Following two years of development, 15 Minutes from Anywhere will present the premiere of a refreshingly new Australian comedy drama – True Love Travels on a Gravel Road written by award-winning playwright Jane Miller and directed by Beng Oh.
Impressively, the work is a winning 2011 script from the R.E. Ross Trust Playwrights’ Script Development Awards. It is set in rural Australia and is about ordinary people who go to extraordinary lengths in pursuit of a dream without regard to the consequences. Director Oh has been involved with the project for two years. He first directed a reading at La Mama in March 2011 and has been with it every step of the way since then through readings, workshops, discussions, casting, grant applications etc. "We’ve gathered a great group of actors together for the production as well as an fantastic creative team," he says. "I’ve got a lot invested in the work and I think it’s going to be quite emotional come opening night."
He and playwright Miller have been creative collaborators for over six years but this is their first foray into producing. 15 Minutes from Anywhere is the banner under which both are co-producing this work. Oh first became aware of the new Miller script when he was directing her first full-length play, Happily Ever After. "I read it and loved it," Oh says. "The play is funny, it has wonderful characters and great language. Jane writes for performance. Her texts look simple on the page but they come alive in the hands of good actors and affords them ample opportunities to play and to make the part their own. It’s a joy to behold. True Love Travels on a Gravel Road is a comedy with a moving narrative and I still love watching it in rehearsals."
Oh admits that Miller is his closest collaborator. "It wasn’t something that we necessarily planned, it’s just turned out that way," he states. "We first met in 2006; I directed a production of her award-winning short play, Perfect Stillness, in 2007; and it’s naturally gone on from there. I directed Jane’s first full length play, Happily Ever After at La Mama in 2010. We had a successful season and subsequently toured the play in 2011. In the middle of rehearsals for Happily Ever After Jane mentioned that she was working on a new play and asked me if I would like to read it, which started our collaboration on True Love Travels on a Gravel Road."
"Jane and I are really in sync. I don’t know if it’s because we’re the same age. We’ve got different backgrounds but we get on very well. I think it’s because we respect each other’s work. I wouldn’t tell Jane how to write and she wouldn’t tell me how to direct but we’re not averse to making offers to each other. I think it boils down to trust. We trust each other."
"The director-playwright relationship is very personal and differs from person to person. Having said that, we’ve got a good thing going. Jane is present at all rehearsals and it’s to the benefit of the work. She listens and watches the actors working and playing with her text and tweaks it along the way. She’s got a great ear for dialogue and when Jane suggests a change to the writing it’s always for the better. It’s also very handy having her present if we need to clarify anything in the text."
"As a director I don’t like altering, editing or changing texts unnecessarily. I’m very aware that you can throw the baby out with the bath water, so I like to test things out and try to make things work. Actually, Jane is probably more ruthless than me in terms of cutting and editing the text. She pares her plays down to the essentials, there’s nothing superfluous in them."
"Jane and I meet regularly, chat regularly and email regularly. It’s a close relationship. It’s funny though, because on top of all that we actually spend quite a bit of time together socially."
The play journeys through the life of Jake and Maggie – Jake has been patronised and pegged as the town “tard” all of his life, but when he falls in love with Maggie anything seems possible. Maggie dreams of escaping to Graceland – Jake’s quest is to make this dream a reality and prove himself in a town that has labeled him a loser. Oh's admiration and respect for Miller is clear : "Jane Miller is a character-based writer. It’s one of her strengths and what I love about her work,' he says. " Her scenes grow organically out of interactions between characters and they’re always truthful and funny. She always knows how a scene will resolve but she doesn’t impose ideas upon it. Instead, she works from the inside out. The only drawback, and it’s a small one, is that it can sometimes take us a long time to work out exactly what she’s written. The scenes and the characters belong together and are clearly connected but working out exactly what that connection is and how it all ties together in can be a challenge. The premise of the play isn’t always self-evident. It took us awhile to conclude that True Love Travels on a Gravel Road is, to use Jane’s words, about “the ruthless business of happiness”. Once we had that worked out a lot of things fell into place."
"The play moves between three time periods, so it can be tricky on a technical level. We’ve been very careful about working out chronologies, filling in back stories for the characters and being clear about exactly where we are in any given moment. It’s a nice challenge for the actors though, and they’re more than up for it."
"Being a comedy, pacing is really important. My job is to make sure that it’s just so. The writing is very funny and carries its own, but finding the right rhythm for each character, for each scene and for the play as a whole is a delicate task, especially when you’re jumping between multiple time periods."
"The structure of the play was interesting too. Jane had conceived it as a two act play and when we tried to run it through as a single act without an interval it didn’t work as well. After a lot of experimentation and re-arranging of scenes it turned out that we really had to respect that original two-act structure. The interval between the acts was critical to the play’s dramatic structure, which was a useful lesson for me as a director."
Oh's desire for the audience is that they feel as if they’ve spent time in the company of some memorable, beautiful and funny characters whose stories resonated for them; and when thinking about the play they ponder the choices that these self-same characters made. "The play has heart but there’s also a moral dimension and, as with all good dramas, there are consequences," explains Oh. "Jane doesn’t let her characters or her audience off the hook. It’s a delightful, funny, well-written, tightly acted and directed new Australian play with heart. You mightn’t know Jane Miller yet, but you will, so why not get in on the ground floor and say you saw her work first before she got really big."
True Love Travels on a Gravel Road plays at fortyfivedownstairs from 15 May – 2 June 2013.