Hannie Rayson is one of Australia’s most recognised playwrights and screenwriters.
Hannie has also worked as a freelance journalist and editor.
She is the co-founder of the community theatre group, Theatreworks, and has been writer-in-residence at Geelong's Mill Theatre, Playbox Theatre, La Trobe University (which has awarded her an Honorary Doctorate of Letters), and Monash University. She was the joint recipient of the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Award in 1996.
Hannie is best known for Hotel Sorrento (1990), which was awarded the NSW Premier’s Literary Award in 1991. The film of the play, directed by Richard Franklin, won an AFI Award for best screenplay.
Hannie’s other plays include:
- Please Return To Sender (1980)
- Mary (1981)
- Leave It Till Monday (1984)
- Room To Move (1985)
- Falling From Grace (1994), awarded the NSW Premier’s Literary Award in 1996
- Scenes From A Separation (1995) co-written with Andrew Bovell
- Competitive Tenderness (1996)
- Life After George (2000), nominated for the Miles Franklin Literary Award (distinguishing Hannie as the only playwright to be nominated for the award) and received the Helpmann Award for Best Play in 2001
- Inheritance (2003), received the Helpmann Award for best New Australian Work and Best Play in 2004
- Two Brothers (2005)
- The Glass Soldier (2008)
- The Swimming Club (2010)
- Extinction (2013).
In 2015, Rayson published a funny and candid memoir called Hello, Beautiful!
- Hannie was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award. If you are interested in other shortlisted writers, listen to our interviews with the 2017 Miles Franklin Shortlist.
Nic: Hannie Rayson is one of Australian’s most lauded playwrights. Her works include Hotel Sorrento, Life after George, Inheritance, Two Brothers, and Extinction. Life After George remains the only play to be shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award. Hannie has also written screen plays, most noticeably Sloth, for the ABC series Seven Deadly Sins, and episodes of Sea Change. Hannie, welcome to The Garret.
Hannie: Thank you Nic.
Nic: Do you remember when you first went to the theatre?
Hannie: I think a friend of my father’s took me when I was a little girl. And I remember being very overwhelmed, I thought it was fabulous.
Nic: Do you remember what it was and where it was?
Hannie: I think it was at St Martins, and I do remember that I had a green velvet dress that my mother had made, and that was an occasion to wear it. It was an exciting occasion to wear it.
Nic: Did you come out thinking, ‘I want to be involved in this’? Or did you just enjoy the experience?
Hannie: I always wanted to be involved.
Nic: Is that right.
Hannie: I did. I spent so much of my childhood… I’m the youngest of three by ten years. So in some ways I was kind of an only child. I spent a lot of time… I remember my father went to Fiji with mother for a holiday and he came back and bought me a tape recorder. A duty free tape recorder. This was a very exciting development. I spent summers making radio plays, and I did all the voices and wrote all the scripts and acted all the parts. It sounds a bit like a certain lonely childhood, but I think that was the beginning.
Nic: While you were a child were you a reader, and do you remember particular authors or books that still have an impression on you that made an impression then?
Hannie: I read Enid Blyton. I was only in the country last week and I came across this secondhand shop and I remember when my child, my son, was young he read 124 Enid Blyton titles. And part of going to the country as a grown up and his mum was the pleasure of going through secondhand bookshop to seek out titles that he hadn’t read.
Nic: [Laughter] There wouldn’t be many of them.
Hannie: No, although she did write a lot.
Nic: She did write a lot!
Hannie: So I was just in the country recently in Echuca in this fabulous old bookshop and I thought, if only he was 11 again. [Laughter]
Nic: So other than Enid Blyton for yourself when you were growing up…?
Hannie: Well, I just read a lot, and I’ve read a lot all my life. But I think the most significant reading that was influential for me was when I was older and I discovered, through people like Helen Gardner, so the first David Williamson I went to – Jugglers Three, that was the play – these all added to a very significant sense that it was the first time that my own culture that I was part of was worthy of the subject for art. That was significant.
Nic: When did you start writing? I mean other than doing these plays when you used the tape recorder as a child. Were you back then thinking ‘I’m going to do this my whole life?’ At what point did you go, ‘This is what I want to do’.
