GETTING TO KNOW: HELEN MACHALIAS

Helen Machalias is a Canberra based writer who commenced her career as a journalist. She studied English and Theatre at the University of New England and University of Sydney. Helen has created work with Sydney Theatre Company, Riverside Theatres and Playwriting Australia, with a particular focus on theatre for young people. She has been highly commended three times in Sydney Theatre Company’s Young Playwright of the Year Award and had her work performed as part of the Favourite Shorts regional play festival. She participated in The Street’s Hive Program in 2010 and 2011. The resulting play, In Loco Parentis, which examined the pervasive nature of sexual harassment and assault on university campuses, was performed at The Street as part of the Made in Canberra program for the Centenary of Canberra and won a 2014 Canberra Critics Circle Award. 


THE STREET TALKED TO HELEN AS SHE PREPARES TO GO INTO CREATIVE DEVELOPMENT FOR HER ADAPTATION OF PEOPLE MIGHT HEAR YOU.

WHY PEOPLE MIGHT HEAR YOU?

People Might Hear You was my favourite novel growing up. Protagonist Frances is one of the gutsiest characters I’ve encountered in literature, and even though I’ve re-read it countless times, the storyline always grips me. Even though it’s a young adult fiction novel, it has mature themes and is a sophisticated psychological thriller. Klein really respects her young readers, which I’ve tried to retain in the adaptation, particularly as there’s been a significant reduction in youth theatre companies and work aimed at young people in recent times. When I’ve shared that I’m working on this adaptation, I’ve been encouraged by the positive memories people have of the novel – a lot of people seem to have read it at school, so even though it’s not as well-known as some of Klein’s other works (such as Hating Alison Ashley), it’s a bit of a cult classic (excuse the pun!).

WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO BE A PLAYWRIGHT?

I was that annoying kid who roped patient family and friends into my “productions”, so I always had the bug. In year 9 I had a fantastic drama teacher (shout out to Katy Walsh from Duval High!) who encouraged me to write my first play and enter it in Sydney Theatre Company’s Young Playwright of the Year award. I was shortlisted for the award, which was a great affirmation early on, so I kept writing.

HOW DOES THE ADAPTATION PROCESS DIFFER FROM WRITING A PLAY FROM SCRATCH?

I’ve personally found doing an adaptation quite liberating. Because I haven’t created the world of the play from scratch, I’ve found it easier to be more ruthless during the rewriting and editing process, and to interrogate the creative decisions I make. I think the key is to not be too reverent or become fixated on being faithful to the original, and instead approach it as a fresh piece of writing, honing in on what it was about the spirit of the original that drew you to the material.

WHAT IS LOST? WHAT IS GAINED?

One of the things I love about the novel is Klein’s ear for dialogue, which is a real gift for a play adaptation, so I’ve retained a lot of the original dialogue.  A challenge of adapting a novel is that you lose access to the interior life of the protagonist, and in addition most of the play’s characters are very reserved and repressed, so the play will need to work hard to compensate for that. It’s a story that owes a lot of its power to the evocation of a disturbing atmosphere, so I’m hoping the ability to present the story in a multi-dimensional way on stage enhances that.

WHAT HAS BEEN THE PROCESS TO ADAPT ROBIN KLEIN’S NOVEL?

Klein’s publishers have seen and approved the script in its current form and are supportive of the creative development. From the first time I read it as a nine-year-old, I could envisage it as a stage play, so being granted the adaptation rights as an adult was a very exciting moment. A number of Klein’s works have been adapted for stage and screen, so I’m one of a long line of Klein fans who wanted to give her work another life.

WHAT QUESTIONS ARE YOU ADDRESSING IN THE CREATIVE DEVELOPMENT?

I’m hoping the development will enable me to explore both thematic and practical questions. I’ll be exploring the relationships between particular characters, the trauma resulting from the central character’s experiences in out of home care, and drawing out themes of abandonment, freedom, inside vs outside and patriarchal control/female gatekeeping. Staging wise, there are particular aspects that I’m looking to get other creatives input on – for example, how do you create an increasing sense of the claustrophobia of the house on stage, or how to represent a live cat, who appears in several pivotal scenes.

WHAT DOES THIS WORK ILLUMINATE ABOUT AUSTRALIA?

The play overturns possible assumptions about sects not existing in Australia, as it presents a conservative religious household and community that is the polar opposite to the secular representation of Australian society most frequently depicted on our stages. My adaptation emphasises the aspects of Klein’s work that make her a nationally significant contributor to Australian culture, including her exploration of the working class and young women’s lives and celebration of the distinctive Australian vernacular.

WHAT KIND OF THEATRE DO YOU WANT TO MAKE?

If people linger in the foyer after the performance to discuss what they’ve seen over a glass of wine, I’m happy. I aim to make theatre that is bold, unexpected and entertaining, and importantly is accessible to people who aren’t regular theatregoers.

WHAT IS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH THE STREET?

When I first moved to Canberra in 2010, I applied for the Hive program to develop In Loco Parentis, and worked with The Street through creative developments and showings to prepare it for a production in 2013. Returning to Canberra last year and reconnecting with The Street to develop my second full length play has felt like a creative homecoming, and I am very appreciative of The Street’s support of my work and their commitment to developing playwrights.

WHAT’S INSPIRING YOU IN THE PERFORMING ARTS?

I saw Griffin Theatre’s production of Prima Facie a few months ago and haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. I’m also inspired by the many fantastic companies creating work with people with disability, such as Crossroad Arts and Back to Back Theatre. Locally, I’m a huge fan of Dylan Van Den Berg and it’s great seeing him receive well-deserved national recognition, and I also look forward to Shakespeare by the Lake every year.

WHAT ARE YOU READING AND WATCHING CURRENTLY?

I’m reading J.M.Coetzee’s Summertime and David Marr’s My Country. I’ve just finished watching Total Control (powerhouse cast led by Deborah Mailman, and great Canberra location spotting) and I’m about to start The Crown season 3 and Years and Years.

The creative development of People Might Hear You is supported by the ACT Government through an artsACT project grant.