Jim McGrath is driven to brighten the world by bringing ideas, artists and audiences together. He is a compulsive creative, writer, collaborator, producer and sometime sax player. His latest play – a darkly comic sequel to the legendary Chinese story Monkey: Journey to the West – aims to help find balance in a world that feels out of whack.
Jim’s tongue-in-cheek approach to writing theatre has created successes including a musical adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog, that received Australia Council funding and premiered to full-houses and positive reviews. Jim’s mini-musical Gold Digger Nights was voted “Best Production” at Short+Sweet 2014 and is currently being adapted for a short film. Jim’s short play The Ballad of Smith & Wesson was an award winner in the 2010 Canberra Duologues competition.
Jim has produced forum theatre performances for workplaces, focusing on disability and inclusion, and was one of the founding members of the REBUS Forum Theatre Ensemble. He has also facilitated forum theatre performances in ACT high schools and colleges, to help build inclusive school communities.
Jim has performed onstage with bands Scruff Lovely and Beautiful Lucy’s Room, and his poetry has been performed on national radio.
The Street talked to Jim McGrath about his latest play in development – Monkey Madness – having its first public showing on the 13th of April.
YOUR NEW PLAY IS A DARKLY COMIC SEQUEL TO THE LEGENDARY CHINESE STORY MONKEY: JOURNEY TO THE WEST. TELL US MORE.
I loved the TV show Monkey when I was growing up. That passion stayed with me and I followed the various retellings of the story back to the original Journey to the West written 500 years ago. I think one of the reasons that the story has resonated down through the centuries is that Monkey’s pilgrimage to seek sacred scriptures whilst protecting a priest, a fish monster and a pig monster, is reflective of his inner journey to balance body, mind and spirit in order to find enlightenment. That trisection of the self is something that is universal across cultures and I got to thinking what each of those constructs look like when taken to an extreme in the contemporary world… And I wanted an excuse to see people running around on stage hitting each other with sticks.
WHAT IMPACT DID YOUR PARTICIPATION IN THE STREET’S HIVE PROGRAM HAVE ON SCRIPT DEVELOPMENT?
The Hive program has been such a wonderful experience for me since I first joined in 2010. It was through the Hive that I was able to bring my musical Heart of a Dog to the stage in 2014. Writing is such a private, introverted process, and I often struggle with self-discipline when hacking away at my jumbled jungle of ideas and musings in the early stages of a project. I think magic happens when creative minds come together, so to have the advice of experts, the support of peers and the reinforcement of a professional environment has helped me keep my head above the weeds and produce work that I am more and more satisfied with. If you are an aspiring theatre maker, you can only benefit from getting involved in any of the Street’s development programs.
WHY TAKE AN ICONIC WORK FROM ANOTHER CULTURE AND PUT IT THROUGH AN AUSTRALIAN LENS?
This was one aspect of approaching this story I struggled with. I didn’t want to create just another re-telling – that’s been done a thousand and one times already. And I find it fascinating that my story is a contemporary Australian lens on an 80’s British translator’s lens on a 70’s Japanese TV lens on a 500 year old Chinese story.
However, many of the issues raised by the extremism of the body/mind/spirit constructs I’m exploring are issues that are being felt around the world every day – the culture of instant gratification, intellectual elitism and religious extremism. Those are universal issues.
By structuring a story within a story within a story, I am able to pay tribute to the original mythology, reflect on its relevance in a global pop culture context, and relate all those issues back to an audience in the here and now.
WHAT THREE QUESTIONS ARE YOU LOOKING TO ANSWER IN THE CREATIVE DEVELOPMENT WORKSHOP?
The main aim of this development is to refine the script to a point where it is ready to go into rehearsal for a full production. So far, this story has evolved from words on a page to readings around a dinner table. But a physical theatre piece like this needs to test those words moving around in a space. The physicality of each of the characters – how they walk, dress, move and fight – will affect what they say and how they say it. It will also help differentiate each character, which is really important, given the number of characters that each actor has to play.
My fellow actors and creatives are joining me in this workshop as collaborators. The behaviours of collaborating – coming together, listening, sharing, creating – are behaviours that make this world a better place. Their involvement will help find ideas and solutions that none of us on our own knew existed.
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE DIRECTOR ADAM BROINOWSKI TO WORK WITH AND WHAT DOES HE BRING TO THE PROCESS?
