Winner of the State Library of Victoria’s inaugural Russell Beedles Performing Arts Fellowship, playwright and actor Christopher Bryant is debuting his fellowship-winning play The Other Place at the State Library of Victoria on Friday. We spoke to Christopher about car crashes, camp theatre, incredible women and carving a career in the arts.
First of all, congratulations on winning the Fellowship! Tell us about how you came to be the library’s first Performing Arts Fellow.
Thank you very much! It all happened by chance, really – halfway through my time at NIDA I was struck by a car, and had to hit pause on my theatre career to try and recover from it all. A friend forwarded me the application for this – I was applying for everything under the sun in an attempt to ‘recover’ my career and make sure that I didn’t waste too much time. (A lot of this was driven by intense anxiety, haha.) I put something together and handed it in, and evidently they liked the idea!
The idea that won you the Fellowship, The Other Place, explores the lives of Betty Bustrall and Buzz Goodbody: two standout personalities in the world of theatre. What got you interested in these incredible women, and what made you want to tell their stories?
I’ve always found Betty a really interesting person, and a few months before applying for the fellowship I was directing a show at La Mama, which piqued my interest in her as a figure. I find it fascinating that everyone seems to know who she was – or her name, at least – but not many people know much about her or her life. My interest in Buzz developed, weirdly, through Facebook – I’d never heard of her before a friend put up a status about her, which led to me spending a night trawling through the internet trying to find out as much as I could about her and her life.
Honestly, completing the application was what made me want to tell the stories – it wasn’t until I was filling it out that ideas began to form and I fully began to appreciate the similarities in both women’s lives. They were interesting figures that I knew of, but as I began to plan how their stories might be told, my interest really began to grow. At the same time as I was writing the application, a (deserved) furore was beginning in Sydney about theatre gender parity, which only fuelled my belief that these two women’s stories needed to be told.
By the time I submitted the application I was determined to write the play whether or not I was successful – though I must say it’s a much better play than it might’ve been if I wasn’t successful!
The Fellowship requires you to use the library’s collection to create your piece of art. What surprises or secrets did you unearth in the collection?
I didn’t know as much as I should have when I applied – my strongest memory from my time in the Library is something that I wish I had known existed when I’d written my application! The Library has a collection of papers about La Mama, which was immensely helpful, but the collection of beautiful handwritten letters between Betty and Tim Burstall both helped give me a solid understanding of who Betty was and how her psychology worked, and gave me ideas about how to write her story and conventions I could use. I spent two days reading the details of their marriage across years, and the world fell away – I forgot I was even supposed to be writing a play, I was just too invested in their lives!
You studied journalism at Monash University, then segued into theatre and into play writing in particular. What prompted this transition? How does the world of theatre compare to the world of journalism?
I always loved theatre but it never seemed like an achievable goal. (Ironically, of course, with the Liberal cuts and utter decimation of the arts industry, it now seems even less achievable than before, but I’m in too deep to give up!) My parents, as parents do, wanted me to have an income and job security (hah), so they encouraged me to pursue journalism. Then, two things happened: it became evident to me that a job in the journalism industry was about as unlikely as one in the theatre industry, and at the same time I was heavily participating at Monash Uni Student Theatre (MUST), which taught me as much as any undergraduate degree and fostered in me an intense dedication to theatre. At the end of the day, I just don’t think I had the dedication to be a journalist, but I did to be a theatre-maker.
You have worked in theatres all over the country, from La Mama in Melbourne to the ATYP in Sydney. Is it a bit of a shock to go from these dedicated theatre venues to somewhere like Queen’s Hall, the huge original library building? What kind of adjustments do you have to make to work in a venue like that?
It’s not too much of a shock! While I have worked in dedicated theatre venues, I’ve also consistently produced independent work that’s quite ‘quick and dirty’ – we’ve done shows in rooms at the Abbotsford Convent, and shows in the Collingwood Underground Carpark (which sadly no longer exists as an arts space), so I’m pretty used to working in unconventional places. It’s a decided positive that we’re able to use a dedicated stage space, lights and microphones from the Library, though – it makes it a lot easier to emulate a real theatre. I don’t think I’ve ever worked in such a beautiful place, though! Although we’re only producing a reading, you really could stage a full production here – you’d barely need a set, the hall has so much atmosphere.
