NIDA graduate David Atfield is one of Canberra’s most respected directors and playwrights and winner of two Canberra Critics’ Circle Awards.
Before NIDA David studied drama at UNSW and acting at the Ensemble. In Canberra from 1992, he directed productions for his own company, BITS, including Michael Gow’s Furious and Tennessee Williams’ Something Cloudy, Something Clear, and for The Street Theatre, Ship Of Fools and Blackbird. He won the 1997 Canberra Critics’ Circle Award for Furious.
David‘s play Lovely Louise, about silent-film star Louise Lovely, was selected for the 1998 Australian National Playwrights Conference, before David directed it at The Street. Pink Triangles, about the Nazi persecution of homosexuals, followed, which he also directed at The Street Theatre in 2000.
His production of his own play Scandalous Boy, about Hadrian and his lover Antinous, was named in The Canberra Times top five shows of 2014 and won David a second Canberra Critics’ Circle Award. The script was short-listed for the Arch and Bruce Brown Foundation Award, New York, and published by Playlab.
David’s new play Chiaroscuro, about Caravaggio, was selected by Siren Theatre for a reading at the 2018 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival. A production is planned for 2019.
The Street talked with David Atfield as he prepares to go into rehearsals for Exclusion, a new work written and directed by him and having its world premiere at the Street Theatre in November.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO WRITE A PLAY ABOUT THE SEXUALITY OF POLITICIANS?
Well, I don’t think Exclusion is a play about the sexuality of politicians. It’s a play about exploring who you are and fully realising yourself as a human being. Of course your sexuality is a huge part of that. The reason I set the play amongst the political ‘class’ is that I get the impression that many politicians lose sight of who they are once they start playing the political ‘game’. As a consequence they often forget that their actions have real world consequences – it’s not just about scoring points off each other.
Setting the play amongst politicians also allowed me to bring to the fore issues in Australia which concern LGBTIQ people. When I first wrote it the main issue was marriage equality but the play has now been updated to the post-marriage equality world where the new issues are the safe schools program, the potential discrimination against LGBTIQ teachers and students in schools and the on-going legality of gay conversion therapy. These issues play in the background of the personal dramas of the characters.
The play is dedicated to a boy I went to school with. A boy who tragically committed suicide a few years after he finished school, reportedly because he could not come to terms with his sexuality. This sort of tragedy is the consequence of exclusion and should never have happened. I hope the play helps everyone understand and accept the complexities and diversity of human sexuality.
WHAT RESEARCH DID YOU UNDERTAKE IN WRITING EXCLUSION?
Exclusion is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real people, living or dead, or actual events is not intended, should not be inferred and is purely co-incidental.
That being said I did obsessively watch question time, Q&A, Insiders, 7.30, etc and observed politicians closely, trying to analyse what they were really feeling about the issues they were discussing – trying to detect the human being behind the politician. We all put on a public face to conceal who we really are but politicians do this to the max.
In addition I talked to some LGBTIQ people who have worked as political staffers, and they gave me an insight into what it was like to be an LGBTIQ person in that environment and how politicians behaved away from the public spotlight.
I also talked to friends and acquaintances involved in bisexual situations. I was especially interested in what it was like to be the ‘other man’ – i.e. the male lover of a married (to a woman) man who presents to the world as heterosexual. The title of the play largely comes from the public exclusion of such male ‘mistresses’ from the lives of their lovers – the complete denial of their existence in many cases.
I also know a number of men, who now identify as gay, who spent large periods of their lives married to women, often having children with them. I talked to them about the experience of living in those relationships and eventually ‘coming out’. I also spoke to their former, and sometimes current, wives about their experiences.
TALK US THROUGH YOUR VISION FOR BRINGING EXCLUSION TO THE STAGE?
I didn’t want this play to be about political issues as such. These are in the background of the piece but the play is about the humanity of the characters. Most of the characters appear naked on stage at some point, which is kind of visual re-enforcement that politicians are indeed just human beings like you or I. So what we have is an intimate look at the private lives of five human beings.
As such I want to bring the action as close to the audience as we can in Street 1. To help me with this I have the great pleasure of working once again with stage and costume designer Imogen Keen. We have developed a design that is simple, but beautiful, allowing the emphasis to be on the characters and not on the set. There will be a simple interplay between beds and desks, suggesting the private and public worlds of the characters. The gorgeously intimate lighting of lighting designer Hartley T A Kemp will also help with this.
