GETTING TO KNOW: MAURA PIERLOT

Maura is an award-winning author and playwright who hails from New York, but has called Canberra home for nearly thirty years. In 2016 Maura won the SOLO Monologue Competition, Hothouse Theatre for her play, Tapping Out, which went on to receive three awards at Short+Sweet Sydney (2017). That year she also won the MPS Travel+Tours Award, Capital Arts Patrons’ Organisation to write a dramatic work on youth mental health, which has developed into Fragments. Maura is grateful for the support she has received for this work including a Fellowship at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre in WA, an Artist-in-Residency spot at Bundanon Trust and a week-long creative development as a Visiting Artist at Ainslie+Gorman Arts Centres, with support from artsACT. A former medical news reporter and editor of Australian Medicine, Maura also writes for children and young adults. In 2017 she was named winner of the CBCA Aspiring Writers Mentorship Program, and recipient of the Charlotte Waring Barton Award, for her young adult manuscript, Freefalling. Maura’s first picture book, The Trouble in Tune Town, launched in May 2018 at the National Library of Australia, won the 2018 ACT Writing and Publishing Award (Children’s category) along with international accolades. She has a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and doctorate, each in philosophy, specialising in ethics.

Credit: Shelly Higgs

The Street talked to Maura about writing for the theatre and her new work, Fragments, a series of monologues performed by young people, being presented at The Street Theatre from the 23rd to the 27th of October.

YOU WRITE ACROSS A NUMBER OF FORMS. WHERE DOES THEATRE FIT INTO THE MIX?

I’ve written only a handful of plays, with productions in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, but I’m finding it’s a natural fit. My writing tends to be character-driven and dialogue-heavy. I’ve always written in a visual sense. Even when I write prose, I imagine the scene on stage in my head – the characters, the setting, what they’re wearing, who enters from where, what’s at stake – then I let them talk to each other.

There’s so much that I love about theatre: its immediacy, the excitement and stakes of a live audience, the ability to experiment, the collaboration and creative development process, how the work is interpreted differently for each production. For me, theatre can be summed up in one word: freedom. Arts is a tough gig and getting work on stage is never easy, especially as a relative newcomer. But I’ve always liked a challenge.

FRAGMENTS IS A PROJECT ON YOUTH MENTAL HEALTH. PLEASE TELL US MORE.

Fragments is a series of eight interrelated dramatic monologues on mental health issues performed by, and about, young people. The work embodies the theme that stress at home, at school and in life is challenging young people beyond their usual coping abilities, often leaving them disenfranchised and vulnerable. I wrote Fragments to start a conversation. In this work I wanted to present realistic representations of young people facing mental health issues, particularly those who seemingly have it all; to examine the increasing fragmentation of society, and the sense of isolation and alienation endemic in that realm; and to explore the notion of connectedness in our lives as a way of looking outwards with meaning and purpose.

I’d love to live in a world where mental health issues are considered no different than being under the weather with a cold, or spraining an ankle. Although we’ve made great strides in addressing mental health concerns, there’s still a long way to go. Nearly every week, I’m talking to, or hearing of, a young person who is struggling. Anxiety is nearly at epidemic proportions, and depression is not far behind. There’s no easy fix but I believe the way forward can be found in speaking openly without fear or stigma, and through that outreach, in establishing and strengthening our connections to each other.

TELL US ABOUT THE CREATIVE PROCESS AND PROVENANCE TO THIS POINT.

I’m very grateful for the high level of support and funding that Fragments has attracted the past few years. In late 2016, I received the MPS Travel+Tours Award, Capital Arts Patrons’ Organisation (CAPO) to write the script for a dramatic work on youth mental health. I planned to start in early 2017, but didn’t have the time or mental energy. My husband was gravely ill, my mother’s dementia was rapidly worsening and she needed to transition to assisted living, which proved easier said than done and required frequent overseas travel during the year. In the midst of this, I was trying to publish my picture book. I let the ideas for Fragments germinate instead. When I delved into the project in late 2017, the monologues practically poured out of me, as though they were writing themselves. 