Hannie: Well, I guess… I was born in 1957, and so when I was a little girl the idea that one would be a writer felt foreign and out of reach. So, I thought I would be a psychologist, that was my plan. So I went to university...
Nic: There is not that much difference is there, really?
Hannie: No. [Laughter] I had a general interest in how people tick, I guess. So when I went to university and studied English we didn’t study Australian texts at all, so what that engendered in me was that anything beautiful or profound or meaningful happened offshore. So you had to really be – if you were in the theatre – you had to feel like you were hovering around the samovar in order for something to happen.
So, I did think it was really possible for anything of that nature – anything profound about the human condition – could happen in a backyard in Melbourne.
Nic: And that’s why places such as, I guess, the Prahan Factory and La Mama and in Sydney Belvoir Street became so important because they showed Australian Stories.
Hannie: They did. And Melbourne Theatre Company too, there was the beginning of that, but that came a bit later with them, I suppose. I remember in the beginning that audiences had this kind of obligatory responsibility – an obligation, rather – to see Australian work. Which, you know, it wasn’t their choice. Only decent, good people doggedly went along. But of course that is really reversed now. The number one choice is new Australian plays.
Nic: So what was it made you say, ‘I’m not going to be a psychologist, I am going to write’?
Hannie: When I studied psychology at university it was mostly sort of ‘rats and stats’. It wasn’t exactly what I thought it was going to be. Pages of doing stuff to do with mice and…
Nic: Recording the data and analysing it.
Hannie: Yeah, and all that. We were a long way away from my interest in how people…
Nic: A long way from Oliver Sacks!
Hannie: It’s funny you should mention that, as I’m just reading his partner’s memoir, Insomniac City, which I’m loving to pieces, I love this book!
But I wasn’t really just that. I got this opportunity to go to the Victorian Collage of the Arts. I’d been doing theatre at Melbourne University and got an opportunity to… I got in, basically. I auditioned and got in and that sort of felt special, I guess.
Nic: This was the writing stream?
Hannie: No, no, I got in as an actor.
Hannie: And I trained as an actor for three years. Well, there was a kind of moment where I – an epiphanous moment, really – where we did this thing in acting class called impulse work, and you had to stand up against a wall and wait for and impulse and then run like blazes across the studio to the other wall, on the basis of an impulse. I stood against the wall in my leotard like everybody else, and I never had an impulse. I could see other people having them, but I never had one.
Hannie: So I dragged my impulseless body up to see the dean of the drama school at the time and I said, ‘Look, I don’t really want to be an actor’. And he looked out the window for a fair period and said, ‘Well, what do you want to do?’ And I said, ‘I’d like to be a writer’. And he said, ‘Do you own a typewriter?’ And I did.
Hannie: And then he did something really amazing that changed the course of my life. He leant into his draw on his desk, he opened it, and he pulled out a key and he said, ‘This is the key to the room at the end of that corridor. This is your room. Go and write a play!’
Nic: Who was that?
Hannie: Peter Oyston.
Nic: Oh, wow.
Hannie: And so I did. And really that kind of confidence, that gesture of confidence and faith, was life changing for me.
Nic: Learning acting, that helps as a writer, I mean for the stage, doesn’t it? You must of, later on, been very happy that you had gone through that process as you’ve got to know what actors do and how they approach things to write for stage.
Hannie: I think so. I think basically you need to have an instinct for the theatre which you only get by being in it, working in it. There are not too many playwrights who come from far and wide, in the suburbs or the regions, who are just people that just sit at home and tap out ‘he said, she said, he said, she said’ dialogue. Getting a feeling for the theatre is key.
After I left drama school, I worked in a theatre company called Theatreworks which is still operating 38 years later. And I’ve discovered myself now to be on the board of that company, so life is strange.
Nic: You are far too sensible to have been an actor.
Hannie: Well, I was an actor for the first four years, and I did that at Theatreworks.