In addition, in collaboration with sound designer James Tighe, I am compiling a fun music-scape for the piece involving pop songs by LGBTIQ artists such as Pet Shop Boys and Troye Sivan, as well as iconic LGBTIQ anthems – ‘Xanadu’ especially plays a prominent part. The energy of these songs will drive the action as well as suggesting the different eras in which the characters grew up.
YOU ARE THE WRITER, DIRECTOR AND PRODUCER OF EXCLUSION. HOW DO YOU BALANCE THESE ROLES?
This is a tricky one. I often find myself distracted by all the practical considerations that a producer has to contend with. So I find I need to actively set aside time to think purely creatively. Discussions with the other creatives involved in the production have helped me do this. And the thorough, and very enjoyable, audition process reminded me that I am indeed a director!
The writing process is virtually done, though I will no doubt be tempted to tweak the script a little in rehearsals. I was fortunate enough, through an ACT Government grant, to do a creative development process on the script last year, working closely with five actors and dramaturg Jonathan Gavin. This process allowed me to concentrate on my role as writer for a time. Now the script is tight and I am confident it will work, I am looking at it as a director in the same way that I would like at a play by another writer.
I have asked the actors and the other creatives to look at the play in this way too – i.e. as a non – negotiable script we have received from an external writer. In that way rehearsals remain as rehearsals and don’t become a type of script workshop. The temptation, with the writer in the room, is to ask him or her to re-write a scene, if we are having trouble realising it. This is a temptation I will be resisting, instead trying to make the scene work as it is and thus realising the writer’s (i.e. my) original vision.
HOW DO YOU WORK AS A DIRECTOR? WHAT IS YOUR PROCESS FOR WORKING WITH A CREATIVE TEAM?
I am a very collaborative director. I try to come into rehearsals, and into pre-production discussions with creatives, with an open mind. It is vital that all the creatives have some ownership of the work and I find I get the best results from people when I allow their creativity to flow rather than just telling them what to do.
This is not to say I don’t have strong ideas, but I am always willing to adapt these to accommodate the creative ideas of others. In working with Imogen, for example, my only brief to her was that I wanted the set design to be as simple as possible so that we could move from scene to scene with as little disruption as possible. Armed with that she came up with an amazing design which we then tweaked together. If I had told her exactly what I wanted, the final result would no doubt have been a lot less interesting.
Working with actors needs to be just as collaborative – after all they are the ones on the stage in front of the audience not me. They need to have complete ownership of their characters and not feel like puppets. I am asking them to access some pretty deep emotions in this play, and do some pretty confronting things. Robots would not be capable of realising these.
TELL US MORE ABOUT THE CHARACTERS IN THE PLAY AND YOUR PROCESS FOR WORKING WITH THE ACTORS.
There are five leading roles in Exclusion – all five characters are multi-faceted, complex people who go through some extreme experiences in the course of the play. Craig, the young staffer, is, in some ways, a continuation of my gay ‘hero’ character established with Antinous in Scandalous Boy – and it’s great I have the same actor, Ethan Gibson, on board to realise him. This is today’s younger generation of LGBTIQ people whose total acceptance of their sexuality, and often militant defence of it, I so admire.
The other characters in the play reflect very different attitudes to sexuality, heavily influenced by the social attitudes they grew up with. Jasper and Jacinta are in their 40s and Michael and Caroline in their 50s. In addition all four of these characters have, to differing levels, forgotten who they are as humans while playing politics. Michael’s journey through the play is perhaps the most profound and hopefully, moving one. He is that rare animal, a ‘nice’ politician and open to learning about life from others. Jasper is the opposite kind of politician – ruthless, close-minded, egotistical. His wife, Jacinta, has largely sublimated her life to serve his career. Michael’s wife, Caroline, on the other hand has fought to have her own identity away from her husband. It’s an intriguing mix of people.
As I said in the previous section I like the actors to discover the characters themselves and to draw on their personal life experiences to create them. My rehearsal rooms are often a hot-bed of personal exploration and revelations, which means, of course, that an atmosphere of complete trust needs to be established. I demand total honesty in performance from my actors, which creates an immersive emotional experience for audiences.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH THE STREET?
My relationship with The Street goes right back to its inception in 1994. I was involved in many of the early discussions on how to utilise the venue and was on the first board of what was known as The Season at the Street from 1996 to 2001. This was a subscriber season of works by local professional theatre and dance artists.
