Melbourne playwright Jane Miller is the first in a new series of chats about writing and what it’s like to be a writer. Before the opening night of her new play, she chats with Anne-Marie Peard and offers advice to emerging playwrights, which all begins with reading and seeing plays and theatre.
Miller’s second full-length play opens this week at fortyfive downstairs in Melbourne. True Love Travels on a Gravel Road, which is also the name of an Elvis Presley song, was a recipient of the R E Ross Trust Playwrights’ Script Development Award in 2011.
Described as a comedy about living the dream, it’s about Jake, who has been pegged as the town “tard” all of his life, but when he falls in love with Maggie anything seems possible and making Maggie’s dream of escaping to Graceland becomes his quest.
Miller’s plays have been produced around Australia and internationally, beginning in 2006 when Perfect Stillness reached the finals of Short & Sweet in Melbourne where it won the People’s Choice award for Best Overall Production.
Her first full-length work, Happily Ever After, premiered in 2010 at La Mama with a sell-out season followed by a tour.
What made you want to write this play?
I was asked to write a piece for the National Theatre Drama School and started working on a few scenes. Unfortunately work commitments meant I couldn’t pursue the opportunity but I had written a scene between two guys on a street undertaking a business transaction with a dog barking continually and interrupting them. The rest of the play evolved from my curiosity about that transaction.
How long did it take you to write it/how many drafts?
I wrote the first scene in 2009 and finished the first draft in January 2011. I kept leaving it and coming back to it in between other projects but once I finished the complete first draft, I worked on it consistently through the readings and The R E Ross Trust Development process. We are rehearsing version 16.
Is there a character you relate strongly to?
All of them. They all have something in them that I love even when they do things I don’t understand. My characters are never directly based on myself or people I know, but they all have different little pieces of me in them.
Can you remember where you were when Elvis died?
Sadly yes, which puts me in a demographic minority in this production! I was very young and watching the Early Bird Show before school when they announced it on the news.
What’s your favourite Elvis song?
“Kentucky Rain” and “True Love Travels on a Gravel Road”, of course.
Where’s your Graceland?
New York. It is just the best place to go for a holiday and I always bring home stacks of plays from The Drama Bookshop.
What’s it like working closely with director, Beng Oh?
An absolute pleasure. It is a collaboration that we didn’t plan but, for me in particular, has been incredibly significant. I appreciate his honesty, his eye for detail and his ability to see the possibilities for a text even as a first draft. Beng has great judgement, which I trust completely, and I have learned a huge amount about how plays work on stage working with him. He is very open to having me attend rehearsals, which is a wonderful for me as a writer because I don’t think I fully understand my work until I see it in the hands of actors and a director. As a theatre goer, I am always excited to see what he does next and can’t wait for his production at La Mama in August of George Tabori’s Mein Kempf.
Who wins if you disagree?
The art wins.
Can you remember when you knew you wanted to be a writer?
High School. We had a fully equipped theatre and I knew I loved drama, but also knew I wasn’t an actor.
What other writing do you do?
Not much really apart from my day job.
What playwright do you read when you need inspiration?
Sam Shepherd, Tracy Letts, Paula Vogel, Edward Albee, Sarah Kane and lots of others. I read a lot of plays. I also love hearing playwrights talk about their process.
Apart from plays, what else do you love reading?
Scandinavian murder mysteries. I absolutely love them and when Henning Mankell autographed one of his books for me at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival a few years ago I was wildly excited.
Any hints to over come writer’s block?
Read plays and see theatre. Whenever I go to the theatre, I feel absolutely inspired all over again by possibilities. Even if it is not a great play, there is something exciting about watching actors and a creative team that just makes me want to write.
What was the title of your first play?
It was a play I wrote in year 10 drama called Where There’s a Will…. It was a country house murder mystery. A couple of years later I co-wrote our Year 12 production, a western called Black Cactus and that is the one that confirmed my desire to write.
Do you ever hand write or is everything on screen?
Everything on computer….and Dropbox.
Do you keep a writer’s diary?
Not a diary, but I have a folder called BitsnPieces on my computer where I keep odds and ends.
How does it feel when you’re sitting in a theatre audience watching your play?
Terrifying and amazing. I see the play completely differently with an audience. I tend to go a lot during a run because I love what that experience teaches me about writing for both performance and an audience.
Do you have a writing routine?
Not enough of one. I try to write something every day, but I work full time so it is not always easy to be disciplined when I get home.
Are you an early-morning or a late-night writer?
Who do you go to for feedback about your writing?
Beng is great about providing feedback and advice. I sent him True Love Travels as soon as the first draft was finished. I sometimes get my family and friends to read a draft but I really need to see actors read a piece to see what state it is in. The opportunities I had, starting off, with Short + Sweet, Melbourne Writers’ Theatre and “Crash Test Drama” were brilliant for me and great places to meet actors, directors and other writers.
What’s one of your favourite quotes about writing?
I think it is attributed to Ernest Hemingway, “Write drunk, edit sober”. I like it not because I literally think it’s necessary to write in a constant state of inebriation but it captures the openness and freedom you need to give yourself when writing a first draft and the subsequent hard headed work of redrafting and editing.
Do you think actors and directors should be able to change something you’ve written? (Is the playwright always right?)
I am a big believer in the text serving the performance. It’s not a novel, so if it doesn’t work for the performance you can’t preserve it in stone. I have been very fortunate to sit in on rehearsals so I can make changes and rework things that are not working. My experience is that I am usually the one who wants to cut a line or change it and actors and directors will do their best to work with what you have provided. I appreciate a director flagging changes with me and I have usually been incredibly lucky with the directors I have worked with.
What advice can you give to emerging playwrights?
Write, read and see as many as plays as you can. Take your stuff to things like Cold Readings Series and Crash Test Drama and see actors read it.
What do you suggest emerging playwrights read?
Why do you write for the stage, instead of film, tv or novels?
I love actors. I also really enjoy seeing work engage with an audience. It is so immediate, which can be wonderful and scary.
Do you read your reviews?
I do, which is probably not the answer a writer is supposed to give.
What’s your advice on taking criticism?
It’s tough, but if it is constructive and well reasoned, you appreciate it and learn a lot from it. Sometimes the stuff that touches a nerve does so because it resonates with something you knew or suspected about the work. However, the other side of it is that art is subjective and in the eye of the beholder and you have to stay true to yourself and what you envisaged for the piece when you wrote it. Good criticism can really aid development but sometimes that can be with a bit of hindsight.
As a creator, you have to hand your characters over to actors so that they can live. When has an actor made one of your characters into something more than you imagined?
Every time they go on stage. The characters you give to actors are the starting point. The collaborative nature of theatre means that they always become more than you imagined. I learn new things about the six characters in True Love Travels every time I see a rehearsal.
True Love Travels on a Gravel Road
16 May – 2 June (preview 15 May)