One of the things, by way of illustration and I don’t know if this is useful or not, by way of illustration about learning the instinct for theatre is we worked on the trams. We had a show called Storming Mont Albert by Tram, and that involved an audience getting on the tram in Mont Albert, in the suburbs of the number 42 tram. You take it into the city, and as the tram ride progresses the actors got on along the way and the narrative develops. And the audience had their interval at the Australian Hotel, they had champagne and canapés, and then they got back on the tram and out to the suburbs. I was on the tram the whole way back and forth. We expected the show to run for about two weeks and it ran for six months. So, I was on the tram for six months and in that way, just being in this little tight area with an audience there, and a driver that changed every night and who would sometimes put their foot on it and you would madly be trying to get through your dialogue to develop the plot, to get it all out before the next person got on. I thought that really taught me a great deal, more than anything else probably, about how to write and think about multiple characters in a performance.
Nic: Which playwrights and theatre practitioners have been most influential for you?
Hannie: Obviously, the Australians have been, my peers and colleagues, people who I have watched their work very closely and I’ve learnt a lot from them. I’ve read veraciously of American plays. Initially when I started out I kind of recoiled from the melodrama of them, I suppose, the intense... Because I felt like it wasn’t so culturally relevant to us, it wasn’t an expression of who we are.
Nic: So you are talking about Tennessee Williams?
Hannie: Exactly. Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neil, Arthur Millar – who remains my favourite, really. And I found all that stuff so in-your-face and over-the-top, and I didn’t think Australians would behave like that. Interestingly as I have gotten older and I’ve got further down the track with my experience of being a writer, I am gravitating to that kind of writing more myself, pushing things further into a greater intensity. To what end, I’m not sure.
Nic: And it plays a great deal on the early interest in psychology. I mean, if you think of the great playwrights and psychology, Tennessee Williams and his peers, it doesn’t get any better, does it?
Hannie: No, and actually for most of my writing life I have been interested in politics and culture and sociology, really, and how groups behave and how issues that have a national impact also have a personal significance as well, and trying to put the personal and the intimate against the setting and back drop of social change and history and politics. That has been my interest.
But interestingly, that is kind of waning a little of bit, and I’m moving towards… I think I’m going with… I haven’t articulated to myself why, but I’m finding politics less interesting and I’m more interested in personal politics.
Nic: Going back to VCA, getting the key and going down to that room. Do you remember the play you wrote? Was it performed there?
Hannie: It certainly was. Yes I did. The first play was in response to – this is how weird I am – in response to a move in Canberra where a National party politician was trying to put abortion back on the agenda. You have to remember that this is 1979, and women’s politics was really on the agenda. That is how I came of age with feminism, initially with Marxism then with feminism. These were my real abiding interests.
So, I wrote a play about a man getting pregnant, and he was a postman. The play was called Please Return to Sender, and it was all about what happens to a man if a man gets pregnant, and wants to get rid of the baby. It played at VCA, and then it went on a little tour. I remember we were at some church hall in the suburbs and I was washing the dishes with the victor. He had the tea towel and was saying to me – he didn’t know who I was, that it was my play – and he said, ‘I haven’t enjoyed anything so much that I have disagreed with so much’. And I thought, well that’s good.
Nic: [Laughter] That’s what you want, you can live with that. You always want a reaction.
Tell me about writing at VCA and then leaving VCA and entering the world on your own. Tell me about those early days and what you produced.
Hannie: The great thing for me was that I didn’t really leave VCA on my own. I left VCA as a member of Theatreworks. I stepped out of that school with a salary of $115 or $117.50 a week. Which was a small fortune.
And I thought, ‘this is great’. We all thought it was great, it paid the rent which was about $20 or something.
Nic and Hannie: [Laughter]
Hannie: Everything was fine. And our very first show was a touring show again. It was The Dick and Dolly Dickens show, and they had two children, Daphne and Darrel, and an aunt Desdemona. We went all over the suburbs with this thing where we had done this weird dance routine and erected tent, and the tent was a complete suburban house with pot plants hanging off it and venetian blinds. It was a beautiful design, I was so impressed. And it was funny.
