a female jockey winning the Melbourne Cup. Someone pushed me in the back to make me go forward to the podium, and everything happened in slow motion from there.

I don’t think anyone sets out to write a prize-winning play, I certainly don’t set out to do that. I set out to tell a story that’s in me – and I’m adamant that I have to remain utterly true to that story, no matter how long it takes me. The other distinction these days is that I don’t put the brakes on myself any more. I don’t stop myself from writing what’s in my imagination. I used to censor myself, and judge myself, and give myself a hard time while actually writing the work. I’d be like: ‘You can’t put a wild dog on stage!’ Consequently, I have five plays I’ve written which are not produced. With Broken I just went full speed ahead– and that was very liberating. My new play God’s Waiting Room starts with a small boat sinking on high seas. A dramaturge recently said to me: ‘That’s not really possible. Maybe it’s a novel rather than a play?’  My response was: ‘Well my last play started with a car crashing in the desert, and that seemed to go okay.’

I think good plays suggest worlds rather than prescribing them. And audiences are capable of making all kinds of leaps in reading films, so I was interested in how far theatre could go with a filmic sensibility. I had a lot of inspirations with Broken. Andrew Bovell’s When The Rain Stops Falling taught me that not only can you put anything on stage; you can leap eras and locations in a single sentence.

This figure echoes the lines you are drawing from North to South in our literary culture. Has this become your mission?

I wouldn’t say I have a mission as such, but of course it’s great to see NT works make their way into the southern states and the ACT. NT playwright Sandra Thibodeaux was shortlisted for the Griffin Award this year, and last year Stephen Carleton won it – he’s an old Darwin boy. Although based in Brisbane of late, he’s still part of an NT theatre company called Knock-em-Down Theatre. His Turquoise Elephant will be at Griffin this year and Sandra’s play Age of Bones will be on down south next year.

Why Darlinghurst Theatre?

Darlinghurst picked up Broken to be performed twelve months before it won the major awards. I had looked at their 2015 program and saw that they were taking really interesting risks. We all have our own tastes, but the Darlinghurst 2015 season was – to me – the most exciting southern season of the bigger companies. Darlinghurst are getting great houses, smashing reviews, playwrights and directors are queuing up to get work there and I think it’s indicative of  Glenn Terry who runs that place who is a bit of a risk taker with his programming, and supports independent artists to explore interesting choices.

It’s hard being based in the NT in terms of not being able to see a lot of theatre, so I read plays voraciously, both new and emerging plays as well as plays that are seen as classic works of literature: Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen. Also Australian classics like Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. That play is phenomenal in the way it captures elements of working-class Australia. It was everything that Cloudstreet was but well before it, they’re both epic Australian theatre. What’s interesting is that these works have always been there as works of literature, but the shift has been in the perception of plays as literature.

Broken took me a long time to write and it was like pulling teeth at times, and I’m incredibly proud of what emerged – but in many ways I have to credit the plays that went before, breaking the ground for Broken to be seen as a work of literature. I look at Patricia Cornelius’ play Do Not Go Gentle. That’s an extraordinary work – an overarching metaphor using Scott’s trek to the Antarctic as a metaphor for dementia. As Scott leads his team through the ice they increasingly get lost in fog and snow, and slowly the play segues into an old folk’s home, where their memories are shrouded in fog and snow. It’s brilliant. And Andrew Bovell’s When The Rain Stops Falling, which is a highly literary, brilliantly constructed work – metaphoric, innovative and layered. Plays like these have been pushing the Australian canon into extraordinary terrain and sometimes I think Broken winning the Prize for Literature is timely. Perhaps people were ready for Broken in a way they may not otherwise have been.

In your writing workshops you talk about the importance of having a central question driving the textual theme of your work. What was your driving question behind the story of Broken?

