Last year over the course of a few weeks, I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Lally Katz for the Emerging Writers’ Festival publication, The Reader (available for purchase here). With the 2010 Festival just around the corner, this year under the directorship of the ever-capable Lisa Dempster, I thought it’d be pertinent to post up the fruits of our exchange. I present to you: Lally Katz and the Revelations of the Fantastical Theatrical Interview.
LALLY KATZ AND THE REVELATIONS OF THE FANTASTICAL THEATRICAL INTERVIEW
CHRIS SUMMERS, early 20s, University of Melbourne student, emerging playwright, short sandy hair and deep bags under his eyes. Tongue always flapping, thoughts always ticking over, scribbles that run off the page and up his arms and across his chest like hair. A watcher.
LALLY KATZ, 30, VCA graduate, blossoming playwright whose career is boiling and bursting at the seams. Unkempt hair and a wild imagination that fills pages and stages with life and magic from Melbourne to New York. Generous, hilarious, vivid and spirited. A dreamer.
An abandoned theatre: rich, red tatters of curtains, chipped wooden banisters, ripped upholstery and a wide empty stage dusted with crumbles of brick and stone. Unsafe, old-fashioned and untouched. Nonetheless, a place with possibility and with heart.
A cough from nowhere. A chandelier flickers from the ceiling as the bulb of a spotlight slowly warms. From the darkness flecks of dust and flaps of moth become illuminated, weaving in and out of the light. The spotlight rests on a dot on the stage that begins to grow bigger and brighter.
Another cough, followed by the crunch of footsteps.
CHRIS SUMMERS’s leg appears in the spotlight, then his arm, as he puts down a small chair. He walks offstage, then walks back on again. He moves around the spotlight and puts down another small chair on the other side, next to the first. He walks back to the other side and then moves into the light. He shudders, then eases down onto the chair.
He coughs again.
From a battered leather satchel, he pulls out a laptop. He switches it on and waits for it to start up. When it does, with a polite ding, he scratches his head. His chin. Then he starts to type.
LALLY KATZ is lowered from the ceiling and onto the second chair, a titanium MacBook Pro glistening on her lap. She smiles at the screen.
CHRIS: Hi Lally.
LALLY adjusts her hair in the reflection.
CHRIS: We’ve actually met before. I’m that blonde kid who you occasionally bump into at the theatre. I’m a big fan of your work. As a young writer, still struggling to understand my own voice, I admire the way you’ve come to recognise, craft and develop your own.
LALLY: Yes, we’ve met many times, and it’s always a pleasure! And thank you for your lovely words. I’m looking forward to our correspondence.
A pause. CHRIS looks at his screen in concentration.
CHRIS: I want to start with your beginnings. Wanting to be a playwright is not always a popular choice for kids when film and TV dominate. When did your ambition to write theatre start
LALLY sighs to herself, thinks.
LALLY: I always loved making stuff up, organising groups of people to play pretend and then making other people watch us. I was constantly getting the neighbourhood kids together and making them dress up and we’d create characters and worlds together. That’s just naturally what I’ve always liked doing. And I guess that’s more conducive to theatre than to film or television.
There is something about the immediacy of theatre: the way you can make these moments together– you can create worlds straight away just by all believing in them together…
CHRIS: How did people react to you wanting to write plays?
LALLY: My parents were just so happy that I had found something I loved. They have always believed that people should just follow their hearts, and have always encouraged my brother and I to do that. I imagine that it would be very difficult if you constantly had people questioning and doubting your decisions. You have enough doubts yourself without other people’s doubts!
CHRIS: I can agree with you there from firsthand experience (laughs). So were there particular writers, or particular works that influenced you? Did your inspiration come from theatre writing on the page, or was it from the experience of live theatre and the way it can affect people?
LALLY: I have always loved the play Our Town. I don’t know how well known a play it is in Australia. But in the States, it gets performed at high schools all the time. It’s written by Thornton Wilder and it is utterly heartbreaking. It taught me that you can write about whatever you want as long as the heart of it is true.
Almost all of the really great theatre pieces I’ve seen had a really powerful rhythm that moves beneath the world created onstage, and that takes the audience with it…
I guess what I find most inspiring in any theatre show, whatever form it’s in, is that in the audience you are as much a part of creating that experience/world as the actual performance. It’s all created from everyone being in the same room, dreaming together.
CHRIS: That’s a really beautiful image Lally, all being in the same room dreaming together. Was the first time you saw one of your own plays performed an experience like that?