We did – I’m acting like I’m really good at numbers now, which I’m not – I remember we did like 158 performances of that show. That was like this cash cow for the company, and it was fabulous. It gave me a real sense that the marriage of commerce and art is quite invigorating. So that you – and I’m not too sure if I have always felt like this – but I have had this kind of desire to be a market place girl. I want to be able to live off ticket sales rather than grants, if I possibly can. Which I have managed to do.
Nic: Yeah. Theatre is such a collaborative medium and a lot of writers probably don’t get to experience collaboration to that extent. Is that something you still enjoy? Do you love that, because a lot of writers are solitary creatures and the last thing in the world they want to do is collaborate with people? Is that one of the joys of working in the theatre or is that a problem?
Hannie: Well, I think in some ways it’s the sociability of it that I enjoy…
Hannie: … Which is separate from the collaborative nature of it. I love talking to people and being with them, and all that entails. A life in the theatre is great. But I feel like, in some ways, I’m a bit of a one-man band when it comes to the actual writing of the play. I’m a little bit over consultative when it comes to rehearsal and all that stuff, and I’m teaching myself to be a bit less open to everyone’s views. But I guess I work differently.
As a playwriter I – or I have in the past, maybe not so much these days – I have worked like an investigative journalist, where I articulate or identify a particular social phenomenon which I don’t quite understand, and then I use the writing of the play to make sense of this conundrum I see at this crossroads of our culture.
As an example, before there was a period where Pauline Hanson became, before her first rise to frame, and I wondered how and why this woman was having such a cache, what people saw in her. What was the rural crisis about? I’m a very urban person, I live in Fitzroy. My anxiety might be to be locked in a room alone with a farmer and have to ask questions about wheat. You know, I’m an urban person. But I did wonder why someone like Pauline Hanson was getting support. And I thought that there was no point in me sitting in Mario’s on Brunswick street, banging on about the change to the culture that was occurring, heralded in by John Howard as well. And there was a very significant dismantling of multiculturalism and a sense that… once upon a time I thought we were a model for our sense of inclusion. Obviously, this does not include our responsibility to Indigenous Australians. But in terms of migrants, our model of multiculturalism was really great, but it was all being unpicked and the word ‘multiculturalism’ was being taken out of the language. I thought, ‘Why is this happening? I need to go out and find out’ So I embarked on this project that basically became my play Inheritance, where I got into my car and said goodbye to my family and drove into the country. [Laughter]
Nic: So that description at the very beginning of the play is you. I’ve just got a copy here, and I recall the beginning where it has this lovely little note when you are describing the people at the beginning as the car breaks down.
‘The driver is a woman in her 40s, Julia, the passenger is her son, Felix. They are clearly inner-city folk.’
That line stood out to me because it is not the kind of thing you normally see in a play script, but that is where it comes from, very clearly.
Hannie: Absolutely. Yes, I made nine trips. And on one occasion I remember I had my son, who came with me once or twice, I remember trying to get my boy and my husband to come with me to the Australian Classic Pigeon Fanciers event.
Nic: [Laughter] How could you say no?
Hannie: I remember my Jack looking up on the Internet, he came into the kitchen and said, ‘I’ve researched Sealake. It has some silos and an oval. Do you think four days is going to be long enough?’
Nic and Hannie: [Laughter]
Hannie: It was really great. We waited all weekend and it rained, we waited for them to let the pigeons go and the pigeons didn’t come back.
Nic: At all?
Hannie: At all! So it was a bit of a non-event. It was kind of tragic actually.
Nic: No pigeons to fancy. Maybe you should have stayed five days, they might have come back on the fifth day. [Laughter]
Just in terms of the process of writing, when you hand deliver that script when you give the director that script, does it change from then on? During the rehearsal process are you sitting there and is the director turning to you saying, ‘I think we need to change something’, or do you just give it and they shoot off with it?
Hannie: Well, no the rehearsal process is very collaborative. I do a lot of rewriting, I don’t sleep for the first two weeks or something. Now I just think that’s crazy. You know, I don’t know why I work like that. I feel as though... I just worked with Nadia Tass last year on Extinction. Basically, I wasn’t in the rehearsal room at all and it was really good, because the actors just concentrated on what they are there to do, which is working on their performance. Then you have got the opportunity – I mean most Australian playwrights would say you don’t have the opportunity but I have had the opportunity – to rework the thing for it to go on elsewhere.