There were several doorways into writing Broken but the most pivotal moment was when I read a quote by Raymond Carver, ‘emptiness is the beginning of all things’. And this really hit me because everyone knows that place of emptiness. I’ve been there so many times, and it has always felt like an end point – whereas Carver’s saying that it can be a beginning. I became fascinated with the opportunity this gave me to reconstruct what emptiness is. I wanted to know what happens to us when we’re empty. ‘Where do we go to when we’re empty?’  became my central unanswerable question. Each character loses everything at some point, and they all manage to start again, somehow through various combinations of luck, chance, choice and fate.

Half the work for me as a playwright is finding the right unanswerable question – which then becomes my pilot light. If I don’t have the right question then I can’t move ahead. Once I found that question for Broken, I still had three and a half years of work ahead of me to write twelve thousand words. One full year of that was editing and a lot was researching – all of which was guided by that pilot light. I’m actually at that point in my new play where I feel like banging my head against a wall, but I know there’s a way through it once I find the right central question. This always gives me absolute clarity, and things fall into place around it, once I find it. It helps me realise what shouldn’t be in the play, as much as what should.

You’re working with first time playwrights at the moment, what’s one of the key questions they ask?

‘But what if I write it wrong?’ And I remember being in that exact space – terrified that I could break a play if I headed down the wrong path with it. It can be daunting to think that as a writer you might ‘break’ your play. And in some ways you can. I watch early stage writers working with dramaturges or literary managers or mentors and if the mix is wrong, it can do a lot of damage to the play and to the writer. I think a writer’s best friend is their gut instinct, and if an emerging writer feels that something is ‘wrong’ with the process, I really encourage them to trust that feeling and work out how to get back to their initial impulses or instincts. We writers are lucky in lots of ways because we can go back to that first inspiration, that first seed and revisit the blank page if we have to. Not like oil painters, who have a one-off canvas and have to commit to a different level entirely to execute their vision.

Have you enjoyed seeing your plays on stage or have there been regrets?

I love it. I just love it. There are some interesting choices that directors make and I love that their different visions can colour the work so much. In terms of regrets, I do tend to worry the script to the bone before it gets to stage, and by the time it gets there I feel like I’ve done my bit – so I rarely have script regrets. If I don’t agree with the director’s choices in the end, it’s a lesson for me to dissect why, and to try and address that in the next script. I’m also always open to ideas from directors, so will alter a line if it’s not making sense in terms of their casting or other choices. My job is to support their vision without compromising mine.

Your new play deals with the way asylum seekers are treated in Australia? What is that story within you needing to be told?

God’s Waiting Room is the one immediately scheduled for development in October, and it’s been part-funded for 2017 production. I read a 2010 quote by Tony Abbott: ‘Jesus knew that there was a place for everything and it’s not necessarily everyone’s place to come to Australia.’ Reading this actually made me feel sick because he resorted to a Christian god to justify government policies or perspectives. God’s Waiting Room is my response to that quote, and it tells the story of an asylum seeker on his passage to the Top End of Australia in high and stormy seas. It’s set in July 2013, when Australian laws changed literally overnight to prevent boat arrivals ever residing in Australia. There were apparently around 300 asylum seekers who left Indonesian shores with the intention of seeking asylum in Australia, who then arrived three to five days later to a new law which saw them shipped off to Manus Island and Nauru. The play is set entirely on the boat, on the ocean – and ends at the point of arrival on Australian shores. It’s magic realist in genre and there’s an Angel of Death as a character. The play also explores the reasons people are driven to leave a war-torn homeland to embrace a life of displacement, undertaking massive risks to venture into the unknown. It’s an allegory for a country which has closed its door on humanity, exploring the central question: As a country, where do we go to from here?

You’ve done some work with Stephen Carleton who is a former Darwin playwright and academic now living in Brisbane. Has this helped create inroads across the country in terms of literary collegiality?