LALLY: The feeling of watching my plays early on was utter excitement and terror. I would just be so nervous about anything going wrong. I was terrified that the actors would say the words the wrong way … It always makes me physically twitch when someone says a line wrong, even slightly wrong. I hate it, because the whole meaning and rhythm changes. But more than anything, I was just really excited and really nervous, and also at times embarrassed, because so much of myself was being revealed.
CHRIS: Are the same jitters and fears still there when you see your plays now?
LALLY looks around, a little nervously, then back to her computer. She reads from it.
LALLY: Yeah, it’s pretty similar! I still really want everyone to get their lines exactly right. I’m still terrified of things going wrong and I’m still really excited and nervous. And I’m also slightly embarrassed about how much of myself I am revealing!
I guess now I have seen enough of my plays to work out what is working and what isn’t working. My instincts are sharper now and I understand theatre better. It used to take me years to figure out what had worked and what hadn’t worked in a play. Now I know as it’s happening – which is useful and sometimes painful.
But then again, you’re so paranoid as you’re watching your work that maybe you don’t know completely. Often if there is someone in the audience that I know and I am nervous of, I will picture what their reaction to everything is and that will sometimes inform how I end up seeing the work. This is a bad thing to do though.
CHRIS shuffles on the chair, stretches his legs and scratches the back of his head. He scrolls the screen up and down.
CHRIS: You say you have discovered that one can write about whatever they want, “as long as the heart is true”. I’m interested, what does it mean to you for the heart of a work to be true?
While CHRIS is talking, LALLY notices that she is covered in dust. She reaches out her right arm then fiercely blows on it; a cloud floats off into the light and slowly settles in the dark.
LALLY: I think the times when the heart of a work is not true is when you are coming at it instead of from in it. I’ve done this when I’ve been really nervous about a project, or when I’ve felt that people expect a certain kind of writing. It is usually when I’m afraid that what I do isn’t good enough…
When the heart of a work isn’t true, the writing isn’t alive. You can tell when you’re writing it (though you can block it for a bit) and most people can tell when they read it. However, sometimes this is actually an essential part of the drafting process. Sometimes you have to have a draft that is fixed up structurally, but loses some of its life. Then your job in the next draft is to put the life back in and find your heart in it again.
LALLY raises her other arm, cobweb dangling from her fingers, and blows all over CHRIS. He coughs and splutters over himself. LALLY props herself up again.
I think when you’re writing with your conscious brain is when things lose their life; because you are making things happen because you think they should happen, rather than your subconscious feeling it … However, again, this can be a necessary part of drafting.
You have to be careful. You have to work out how to tell the difference between something that came out right the first time you wrote it, and something that needs work. You can destroy plays by re-drafting them unnecessarily, but at the same time, theatre is a collaborative art form, so you need to be able to take feedback and work with other people’s suggestions, especially if you want your plays to go on! So it’s about working out how to make your play the best that it can be, without killing it.
CHRIS, stifling a cough, wipes the screen of the laptop. He hunches over the chair.
CHRIS: Have you ever written a play where the heart wasn’t true?
Pause. His words hang there.
LALLY: I have never felt it in a whole play or I wouldn’t let it go on. But there will be moments where I can see the bare bones of the cogs moving and I am certain that audiences would feel that too; where for a moment the characters kind of stop being alive and are just forcing something to happen for the sake of the play.
I hate those moments, but sometimes they just stick in there!
The spotlight browns, brightens, and then the bulb bursts. The laptops shut as glass falls across the stage and audience. LALLY is hoisted back up towards the ceiling and, on her way up, trips the chair over on its side. Everything is dark. Silence.
Days pass. A few; a week. Night falls and outside, morning comes, once and again. Life happens. But inside, time has gone nowhere.
Finally, another light starts to warm the same spot, though it is weaker than before. Slowly CHRIS appears. He has not moved. He gently brushes sleep from his eyes, bugs and spiders from his jeans and his laptop. He puts the other chair upright and then, sitting in his own, starts up his laptop.
CHRIS: Sorry it’s been so long for me to get back to you. First week back at
Uni. I hope I didn’t leave you hanging.
LALLY descends from the ceiling and back onto her chair. She is wide-eyed and fresh.
LALLY: Sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you! I’ve been in Sydney and have had deadlines …
CHRIS squints at his screen in concentration.
CHRIS: I’ve been thinking about your approach to the personal and fantastical.
The logo on LALLY’S laptop lights up.
CHRIS: So, last time we spoke, you mentioned feeling embarrassed with how much of yourself you were putting into your plays, and how much people were seeing of you. Do you worry about how to balance the personal in your work with what it is that the work is actually trying to say?