Nic: Sure, sure.
Hannie: And that is what everyone should have because that is when you do your learning, watching it in performance and having some time to think and rework it. But ideally I’ve always dreamt I could just deliver it and then go away.
Nic: How are you sitting there, watching it on opening night?
Hannie: Well I’m appalling, because I kind of enjoy it. I know some people stomp around outside and drink whiskey and act very marvelous and anxious. I like it. I just can’t believe that all the people came, so I have to be there to witness it as this phenomenon happens. At the Melbourne Theatre Company and the playhouse there are a lot of seats.
Hannie: There is 800, 900 people there.
Nic: To take, photos of the ad outside.
Hannie: Yeah I do all that.
Nic: Extinction by Hannie Rayson.
Hannie and Nic: [Laughter]
Nic: Why not!
Hannie: I do, yeah. That’s quite daggy but it is true.
Nic: No it’s fantastic, absolutely fantastic.
Hannie: It’s thrilling, actually.
Nic: Yeah, for sure. It was Hotel Sorrento that sort of propelled your career and really took off. Tell me how that play came about.
Hannie: Well, before that I had done a play about a young Greek woman. I had done a lot of research about Greeks and the play was called Mary. And then I had done a play about feminism and men, and I did a massive amount of interviews with a whole lot of individual blokes and also a group of men to try and find out how feminism was affecting their relationship to their fathers, their fathering, their wives and girlfriends.
Now I say that I realise what a heterosexual play it was. [Laughter]
Nic: I was just wondering that as you were talking about men’s relations with their fathers. I was thinking the same thing. [Laughter]
Hannie: Anyway, there were other fish to try at that point. It was about masculinity. So, I’d done that and I thought, ‘I’ve done Greeks, I’ve done men, I want to go really big, I want to know what it means to be Australian.’
And my initial idea with Hotel Sorrento was… I’d just read Murray Bail’s Homesickness and that is a book about a group of people who went on a bus around Europe. And I thought, ‘Actually, I would really like to make a play about a group of people on a bus who go round Europe. And everything about them is… they are all Australians and all vestiges of identity are stripped clear. And this is going to be their Australian-ness which is at the forefront’.
That was the idea. Whenever you opened the newspapers everyone was writing about Donald Horn, or all the commentators were discussing what it means to be Australian, so I was interested in that too. So I made an application to the Australia Council for some money to go overseas, and my friends all thought that it was the biggest arts scam that they had ever heard, that someone would apply to go on holiday to Europe, and they had a point. Thing is, I got the money, bizarrely and mercifully, from the Australia Council and I went.
Hannie: I went to – this is my funniest memory of it – I went to a travel agent, by then I was having a very good time in London really, and the idea of going through Europe on a bus with other Australians was my idea of purgatory.
Nic: A Contiki Tour!
Hannie: Yeah. So I go to the travel agent and said, ‘Look, I want to go on this bus trip and I want to know if there will be Australians on board.’ And the travel agent said to me, ‘Oh, there’s always Australians on board’. I said, ‘Yes, but I’d like to know how many. Will there be ten or twenty?’ She said, ‘Oh I don’t know. But you can be rest assured there will be Australians’. ‘Yeah, but I really need to know how many’. And she did this thing, she leant forward and said to me, ‘I think you might get something out of mixing with people from other nationalities’. So I was like alright, and I booked the thing. When I got to the meeting point at Victoria Station there was one other Australian on board. That girl had been to the same drama school, so basically…
Nic: So long as she didn’t have the same idea as you.
Hannie: At that point I would have been thrilled if she had the same idea. No, so it wasn’t exactly the cross section of the Australian population that I had hoped for. So anyway, I got to Italy and I got off. I had to reroute my whole idea of what I was going to write about. I mean it wasn’t as silly as it sounds, because I did think that when you are away you get some perspective on your own culture that I desperately needed.
Nic: So, if it had been full of Australians Hotel Sorrento might not have eventuated.
