Katie Pollock is an award-winning playwright, writing for the stage and radio. Her plays include Normal, The Becoming, The Hansard Monologues (Age of Entitlement), Blue Italian/Nil by Sea, The Hansard Monologues (A Matter of Public Importance), The Blue Angel Hotel, A Quiet Night in Rangoon,and A Girl Called Red. Currently in development are: Summerland, People Inside Me, Human Activity, and Rough Trade. Her works have been produced by ABC Radio National, Apocalypse Theatre, Canberra Youth Theatre, Casula Powerhouse, Eastside FM, Hothouse Theatre, Merrigong Theatre, Museum of Australian Democracy, New Theatre, Newtown Theatre, Old 505 Theatre, Redline Productions, Seymour Centre, Site & Sound Festival, subtlenuance, Sydney Fringe Festival, Tamarama Rock Surfers and The Street. Awards include the Rodney Seaborn Playwrights Award, the Martin-Lysicrates Prize, the Inscription/Edward Albee Playwriting Scholarship, and three AWGIE nominations. Normal is published by Currency Press.
THE STREET TALKED TO KATIE DURING HER FIRST SEEN NEW-WORK-IN-PROGRESS DEVELOPMENT OF PEOPLE INSIDE ME BEING LIVESTREAMED ON 12 MARCH 2021.
WHY PEOPLE INSIDE ME?
The original inspiration for the play came from an article I read about a young woman who worked in a crematorium. She talked about how dusty it could be, that she would get home and the dust from the ashes would be in her hair, on her collar, in her face. She said ‘sometimes I get home and think about how much of that I’ve been breathing in all day … I think to myself, there are a bunch of people inside me.’ That’s gold, right there. I couldn’t let it go. But the title works on multiple levels. Once I started to explore this character and find out what might have happened in her life, the phrase just seemed to fit. So it also refers to sex, to pregnancies, to memories of people we’ve lost and carry with us, to those ashes, and to the idea of connection – how we move from a place of damage to a place where we can allow people to get inside us, under our skin.
WHAT MOVED YOU INTO A COMMITTED CAREER TO PLAYWRIGHTING AND AS A PLAYWRIGHT?
I wasn’t a very good journalist, I wasn’t a very good actor, and I was a terrible Catholic. But those things gave me a love of story, a love of the theatre, and an addiction to ritual. There is something about the heightened space and the coming together of a group of strangers for the same reason at the same time that inspires awe and wonder. Or at least it does if it’s good theatre. I tried to write a novel once but there were too many words. And I stopped writing at all for a while due to life circumstances, but that didn’t go so well for me or anyone around me. So I figure this is cheaper and healthier than drugs.
YOU HAVE CREATED A CAREER ACROSS THE STAGE AND RADIO – CAN YOU EXPLAIN THE PLACE AND EXPERIENCE OF THEATRE FOR YOU IN THE MIX? OR IS THERE A DIFFERENCE TO HOW YOU APPROACH WRITING FOR EACH?
I think each idea presents itself in its natural form. Certainly you can adapt between them, but radio feels like more of an internal medium to me. You create the world inside the listener’s mind, whether that world is inside a character’s head, under the ocean or, as in one of my plays, on the top of Mount Everest. Of course you can create those worlds in theatre too, but it might require a bit more tech. For me, theatre is more expansive, more external and active, whereas radio is perhaps more cerebral and lyrical. But these are fairly arbitrary distinctions. The real difference is that in radio you may never know how the work affects the audience whereas in theatre you can see it right there in front of you. You know damn well if the audience is bored. Their bodies may be stuck in the chair but their faces have turned you off and gone to do the ironing.
WHAT QUESTIONS ARE YOU ADDRESSING IN THE CREATIVE DEVELOPMENT OF PEOPLE INSIDE ME?
We’re looking at the narrative arc of the main character, Lauren, including her emotional journey and motivations. She’s a bit spiky and often does the ‘wrong’ thing but is she believable? We might not like her much but do we ‘get’ her? We’re looking at the role of time and memory in the piece and asking how much they should bleed into the present. And there is a character called Ashes who occupies a liminal space between the living and the dead. We are trying to work out how much of a driving force Ashes plays in the action. It’s a bit on the metaphysical side, eh.
WHAT ARE YOU MOST LOOKING FORWARD TO DISCOVERING?
