Interview with the Lab’s Aussie Import, Alexandra Collier: “I can write plays set in America, but my voice, my ear is Australian”
This interview originally appeared as part of the Australian Writers Project.
Alexandra Collier is a member of the Playwrights Lab
I’d like to ask you about living overseas. Has that impacted you as a writer, either logistically in terms of language or in a more spiritual way?
That’s a really fantastic question, and it’s something that I think about all the time. Yes. Definitely, it has impacted me.
On a superficial level, there are colloquialisms that I’ve had to adjust. But, I think it’s a bigger shift than that: That only starts to open the can of worms, which is there’s something going on which I haven’t quite worked out yet, but it’s to do with the shift in geography. It interrupts your writing in a way that is simultaneously interesting and sometimes frustrating. Sometimes the interruption is the producer voice in your head saying, “this is not produceable on an American stage. Why are you writing an Australian character?”. Then sometimes the interruption is – you’re writing an American character, but you are an Australian, so you are searching around in this weird void trying to place the person and it’s really ephemeral. It’s hard to explain, but I think what I do often as a way to solve that (in my attempt to write plays that can be performed in America, that could be potentially American characters) is that I write plays that are set in other places.
And the other thing that’s happening is rhythm. I can write as many American characters as I like, I can write plays set in America, but my voice, my ear is Australian. I’m very Americanized in some ways – I can speak ‘American.’ I can say pavement instead of footpath and I can Americanize my accent if I’m in a cab, so that the driver knows where I’m going. But, I can’t fight against that voice. In a way, I don’t want to because I think, actually, that’s what people like about my writing. I think, essentially, why people respond to my work at all in New York is because there’s something about it that they like, and it’s probably because there’s some rhythmic thing in it. I think that’s true of every playwright whose work is responded to. Everyone has some sort of natural rhythm and voice. The best playwrights have a distinctive voice in some way, so I should be cultivating that, not fighting against it.
These are all the things I’m constantly dealing with. I’m writing a play at the moment for the Women’s Project that’s set in America – I mean it’s assumably set in America, we never even talked about setting it anywhere else. I’m writing these scenes and I’m thinking to myself, “hmm I wonder if this is Australian sounding?” There’s a little part of me that’s having that thought, and at the same time I think, ‘you know what? You can’t do anything about that.’ That will be maybe the wonderful disjunction between an American actor reading your words and what you’ve written on the page. Maybe that will create something new. That’s the hope – that you create something new by being an outsider – that you bring something quirky, and fresh and strange in a way that that opens up new possibilities. That’s the positive realm that I try and keep my mind in when I get too overwhelmed by this stuff.
Will you tell me, also, about the Women’s Project Lab? What’s is that experience like? Is there anything important about the fact that it’s women, or is that tangential?
The experience has been fantastic. It’s really opened up so many career possibilities for me in New York. It’s given me amazing mentors like Megan (Carter) and Julie (Crosby). And again, it’s plugging me into this community of people. Out of this experience, I got an agent and my plays have been read by more people. I’ve learned professional skills, how to pitch myself in ways I didn’t know how to do before. So, I think the lab is really invaluable.
As for whether it’s important that’s it women, I think the Women’s Project consciously is fighting against being pigeonholed as a theatre company that deals with women’s issues because they don’t. I think they have an interest in plays that are incredibly diverse, and the thing that unifies them is that they happen to be written by women. It’s called the Women’s Project and that name in some ways has limited the way other people have thought about the company, which perhaps says more about people, and more about gender stereotypes than it does about the Women’s Project.
But as for whether it’s important that it’s all women – being in a lab in a room full of women, communicating with a room full of women, is different. I can’t deny it. It’s different than sitting in a room that’s mixed gender or a room that’s more men. It is different because, although I don’t think you can make reductionist statements about gender, there is a lot of communicating that goes on about communicating. We’re more considered in the way we communicate, which can be a blessing and a curse. We’re more in tune with, perhaps, how our thoughts and feelings are received, and how other people are feeling. Someone’s going to stick me in the eye for saying all this, but that has definitely come into play in this process when we’ve been making this show. We’ve all noticed this – sometimes it drives us nuts -”Do we have to communicate about everything because we’re a bunch of women in a room?” And then other times, it’s appreciated because we understand each other.
I think there are a lot of challenges in making a group show, and one of them is that you have to work out what your common language is, and we’ve done that.
To read Alexandra’s complete interview with Cristin Kelly, visit The Australian Writers Project