WA dramaturg Suzanne Ingelbrecht provided useful feedback on an early draft script when I took up a Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre Fellowship in Perth in April 2018. Then last October, thanks for artsACT funding, the work benefited from a creative development week as part of Ainslie+Gorman Arts Centre’s Ralph Indie Program. Dramaturg Gin Savage zeroed in on language that needed unpacking and challenged me, where needed, to clarify my intentions. Interrogating the eight monologues allowed us to experiment with, and to rework, language and concepts to improve the rhythm and delivery of each individual piece and to build dramatic tension throughout the work. Meanwhile, the Australian Cultural Fund had earmarked my Fragments campaign for a funding boost. Shortly thereafter, Pioneer Theatre in Castle Hill selected Fragments for their inaugural (post-refurbishment) run. Workshopped and directed by James Hartley, the show was very well received, which was heartening, as was the professionalism, enthusiasm and energy that the team of young creatives brought to the production.

The final stage of development will take place in a few weeks at The Street as part of the FIRST SEEN Program. I’m looking forward to spending the day with director Shelly Higgs and the young cast to explore the leverage and stakes for each character, along with the transitions and imagery in the work.

WHY MONOLOGUES?

Monologues were a natural choice for Fragments, especially as I wanted to explore a range of issues along a theme. The format allowed me to hone in on each character and issue, to create a unique reality for them but – and this was the challenge – to place them in a world where they could coexist in a credible and emotionally resonant manner. Each story was in essence a scene, one that had its own arc, momentum and function, both as a discreet piece and an important part of a whole. My intention was for the transitions between the monologues – the story that sits on top of the work – to be devised by young actors. However, time and other logistics did not allow for this so I wrote the entire work, which reflects the input of many creatives through an extensive and rewarding development process. For Fragments, I wanted to present the issues that young people are struggling with in a realistic but not didactic way. It was important that there were moments of humour to break up the intensity of the work, also that the monologues were structured in a layered manner that built tension and increased the stakes, while offering a message of hope.

WHAT ARE YOUR GUIDING PRINCIPLES FOR WRITING A NEW WORK FOR THEATRE?

I view theatre as a shared experience that sheds light on the human condition, so I naturally drift towards ensemble work on philosophical, theatrical and humanistic grounds. I strive for authenticity and truth in everything that I write, and I am strongly guided by metaphor and symbolism. Stories are a way of making sense of our lives and the world in which we live. We present ourselves to the world in story form – whether through social media, or striking up a conversation ­– and each day, we move forward in life with our stories with stakes, whether large or small. Stories connect us. So it’s only natural that my writing delves into contemporary issues that have an impact on all of us. That it prods and pokes, exposes, unravels and unpacks issues in conflict, and the principles at stake. I don’t attempt to come up with any answers. I believe my job as an author and playwright is to ask questions.

THE STREET IS PRODUCING FRAGMENTS ON ITS STAGE FEATURING EIGHT YOUNG ACTORS DIRECTED BY SHELLY HIGGS. WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO HAVE YOUR WORK PRODUCED IN CANBERRA?

It’s very exciting for me, on both a personal and professional level, to have my work performed in my adopted home of Canberra. I owe a great deal to Caroline Stacey. She has been extremely generous with her time and support over recent years and has served as a mentor for me in many ways. Many theatres seem to be hooked on classics and adaptations, which often eclipses new work. But thank goodness for The Street Theatre, the only producer of new work in Canberra. And to have the über creative Shelly Higgs on board, with her strong visual aesthetic, is very exciting. Although playwrights are often not fully vested in the production process, thanks to the generosity and support of Caroline and Shelly, this production of Fragments has been a truly collaborative effort and I am learning a great deal throughout the process.

WHY IS FRAGMENTS AN IMPORTANT WORK FOR OUR TIME?

Fragments is an important work for our time because we need to speak openly about mental health. There shouldn’t be any shame in talking about mental health; the shame is in not talking about it. Stigma surrounding mental health is keeping people from getting the help they need, and the best way to combat stigma is to talk about the issues. Fragments touches upon some of the most common mental health issues facing young people today. The issues addressed aren’t exhaustive; in fact, the more severe end of the spectrum of mental health problems doesn’t feature. This was a conscious decision on my part as I was not confident that I could do justice to the more complex issues in this work.