LALLY: First of all, I think I might have overstated the embarrassment thing. To be honest, I don’t get that embarrassed. I might get a tiny bit embarrassed – but not nearly as embarrassed as perhaps I should get. I’ll have moments where I’ll think, ‘Yikes – this is actually quite revealing!’ but for the most part I’m kind of missing some sort of radar in my brain that inhibits me or stops me from sharing personal information about myself.
I feel like I’m constantly balancing things as I write. There’s part of you that is feeling what you are writing in the moment, and then there’s a part of you that is thinking about the scenes you’ve already written, and the scenes you might write, and where what you’re writing in that moment sits in all that.
Pause. CHRIS looks thoughtfully at the screen.
CHRIS: There are strong thematic resonances in your plays – often harrowing, heartbreaking or disturbingly beautiful. I’ve noticed that artists, particularly women, who are compelled to explore darker ideas and themes in their work, are often labelled as “tortured” or “depressive personalities”. Critics and the media are often unable to differentiate the art from the artist. I’m thinking of Sarah Kane or PJ Harvey, for example. I guess my question is this: is what you see of yourself in your plays how you actually think about yourself?
LALLY: It’s funny Chris, often I will see one of my plays, or read over an old draft and think, ‘Oh that’s who I was then.’ Or I’ll think, ‘Oh, that was when that was happening.’ But it is rare that I think of that when I am actually writing the work. And it’s usually a different version of reality, like a riddle or something, that I don’t realise the answer to until later.
So, to answer your question: I guess yes and I guess no. Perhaps for a moment. Or in a certain light. But the way we think about ourselves and about other people changes so often; it’s like a snapshot and then you take another snapshot somewhere else. You constantly have epiphanies of yourself and of other people. We are constantly discovering the truth, trying to record it, and then discovering another truth. Do the different truths cancel each other out? Maybe in memory they do. I think we are constantly looking for true versions of ourselves or true versions of the people we know, but they’re always shifting. So, looking back, a snapshot will not be the same image when you look back at it as it was at the time you recorded it. [DK2]
Another pause. CHRIS looks over at LALLY. As she speaks, LALLY slowly puts down the screen of her laptop and faces CHRIS.
LALLY: I’ve been writing a play about my neighbour. She’s an old lady. She’s Hungarian and she came here after the war. Her life is amazing. It’s breathtaking actually. She doesn’t have children, so I feel like if I don’t tell her stories they’re going to die. That seems heartbreaking – for someone’s stories to die with them. Still, she’ll probably get really mad at me when she sees it. I’m really obsessed with her. I ended up spending about a year and a half just hanging out with her and listening to her stories and going to Box Hill with her for lunch. I’m not in her. There’s no part of me in the character that’s her in the play. But her world became my world for a while. So I could write her truthfully and know her as I wrote her.
Although there is a sort of me character that hangs out with her in the play.
The spotlight starts to shake, more orange than bright, and hundreds of flickers have started pouring into the theatre. They crawl on the chairs, flit through the air, run down the aisles and stick to the curtains. They are fireflies, but in the darkness, they could be stars.
CHRIS shuts his laptop and faces LALLY.
CHRIS: You said that when you were young, what you loved in theatre was the ability to play and pretend, the immediacy of those moments. So much of your work is about imagination – bending time, identity, space, reality. How did the fantastical become your approach?
LALLY: I guess you write how you see the world. And the world and reality have always felt very fluid to me. I have nothing against naturalism. I utterly love some naturalistic plays. But I do think it’s silly if people think that theatre has to be naturalistic, and I believe that audiences are capable of launching off with us much further than they’re sometimes given credit for. Life is pretty strange. You’d have to make a play pretty weird for it to be as strange as life.
CHRIS: Do you think that it’s strange that some audiences have a disposition to expecting naturalism, and a certain kind of “reality” when they go to the theatre?
LALLY: I guess it depends where people are comfortable with letting their dreams and imaginations go. People want to see a part of life they can identify with. I think that is a normal thing to want. We all want to figure ourselves out through the books we read, the films we watch, and so on. But I believe that people can see themselves, their situations, and the people they know through different styles of theatre. There will always be people who want to experience something different from their lives and there will always be people who really don’t. I think both those kinds of people can get into different kinds of theatre.
Through the space a distant echo can be heard. It could be the memory of an audience clapping, or it could just be the hum of the fireflies.
CHRIS: Thanks Lally. You’ve been so open. I very much look very forward to seeing you around the theatres again soon.
LALLY: I’ve really enjoyed this Chris! Your questions have really made me think.
It’s funny, often you don’t think to realise certain things unless someone asks the right question.
After a few moments, they stand up from their chairs and shuffle forward. The ground crunches and the echo fades. Little creatures move around their feet. They join hands and bow to the empty theatre. The curtain drops.