Alana Valentine Dramatises Pollies in New Play
Playwright Alana Valentine spoke with Cathy Bannister about her new Australian play, MP., opening in Canberra on October 1, scriptwriting, and the notion of seeing the good in politicians.
Cathy Bannister: So, without giving too much away, what is the synopsis of MP?
Alana Valentine: Basically it’s about an MP who has two constituents walk into her office with a pretty harrowing tale about the death of their daughter. It’s an issue that this MP has been agitating about for many years and got nowhere. She’s a three-term MP, and she’s been in the cabinet but has been taken out of it in a leadership spill. She sets about trying to change disability policy in a maverick way. [Hence] the by-line “She knows the rules. Now she’s going to break them.” I really think the theatre is a place for catharsis, and that people can act on stage in ways that they maybe can’t or can never give in to in real life. And so everyone in the play is in a state of recklessness, because that makes for good drama. This MP takes a course which is unusual, but it’s a function of her having tried for so long and got nowhere by going through the official channels.
CB: Apart from this recklessness, what’s her character like?
AV: She’s what’s called a strong local member type. She’s keen to represent her constituency in a really committed way, and really good at that, but she’s not necessarily so good at the politics and the party. She’s what I would describe as normally cautious and disciplined, and controlled. She is also incredibly compassionate and really still has her ideals intact, which is important for the play.
CB: So it’s almost on the old theme of power corrupting – except she doesn’t really have power, does she?
AV: Well, not quite. She does have power; she is an MP. She’s not in the cabinet, but she has been in the cabinet, so she knows what that power might have been like. One of the MPs I spoke to said: “You don’t know that you don’t know until you do know.” You don’t know that you haven’t got power until you’re actually in that position wherein you suddenly realise, wow, I really didn’t know how much I wasn’t influencing policy or party behaviour. So yes, that’s a frustration for her. But she’s been committed for a long time and she’s been effective. When I say ‘reckless’, I suppose the word I should use is ‘active’, because audiences will judge for themselves whether they think this is fabulously maverick or whether it’s recklessness.
CB: Getting Geraldine Turner on board is quite a coup.
AV: Geraldine is the dream cast for this. I’ve been working with quite experienced women performers—Collette Mann in Head Full of Love and of course all The Parramatta Girls—and I love the instinct in Geraldine. She always talks about the audience, and I think experienced artists are really conscious that there are other people in the room, not just who’s on stage. Canberra audiences know what’s great about Geraldine: she’s funny, she’s serious, she’s tough, so she’s perfect to play the kind of woman who has the tough shell, but what’s under the shell? And I think she’ll surprise a lot of people with her ability to come up with that kind of vulnerability on the stage. She’s generous as an actor, too, to me as a writer. Not all actors like working for new work, because it changes as you go along.
CB: One of the writers you’ve mentored mentioned that you should write about things that mean something to you. What was it about this particular story that called to you?
AV: Well, a lot of my work has been about putting voices on Australia’s mainstage that don’t get heard. People always think that this is an enormously political act and yes, it does have political consequences, but it’s also just that I’m really interested in those voices. I’m not as interested in the voices that I’ve heard heaps of times. I’m interested in going beyond the surface of what I call received knowledge, about, say, football fans in the case of Run, Rabbit, Run or the Parramatta Girls, and to look at what they’re really like. How do people really behave? And to be honest, this is not that far from it. I thought this was going to be really different because those were disempowered working class people, and these are politicians, Canberran, middle class...
AV: Yes, absolutely white, and I’ve written about Muslims and other ethnic groups. What’s been really interesting has been connecting with the Canberra community and seeing what they think of their world and trying to give voice to that in a way that paradoxically we don’t actually see that much of. They’re constantly in the news because of the policies, but we don’t hear about their lives, because we think we know it. It’s about going behind the scenes, behind the veneer of “Oh well, they’re all liars,” or “they’re all trough snufflers”, and realising, actually, what they do is really amazing.
