GETTING TO KNOW: JONATHAN GAVIN

Jonathan Gavin is an award-winning musician, actor and writer, who has worked extensively in theatre and television. A graduate from the ANU and the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, Jonathan’s play A Moment on the Lips received the Philip Parsons Young Playwright’s Award, and has been performed many times around the world. Tiger Country was first produced at the Griffin Stables theatre. Bang, was shortlisted for both the NSW and QLD Premier’s Literary Awards. The Business, based on Vassa Zheleznova by Maxim Gorky, was produced by Company B Belvoir.

One of the core writers of the Network Ten comic drama Offspring, Jonathan became the head writer for the final two seasons. His other writing credits include the acclaimed dramas Puberty Blues and Seven Types of Ambiguity and The Beautiful Lie, for which he was nominated for the AACTA Award for Best Screenplay in Television. More recently, Jonathan wrote and developed Cleverman, which won the 2016 SPA Award for Best Drama Series Production. His drama Sisters received international acclaim on Netflix, and has been remade for the Fox Network in the USA as Almost Family.

Jonathan works for production company Fremantle as resident Showrunner/Creator.

THE STREET TALKED WITH JONATHAN AS HE CONTINUES HIS WORK AS DRAMATURG ON THE DEVELOPMENT OF DAVID ATFIELD’S COMMISSION CLEAN BEFORE ITS SHOWING FOR WORLD AIDS DAY 1ST DECEMBER.

YOU GREW UP IN CANBERRA, AND RETURN TO WORK HERE REGULARLY. TELL US ABOUT YOUR CAREER IN PERFORMANCE-MAKING AND WHY YOU COME BACK.

I began at Canberra Youth Theatre Company when I was 14. Those years at CYTC were all about developing work from the ground up, through improvisation; creating characters and drama in a physical, immediate way. I can’t stress enough how important it is for us all to be ‘theatre-makers’, and to have the courage to make our own work. Then through my time at ANU I was lucky enough to work with the directors and writers who were making theatre here in the 1990s, at the ANU, at Rep, at Gorman House, at The Street, at the Canberra Theatre. After my training at WAAPA,  I performed around the world in a variety of works – text-based, musical, Shakespeare and physical theatre, and now, if I bring anything to being a writer, it’s that I’m an actor first. David Atfield is the same. He writes for actors.

WHAT INTERESTED YOU ABOUT CLEAN?

I grew up with the Grim Reaper TV ads. One of my earliest collaborations with David Atfield was a series of short plays at Heaven nightclub for World AIDS Day 1994. This play, inspired by interviews with people living with and affected by HIV in the ACT, is unique in being a work looking at the milestones in treatment and how they parallel the political and emotional lives of this community.

WHAT IS INVOLVED IN BEING THE DRAMATURG ON CLEAN?

Very simply, my role is to help the writer to write the play, not as a co-writer but as a person who understands the vision, the issues at play, the themes. David conducted about 20 interviews, assimilated them, and has written a fictional drama inspired by them. I’m his sounding board, his ally, his cheer squad, his first reader. My job involves throwing in alternative points of view, reflecting things back to the writer for consideration, and encouraging the writer to keep asking the questions, investigating the characters and the structure of the scenes, to write the play they want to write. 

TELL US MORE ABOUT YOUR WORKING RELATIONSHIP WITH WRITER DAVID ATFIELD.

I think we met when I was a teenager, towards the end of 1992. And then we worked together again and again and again. David has gone from director, to mentor, to friend. I feel very lucky in my life to have had this collaboration, which has grown into a creative accord that keeps being fresh.  It’s only recently that David has started trusting me to be his dramaturg, first on his wonderful play Exclusion, and now on Clean.

WHAT DOES YOUR OWN WORK AS A WRITER/EDITOR BRING TO THE PROCESS?

Wow. That’s a tough one to answer in a simple way. I hope I bring an understanding of what writing is. Writing a play is a combination of two things: creative dreaming, and intellectual rigour. The challenge for any writer is to learn which faculty to engage, and when. Often the process will stall when a writer is trying to solve a creative problem with their analytical mind, or thinking that they can conceal a lack of thought with some creative sleight of hand.  Also, being a writer, I definitely aim to bring to dramaturgy a sense of energy, hope and joy. Developing a play shouldn’t be destructive to the writer.

HOW DO YOU WORK WITH THE WRITER AND DIRECTOR DURING THE CREATIVE DEVELOPMENTS WITH ACTORS?

In short, I just try to be whatever is needed in the room. Dramaturgy as a discipline is the study of theatre and the mechanics of dramatic composition. So I’m just there to be useful, whatever that means. A sympathetic eye, a helpful ear, a reminder that we are all here to bring something new into the world. The development team for Clean is a generous, intelligent group, with a shared sense of humour.

HOW DO YOU WORK AS A DRAMATURG VERSUS AS A DIRECTOR?

Another really interesting question. Different dramaturgs would answer this question differently. First and foremost to me is that I’m there as a midwife to the birth of the work. The writer, the director, the actors – these are the people whose labour I am attending. My job is to assist and support them in their quest, not to pursue my own rogue vision.

WHAT IS CURRENTLY SURFACING IN THE SCRIPT OF CLEAN? WHAT NEEDS TO BE ADDRESSED?

David has fashioned a story in which we see three generations of HIV identity and activism in relation to each other, through the prism of a group of interconnected lives, over a period of about 35 years. The compass of the play is enormous, filtered through a small group of characters. The play is ambitious and personal. As I write this, David and I are talking about the way the play articulates things spoken in interviews, translating them into fictionalised drama; and the challenges that come from this process. It’s a big undertaking and I admire David and The Street so much for their courage in it.

WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO GLEAN FROM THE SHOWING?

We hope the play will get a full production! I think the showing is a waypoint in the life of the play. I can’t wait to hear from a new audience what their experience of it is – how it makes them feel, what it provokes from them. And of course, to hear from some of the people whose interviews inspired the play. Then, David and I will sift through the feedback, and that will help direct the next draft of the play.

WHAT KIND OF THEATRE DO YOU WANT TO MAKE?

My answer to that question changes in some of its specifics, but never in the fundamental things. For the audience, a piece of theatre is an experience first, and a work of art second. So, first, let’s make the experience compelling and profound. Next, let’s make sure it’s full of ideas that the audience can take home, and chew over in their minds. When I go to the theatre, I want to feel something. And I want to be taken on a journey through some aspect of existence.

The theatre that I want to make is the theatre that is fun to perform, and fun to watch.  Otherwise what are we all doing here?

WHAT’S INSPIRING YOU CREATIVELY AT THE MOMENT?

Activism. Watching people getting up and improving the conditions of life for themselves and those less fortunate.

WHAT ARE YOU READING/WATCHING CURRENTLY?

This is the most revealing question of all! I’m reading The Toll, the third book in Neal Shusterman’s Arc of a Scythe trilogy. I love YA fiction, and I’m a sci-fi nerd. I’m watching Star Trek Discovery for the third time, because like I said I’m a sci-fi nerd.