We all need training in mental health, which should be discussed openly by families, communities and schools. We need to know what to do when we sense that someone is struggling. The R U OK? campaign has gotten the ball rolling in this regard, but I sometimes worry that it may lull people into a false state of security. What do you do if the person who doesn’t appear to be coping assures you that they’re fine? Do you take them at their word, or do you ask again, and when? In one of the Fragments monologues, school captain Mason, who has depression, notes that no one at school approached him on R U OK Day and he wonders whether they ever will. Shouldn’t every day be R U OK day, he asks. What do we do if someone tells us that they’re not okay?

If you sense someone needs help, approach them, don’t turn away. If you need help, please ask someone. And if there’s no one among your family or friends who can support you, contact Lifeline, phone 13 11 14.

WHAT KIND OF THEATRE DO YOU WANT TO MAKE?

I want to create work that challenges an audience to think differently about complex social issues, to question their own assumptions, and to see themselves, and the world, in a different light. I want to create work that people can’t stop thinking or talking about. I think theatre should be more ‘story’ and less ‘spectacle’, although there are certainly the elements of the latter in any performance. Theatre needs to grasp big ideas, take the audience with them, be brave and inclusive, but also relevant and engaging. I think this needs to be done deftly and with integrity and intellectual honesty, at least that’s what I’m striving for.

WHAT IS YOUR VIEW ON THE ROLE OF THEATRE IN SOCIETY?

Canberra has a small but vibrant theatre community, one that I hope will continue to grow and flourish in pace with its surrounds. There’s an unfortunate tendency for arts to be relegated to the margins, though in my view it should enjoy a central place in society, as in the days of ancient Greece. The arts are fundamental to our wellbeing and inextricably linked to culture. In times of strife, it’s the arts that will help us find meaning and value in our lives. Creative thinkers can inspire and engage, reveal the truth, and tap into our emotions. The arts can also challenge us to examine the types of lives we want to live as individuals and as a society. On a humanistic level, the arts – and the universal questions they ask – are what unites us. I think private and public sectors need to support the arts, and I’m thrilled that LJ Hooker Canberra City is generously sponsoring Fragments and, in so doing, demonstrating their strong support for the local arts community.

FOR YOU, IS WRITING MORE ABOUT ART OR CRAFT?

The art of writing always comes first for me, craft later. I try not to overthink what I’m writing. I don’t worry about theatricality in the early stages. I have a clear idea, usually a visual one, of the climax and ending and often work backwards. Sometimes a motif or imagery is the guiding force. My work is often imbued with existential elements, focusing on people’s hopes, dreams and fears. I’ve had a lifelong struggle with death, perhaps from losing family members early on and several others (and a few close calls) along the way. Not surprisingly, in much of my work there is a reference to another realm – the presence of someone who has passed, or a person’s inability to deal with grief and loss. My work isn’t autobiographical in any strict sense but of course there is a bit of me in what I write. Everyone injects some element of their selves into their writing, whether or not they realise or will admit it. I think that’s a good thing. It can be difficult to engage with work that is clinically distanced from the creative source.

WHY DO YOU WRITE?

At heart, I’m a wordsmith. I love language, it’s idiosyncrasies, its power and meaning. I’d love to bring back the art of letter writing and miss the days of having a pen pal. I love intense, in your face, gut-wrenching and real drama. Words that cut and distort, words that reveal the truth, words that heal. When writing and editing, I listen for the rhythm of language. In narrative writing terms, I’m not a plotter. I don’t attempt to map out detailed plot points early on, though I always have the character arc firmly in mind. I’d rather shake the box and see what falls where, unencumbered.

I’ve often thought about teaching – as a PhD candidate many years ago, I enjoyed the opportunity to teach philosophy at university – but I don’t think I could explain the mechanics of what I do, nor do I want to try to fit the elements into a rigid framework for the sake of pedagogy. Same with children’s literature. My picture book, The Trouble in Tune Town, has won awards but I’m not convinced I could teach kids how to write. Unfortunately for me, children’s book authors these days are expected to be entertainers and teachers, the net result of a highly commercialised publishing industry.

WHO DO YOU WRITE FOR?