People talk about how theatre ought to be transgressive, yet we always see transgression as saying bad things. In terms of politicians, it’s quite transgressive, I’d almost go so far as to say un-Australian, to be looking at what is good about politicians, to be saying: “You know what? For once, I’m not going to just make satire, I’m not going to make fun of them. I’m going to actually go into why they went into public life, what they do that inspires them, and how they manage to cope with what is a pretty vicious rat run.” So to answer your question about whether this is about whether this is about the old thing of ‘power corrupts’, it’s really about how much of a rat do you have to become if you’re working in a rat nest. If you’re an idealist, how much do you have to become a strategic operator, and when is good-heartedness just not enough.
CB: You started to plan this play back in 2009, which was before Julia Gillard was made PM. Did her success actually change what you were writing at all?
AV: When I was commissioned to do the play, it was first about gender politics and women in politics. [But] you can’t really write a play about gender, or women in politics—you can’t write a play about a subject. You can only write a play about a person. And so I thought, I’ll make the protagonist about a woman MP. [At the time] we had no female Prime Minister, we had no female governor general, and disability reform was hardly on the public agenda either. And so now they’re calling me Cassandra. You have to be like that if you’re a playwright—I suppose you should write what you know, but write what will happen in four years’ time! But yes, [the new circumstances] did change [what I was writing]. I seem to remember Geraldine saying, well, it’s not a problem anymore now that we have a female Prime Minister. But actually, it’s still a huge problem. One swallow does not a summer make. In fact, in some ways, it helps hide the problem. When you’ve got a figurehead it makes it harder for all the people who are still trying.
But I was never really writing about that person. I was writing about the strong local member type, the MP who does the work where the constituent walks in and they want housing help, they want help with migration, just that kind of bureaucracy that your local MP takes on every day. When I went to the interviews with these politicians their eyes would light up. I’m really not kidding. Their eyes would light up when they would talk about the joy they get out of just being able to help their constituents. I thought, why do we never hear this, why do we never see this? And I started to want to write a valorisation of the wonder of that, that people give their lives to that.
CB: You spoke to many different politicians and journalists of all persuasions and levels. Were there any anecdotes that you could weave into the play? Are we all going to be sitting back, playing the game of who might have really done what?
AV: I do get asked a bit ‘who is it really based on’, and I say, no, it’s out of my fevered imagination I’m afraid, I’m really that clever that I can actually make up a person...
CB: Of course!
AV: I think it’s inevitable that there will be a certain amount of ‘oh, I think I know who said that bit about that.’ Canberra audiences should come along to play that game. And I could give them a score out of ten to how close they get. But it is all under the cover of fiction, as I say. But there were some anecdotes that were fantastic. The journalists told me terrific things. First of all, about how many secrets journalists really do keep. The second thing is that they’d tell me some pretty ugly stories about sexism and gender politics around Canberra that’s not going to make the news and no-one’s willing to talk about it, but they could give some actual concrete examples; things like sexism and racism and homophobia. Sometimes in this world at the moment you know it’s there, but people don’t display it overtly, and they could give me some overt examples. There were fantastic anecdotes that are woven in, or I’ve versioned as I would say it—I haven’t used exactly what happened, but I’ve understood how that culture works and made up something that would be of a similar calibre.
CB: To move onto a little bit about scriptwriting. I know that you’ve taken stories and characters from all over the place, you’ve talked about young Muslim women to Top End Aboriginal beanie makers. How do you get inside these people’s heads?
AV: I really love people. You see so many plays about how awful people are, and don’t get me wrong, it’s a playwright’s job is to look at the worst of human nature as well as the best, but I choose people who don’t get heard. It’s just this beautiful thing to reach into somebody’s world and say, what you say and what you think is important, and I’m fascinated by it. And that’s what storytellers do, not just me. I think we go through our lives wondering if our lives are important and if what we have to say at any given moment is interesting, and what I try to do is to say yes, let me have a look in your cupboard of memories. It’s hard, because you can start to sound a bit Pollyanna, and it’s not that. It’s deeper than that for me—it’s about a genuine love for those voices. Those beanie makers are doing such good work. I mean, that festival is genuine reconciliation in action, and I want to hear those stories. I mean, I do want to hear the hard line journalists’ stories about abuse in communities and problems as well, but I also want to hear about the good work that people are trying to do and give voice to that.