Writing a play is like inventing a giant jigsaw puzzle then having to work out how it fits together. During a standard rehearsal process, it’s tempting to just cut things or quickly rewrite them when something doesn’t seem to work right off the bat because you have an opening night pressing on you, a hard and fast deadline. But during a development you have the luxury of exploring those difficult moments, digging deeper and playing with ideas that may never see the light of day. You can remake the jigsaw into different pictures until it starts to resemble the one closest to the lid on the box you imagined. And sometimes a completely different picture emerges. I’m looking forward to discovering the correct picture.
WHAT DOES THIS WORK ILLUMINATE ABOUT AUSTRALIA NOW?
Although I started this play a long time before Covid, it’s interesting how timely it feels. After a time of enforced isolation we are all feeling the need to connect and feel less alone in the world. I hope it speaks to that universal need for community. We have been through a period of collective grief. Some of us are mourning loved ones, and we are all mourning the loss of our imagined futures. We have no idea what’s going to happen in the future, we don’t even know what’s going to happen tomorrow, so how do we move forwards? Did I mention it’s a black comedy?
HOW IMPORTANT IS IT TO BRING NEW AUSTRALIAN WORKS TO THE STAGE?
Very. I’m a playwright. Shakespeare is awesome, but he doesn’t pay my rent. I’m being facetious, but he also doesn’t pay the rent in your head. Theatre isn’t a history book, it’s a living medium, and the best theatre speaks to us as we are now, reflecting us back to ourselves or asking us to question our place in the world. There’s a difference between interpretive theatre and generative theatre and I love to be challenged with new stories and new forms.
WHAT KIND OF THEATRE DO YOU WANT TO MAKE?
I want to make theatre that makes you think about stuff, hopefully laugh a bit, maybe cry a little. Theatre that makes you forget there was ever such a thing as the ironing.
YOU HAVE LIVED IN CANBERRA OVER THE YEARS. WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR EXPERIENCE OF THE ARTS SCENE HERE; WHAT HAS CHANGED; WHAT HAS STAYED THE SAME?
I see a renewed vigour in the unique capital/regional theatre space that Canberra occupies. I love that we are getting productions that speak to a local audience but have a national resonance. I see stronger collaborations between companies making work outside the Sydney/Melbourne bubble and I’m encouraged to see artists move back here to take advantage of the openness and generosity of the community, which feels more embracing of the arts than ever before. What has stayed the same, which I love, is that everything feels like an event not to be missed.
WHAT IS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH THE STREET?
The Street helped develop my first full-length play, A Quiet Night in Rangoon, through a writers program with dramaturgy by Peter Matheson, in 2009. There were ideas seeded in the very early stages that became a core part of the mechanics of the play. A Quiet Night in Rangoon was eventually produced in 2011 at the New Theatre in Sydney and was very well received. It’s interesting to look back at those documents now, and see that I am often plagued by some of the same doubts about my work. But it’s great to be back in such a supportive environment.
WHAT HAVE BEEN AND CONTINUE TO BE THE CHALLENGES OF WORKING DURING COVID-19?
Writing is a lonely job at the best of times – and usually we like it that way – but Covid put the screws on that big time. Loneliness makes you doubt yourself, your abilities and your worth. As theatres closed and everything got cancelled there were times when I wondered whether there was any point writing anything at all. But then out of that difficult space came a determination to make the work matter and to really reach for deeper emotional truths. There’s an adjustment to showing work in Covid-safe ways. I was lucky that Canberra Youth Theatre was able to produce my play Normal straight out of lockdown to a reduced capacity audience. This showing of People Inside Me by The Street will be my first adventure in the world of live-streaming. It means we have to think differently about how we show the play but it also means we can reach a huge audience geographically. I know there will be people in the UK tuning in, which is wonderful.
WHAT’S INSPIRING YOU IN THE PERFORMING ARTS?
My fellow playwrights constantly inspire me. We are great collaborators and a great support network for each other. I’ve been inspired by how nimble artists of all stripes have proven themselves during this period and how they’ve risen to the challenge to keep creating. The choir I usually sing with has been shut down for a year and recently I’ve been listening to our playlist on high rotation, so I don’t embarrass myself when – if – we start again.
WHAT ARE YOU READING AND WATCHING CURRENTLY?
Are you kidding me? This development process is very intense – there is no time to read or watch anything! It’s a quick break for the nightly news then straight back to the keyboard.