Nic: It may have been completely different.
Hannie: That’s right.
Nic: How fantastic that it happened that way.
Hannie: Yes. And research is like that. You have got one idea but if you just keep burrowing down – and that has been my experience as long as I’ve been doing this stuff, 30 years – the research is great. It is like, that’s the thing, if you just keep honouring that you need to know stuff and ask yourself a big question and pursue it doggedly, that yields things that are unexpected.
Nic: And having an open mind that is flexible enough to go with an idea that seems to be better than you had, and not holding on to things.
Hannie: Yes. Really that is so key, Nic. Actually, this is not about pushing any ideology or barrow. If things contradict your actual view, then you go with them. What happens if someone like me that finds Pauline Hanson’s ideas abhorrent – well not all of them but most of them – what happens if she turns out to be funny and lovely, personally. And you have to give some good jokes to that character. This is interesting and challenging and always makes for a much richer work.
Nic: So at what point did Hotel Sorrento start to take shape in your mind? Was it overseas or when you came back?
Hannie: It was overseas, yeah. And I remember Peter Carey was up for the Booker Prize, I had a kind of nationalist fervor about wanting him to win. He didn’t. A New Zealander won with a book called The Bone People. I read that and that turned my head around. At the time that was one of the best books I had ever read. I just remember thinking, ‘I think I would like to think about what it would be like to be an Australian writer living in England, and quite a celebrated one, and come home to Australia and nobody even appears to have even read your book’. And that is the one and only time I think I have ever written anything about a writer. I started in London and came back. I had a very strong childhood connection with Sorrento. We had been there for holidays and my best friends came from Sorrento.
Nic: And where was it first produced?
Hannie: It as first produced at the Playbox, which is now the Malthouse. And it was the first play, or in the first season of plays, when that theatre opened. It was the first play in the Merlin Theatre at the Malthouse. Play play – Robyn Hatcher had been there beforehand, but he wasn’t in that first season. It was a success.
Nic: It was. Were you surprised by the success? While you were writing it did you feel you were writing something special?
Hannie: I did feel I was working on something special. I had a child in the time too and, I don’t know, there is something very fecund about that period in one’s life. Even though it took me a long time to write it, I did feel like I was in the zone in some ways. Yeah. I always feel like that with every play, you are not in the zone and then one day you are.
Nic: Sure, sure.
Hannie: You live for those times.
Nic: It was made into a wonderful and very successful film. What was your involvement with the film?
Hannie: Well, in the beginning I was quite hands off about the film. I’m so different than I was then. I look back at myself and think, ‘Oh my god’. I didn’t really care whether it was going to be made into a film or not. And the guy who directed it had just been working with Hitchcock and had directed Psycho 2. And I thought, ‘What are you doing with my little art house film? Why are you interested in this, it is too stupid?’ Anyway, I thought he is going to want road crashes and stuff. And then, when I saw some of the rushes, I thought that this was in the need of a road accident! [Laughter] It needs a bit more of that kind of action.
But no, I was really pleased with it in the end. He was absolutely wanting me to write it, but I didn’t want to. I had seen it translated into a lot of different languages. I was sick of those girls, I had lived with them for so long. I just wanted them on the shelf or on someone else’s shelf. So I didn’t do the screen play. The director did the screenplay, and basically he just did the play and put in one or two extremely good jokes. And he and his brother-in-law, a guy called Peter Fitzpatrick, wrote it together. And it was really the play, and then it went on to win an AFI award for best screenplay.
Nic: So among the issues in the play, you spoke about it being about a writer coming back, a writer mining other people’s lives for stories. How does that work for you when you are writing? Is there anything off limits; family, friends, stories? How do you approach that?
Hannie: No, well in the theatre it is a bit different, because there is always an actor embodying your character. So, you are just as likely to find your mother or someone who looks at an actor and goes, ‘Oh, that’s just like our next door neighbour!’ or something. So that often happens. It has never been a big issue for me in the theatre.