I have staged most of my productions at The Street, starting with Michael Gow’s Furious in 1997, and also including Tennessee William’s Something Cloudy, Something Clear, Andrew Bovell’s Ship of Fools and David Harrower’s Blackbird. In addition all the plays I have written I have also directed at The Street, from Lovely Louise in 1999, to Pink Triangles in 2000 and Scandalous Boy in 2014, which I co-produced with the Street. The latter pay was developed through The Street’s development programs The Hive and First Seen. I have also directed readings and participated in many workshops and forums at this unique Canberra venue.
In addition the staff at The Street, especially Caroline Stacey and Dean Ellis, have assisted me in every aspect of my creative work, from helping me with grant applications to auspicing grants and supervising all the finances. The Street is an amazingly supportive environment, both creatively and practically, and I am proud to have been a part of it over some three decades.
WHAT ARE YOUR GUIDING PRINCIPLES FOR DIRECTION OF A NEW WORK?
I have probably covered a lot of this in my previous answers but my main principle is to realise the writer’s vision. In this case the writer is me, but this still means I need to interpret what I want to say. In working collaboratively with the actors and creatives, and listening to them, I can view the play more objectively. My first question after the first reading is ‘what do you think the play is about?’. The answers to this question can be surprising and revelatory.
In the end the entire company needs to agree what the play is about so that we are all pulling the oars of the production in the same direction. In theatre terminology this is known as the spine of the production and it is usually a single sentence, agreed to by everyone, toward the end of the rehearsal process. Finding this spine is particularly important in a new work.
The other practical concern is re-writing. Within the limited time of a rehearsal period it is important not to get lost in this – after all the actors have to know what their lines are in order to learn them. I have set myself the deadline for any re-writes to be completed by the start of week two of rehearsals. I can always do some re-writing after the initial production, but it is important not to ‘gild the lily’.
WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES IN PRESENTING PLAYS ABOUT THE LGBTIQ COMMUNITY IN CANBERRA?
I am fortunate on Exclusion to be working with Canberra’s LGBTIQ Festival SpringOut, who are also co-sponsoring the production with the ACT Government. Canberra has one of the most supportive communities in all of Australia toward LGBTIQ people and a very supportive LGBTIQ community toward LGBTIQ arts. So the challenges are not enormous.
The greater challenge is probably to make sure that your work also has broader appeal to attract a non-LGBTIQ audience. With ‘Exclusion’, and its tale of political intrigue, I think I have achieved this. Not all the characters are LGBTIQ people in any case.
One interesting challenge is the pressure, because works are few and far between, to try and be representative of the entire LGBTIQ community in every new work. I have long realised the impossibility of doing this in a theatre work. In this work I’m concentrating on the ‘G’, ‘B’ and ‘Q’ letters – and three out of six ain’t bad! It’s important to write about what you know too.
WHAT KIND OF THEATRE DO YOU WANT TO MAKE?
I love theatre that is experiential, emotionally immersive and visually beautiful. I strive to make this kind of theatre every time. Theatre should challenge, surprise, even shock. Above all it should not be boring! Too much theatre realises the audience’s expectations, I want to throw these expectations right out the window and create things on stage people don’t even think possible!
At the core of this experiential theatre though there needs to be truth. From truth comes empathy. From empathy comes a more compassionate caring society. Sounds grand, but in my own small way I hope to contribute to this. As a proud gay man, much of my work explores LGBTIQ themes, but from exploring these, universal truths can emerge.
WHAT ARE YOU READING/WATCHING CURRENTLY?
I recently saw Jane Fonda’s inspirational talk at the Sydney Opera House and am currently reading her wonderfully honest biography. I like to find inspiration in the great figures of the past and I read a lot of historical work and biographies. Fonda is active in the present, of course, but is also a significant historical figure both as an artist and as a political activist. My historical reading often leads to new plays, as is the case with my next play Chiaroscuro which is about the troubled genius of the painter Caravaggio. So I am also reading the biographies of that great painter right now.
I am a huge cinema aficionado, with a particular passion for silent film, and I think this informs the visual texture of my theatre work. Over the last month I have been watching all the Australian films currently in release, or about to be released, as part of my work as an accredited voting member for the AACTA Awards. That’s 38 feature films, 10 documentaries and 8 short films! Quite a marathon but it gives me a great idea of the Australian cinema landscape. My favourite was a little film called The Pretend One which looks at a grown woman who secretly keeps her childhood imaginary friend. A perfect, and insightful, combination of comedy and drama (with a little fantasy thrown in), the film also features sublime performances, especially by David Field as the woman’s father – one of the most truthful, honest performances I have seen on film in years. And truth and honesty is something I value highly in my own work.