An interview with playwright Daniel Keene, part 2 (of 3)
“It’s gonna sound incredibly stupid. I’m not interested in what it’s like being an Australian. I’m interested in what it’s like being a human being. It’s as simple as that.”
“[The French] understand the tradition I come from. Here, they don’t. The plays [seem to] come out of nothing. I’m the “poet of the streets” or I’m some sort of strange dickhead who lives in a hole. I don’t know what they think, I don’t really care. But in Europe, it’s quite obvious to directors and to audiences -- and to actors -- what I’ve read and why [I think] about theatre this way. Cos they know and think the same thing.”
[CHRIS BOYD:] TELL ME ABOUT THE FRENCH CONNECTION. HOW ON EARTH DID THAT HAPPEN? IS IT STILL CAUSE FOR BEMUSEMENT?
[Daniel Keene:] I’m not bemused anymore. It happened about ten years ago. And to put it really simply, there was an exchange program between the Comedie Francais and the [Sydney Theatre Company]. Some French writers came to Sydney. And they were translated. Marion Potts from the STC was one of the people involved.
There were some readings of those people’s works. Michel Vinaver [prominent French playwright and former Gillette executive] came here. And then they chose some writers to go to Paris and have their work read.
Comedie Francais and the STC. But STC were doing the selecting. So I went to Paris. We were very well looked after. Me and Ron Elisha, Hannie Rayson, Karen Mainwaring. About five people I think.
They chose two, but they [read] The Hour Before My Brother Dies, which is quite an old thing.
There, I met my translator, Severine Magois. I’ve worked with her for 11 years now. She liked the work and asked if I had any other things, so I sent some other things. And she decided to invest her time in translating these works because she believed they were really good. So it was her gamble.
A couple of years after, two [plays] were picked up at the same time: Low and Silent Partner.
REMIND ME, WHICH ONE WAS LOW?
Low is about the two people, alcoholics, who end up being robbers, who go into an alcoholic spiral, one of them is shot in the end.
Silent Partner [was then] picked up by a guy called Jacques Nichet who’s the head of the national theatre of Toulouse [Theatre National de Toulouse]. He’s like a big wig, a big wheel. He started the Cartoucherie [de Vincennes] with Mnouchkine and Didier Bezace. He’s one of that generation of directors who are important now. So he picked up the play and it toured -- it was on in Paris, it was on in Toulouse and other places -- and then it was published.
SO THIS WAS A TNT PRODUCTION?
It originated there, but then it went to Paris and other places. That was important. It was an important production. I mean... it was a terrible production actually because Nichet thought the thing was a tragedy and not a comedy! It wasn’t a terrific production but the two actors were brilliant.
It got me on that step of the ladder. I was up, a few steps up. So that was published and then, from there, because Severine had actually translated lots of plays, when other people asked “is there anything else by this Keene fellow?” she could bang off three scripts in French. Since that time, that was 2000, there have been 75 productions in France.
Since then, I’ve done lots of commissions for French companies. So that’s how it happened, it was basically through Severine.
Publishing plays in France is quite important... unlike here because we have one theatre publisher. All they effectively publish is theatre programs. So, we don’t have any culture at all of publishing theatre as literature.
If you go to a bookshop in Paris and look at the theatre section, there are hundreds of books. And you go to a book shop in Melbourne there’s one shelf. If you’re lucky.
That made a big difference, that the plays are published. They’re there for directors to look at, and read, and want to produce.
WHAT WAS YOUR REACTION TO THIS? CURIOSITY, INITIALLY? “BLOODY HELL I CAN GET UP 75 PRODUCTIONS IN FRANCE AND ONE OR TWO A YEAR HERE?”
Plays find their audience. Whether they’re in Timbuktu or Melbourne doesn’t matter to me. When I write, I don’t write about Melbourne, I don’t write about Australia, I don’t write about Victoria.
I just write what I write. And if it finds an audience in France it’s like, well, fine, that’s good. Fine, let’s go. Let’s go to France.
It’s gonna sound incredibly stupid. I’m not interested in what it’s like being an Australian. I’m interested in what it’s like being a human being. It’s as simple as that.
I don’t write parochial plays. I’m not interested in what happens between Sydney and Melbourne... I’d rather write about Bosnia. I don’t have to have an Australian journalist in Bosnia to give me an excuse to write about it. I’m not interested in the Australian point of view. I’m interested in a point of view. My point of view. A human being’s point of view.
