The Arts Show, 13 March 2000

Backstage : David Williamson and Guy Pearce

From page to stage: The Arts Show's Mandy Salomon speaks with Australia's most renown playwright David Williamson about his latest work, Face to Face and lead actor Guy Pearce.

Mandy Salomon: Hi. Welcome to Backstage. Today's piece has a number of ingredients. Australia's most renown playwright, an Australian actor with some serious Hollywood runs on the board...David Williamson is returning to the stage after seven years and the first public performance is opening in mere hours.

Right now the cast are inside getting notes about their performance and I notice that David is sitting on his own so I'll find out what that's all about. Sorry to interrupt your reading. Just interested in this process that your going through today. I notice Aubrey (Aubrey Mellor, the director) is in there giving notes and you're pretty much apart from it. What's the story?

David: Oh well, note giving is a very private moment between the director and the cast. And I think Aubrey doesn't want anyone in the cast to be embarrassed to smarten up or something like that. Not that Aubrey ever would. Aubrey is wonderfully tactful with actors. But I think it's, like a very private ritual and I didn't want to be in there. And Aub said that when I finish giving them notes they can talk to you about characters. I'll drag you in and you can say what you like. So it's this sense that you don't want to intrude on that moment.

Is this a theatrical ritual or is there a real pragmatic reason behind it?

David: Well, I think there is a pragmatic reason. The director doesn't want, at this crucial time before they face an audience tonight, you wouldn't want the cast to feel in any way humiliated or diminished in front of anyone by things he's telling them. Because no matter how tactfully you put it, if a director is trying to redirect an actor out of a certain bad habit or in a certain new way, actors are smart enough and very sensitive to know that they are being told that they are doing something wrong. And they don't like other people overhearing that they're doing something wrong. The Director and the cast bond very closely during the production and I don't like to be too much around during rehearsal because of that.

When the director invites me to see a run - and that usually happens around about the third week of rehearsal, but I'll always be there at the first reading. The first reading is where I first hear, bring the actors, bring the text to life - and if there's any rewriting, I'll do it after I've heard the first reading. But in this case, the play has been tested by another production, I know it's in good shape, I hope it's in good shape, so I don't have to do that.

It's a very delicate thing if the writer's there because sometimes the actors want to let off steam and abuse the text and say, "these lines are unsayable this is shocking" - so the writer doesn't want to be around when that inevitable process is happening. He'd rather the director ring up and say "he's having a little bit of a problem with a certain section. I wonder if you can think that through."

That wouldn't happen very often.

David: No, but sometimes actors, being very smart and directors being very smart, often during my time as a writer when the text hasn't been working in a scene, and the actor's got to be free to say that, tells the director and the director has got to be free to say, "look can you come in and have a look - something's wrong here". When the writer should be there and when the writer shouldn't be there is a very delicate thing.

Well, things are hotting up in the rehearsal room. Aubrey Mellor is thoroughly ensconced with the cast, giving them notes so we're taking the opportunity of talking to David now - sooner rather than later.

David, most of the writer's lot is sitting in front of a computer screen in a quiet room, so how do you find days like today?

David: Quite exciting. You come out into the real world and there's something very special about the first contact between a production and an audience. Because, until that happens, the vital third ingredient of theatre isn't added. The audience has to be there in order to really know what's happening, what we've got. That's both very tense and very exciting. I find the first preview is the tensest and most exciting time of a play's evolution.

The first night is something else again. That's the media and all those sorts of people are there but you get a truer indication of what you've got on that first preview night because the general public who want to be there and want to see the play are there and it tells all of us a lot. So I'll be talking to Aubrey and the cast after tonight. Talking about reactions, what was happening in that magic interaction between audience and actor.

Why do you need to be part of that process? I mean surely the play is written it's finite - or isn't it?

David: Sometimes the audience can tell you things and it's not too late as a writer to act on them. In this case, I don't anticipate it'll happen because this play has happened. It has had a very successful other life but if it's a totally new play - for instance, if you see the audience nodding off to sleep at the start after interval, you know that scene is not as highly theatrical as you thought it was and there's still time to cut a few minutes out there and get the play back on track.