It may seem counterintuitive, but I don’t think about the audience when writing a play. However, I do think about them when tossing around ideas for a play – will an audience be drawn to this work, and why? Who am I trying to reach? Most of my work originates in a subliminal way. I’ll find myself thinking about an issue, often for no conscious reason, and will feel like the universe is sending me signs – over time, I’ll see references, words, ideas or inspiration everywhere. It may sound a bit mystical and, in a sense, it is, at least the early stages. I write intuitively and instinctively, as if I’m channeling someone or something that needs to find its way out. Sounds wacky – strange, because I’m not a wacky kind of gal. But there you go.

YOU HAVE CALLED CANBERRA HOME FOR OVER THIRTY YEARS. HAILING FROM NEW YORK CITY, WHAT HAVE YOU DISCOVERED ABOUT LIVING AND WORKING HERE?

This is a tough question and one that I have been thinking a lot about lately. There’s an expression, Once a New Yorker, always a New Yorker, and I think that’s true to some extent. Even though I’ve lived in Australia for nearly thirty years (and have been an Australian citizen for over twenty of them), there’s still a NYC sensibility deep inside me. New Yorkers can be angsty and in your face, and sometimes that hasn’t translated well here.

Despite the US and Australia sharing English as a main language, there are subtle cultural differences. New Yorkers don’t mince words and I think many people here have misconstrued my directness. In my view, directness doesn’t mean being rude; it just means speaking clearly. So if a friend asked me if I liked a hideous painting that was hanging over their sofa, I’d say, ‘You know, it’s not my style but it works in the room and the important thing is that you like it’. Whereas most people would fib and say ‘I love it!’ even if they didn’t. I’m exasperated by people who don’t say what they mean, and I think many problems at work and in life can be traced back to poor communication. Same for work: if there’s an issue, I’ll say ‘We have a problem, how can we fix this?’ but many people dance around the issue as though it’s too awkward to hold someone accountable.

Although I’ve lived here nearly 30 years, I haven’t managed to lose my accent. And not a week goes by that someone doesn’t politely ask me where I’m from. Even if it’s asked innocently as a conversation starter, it’s a subtle reminder that I’m perceived as ‘different’. I’ve copped a fair share of anti-Americanism over the years, especially with the current US administration. People hear my accent and subject me to an anti-Trump tirade, or a litany of failures of America, as though I am somehow responsible. Or they overexplain an issue because ‘you’re not from here and wouldn’t understand’. Being an expat isn’t easy. Over time, your home country becomes a source of nostalgia and, eventually, a strange land where you feel, and are treated, like a foreigner. But if you’re treated like that in your adopted land, even if through subtext, then were do you belong?

But despite all that, I love Australia and have never had even a moment of second thoughts about my choice to move here. And I absolutely love, love, love Canberra and can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather live.

WHAT’S INSPIRING YOU CREATIVELY AT THE MOMENT?

I get ideas all the time from getting out in the world, trying new things, talking to people. When I’m working intensively, especially on tight deadlines, I don’t sleep well. The minute I close my eyes it’s as though a door has opened to another world, where characters are waiting for me. I’m always gathering fragments of images ­– from dreams, from experiences, from conversations. Over time for many of these images, patterns form, usually intertwined with imagery, or key words or phrases. This is the fun part of the creative process ­– all these pieces finding themselves subconsciously and taking shape on the page.

WHAT ARE YOU READING AND WATCHING CURRENTLY?

When I watch television, which isn’t often, I’ve been erring on the side of comedy probably due to the emotional intensity of my work. I still love The Office (US) and Flight of the Conchords; more recently, Schitt’s Creek and Succession. Lately, I tend to watch what my family is watching, anything from Dr Who and Black Mirror and Chernobyl to The Righteous Gemstones. In summer, there’s only one thing on our screen: cricket. Seriously.

As for reading, I review books for the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Reading Time and always look forward to receiving the next batch of releases. I write young adult fiction and read a fair amount of it, too. I’m a bit behind with my reading and still catching up with last year’s releases. Right now I’m enjoying I Am Out With Lanterns by Emily Gale and Amelia Westlake by Erin Gough. I’ve had a lifelong love affair with philosophy, which I studied for many years, and am always reading philosophy in some shape or form. At the moment it’s One World, a fascinating book on global ethics by Professor Peter Singer, who was my PhD supervisor at Monash University, when I first came to Australia on a Fulbright Award all those years ago.

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