CB: I’ll come clean on this one and let you know this is something I feel nervous about myself. I want to make sure I do justice to people, so do you get some sort of feedback from them and make sure that you’ve got the voices right?
AV: I love that you’ve raised that, it’s so important to say that. With the Parramatta Girls, I always feel like this was a national apology to another group of forgotten Australians. It’s not for me, not for me, because it’s not always about me, it’s about these stories, and exactly what you say, you feel like you carry responsibility for those stories. People are dying in Central Australia from disease, right now, on our watch. Not 200 years ago. Now. Now, kidney disease because of dispossession and poverty. And I feel a responsibility to bring those stories out.
In terms of what you said about people having input, I’ve had people laugh at the way that they’ve been characterised, and [told me] you’ve played it a bit fast and loose, but I suppose what I’m trying to do is bring them up to speed on the process. So a lot of the work I do, and it’s the same for MP but also Parramatta Girls, was that we had public readings along the way, where the public and the women could have input. So with Parramatta Girls, the first one was pure verbatim, because the Parramatta Girls were really worried that they wouldn’t be believed, because they’d never been listened to. And the next public reading I started to create characters, and the women would come along and say “I know that’s my bit”, just to get them used to the idea that it wasn’t going to be just them on stage. And by the time we got to opening night, they knew that the spirit of who they were was still there, because they were very vocal through that process.
I guess the answer to your question is that you don’t let someone get angry, because you fold that into the process. It’s not rocket science, it’s just hard work. I often talk about a play as a triangle at the top of a really big pyramid, and all of [what’s underneath] is trust, and listening, and going out to dinner, and cups of coffee—it’s all this trust building. I think you can do that badly, if you go in and just try to snatch a story, but I think it’s really possible to do it well.
CB: It’s interesting, it’s so much more of a social process than the usual stereotype of the writer.
AV: I sometimes make a crack that it would be easier to just sit in my room and make it up. But not really. Sometimes I do sit in my room and make it up, but you’re informed by these millions of interviews that you’ve done. You can always go back and use them in another context. Not verbatim, but just thinking, well, I did an interview with a fireman once, what was that? I think even sitting in your room, making it up, you still have to have met those people.
CB: That’s great, that’s a respectful way of doing it.
AV: They’ll have your guts for garters if you don’t. I sometimes think I’ve [interviewed] some pretty scary [people]. The Rabbitohs, who were pretty scary, the Parramatta Girls who were known for being tough, Muslim women, you can keep going tougher and tougher. But you know the truth is, it’s exactly what I said at the beginning, you have to get through the veneer.
CB: This is just a personal question. I’m a fairly recent graduate of a certain scriptwriting course, and we were given a very strict, 12 point formula based on Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. We were told that if we were to make an effective story, it had to follow this formula, and I was wondering what you thought of that.
AV: Playwriting is architecture. You are building a frame for your story. Particular frames stand up, and I do agree with them to that extent. Secondly, theatre is the most economical of the media. On any line, you have to be establishing character, creating tone, pushing plot, and probably making a laugh. You have to really reduce everything down. Every line on stage is incredibly important, there’s no waste, there’s no cutting away to anything else, there’s nowhere to hide. So I think that this inculcating you as a student with the idea that there’s a discipline and an architecture is probably a good thing. And that’s a strategy about teaching.
In terms of you as a writer, I think that you have to find your own voice and your own architecture. It becomes very sad and reductive if everything we see is the same shape. Some of the best theatre I’ve seen was in community halls, done by indigenous story tellers. Look, if you just ate Asian food all the time, you’d get really sick of it.
I can understand why the teachers did that, because I think there’s a discipline and a rigour that’s needed, but once you’re really rock-and-rolling, you need to find your own voice, and be a bit about my MP, you know, know the rules, and then break them. Sometimes you’re in the middle of a play, and someone will do something and it doesn’t really push the play forward and it’s not really about the main character, but hell, if it’s a really great moment. How many of those can you allow? Well, how many you think. It is in the end a creative job. If you’re asking personally, I think you should try building a structure that way, and if it seems inauthentic, try another.
The World Premiere season of MP. by Alana Valentine plays at the Street Theatre in Canberra from October 1 to 15.