As well as being a playwright you’re also an established actor, and one who doesn’t shy away from playing female characters. What made you decide to take more of a backseat in this production, and how did actors Trelawney Edgar and Kathy Schoenjahn become involved?
I have two halves to my play writing practice, I suppose: one based in ‘theatre of the real’ – stories based on real life and real people but not a simple/bland retelling of events, more an emotional exploration of what happened and what it says about our current society – and the other based wholly in conventions of camp and heightened theatre, which I also very much love. I suppose the most obvious performers/makers most people associate camp with are Sisters Grimm (I’m friends with both Ash and Declan: their work is so, so intelligent and layered, and I love it), but camp has a long and intelligent history throughout years and countries across the world, from Charles Busch and Charles Ludlam to Australia’s own Little Ones Theatre. So while I’ve performed predominantly in camp theatre, and love it, I’m also very aware of my strengths and weaknesses as a performer, and there was no chance I was ever going to be in this! The characters I’ve played are faded film star WW2 spies and surfer girls with a split personality – much more broadly drawn and ridiculous.
As I researched both women, I had a crisis of faith and began to question what right I as a male in the theatre industry had to write about their struggles. Both Trelawney and Kathy (and numerous other female theatre-makers who I’ve involved in the process, including Jessica Arthur, our director) helped dispel these worries, though – Trelawney and Kathy have been involved since December of 2015, and have repeatedly come in to read and develop the play as it’s developed, which has helped me immensely.
Jessica Arthur directed your play Intoxication at the Midsumma Festival earlier this year. What’s it like to work with her again, and what does she bring to the table as a director?
Intoxication sprung from my car accident – I was studying at NIDA with Jessica and dramaturging her graduate piece, RAUSCH, which ended up informing Intoxication as the play itself was one of the first things I remembered when I woke up in hospital. (Not the fact I was working on it, but the literal play itself!) Given the context, Intoxication was an emotionally fraught piece to perform, and I don’t think I could’ve done it without her support. It’s so wonderful to work with her again, but also so wonderful to work with her on something less personally draining, haha. Jessica works in an open and devised manner, and is a dramaturge herself, which has meant that she’s picked up recurring motifs in the play and other things that I otherwise would have missed.
What’s your favourite fact that you’ve learned about the library?
It’s not really a fact, but I’ve gained a deeper appreciate for just how much the library has, behind the scenes as well as in the shelves. Kerri Hall, my librarian mentor, and Gail Schmidt (the Fellowships Coordinator) both have detailed what the sections offer and toured me through the basement and behind the scenes, and it’s a little bit overwhelming, and incredibly exciting – particularly the shelves brimming with books and artefacts that I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to access.
What are your plans for The Other Place after this reading? Where will it be heading next?
I’m not sure yet! I keep forgetting that this Friday isn’t the end of it! At some point over the next couple of years it’ll definitely be produced, it’s just a matter of figuring out where. Ideally not independently – if anyone reads this and wants to host a full production of the play, get in contact with me!
What’s on the horizon for you and the rest of The Other Place’s team?
Trelawney and I are performing together in a camp theatre piece I’ve written entitled The Avarice of Boise Plains, running from July 5-10 at Club Voltaire. It’s about the Great Depression, Southern America, Brandis, Turnbull, Fifield and the arts cuts. Kathy is heading over to Europe a few hours after the performance – she’s literally leaving for the airport from the Library! – and Jessica is heading to Germany to assistant direct with Falk Richter (who co-wrote RAUSCH).
The Other Place reading will be held in Queen’s Hall at the State Library of Victoria on Friday the 3rd of June. Entry is free but bookings are required.
For more information on Christopher’s work, or to get in touch, visit www.christopher-bryant.com
For more information on the library’s collection or the library’s fellowship programs, visit slv.vic.gov.au