But there was this great moment where – and I’ve never thought I have written autobiographically in the theatre – where I was talking to my husband one night and I said, ‘I’ve got this really good idea. I think it would be good if I killed the husband at interval’. And he said to me, ‘In every single play of yours you have killed the man at interval!’ [Laughter]
‘Really? Really?’ And then I thought ‘Oh my god, it can’t be true’ was my first response, initially, but then I thought maybe that is true. So I went and had a think. And then I thought this is so peculiar because my own father died at the interval of my life, when I in my early 20s. And so I thought maybe there is some autobiography here. I don’t quite know what it all means with my murky psychology. So, it is probably untrue that the plays have no bearing on my life. I think I use my life and put them into different… probably unconsciously.
But I have written a memoir that I published – Text Publishing published – in 2015. And that was much more about me stepping into my own world, my own life, and saying this is who I am. My working life has been utterly about inhabiting other people, and this was an occasion for me to write inhabiting me. I wrote it here in the State Library, in the domed reading room, which is my favourite place to work.
Nic: Yes, absolutely.
Hannie: I love it there because I always feel like other people’s intellectual industry might possibly seep into my body. [Laughter]
Nic: Yes, it bounces from the walls doesn’t it?
Hannie: Yes, yes. In that beautiful big view of glass light, I just feel fabulous in there.
But that was much more of an issue about how that impacts on you. When I wrote my memoir it was issue about family. I genuinely consulted people, and curiously, because I am a playwright through and through, I hear rather than see. My noticing, which is a writer’s task, is something oral for me.
So, I can remember after you’ve left here how you speak, it’s a bit of a freak thing. I’ll remember choice phrases that you use and what have you. So I’ll copy those things down. If we were at a dinner party and you said something funny, I’d probably just excuse myself and go and write it down. When I was younger I would remember it for the whole night but now I have to go write it down. I’d collected a lot of things over the years and I included them in my memoir. Then I rang people and said, ‘You said this, do you mind if I use it?’ And to a person, the writers who are friends of mine said, ‘I didn’t say that’.
Hannie: So that was interesting to me. So I’d ask, ‘What do you think you said?’ And quite often they would volunteer something quite banal that I know I wouldn’t have written down.
Nic: That being the case, hearing what people have to say, how then do you approach writing a screenplay, which you’ve done, which is a visual medium? It strikes me as being two very different things. Do you find it harder to write for screen? And do you find it difficult doing the whole visual story telling?
Hannie: Well I’m writing a screenplay right now, as we speak. I was going to say put my pens down but I turned my laptop off to come to the State Library today.
Nic: I appreciate that.
Hannie: I’m thinking about this all the time. I know what the key markets are for me, and the choices or turns of phrase and just limiting them. Obviously when writing a play its just pages of people talking, which is not a verbatim thing, but in turns of the craft of that, it’s a highly crafted business. It is not just taping someone and putting that down, it is like crafting a piece of poetry, that is how I think about it. The visuals... I’m training myself to look, and I have been for years, to make sure what I am conveying on the screen is just absolutely what I’m seeing. With some good lines as well I hope.
Nic: And place is an important part in your places. So along the same sort of lines I’m wondering, when you are writing a play are you seeing the stage or the landscape?
Hannie: Well, my impulse is to see the landscape, entirely. So to write it ‘filmicly’. Then through doing it enough times, I force myself to think about the stage. I’m thinking about the stage because, curiously, it is easy to bring on the French cavalry but you have to get them off. And I forget sometimes about that stuff.
So stage business, if you can make it work in your head, you can see who comes on and where they come on, imagining the physical space that you are in. And every theatre is quite different so you have to pick the theatre you are dreaming about.
Hannie: But if you can make it work once you can make it work anywhere. I’m using that sort of discipline as well.
Another thing I have learnt… There are so many things about the craft of the thing. I sit at my desk every day and I think, ‘Wow, it is such an illusion business getting story right, getting the beats of the story right. All the different things about surprise elements, who reveals what piece information when and why’. And then one day, pretty much every day really, I go ‘Oh, that’s how you do that.’
It actually makes me think that you can learn things in school, and I didn’t really do that, like at RMIT they teach writing, I didn’t do that. They just churn out all these amazing people, all this amazing work, from the get go, which has taken some of us a lifetime to learn.
