Black Swan's The Eisteddfod: An Interview with Playwright Lally Katz
Black Swan State Theatre Company’s exciting run (and WA premiere) of beloved American-Australian playwright Lally Katz’s work The Eisteddfod is just around the corner, opening at the end of this month and directed by Jeffrey Jay Fowler. We took the opportunity to have a chat the genius behind the script herself about growing older, writing, the play and WA.
IN: WA Black Swan's upcoming run marks the WA premiere of The Eisteddfod. What do you think this play has to offer a Western Australian audience?
LK: I love WA. I think it’s such a strange, dreamy place. I had so much fun having The Rabbits on in the Perth Festival. I found the audiences to be ready to be transported and to dream into the stage. I think they’ll really go with the imagining of The Eisteddfod.
IN: Where did you get the idea to anchor the play around the idea of an upcoming 'Eisteddfod' in particular?
LK: Honestly, when I first started working on the play, I had no idea what an Eisteddfod was. I only knew about Rock Eisteddfods. I was 25 when I started writing this play- in collaboration with Stuck Pigs Squealing Theatre. It was Chris Kohn, the Artistic Director of the company’s idea to do a play about an Eisteddfod. So I had to google what an Eisteddfod was. But I think before I did that I wrote a description of what an Eisteddfod was that ended up in the play.
IN: How did you go about formulating the highly complex characters of Gertrude and Abalone? Were they based on anyone particularly?
LK: Well to begin with I just started writing scenes. And discovering them that way. I was living in London at the time, doing the Royal Court’s course for young playwrights. So some of the scenes would be inspired by what I was doing there. And some of the character stuff would come out of relationships I was having. And some stuff would be based on tasks that Stuck Pigs Squealing would send me.
Honestly, Gerture and Abalone are both versions of me in a way. Abalone reflected my intense ambition and competiveness at the time. And Gerture came out of how I was feeling in my relationships with men. But then, they were both other people too. Because of course characters come alive and become their own people. And it’s only 14 years later that I can say that they were both part of me. At the time, I didn’t know. I was just writing them. And then some of the scenes with Gerture and Abalone when he’s pretending to be Ian were inspired by relationships I was having with men- or the way I felt in them.
IN: Now, The Eisteddfod is an adventurous plays in so many ways. What would you say drove you to go digging into what are really quite touchy themes and ideas in writing it?
LK: I guess at the time, pain. I was writing about the stuff that was hurting me at the time as my way of understanding it. I would have a terrible night with a guy I was seeing in London and then I’d wake up at 5am and write a scene for The Eisteddfod. And I’d feel better. I was exploring the darkest things that I felt or could imagine, but I felt were part of my everyday reality and writing about them made it feel better and make sense. I guess I was writing the stuff that felt true and also felt funny to me. When I would send these scenes to Stuck Pigs Squealing- they were always the scenes they got most excited about and wanted more of. For the first time, I was sending scenes which usually I would have been humiliated to show anyone- but the members of the company were encouraging me to do more and more and more. I would email one off and then not be able to re-read it because I’d be so embarrassed, but then they’d email me back and say ‘We want more Ian!’
IN: Fourteen years on from your completion of The Eisteddfod, the play will be shown to a new generation. In what ways do you believe that this play is timeless/can translate well to those of the digital era, who experience a different set of pressures?
LK: Well I think the world around us changes constantly, but the soul takes a long time to change. The heart takes a long time to change. There are still the same pains. The same longings. They just come in different forms, through different messengers. I think The Eisteddfod still reflects a longing to understand longing. To understand love. And ambition (Maybe in some ways, they’re all the same thing. At least to me, they kind of were).
IN: What did you learn from writing The Eisteddfod so early in your career?
LK: I learnt that when I wrote the stuff that felt truest to me, and the stuff I was most embarrassed to write, that was the stuff that really resonated with collaborators and audiences. I also learnt how important it was to collaborate with people who really got my work and were on the same page imaginatively, emotionally and in humour.
IN: After working in TV and film, would you consider adapting any of your works for the screen?
LK: Absolutely. I am currently adapting my play Neighbourhood Watch into a film. But I’m SO late with the draft. Sometimes I think it would be easier to just start something from the beginning rather than try and adapt it. I’m adapting a short play I wrote when I was 16 called Mammals into a TV pilot. It’s really fun going into the stuff I imagined that far back.
IN: And finally- what is the one piece of advice you would give the bourgeoning young playwrights/screenwriters of Australia?
LK: Watch theatre and screen constantly. Learn structure from that. But take your stories and characters from life, people you meet, yourself and your imagination. Listen to people. Let them tell you their stories. Believe that the stuff you are truly interested in will interest other people. If you feel it, other people probably will too. It’s like putting a spell into your words. If you write them with feeling, they will be read or watched with feeling. Learn how to grow as an artist, whilst staying true to your instincts. That is the hardest thing of all. And something I get wrong sometimes. But when you get it wrong, you learn. It’s the constant quest of an artist! How do I stay true, but not be stagnant? So hard!