Its a very intense play, there's a lot of intensity between the actors throughout the entire time that they're on stage - of course they're always on stage, nobody exits. Do you think this is a more dramatic and intense work than others that you've done?

David: Well I think it's certainly one of the most dramatic and intense that I've done, because I think what attracted me to this process is a), it's a terrific way for people to resolve their differences and come to some understanding of what has happened and some healing of the damage. And b), it's highly theatrical. It's a process that only works if the emotions DO surface - and sometimes they surface in a very strong and frightening way. It's not something we're used to in everyday life. So for a dramatist to have this process available is also very exciting.

What do you say the play is about?

David: Well it is about community at heart. It's about the fact that all of us really have a deep need to connect with other people. The economic rationalist theory that we're just little consuming units, like Maggie Thatcher's statement that there is no such thing as society, is wrong. In fact society is terribly important to all of us. We are social creatures who very much feel the anxiety and pain of being excluded from society. And someone like Glen, who has done something that's hurt other people, has been excluded from the work community. He's been sacked.

And so this process - what I love about it - is that it brings people who are outcasts and disgraced temporarily back into a community through this process. And they feel, at the end of the process that their lives have been healed to some extent and the lives of the victims of the act have been healed. It's very satisfying in that way because it does use the fact that we're not just selfish little atoms in a world of no connection. The fact that this process works so well and so strongly indicates that we're far more than Maggie Thatcher said we were. We are social creatures who need community.

When you talk about "this process", you're talking about the Transformative Justice Australia approach to conflict resolution, which is a bit of a mouthful for people who don't understand - but can you tell us about it?

David: It's actually a very old process - the Maoris just hit on it organically a thousand years ago and they've been using it ever since as the best method of healing damage to the community. And David Moore and John McDonald have pioneered the process with a few modifications in Australia. And they're now in America and it's going through the world because it's proving a much better way of dealing with conflict than the traditional court system which only exacerbates the problem. There's no healing process in court. The court just says you're guilty, you're punished. Neither the victim nor the offender feels happy about the court outcome because disruption is amplified. But his process actually works and has been proven to work around the globe.

I get the feeling that you're genuinely impassioned by this.

David: Yeah, I'm impassioned as a dramatist because it allows us to see emotions that are not normally seen in everyday life and I'm passionate as a believer that there is a better way to deal with people like Glen than stuffing them in jail and filling them with angry young men who will only get angrier. And more damaged by that experience.

Angry young men and anger per say; people's inability to deal with their emotions and in this instance the crisis that blue collar workers find themselves in the year 2000 - these are big issues to talk about. What are your general feelings about kinds of people in this play on whom the characters are based.

David: Well you can't help feeling compassion when you actually see these conferences in real life and read the transcripts. You realise there are a lot of people who are desperately unhappy in our society - I mean it's a highly competitive society. Some people gravitate to the top - some people don't. And it's been very recently that major psychological and health problems are associated so strongly with being in control of your life and if you at the bottom of the heap, you're not in control of your life. Always getting orders from someone else, always being told what to do, your life is totally controlled and it's OUT of your control.. so there's a lot of stress a lot of pressure and a lot of unhappiness the further down the status hierarchy you go. And when you see how angry and unhappy a lot of people are and how far from social harmony our society is - is at- then you do feel compassionate.

And I do feel strongly about a process that allows the sort of pressures that most of us would tend to ignore or forget, you actually see on stage a little microcosm of how the larger society works and that microcosm is often not very pleasant to look at.

Does that make this play a more serious work than others of yours? I mean the issues have always been serious but a lot of the exposition of them has been with a lot of warmth and comic touch.

David: Yeah. A lot of my writing is satiric and comedic, hopefully still touching on issues of importance . My work often varies between straight naturalism and satire and it's always somewhere in that arc.. that area between the two. This's more a piece of straight drama and straight naturalism than a satiric comedy like money and friends, but the content dictates the form and there's no other way you could do this sort of play other than fairly full on straight drama. Not that there aren't moments of humour. There always are at these conferences and it's surprising amongst the anger there's also a lot of laughter.

When you were writing the play, how much of the dialogue and the language comes from your own observation of the process - sitting in on these events?