Nic: Families also play a big part in your plays. What is it about families that make you want to write about them?
Hannie: Well everybody’s got one, pretty much everybody’s got one. What is interesting for the drama is that people go back over… you are shaped by your family and there is history there with your relationship with people. And I find that you can get to the nub of things more immediately with people you have known over a period of time. It’s a bit different with meeting a stranger on a train or something, there is a lot of blather before you can get right into it. Unless you are weird and begin to tell people stuff too early. So that is part of it. I just find that grouping quite endlessly fascinating. They’re different. There is so much there now about how you deal with step families.
My latest play, which I have just delivered to Sydney Theatre Company, is about a woman who arrives at a man’s house declaring she has been donor conceived and he is the sperm donor. That kind of family. What happens when you haven’t ever met someone for 29 years and all of a sudden they show up in your life. It’s like, ‘Oh my god, I thought I was giving sperm for research’. [Laughter]
Nic: I guess thing about using families is that the conflict, the stakes are going to be far higher.
Hannie: Yes. The stakes are high, they are, and it is different. If you compare, say, sisters with girlfriends, it is much more volatile. People get angry much more quickly, or jealous or resentful, or furious or petulant or sulky. All the things that’s possible; very quickly with family. Even with your closest girlfriends there is still some other little veil of restraint.
Nic: And I guess with family you know how to get a reaction immediately.
Hannie: It’s practiced over years.
Nic: Over years.
Life after George was shortlisted for the Mile Franklin. Are there rules such now, or why don’t we get plays nominated and shortlisted? I think it is the only one ever. Which much have been a phenomenal feeling.
Hannie: It was! It was great.
Nic: Like, wow. But why not others?
Hannie: I can’t really answer that. I don’t know. Some people who work in the theatre feel snotty about work that works on the page, like that would militate against it being something theatrical, which is not true.
Nic: The great plays work on page as well as they do on stage. You can just read them and read them, and read them and love and enjoy them. Like you can a novel, surely?
Hannie: Yes, that is how I feel. And I love my own love of language. It’s intense. That is part of this shift away from… initially the theatre language is a hard language because people don’t speak in ornate ways. They speak directly. Getting that right, and yet getting a kind of poetry in the way Australian’s make exchanges, well, it’s a life’s work.
Nic: How are you with reviews?
Hannie: I’m terrible. [Laughter] I’m terrible, I’m trying to grow up about them. I’m really trying to be a different person.
Nic: Have you ever been badly stung by a review?
Hannie: Of course, absolutely. Most of my colleagues, my playwright colleagues, say they don’t read them.
Nic: Yeah, I’ve never believed anyone who has ever said that. Whether they are a novelist or a playwright, how could you not?
Hannie: I know. I felt that they were debilitating and I really did try very hard not to read them. And that worked for a little bit, and it is of course of choice of the sane person not to read them. But in the beginning I thought I’m going to learn stuff from the criticism. No, who are you kidding. This is not true. This is not true because, I tell you, I used to read every single one of them and there was very rarely an occasion where I thought, ‘Ah, okay. I’m going to take that bit of information and take it back to the rehearsal room because that’s helpful’. If I could do that, I would because I know I am very open to people’s responses to things. But I think that is why I respond so badly because I always agree with reviews when they say this person shouldn’t be a writer. I think that’s true [Laughter]
Nic: Why does theatre matter today?
Hannie: I think there are less and less forums for public conversation and for a sense of us all being together, in communal ways. I think it matters because it doesn’t have the constraints film has because of the amount of money. It is more immediate. So as a writer, if there are things that are on your mind… Now this is less true than it used to be but it is still true that stuff that is current can be ingested, digested, thought about, and created and shown within the period that it is all happening. Only theatre can do that.
I don’t know, I think it is about the way ideas are expressed in the theatre and the ways in which we actually think. How does it impact on us individually? In that way it can be very subversive.
Nic: It has been an absolute pleasure chatting to you Hannie about theatre and your work. Keep writing plays that matter for Australia and Australians. Thank you very much.
Hannie: Thank you Nic. Thank you.