WRITERS JOURNEY – Playwright, David Brown
My original theatre career started out as an actor in 1987 at New Moon Theatre in Townsville. I’ve worked at La Boite, Sydney Theatre Company, most professional theatre companies in New South Wales and Queensland. I’ve also written, directed and produced my own plays which I toured to Sydney from Brisbane. I’ve also toured most of Queensland as well as Alice Springs and Darwin in plays that I have either written myself or been an actor in.
How did you get into writing?
It started out of a need. An unemployed actor is a terrible thing to be. What I turned myself into is a working actor, creating my own work. So initially I wrote plays that I was able to perform in. It started out from a musical review that I wrote in 1989, the Fitzgerald Review – a parody of the Fitzgerald Inquiry which we played at La Boite in the late 90’s. Then I wrote a play about the American comedian Lennie Bruce, which I toured down to Sydney. Then I wrote a play called Vicious about Sid Vicious. I took that to Sydney as well. My writing came out of a need to establish myself as an actor and along the way I developed my skills in writing by creating work for myself. Being an actor is the best place to learn how to write plays because you’re actually learning from the inside. You develop the dialogue, how scenes flow, you hear the musicality of a scene or script, so that was my informal training as a writer.
Did it go according to plan with regards to gaining exposure for yourself as an actor?
Absolutely. It was very successful. I got a Sydney agent out of it. I got a high profile through the media by getting good reviews and critical acclaim. I won awards as well for my writing. That lead to my first professional commission which was with the Brisbane Festival in 1998. They commissioned me to write and direct a play called Keep Everything You Love. I also toured that around Queensland, Alice Springs and Darwin in 2001. It only occurred because I was working very hard as a writer and actor which is what I was hoping people would acknowledge.
How did you come up with your ideas, where did you start?
I was writing for a need. In my earlier career, I’m still a developing writer, but when I was performing in my own work I was looking for material that was somewhat controversial. Hence the choice of characters of Lennie Bruce and Sid Vicious. They were the sorts of characters I showed because I knew there would be public interest. I was doing that to develop my skills and profile, etc. In my first writing commission I pitched the idea to Brisbane Festival a multimedia play which dealt with a very serious issue, youth suicide. I dealt with that issue very sensitively, very mindful of the dangerous territory that subject brings. But I wrote a play that didn’t really deal with suicide but with grief and loss. So Keep Everything You Love was again another critical success. We toured it, we teach it, we have briefings after it. We approached it very differently to a normal play in that we realised that the sensitivity of the subject matter required a different type of show and a different type of relationship with the audience. So we would have the audience up talking with the actors afterwards. We’d invite local councillors, local groups who were specialist in offering services to young people. In each community we tried to lift the profile of the services that were available to young people as well as doing the play. We were very mindful of operating on a different level. I think that’s the first time a play ever toured with a teacher attached to it. A teacher/artist they call themselves. This teacher would facilitate the discussion after the show, so that was pretty innovative. I don’t think it had been done before or since. Now I reflect upon the social issues that impact my life and impact the life of the community that I live in, that is our broader community of diverse Australians. I believe that theatre provides a voice for the disenfranchised and it reminds us that as a community we have responsibilities that filter from the top down. Theatre for me is the most sophisticated form of communication about issues within our community. Our community can be just two people, your suburb or your state or country. There’s the microcosm and the macrocosm and theatre really reflects those things and explores issues that impact on those.
Is it necessary to have controversial material?
When you say controversial material people often think there’s going to be swearing or nudity but they’re not controversial anymore. It’s not so much controversial as thought provoking, that’s the theatre that really interests me. To be entertained is the very first important job of a playwright but also to provoke a deeper thought about issues and about their personal relationship with that issue or people they know who has engaged in or touched that issue. So it’s about provoking a deeper thought.
Do you have a formula with your writing?
Yes, I suppose my formula starts with an image then it’s the search for a story. The story just needs to be very simple and most stories are. The story of The Estimator is a man arrives to a flat to do an estimation, there’s a couple of other people there and things happen. To keep stories simple is the best way. The complex nature of a story is revealed through its themes and subtext and the issues that the story and characters may bring out. So my formula is to find a very simple story and begin the writing process which enables me to create a character. Sometimes a character might lead me somewhere I wasn’t expecting. That’s the writing process. The second most important part of the formula is working with actors. Being an actor myself, I love working with them because that’s what you need to do. A play is a living thing, it is the direct opposite of a novel. You cannot be held to the printed page, it needs to be freed and you can only do that with actors in developing the script. The creative work really occurs with actors.
Do you think you need a special talent to be able to write a play?
Having an acting background I learnt about theatre inside out. There’s something we should acknowledge in terms of the greatest playwrights in western history. They all come with a group of actors. They’re not known to have written something on their own. Moliere, Shakespeare, had a company. They can’t exist on their own. In the end, if you look at the way in which those companies work, they were writing successfully for a number of years with the same actors. So they knew who they were writing for. There’s a kind of symbiotic relationship when you’re dealing with very talented actors as any playwright will tell you who has had the opportunity to work with any actor who is very generous with their skill. They bring so much to the creative relationship, as well as the director. The director is more of a Twentieth Century invention but the director is very important now.
Do you still perform in your plays?
No. When I get the chance to act I’ll jump at it. The last play I was in was at La Boite in The Main Inheritance in 2004.
Is writing your main passion now?
Yes I think so. It’s a combination. Also I’m lucky enough to teach the art form I love. I teach part-time acting and writing at Tafe. That in itself is a great learning process because you learn so much from your students.
Do you have a favourite genre?
I guess it would be comedy.
What play of your own are you most proud of?
I hope it’s this one (The Estimator)! At this stage in my career I’m most proud of Keep Everything You Love; it is a great play. The tour was a real achievement. I’m also very proud of Keep Eating With Your Eyes Closed. I’m proud of the production, it receive some critical acclaim and awards. Just getting a play on is such a hard thing to do in Australia. There’s a lot of playwrights and not many companies that do them, so it’s highly competitive. To just get this far is an accomplishment.
How did you get your first play up?
Once you get commissioned you get a profile. Most playwrights in Australia work in a competition paradigm. Most of the companies offer a playwright competition like at Queensland Theatre Company. So you enter your play. The one I entered entries had to be in by 2005, and I was short listed in 2006. So I managed to do some development work on that, then I won and it was programmed. The Queenland Premier’s Award is so unique and valuable in Australia because it offers the company production at the end of it. No other prize in Australia offers that. Your work can be published but it needs to be produced.
What further advice would you offer playwrights?
Enter competitions. Remember your first draft is just your first draft. It’s hard work being a playwright. Working with actors is a great help.
Is dealing with constructive criticism difficult?
It’s a solo task being a playwright. To generate the first draft, which in reality might be draft five, six or even ten with the changes you make before you feel happy in presenting it to someone else for comment. You struggle to develop it to a stage so you really must take on board other people’s opinions. They may be wrong and you may choose to reject them but you also need to be open to the advice of people who generally want the best for your play.
What’s the future hold for you?
I’m doing further study at QUT. I’m finishing a PhD in dramaturgy. I’ve got a new play which I’m trying to find someone who’ll take some interest in it so that I can develop that play.