Having a doctor on board lends an air of gravitas and respectability to any crazy endeavour. It also provides a sense of security for the crew in case of any unforeseen ‘accidents’. What? He’s not that sort of doctor? Oh… in that case, Adam brings a vast experience of physical performance, intellectual rigor and cultural understanding that will be invaluable in exploring the characters, perspectives and politics during this workshop.
I love making new connections – the exchange of ideas and insights, of muses and motivations. Adam has come from outside of my current network. We share a passion for Japan, with Adam having studied and worked there. All of which make him the perfect choice for this workshop. There is a Japanese myth that the gods tie a red thread between two people who were destined to meet. Adam running this workshop feels like one of those pre-ordained connections.
AS PRODUCER YOU HAVE ALSO CAST YOUR ACTORS FOR THIS DEVELOPMENT. TELL US WHAT THEY BRING?
The full production of this script will require a cast that are actors and fighters and magicians and acrobats and quick change artists and clowns and improvisers and good looking (well, most of them) and musicians and comics and more.
For this workshop, however, I require actors who are vocally dexterous, physically versatile, improvisers and good looking (well, most of them). The actors, along with a costume designer and music designer, are all people who can play with ideas – collaborators and contributors helping tease out and reshape the imaginings in my head.
It’s playing. It’s exploring. It’s having fun with a bunch of kindred spirits and not sitting in front of a computer all day… I’ll have to do that each night instead, as I rewrite scene after scene to revise the script… bloody actors, always tampering with my material…
WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM AUDIENCES WHO WILL ATTEND THE SHOWING?
Your reaction, your insight, your excitement or your indifference. I’ve been toying with this story for four years, trying to articulate the wisdom in it to help find balance in this skewed world. Now I am finally able to bring fellow artists together to help find that solution. But theatre doesn’t exist without an audience. Your contribution as a fellow collaborator in the development of this new play paves the way to the realisation of our group wisdom and a final script that will share Monkey’s ancient wisdom with the modern world.
YOU ALSO INTEND TO PRODUCE THE PLAY FOR INTERNATIONAL AUDIENCES. HOW WILL YOU GO ABOUT THIS?
I have no expectations that this play is going to be my next get-rich-quick scheme. I mean, it is theatre that we’re talking about. However, I would love to use this script as a vehicle to spend some time overseas and build networks in the theatre scene in Japan, China, Singapore, Hong Kong. I think that the Australian perspective is what Asian audiences will find intriguing. They will want to know why this cheeky, immortal stone monkey, such a constant figure in Asian culture, resonates so strongly with 21st Century Australians.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH THE STREET.
My relationship with the Street has been eight years of creative exchange and camaraderie, engagement, mutual encouragement and professional support. The Street has built a real community of musical and theatrical exploration and there are some really exciting works being incubated in that community. With the musical Heart of a Dog under my belt and Monkey Madness now going full steam ahead, I’m keen to see what fruit the next eight years of this relationship will bring.
WHAT KIND OF THEATRE DO YOU WANT TO MAKE?
Tongue in cheek, heart in mouth, hand in hand. Theatre should always be fun. I want to bring more love and laughter into the world. Theatre is also an art form that demands collaborative efforts – you can’t do this stuff on your own.
WHAT IS INSPIRING YOU CREATIVELY AT THE MOMENT?
I’m loving discovering the many retellings and derivatives of Journey to the West – kids’ books from China, Japanese manga like Dragonball and Saiyuki, computer games and fan illustrations. Other current inspirations include images from Japanese temples. Ukiyo-e pictures. Sake. Glossy fashion magazines. Maps of all kinds. The colour blue. Old motorcycles. The process of collaboration – what does it actually look like and how can I better apply my business know-how to it? Musical mash-up concepts, such as a brass band who do Smith’s covers, called the Smiths-hornian Institute, or a trad-jazz band covering Pixies songs in a Dixieland style – if anyone wants to start these bands, please let me know and I’m there! The realisation that any moment spent on stage is political, whether conscious or not. Reimagining Fat Albert as a dark new Netflix series, similar to what Riverdale did for Archie. I told you it’s a jungle in there.
WHAT ARE YOU READING AND WATCHING CURRENTLY?
James Joyce’s Ulysses taunts me from the bedside table, but I still don’t have the upper arm strength to lift it, let alone the attention span to get past page two. So instead I am reading a three-part sci-fi
by Jeff Vandermeer called Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance. Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen is never far away. As for television, I’ve been going back to old episode of The Games – comedy gold in the vein of Utopia that has not dated at all.