Stephen is co-Artistic Director of Knock-em-Down Theatre company, along with director Gail Evans and myself. Stephen’s PhD thesis was entitled ‘Imagining and Performing an Australian Deep North’. He explored the ways in which the Australian North has been constructed in theatre history from 1900 to the present day. Part of his work was to construct a cultural atlas of Australia to show the places and locations that appear in iconic Australian films, novels, and plays. Since 1948 there have been 12 plays set in the NT alone, including Capricornia and Maestro. Some of the most iconic films have been set in the NT too, such as Australia, Samson and Delilah and of course Last Cab to Darwin. Another 13 novels encapsulate Australian imaginations in and outside the NT. It’s important research and Stephen is terrific at building cross-border collaborations. He’s brought companies like JUTE in Cairns and Blue Cow in Hobart into partnerships with Brown’s Mart and Knock-em-Down Theatre in Darwin, and his last Knock-em-Down work Bastard Territory went on to perform at Queensland Theatre Company. Knock-em-Down just received a Sidney Meyer Capacity Building grant, so – thanks to the Sidney Meyer fund and Tim Fairfax Family Foundation, we now have some funds to plan ahead a bit. Apart from that, we’ve been an unfunded company since 1997, just working on a project by project basis. Stephen’s been a big part of opening us up, nationally.

Why do you set your plays in the NT?

Ever since moving to the NT in 2002 the magnificent landscapes have inspired and awed me: the red Central Desert, the tropical north with Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks, the Arafura Sea at the edge of the Cobourg Peninsula, the vast distances between any two points. These are incredible landscapes, and I love delving into them because they offer up such rich imagery.

Northern characters have to be tough to survive out here, and they have to understand and work with the landscape, rather than trying to control it – control being more of an urban or city based psychology. If you don’t work with the land out here, then you die. So I do like pitting these people up against the environment – often the environment or landscape will play the role of antagonist in my plays, it  often takes on elements of magic realism so that the land in some ways comes ‘alive’, figuratively at least.

The characters in Broken for example are influenced by a dramatic landscape that has the power to imprison as well as heal them. Landscape is part of the [character’s] damaging process but it also directs paths towards new life. Broken has no stage directions – its characters are internally ‘broken’ with director and actors left to interpret the unique but visceral landscape which guides their particular character’s repair.

How has writing in and about the NT changed you?

My writing pivotally changed when I moved to the Territory. Part of that are the influences of landscape and country, part of it the unique characters who tend to gather up here. Part of it is about integrating into a culture which is truly non-judgemental. The NT’s creative community is the most supportive creative environment I’ve ever experienced in my life. It allows for greater risk-taking, and I think some of the creative works coming out of here of late reflect that risk-taking, in a really positive way.

Right now I’m reading A Country Too Far: an anthology of admired Australian writers who each bring a different perspective and depth to the public debate on asylum seekers. The anthology has contributions from a range of high profile writers and I would have loved to see one or two NT writers included in this book, particularly with the Top End’s central role in boat arrivals and our recently closed detention centres.  I remember Sophie Cunningham saying there are more great authors in Alice Springs per capita than anywhere else in the country. I wish this was better reflected in national literary circles, publications and reviews because I think there are a lot of terrific voices and stories in the NT, which readers and viewers from down South miss out on.

Living here I think I understand a lot more about what this country used to be, before concrete and skyscrapers and cement cities took hold. There’s a lot of space up here, natural light, ocean, greenery. We’re close to nature, and I do think that’s healing.

In the NT there are also more organic relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, which I didn’t experience when I was based in Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane. This has led to many solid friendships, for me. There is an incredibly rich blend of cultures here and I think racism comes through fear which comes through ignorance or lack of exposure, and I don’t believe the media help much in terms of portraying positive images. I believe that part of this nation’s healing can happen through organic cross-cultural friendships which take time and circumstance – both of which we have up here, partly because we’re not commuting for two hours a day and because suburbs are minutes away from each other rather than hours away, so it’s easier to visit, to go out together, to share meals. It’s warm, and sunny most of the time, and people are very relaxed – so, far less stress and consequently more time to just hang out with people and get to know them as they are. There’s a lot of love and trust up here which is incredibly healing, and because it’s a small community there’s a lot of respect for others I think, we tend to support each other – so maybe it’s more living in the NT rather than writing about it that’s good for me!

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