Getting To Know: TOM DAVIS

photo by Lorna Sim
photo by Lorna Sim

Tom Davis is an Australian playwright, whose new play The Chain Bridge, begins rehearsals at The Street this month for its World Premiere season, opening Saturday 21st November.

The Chain Bridge is Tom’s fourth full play, and the first to be produced by The Street Theatre. It was written with the assistance of the Street’s Hive playwriting program and First Seen performed readings seasons.
Two of Tom’s earlier plays were produced in Melbourne under the direction of Alice Bishop. ‘Last Tango in Brunswick’ (2000) was a kaleidoscopic work about love, sex and heartbreak. ‘After the War’ (2002) explored the battles faced by Australian women who, after being nurses in WWI, returned home to become second-class citizens.
Tom has a PhD in political science and worked for a number of years as a lecturer, researcher and consultant in international development and public policy.

Tom speaks to The Street ahead of The Chain Bridge season.

How did you get into playwriting?

Many years ago a friend of mine and I decided we would jointly write a play. We would each write a number of separate scenes and then, somehow, would stitch them together and then produce it. I honestly can’t remember why we decided to do this – there was, no doubt, a burning reason at the time. Anyway, she stopped after one scene; I kept going and wound up writing a play about love called ‘Last Tango in Brunswick’ (2000). There was something about working with dialogue – the rub of text against sub-text, the connection of emotion with ideas – that brought me great delight. It still does.

How did your work get noticed?

I wrote several plays while completing what my wife describes as a ‘lifestyle PhD’ at Melbourne Uni in the early 2000s. My writing was starting to get noticed by groups such as the Malthouse Theatre – I was invited to put forward a piece for one of their produced readings – when academia gobbled me up for a decade. Teaching and research (in political science) sapped my strength to write creatively. Then we moved to Canberra; my son was born; I shifted out of academia. All three changes pushed me in different ways to write again. I wrote five pages of what became The Chain Bridge and applied to The Street’s playwriting program, The Hive, overseen by the wonderful Peter Matheson. The response from readings of early versions of the script reminded me that I could do this. Caroline saw something in the play, and pushed and prodded me to complete. ArtsACT generously awarded me a production grant. The Street also came to the party. The rest is …

What have been the big moments of your career?

The Chain Bridge is probably it. I’m incredibly excited by what Caroline Stacey and her team are going to show Canberra. It’s a great cast, and with Imogen Keen designing and Caroline at the helm as director it’s going to be very exciting. Aside from that, the ‘best’ moment in my career was the first time I saw a play I had written in full dress rehearsal. For 90 minutes, something I’d written was acted out in front of me by a talented cast. They produced this incredible thing that was both mine and not mine – it now had its own life. And it had flaws, and some parts were over-written, other parts were thin, but it was a real thing that these people and I had created. It was a moment of the deepest joy.

Can you tell us a bit more about THE CHAIN BRIDGE and your journey from the initial idea to the stage?

The Chain Bridge is, at its essence, a very twisted love story. It’s about the love between parents and children, husbands and wives, and the limits of that love. It involves fights over truth and how history should be told, and the personal cost of surviving horrors such as WWII and the 1956 Budapest Uprising. The key dilemma for the characters is, what part of one’s self can exist free from the history of the people we love? This is a dilemma for all of us, but especially for the children of people who have survived historical tragedy.

From an original five pages, this beast of a play eventually grew to epic size and was then cut back under the tutelage of Peter Matheson. While very little remains of the earliest versions, there is still about one page of dialogue that survived largely unscathed. It’s still one of my favourite bits.

Is there a piece of playwriting advice you couldn’t live without?

“Be patient,” and, “Have some faith in yourself.” It’s something I’ve had to learn several times. It is so easy to take short cuts with theatre writing. When you’re stumped as to what a character’s next move should be, if you’ve got a reasonable facility with dialogue you write a few bits of tricksy verbal sparring and you’re over the hump and on to a nice set piece. The problem is that audiences have a very sophisticated, innate understanding of story. They know, even if they can’t put it into words, when you’ve avoided the hard work of making decisions about the direction in which a particular story just has to go. They’ll laugh and they’ll cry – we’re all prone to bathos – but they’ll know that what they just saw wasn’t quite what it should have been. So, when writing, be patient. Have some faith that the answer will come. And don’t kid yourself if it hasn’t.

What’s inspiring you creatively at the moment?

I’m trying to inspire myself at the moment! I’m busy working on a play that will hopefully go on at The Street in 2016. It’s called The Faithful Servant and is about our moral obligations to the global poor versus our obligations to our families – which makes it sound very deep and profound, but there seem to be quite a number of sex jokes creeping in. Mbira music from Mozambique is providing the soundtrack to my writing of this, and that is providing some inspiration. As are conversations with Mozambican emigres here in Canberra.

How do you keep an audience on the edge of their seats?

It’s all about the interplay between story and character, and the success of that comes down to the life-force both are revealing to the audience. You don’t have to ‘like’ characters – we don’t ‘like’ Shakespeare’s Richard III – but you do have to be caught by the fact they care very deeply about things that are important to the particular story being told: power, money, sex, death etcetera. You want to know if and how they achieve those things. Reality TV works on roughly the same principle, it’s just that the stakes involved are depressingly low – did Jim’s soufflé rise? The experience of watching a well-written and well-produced play should be very intense because the stakes for the characters are high, the life-force they exhibit is strong, and the whole thing is live in front of you. Real sweat, no editing.

What are you reading and watching currently?

I’ve found myself recently going back to Chekhov’s The Three Sisters. I’ve been reading the 2010 Lawrence Senelick translation, which slightly Americanises some expression, but also gives the lines great bounce. Wonderfully, you can also see a production (Christopher Hampton translation) on YouTube with Kristen Scott Thomas as Masha. The world of provincial gentry, soldiers and servants may be long gone, but the slow building of tension around apparently superficial events and concerns still gets you. And the language seems like gossamer sometimes, but still ripples with life.

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