This year, Mary Anne Butler became the first playwright to win the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Literature for her play Broken. She describes that result as “surreal” and “totally unexpected”.
“Broken took me three-and-a-half years to write, one year of which was purely editing – worrying away at each word and punctuation mark until the work said what it had to say, as succinctly and poetically as possible,” Butler tells Theatre People.
Not only did Broken receive the Prize for Literature, but it was also the recipient of the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Drama. In accepting that prize, Butler expressed her gratitude to theatre companies choosing to program new Australian works.
“There are so many extraordinary Australian playwrights working today, and I don’t feel they’re all getting the chances they deserve in terms of seeing their work get up in this country,” Butler says. She quotes a statistic obtained from the Australian Writers’ Guild’s National Voice Report, which showed that in 2015, 63% of the programming for Australia’s 10 major theatre companies was new Australian work. But in 2016, that figure’s dropped to 56%.
“I don’t think this level of cultural cringe happens anywhere else in the world, and I feel it’s time we moved on as a nation, to embrace and celebrate our own voices and stories,” she says. “So yes, I wish more Australian companies would take greater risks and cast the net wider, beyond the safe spheres of what is ‘known’ to them, to take more of a chance on the unknown in terms of new Australian plays and playwrights.”
Theatre People asked Butler if she could offer any advice to young playwrights at the early stages of their career, trying to get the attention of theatre-makers.
“Trust your innate voice. Read everything you can get your hands on. See everything you can. Learn from the masters. Analyse what works for you, and articulate why it does – equally, why it doesn’t. Find partners who you relate to – and they to you – and work with them when you can. Avoid collaborators whose egos go before their craft. Walk away from toxic working relationships, or dramaturgy which doesn’t feel right. Read everything Sarah Ruhl and Andrew Bovell have ever written, at least twice. Print out the words: COURAGE. PERSISTENCE. RESILIENCE and stick them above your computer. These are the things that will keep you there for the long haul. Getting noticed isn’t the point. That’s a fickle and transient state. Being true to the work – and producing the best work you possibly can – will sustain your soul for a lifetime.”
Right now, Butler’s Broken is playing for the first time in New South Wales at Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s Eternity Playhouse. The production, directed by Shannon Murphy, has received considerable critical acclaim since it opened on August 3 (you can read Theatre People’s own review here). It tells the story of a near fatal car crash in the Australian desert, and the powerful bond that develops between Ash, the crash survivor, and Ham, her rescuer. This occurs at a time when Ham’s wife is facing her own issues.
So, how was it that Broken came about?
“Ever since moving to the Northern Territory in 2002 the magnificent landscapes have inspired and awed me – the red Central Desert, the tropical north with Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks, the Arafura Sea at the edge of the Cobourg Peninsula, the vast distances between any two points,” Butler explains.
“These are incredible landscapes, and I love delving into them because they offer up such rich imagery.”
There was also a literal event that became the spark for Broken, according to Butler, which occurred in 2007 when a woman rolled her car on the Stuart Highway.
“She was trapped metres from the road with her car hidden behind some scrub – close enough to the highway to hear passing traffic, but unable to get out of her car,” Butler recalls. “She was eventually found alive, 36 hours later – one of the lucky ones. Fatal rollovers are common on these roads.
“Then in 2010, paramedic Rik Dove told me that when ambos come across someone in an accident, they reassure them they won’t be left alone and keep them talking until further help arrives. He talked about ongoing bonds which could form from these encounters. And so began the story of a woman in a rollover (Ash), tended to by a passing miner (Ham). Across one long night they forge an emotional and physical attachment with knock-on repercussions, which inevitably impact on Ham’s wife Mia.”
Butler adds, “I’m fascinated by human resilience – what we endure, how we overcome those dark times of the soul to come back stronger; more intact. So Broken moved away from the literal accident which sparked it, to explore themes of emptiness and isolation, loss and courage, resilience and, ultimately, choice.”
Butler says that, in creating Broken, she’s had many diverse influences.
“Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the poetry of Pablo Neruda and Seamus Heaney… A workshop with Jenny Kemp was pivotal, as were the plays of Andrew Bovell, Sarah Ruhl and Mark O’Rowe… Songs by Ani DiFranco and Tom Waits… Dante’s Inferno… They’re all in there,” she says. “I admire writing that encapsulates strong imagery in very few words.”
Broken was performed for the first time in March of last year at Darwin’s Browns Mart Theatre. Murphy’s Sydney production is entirely new. Butler is full of praise for the work Murphy and her team have undertaken to craft the new production.
“Shannon has gathered a truly remarkable team: extraordinary actors, terrific design team, dedicated crew,” she says. “And I’ve watched her generate such an atmosphere of trust. Every offer made by any team member is treated with regard and respect, therefore everyone is safe to take huge risks in what they offer, so consequently, they do. And gold emerges.
“The aural world Shannon is creating with the actors and composer James Brown is interactive, collaborative, and utterly dynamic. I’ve never seen or heard anything like this created on stage before, and I’m incredibly excited about that!”
Butler says she’d like audiences for Broken to come away from their experience having been immersed in, and moved by, a world that is visceral, audible and tangible.
“With this particular interpretation of the text by Shannon Murphy and her team, I think audiences will be totally drawn into the production as an almost tactile experience,” says Butler.
“I’d also like Sydney audiences to come away with a greater understanding or experience of stories which are from places other than urban or city centres. This country is so vast, with such a varied geography and climate, diverse cultures, unique flora and fauna. The narratives which form the bedrock to Broken are infused with all these rich elements. I hope this experience will offer audiences something outside their every day experience, and supplant them to Central Australia’s red dirt and open desert country, where anything can happen. And it probably will.”
BROKEN – SEASON DETAILS
Season: Until 28 August
Performance Times: Wed – Sat 8pm, Sun 5pm, Wed matinee 24 Aug at 11am, Sat matinees: 20 & 27 August at 3pm
Duration: Approximately 60mins (no interval)
Ticket Prices: Adult $45/ Conc & Groups $38/ Under 30 (Wed & Thu) & Previews.
*A $2 booking fee applies per ticket for online and phone bookings
Bookings: www.darlinghursttheatre.com or 02 8356 9987 (9.30am-5.30pm weekdays)