Australia's most produced playwright on being accepted in Sydney, growing up radical and the search for the next female wunderkind
There are good years and bad years for a playwright, says Joanna Murray-Smith. The year 1995, for instance, was a good one: Murray-Smith spent the year in the creative writing programme at New York’s Columbia University producing Honour, the breakthrough play that caught the eyes of people like Meryl Streep. The year 1998 was not a good year: Honour debuted on the Broadway, was panned by some critics and failed to make much of an impact. “I kind of fell apart,” says Murray-Smith today. “But it really made me resilient. It made me realise that no matter how low I sunk emotionally, there was something in me that was determined to survive and would keep writing.”
And she did. For the past 15 years, Melbourne-based Murray-Smith has written 11 more plays and musicals, which have been produced on Broadway, the West End, in LA and all across Australia. There have been lows – The Female of the Species, based on a hostage incident involving Germaine Greer, earned reviews so hot with outrage they almost burned the paper they were printed on. And there have been highs – Honour was lauded everywhere but Broadway. Now, 2013 looks like it could be the playwright’s best year yet: Murray-Smith’s musical, Bombshells, just wrapped up at the Ensemble, her adaptation of Hedda Gabler is currently on at the Adelaide State Theatre Company and LA’s Geffen Theatre have commissioned her to write a fictional account of the last three days of Ripley author Patricia Highsmith’s life.
Then there’s Fury. Opening in April, the play that Murray-Smith describes as her “most complex yet” is the first she has written specifically for the Sydney Theatre Company. Whether it's a success or not, it’s a victory of sorts already: under previous STC artistic director Robyn Nevin, the company overlooked Murray-Smith’s plays – she famously penned a scathing letter to the STC board about the issue. “I love Sydney,” says Murray-Smith, “so it was always irritating to me that when I had plays on in London and New York where I was considered an Australian playwright, I didn’t feel like an Australian playwright in Australia because my work was never done in Sydney.”
When Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton took on the artistic directorship of the Sydney Theatre Company they would staged a production of Honour and last year reached out to commission Fury. “They were trying to rebuild the bridges Robyn had burned, not just with me but with lots of people," says Murray-Smith. She was pleased with the production of Honour, but says, “I still really wanted signs that the STC was engaged with me as the writer now, not as the writer that I was. So the commission was very important.”
The commission itself was more prescriptive than Murray-Smith was used to – Blanchett and Upton wanted something meaty, something serious, something that dealt with issues. So she gave them Fury, a family drama about a leftist novelist and his neuroscientist wife who discover that their son has graffitied a mosque. The incident is the spark for a story about buried secrets and hidden furies – radical fury and the fury that lies dormant in families.
“Fury has pretty much nothing to do with my actual life,” says Murray-Smith, “but the idea of how radicals define themselves against their radical parents is a theme that springs from my life.” Her parents were in the Communist Party from the mid-’40s until 1956, and though they were ultimately disenchanted with radicalism, always held strong left-leaning views; her older siblings were caught up in the Vietnam anti-war movement. At university in the 1980s Murray-Smith says she didn’t have the same movements in which to get swept up. “I became very conscious at that point of how my life was perhaps more honest in the way that I saw the world, and perhaps more balanced, but also depleted in some way.”
With her first play for the company now on the boards, and with Upton directing it, Murray-Smith is contemplative when it comes to Nevin, the AD who kept her locked out. “Look, artistic directors have a very difficult job and artistic directorship is about exerting your own taste. On one level I completely understand Robyn – she didn’t want to do my plays and she had every right not to do them. But it was just that I felt she ultimately wasn’t serving her audience, allowing them to make up their own mind about me.”
And it’s audiences that matter to Murray-Smith, not critics. She says she no longer reads reviews – though she gets the gist from her husband, former Age arts writer Raymond Gill – and chooses not to for practical matters. “I stopped reading reviews when I realised that once I had children I couldn’t afford not to write; and I literally can’t afford not to write at the moment because my husband’s not working. If I read reviews I feel such a sense of defeat – it’s pathetic, but that’s the way it is. I feel so demoralised that I just literally can’t sit down and work.”
It’s hard not to broach the subject of women in theatre when talking with Murray-Smith – she’s Australia’s most produced playwright at a time when talk in the foyers is of how few women are directing, writing and heading companies. In The Australian in November, she agreed that theatre companies were right to directly address the issue of women in the theatre by giving them opportunities, but warned: “It's not much use throwing women in the deep end if they're not ready. Where is the benefit when a younger woman is given a difficult directing gig, not supported well within the company and then thrown to the wolves when the curtain comes up?”
“I feel nervous talking about those issues because I feel as if I’ve really had a lot of good luck,” she says when we bring up the issue of gender equality. “I had parents who, when I said to them I wanted to be a writer, that was the highest aspiration you could have. I worry that my own good fortune skews me because there’s a part of me that says if you want to be a director enough, regardless of gender, you will become a director. Same goes for writing and acting… and pretty much anything.”
The challenge, she says, is changing the way we look at women in theatre. “There is no question there is a cultural mythology around the young male genius that isn’t there for women – everyone is ready to discover the next male wunderkind, but certainly not the next female one.” What can be done to make that change? “My feeling is you raise your daughters to believe they can do anything,” says Murray-Smith. “That’s as good a way as any of seeing more women become directors, and writers.”
Fury, Sydney Theatre Company, 15 Apr-8 Jun 2013.