Time Out talks to writer Tom Holloway about the revival of his first full-length play, the acclaimed Beyond the Neck, about the grief and trauma associated with the Port Arthur Massacre
You started writing back in 2005, take us back to that time. What were your motivations and what was the research process?
I was very naive getting into researching this play, but I think in many ways that was the best way to be. Perhaps the only way to be. I wanted to write this play because I am a Tasmanian, and I felt like we needed to come together and share in this particular event. In the process of writing I met with survivors, and councillors and nurses, and a whole range of other people who were affected by it in different degrees. The stories that I heard were just heartbreaking and inspiring, incredibly humbling and incredibly human.
Were people wary about telling those stories?
A lot of the people that I met with talked about getting to a point where they wanted to tell their stories, where they actually could tell the story of what they'd been through. That moment was a really important one for them in coming to terms with their experiences, because if you can tell the story of what you've been through, you can see that it has a beginning, a middle and an end – although end is not quite the right term for it. Once you can talk about it, you can see yourself outside of that experience, and that has been an incredibly important moment for a lot of people. And that's what theatre is: theatre is story telling. It's sharing experiences.
So theatre is a forum for events that might be too difficult for the individual to deal with on their own?
The experience of seeing the play on in Tasmania completely reinforced that for me. I suddenly saw theatre in a new light. It takes a community of people to put on theatre and it takes a community of people to see theatre. It creates this safe environment in which we can share the stories that otherwise seem too big for us to deal with. I don't think theatre always needs to do that. I think it can also be a great laugh or a bit of a song and dance, but it does have this power and I think that's something we should embrace, because it can really help.
It's been really exciting to see a number of Australian plays that are maybe a couple of years old getting a second life this year. For instance we've just seen a new production of Mulvany's The Seed at the MTC. It's a good sign for the next generation of playwrights.
Just getting to see how different people interpret your world, and the impact it might have on a different audience is really important to a playwright. For a long time in Australia plays have been seen once and never seen again. So it's really wonderful, and it's good to hear you point out that it's happening to others too.
You've worked with Red Stitch before, on that acclaimed production of Red Sky Morning, are you going to have much input into this show?
I've been working a little bit with Suzanne Chaundry, the director, but because it's a play that is already a few years old and had a few lives, it's not so much a case of me having to do any rewriting, I'm simply trying to answer any questions that might help her in her process.
Do you get any sense that the way audiences relate to the subject of this play – grief over the events at Port Arthur – is shifting at all?
I'm not sure, the play was first produced in 2007 and that was already 11 years after the event. That first production in Tasmania, although 11 years later was an incredibly moving experience and really embraced by the people of Tasmania, which was wonderful. That response seemed to show that here was an event that we still felt pain over; we still wanted opportunities to come together and share that pain.
But the play also tries to use the massacre to look at how we come to terms with grief generally, both as individuals and as a community. That's something that we're always going to be faced with. I know that the Sydney production still seems to have evoked a lot of tears with people and often audiences tend to just stay seated for five or ten minutes afterwards. But who knows? Who knows who Melbourne audiences will respond to it.
It's great that this has now been seen across several capital cities.
That's one of the really exciting things for me, finally getting it seen in Melbourne. There were more victims from Victoria in the massacre than anywhere else. So for the Victorian community to get a chance to reflect on what happened, well, I think it's a really important thing.
What about art and disaster? Do you think that because of the monumental significance of the massacre in the our consciousness directors and theatre companies might be less willing to explore the aesthetic possibilities of your script? To make it beautiful?
I really hope not. I think really in many ways the best way to respect the significance of the subject matter is to create the best theatrical experience you can. And generally I hope that my work is simply offerings for other people's visions to go wild. So I would never want the subject matter to get in the way of the process or artistic vision of the people involved. I saw photos of the Sydney production. It was a very simple design, but very beautiful. From what I've seen of the Red Stitch production, the plans, it will be similar. I don't get the sense from that that anyone is holding back.
You do seem to prefer working with more serious materials and subjects – suicide, incest, murder...
All my plays that have dealt with those kinds of things have really come from my experiences with Beyond the Neck. But also, we all do have tragedy in our lives. Some people have it more constantly than others, so it is I think part of reflecting people's lives to deal with those subjects.
I do always hope that there's warmth and humour and empathy and fun in my work because those are things that people use to deal with serious subject matters. People find a lot of humour in very sad, very serious things. Just because that's the only stuff I've written, doesn't mean that I think something with slapstick or the odd fart joke is terrible. I love fart jokes. I use them all the time.
I remember there's a fart joke in Red Sky Morning, right?
And, yeah, there's something not far off a fart joke in Beyond the Neck actually. Laughter can be very disarming and open it up to other experiences. And it's part of how we deal with these things anyway so it should be part of any kind of work that tries to deal with these experiences.