David: A lot of it. I get the feel of the way people talk the way they react. The emotional curve of the process itself coming from inevitably strong rage, anger, hurt fear. Those very strong emotions start the process and there's a moment David and John call 'collective vulnerability' when everyone in the circle realises that they are all bonded together as human beings and every one is vulnerable and has been made vulnerable by that act, then those emotions are transformed into the more positive emotions.

On a lighter note, the casting. Did you have any involvement in that?

David: I had no involvement in that. I've worked with Aubrey before. He's a fine director and I trust his judgement in casting. And all I got was the cast list faxed through to me and I scanned down the list and saw some very fine actors there and then I saw the name Guy Pearce. I rang up Aubrey and I said, "Is that the Guy Pearce ?? So, I was delighted that Guy, who has now a very considerable international career would reaffirm his bond with the theatre and do such a great job.

Mandy Salomon: It's been an exhausting morning. It's now what 2.00 and you guys have been going flat out. How's it feeling now with what..4 hours until doors open to the public?

Guy Pearce: It's mildly nerve racking I suppose. I'm more concentrating on what it is we have to do within the play rather than the audience as such. But, we're aware definitely that they're going to be there. But I think we feel that we're in fairly good shape. Hard to know.

Do you feel the need for an audience to see you as compared to a film audience where it's an invisible experience?

Guy: No, I think it's more about working with other actors. The time you have rehearsing. The involvement that goes on in constructing a piece of work which you tend to miss when you're doing a film because you really don't get a lot of rehearsal time and you head in do your own thing and you get out of there. There's a number of reasons why I was keen to do this play. I hadn't done a Williamson play before and I haven't played an Australian for quite a while. But the audience thing - that is in a sense the same as a camera. It forces you to do whatever you have to do when the audience is there. It's a very difficult thing to explain.

This is very strongly an ensemble piece - so that must inform the performance in a different way as well, to say doing a monologue or solo on stage.

Guy: Definitely. I mean it's the beauty of this is that we're a whole team of people who don't ever leave the stage. So it really adds to the organic nature of where the whole thing could go. Because you've got nine other personalities shifting and changing and my role in this is to keep all these people together.

What do you think the play is about?

Guy: It's about a number of things. One of the beauties of the play is the ability for human beings to actually transform something from a negative into a positive. And giving them an opportunity to sit in a room and discuss something and be open and honest about how people feel about stuff, is such a simple concept but it's something that is definitely missing in this day and age. I mean the basis of this play comes from an organisation called Transformative Justice Australia. And what they do is based on an old Maori philosophy which is to sit in a big circle and have it out with each other and have a mediator who keeps it fair and even and it's such a wonderful democratic way to resolve something.

It would strike me that acting is probably the hardest career to have control over. Would you agree with that?

Guy: It's definitely difficult at times. Yeah. Having control... It depends on what area I suppose. When you look at the whole thing of public personae and publicity and all that sort of thing, that's not necessarily something you can have control over. If people recognise you, they recognise you. But in terms of choosing the roles you want to play, you can have a certain amount of control, if you have a certain amount of notoriety and you're then able to choose particular roles but for some actors who don't have any notoriety, there's quite a bit of frustration. Even if they're brilliant actors, because people won't employ them because they're not well known. So there's all sorts of political odds and sods that make this whole industry work.

What was the process for you to come back form the cinematic line back to the theatre in Melbourne?

Guy: Well, I did a lot of theatre when I was a kid and then I did theatre two or three years ago and I was just really missing it. So last year I was saying to my agent, I'd really like to find some theatre to do - not just because I was missing it, but also to hone some of the skills and to communicate with other actors and feel like I was part of some developing process rather than just step in and do your thing and then deal with the whole movie world type thing which was very odd, particularly overseas.

So what's the process been like?

Guy: It's been wonderful. Aubrey has such a delightful manner about him and is just so enthusiastic about the psychology of human nature - so it's really inspiring to watch how he tunes into things. And because it is an ensemble piece, it's just as important to be there at any time and it's a wonderfully delightful cast to work with and I feel very secure within the group. We've had a long process. It's definitely time to get it into the theatre and start playing it to an audience to see what they laugh at, what they will cry at. We're always making jokes about how do you feel about doing that.

So it's a good experience?

Guy: Definitely yeah.

guy edward pearce