Christopher Bryant’s intriguing and foundationary work, The Other Place, premieres as part of Theatre Works Chapter Two Program next month. A brilliantly conceived and creatively staged imagining of two maverick women who changed the face of the theatre in an indelible way.
Carlton, 1967. Schoolteacher Betty Burstall begins sketching plans for what will eventually become La Mama Theatre; ; the pre-eminent independent home of new, experimental, and previously unseen Australian work.
Stratford-upon-Avon, 1975. Politically charged director Buzz Goodbody – founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s The Other Place; a theatre of new, experimental and previously unseen theatre – is about to begin rehearsing her production of Hamlet.
Iconic and significant women, both, Bryant’s work began when he became interested in the way these women are memorialised. “For example,” he says, “my mum doesn’t know much about theatre, but knew who Betty Burstall was. At the same time, I couldn’t find people who knew who Buzz Goodbody was. Both women had similar career trajectories and ran similar independent theatres at the forefront of theatrical experimentation. Both experienced institutional misogyny and gatekeeping – but only one disappeared into relative obscurity.”
The play was initially sparked by the idea of them meeting – Goodbody was in Melbourne touring an RSC show around the time La Mama began – but evolved into something more. For Bryant, it’s also personal because at its core, it’s about an injustice that still occurs today. “As humans, I believe nobody is free while some of us experience disadvantage,” he says.
When Bryant wrote the first draft, mainstage Australian theatre was only just beginning to grapple with its gender imbalance. Change is incremental, but Bryant doesn’t think that much has changed since 2016.
A very personal, traumatic and frightening real- life experience for Bryant heralded a perhaps deeper insight into the elusive Goodbody, making the work both cathartic and healing.
“In 2014 while I was at NIDA for playwriting I was hit by a car head-on and nearly died. I got an acquired brain injury, was in emergency for a couple of weeks, then various rehab for about eight months – moving back to Melbourne to do so – and had to relearn how to walk, talk, eat, and so on. I was also told I’d never write again. The fellowship for The Other Place allowed me to explore my own feelings towards all of that. I began writing the play just as I was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.”
“We know very little about the actual Buzz Goodbody and once I began my research it became clear that the ‘in play’ Buzz was going to be speculative fiction (as opposed to Betty, who skirts much closer to the real-life Betty). While I didn’t (and don’t want to) try and diagnose Buzz with anything, she had her own experiences of trauma and occasionally poor mental health, no doubt compounded by the way that the media treated her. As I wrote her, I filled in the ‘gaps’ of knowledge with my own knowledge and lived experiences of mental health and PTSD – which made her much more ‘real’, but also allowed me to process a lot of my own experience, writing it as though someone else had experienced it.”.
Bryant wrote at the end of 2015 and across 2016, for the inaugural Russell Beedles Performing Arts Fellowship at the State Library of Victoria. The first draft was written that year and then further developed through the library and through fortyfivedownstairs.
Bryant acknowledges that it doesn’t really ‘cover’ La Mama’s history, but uses it to spin a web of fiction, non-fiction, and magical realism. “The research and archives that the SLV has obviously helped, but I also conducted interviews with Liz and Caitlin at La Mama and did a lot of research into theatrical style, the RSC, Shakespearean trends etc,” he says.
Bryant describes the work as a play about two women who stood against immense odds. “It’s a play about history, but not as you’d expect it. It’s about imbalances in theatre and in the world, but it’s also about a time when theatre was so affecting, and people were so passionate, that they would literally riot in the streets because of it,” he says. “That revolutionary spirit has gone away – but we want to bring it back. Stylistically, it’s almost a ‘crash course’ in dramaturgy: shifting through Elizabethan, to Expressionism, to Postdramatic theatre and more.”
The choice to stage at Theatre Works over La mama, say, was deliberate and faithful to the message Bryant wants to create with his play – he is adamant that it is not a ‘history play’.
“It’s about things that are still very much occurring now, in 2019 – everything we’ve done in producing it has been towards the aim of encouraging the audience to think about it in the present tense, as something the theatre industry still battles with,” he says.
Bryant is a Griffin Award nominated playwright, performer, and NIDA graduate. He has worked with a range of companies including fortyfivedownstairs, Malthouse Theatre, the State Library of Victoria, ATYP, MKA, Apocalypse Theatre, La Mama, and the Emerging Writer’s Festival. His works have been published by Play Lab, Australian Plays, and Hello Mr. Magazine.
The Other Place brings together an all female-identifying ensemble to explore the historical and dramaturgical repercussions of the erasure of female artistry in theatre. It’s a play about two women in theatre, but it’s also about all women in theatre.
August 28 – September 8