So I don’t need the excuse -- “oh I can’t write about Rwanda unless I have an Australian nurse in the play.” I find that [mentality] ridiculous. Fuckin’ ridiculous. Cos it’s such a cowardly way to think. Because you have to have the mask or the cover of your nationality to give you the excuse, or the permission. I have permission cos I live in the world. I don’t need the permission that’s granted me by my nationality.
The reason that plays are picked up in Europe -- my plays are picked up in France -- is because people understand where I come from. They understand what my references are. They understand that... if I’m talking about a play like To Whom It May Concern [in which a man who has had sole care of his intellectually handicapped son for close to forty years faces his own death] why I would talk about Buchner.
They understand the tradition I come from. Here, they don’t. The plays [seem to] come out of nothing. I’m the “poet of the streets” or I’m some sort of strange dickhead who lives in a hole. I don’t know what they think, I don’t really care. But in Europe, it’s quite obvious to directors and to audiences -- and to actors -- what I’ve read and why [I think] about theatre this way. Cos they know and think the same thing.
They understand what my references are. Why I write plays the way I do, because I’ve read Peter Weiss or because I know Georg Buchner’s work or because I’m interested in Beckett or that I think von Horvath is important.
I read a lot of theatre because I’m a playwright and therefore I like thinking about theatre and its forms because form means something.
DOES THAT MEAN THAT, INEVITABLY, YOUR PLAYS ARE GOING TO BE AT LEAST SLIGHTLY MARGINAL IN AUSTRALIA BECAUSE THEY PRESUME THAT FORMAL INTELLECTUAL INTEREST?
I think so, yeah.
AND YET THE AUDIENCES YOU GET IN AUSTRALIA, YOU’D BE HAPPY TO GET TO, WOULDN’T YOU?
Sure, because I think an audience is an audience. I don’t think the plays I write are out of anyone’s grasp!
So that, there they are. It’s never a question of blaming the audience. I mean, in Melbourne... where can my plays be done? Not by the [Melbourne Theatre Company], and there’s lots of reasons why they wouldn’t be. And that’s fine. They’re not gonna be done there.
I could do them at La Mama, but I’m too old to do that any more. I don’t want to do that any more. I just can’t do it! [laughs] So the options are fairly limited because... that’s just the way it is.
In France, I am the establishment!
[GUFFAW] SORRY TO LAUGH SO LOUDLY!
I laugh about it too.
Elephant People, the thing I’m working on now, has a budget of 800,000 euros. So, what’s that, 2 million bucks or something?
But at the same time, I’m doing a play for a man and a young child that’s gonna tour, and it’s much much much much smaller, and it’s a very very tiny company in Marseilles and I’ve worked with them for three years. And during [the last] three years we’ve written plays for unemployed people and people living in the commission flats who are not actors but amateurs.
In France I can actually work across a whole spectrum... these theatres are all placed differently. Some of them have money, some of them don’t, some of them are struggling, some are very established. There’s a very broad spectrum and I can work with all of these people.
EVEN THE MAIN FUNDED COMPANIES HAVE LEGAL COMMITMENTS, DON’T THEY, TO --
They have this thing called social action. They’ve gotta spend 20% of their budget on what they call social action which is when they have to be involved with the community in which they’re placed. They can run classes or they can take shows to schools or they can open the doors for people to come in and do things in the theatre or they can take plays to people’s houses...
Under the agreements that they enter into with the government, they’ve got to spend a certain percentage of their budget in doing something for the community in which they exist.
SO THIS IS AN ESTABLISHMENT YOU’RE MUCH MORE COMFORTABLE BEING A PART OF?
Yeah, because theatre in France has a very very very different place politically than it does here.
WHEN YOU SAY “HERE” THAT’S WESTERN, ENGLISH-SPEAKING THEATRE?
Mmm. I can only compare it to Australia. I’ve worked in New York a little bit. I have never worked in England, so I don’t know. I’m only really talking about Australia and France.
You’ve got to understand the level of funding in France is much higher... it’s under threat at the moment. All budgets are being cut in France at the moment. It’s diabolical for most theatres. They’re all struggling. But that struggle is nothing compared to, say, the MTC... 13 percent of their budget comes from subsidy.
I DON’T THINK IT’S THAT HIGH...
That’s not a subsidy! In France you’re looking at 80%. That’s subsidised theatre. That’s when the state decided that culture matters.
Actors in France are politically active and they can be politically active because the theatre has a political role. The theatre is seen to be a part of political, cultural, social life. It isn’t just in the entertainment pages. It’s a completely different attitude towards theatre.
In the final part of our conversation, Daniel Keene talks about Elephant People and imagination...
Daniel Keene photo by Jacqueline Mitelman