Patricia Cornelius is an award winning playwright; a founding member of the Melbourne Workers' Theatre; a novelist; a humanitarian; a feminist; a woman who is passionate about what she does, how she does it and what it means.
It is clear that Cornelius' relationship with the theatre is deeply symbiotic and intrinsically beautiful. Her respect and passion for the theatre is as profound as her understating of the power it can wield. Her latest offering Slut will open alongside Ugly by Christos Tsiolkas under the umbrella title Tenderness on Wednesday August 31 at the Footscray Community Arts centre.
Before we start to discuss your writing (both novel and scripts) I would love to hear about how your involvement in Melbourne Worker's Theatre began and where it sits today? Specifically, what were the core motivators that gave MWT life and how much of yourself is invested in the theatre company?
My relationship with MWT came about when I met Steve Payne and Michael White, fellow actors who were political and passionate about art reflecting the things they cared about. I too wanted to create a theatre that was bolshie and passionate and yet had contradiction and layering. MWT, I think because of the choice of name more than anything else was always considered to be agit-prop when it was anything but. We argued long and hard about merging what we wanted to say and how to say it.
My experience with MWT was the most important aspect of my life as a theatre practitioner. It offered me an apprenticeship as such in play writing. It taught me how to work collaboratively and under harsh circumstances (most work places are not designed to cater for performance) and it introduced me to other artists with whom I've collaborated since and will again.
Like mindedness is something I was seeking as soon as I knew I wanted to work in the theatre and it is vital to have it. It means one cut to the chase immediately and that there's an understanding on a basic level towards content. The most important element I gained from MWT is courage. A writer has to put themselves on the line, has to declare themselves, has to take a side. The notion of a writer having to be impartial is bullshit. None of us are impartial. I was involved with MWT for over 20 years. There are many years that I didn't write for the company but I was involved on the management committee or artistic advisory board. I'm no longer involved. The company with me in it came to a timely end I thought and is now in the new and capable hands of Gorkem Acaroglu.
You have written both plays and had at least one novel published to date (I hope my research is correct here). Do you feel this an unusual departure for someone who is perhaps best perceived as a playwright first and foremost or do you feel that the novel writer and script writer can co-exist legitimately and successfully within the one host so to speak?
I am a playwright first and foremost. I have an intricate relationship with the theatre community and theatre both exhilarates and appalls me. I love actors, (I began as an actor) and I love the sometimes complex and sometimes amazingly simple place a theatre space can be. Good theatre can lift the soul (so to speak) and bite into the very heart of things. Good theatre is powerful and I've seen enough of it to aspire to making it great.
I will write another novel at least. Prose has different demands. And the novel is an enormous daunting affair. But whether writing prose, for film or theatre, each have their own set of problems, each of them need to be about something, important enough to spend the time and the work.
You have written in collaboration with such esteemed playwrights as Andrew Bovell and Melissa Reeves. Please discuss both the challenges and rewards associated with collaborative writing.
I need to add Christos Tsiolkas and the composer, Irine Vela to this list of esteemed artists. The five of us wrote Who's Afraid of the Working Class and then went on to write, Fever, and are now writing a third play (with Eugenia Fragos who has joined the writing team) called Bereft.
Our writing relationship is inspiring and hilarious and daunting. Each of us have become friends, each of us share a left wing politic, each of us care about similar things but most importantly each of us contest the others almost constantly. It means that we are forced to consider other ways of looking, finding alternative choices in our exploration of ideas. We are good writers who expect each other to be great.
What was your very first work to be staged and how did that come about for you?
My first play was called Witch. It was a one woman show and I performed it, at La Mama, as half of a double bill with Lizzie Patterson. It was a play about the witch hunts and made contemporary parallels. It marks my transition as an actor to writer although I wasn't able to call myself a playwright until years later. It was the first time I had structured and married the narrative to performance. It was the first time I'd publicly put myself on the line and it revealed that I wanted to write more.
It could be observed that, on the surface at least, your work seems thematically disparate. My perspective is that the voices travelling through the thematic landscape are so deliciously and cunningly varied as well as richly realized that the casual listener may be fooled into this sense – perhaps… Would you agree that you write about the human condition and all that contains and can you discuss some of the more unrelenting themes that you find must have a voice.
Many things excite me as a writer. I don't concern myself with themes too much. I like story, sometimes I start with a single incident, something quite small, something said, something done and know that it has something in it, something more to be had, that its not merely what it seems to be but its got grand possibilities.
I think when you have an agenda like I do; I want to write about who we are, the shit we are as well as the heroic and wondrous, then I have to have my work wearing camouflage. But the camouflage is really the art of it. I want to say terrible and true things about us and I've got to find a way to make an audience stay and listen.
I'm beginning to recognise certain thematic material. For example, I don't seem to tire of the idea of wanting something, desperately wanting something and not having the remotest idea of what that could be. I also recognise my interest in survival and I know that comes from being brought up by a POW who survived but with an enormous and painful legacy which of course affected his entire family.
Your latest work to be showcased is Slut. Can you discuss the inspiration for this piece as well as the importance of getting Lolita's story 'out there.'
Slut is a long and gritty poem chanted by a group of girls who both love and hate Lolita which is interrupted by 3 internal monologues which show us a girl, just a sweet girl.
Christos Tsiolkas and I researched our 2 separate plays by visiting schools and tafe colleges with the idea of gender as a starting point. On the first day of our research we sat in the car and listened to a radio report on the shooting in the city of Melbourne of 2 men who had come to the aid of a woman being pushed into a car. The woman too was finally shot when she attempted to flee. It was the reporting the next day of her and a friend being described as, "party girls" that got my interest.
In the classrooms young people talked about sluts and girls who came across and weren't worth much and here was one, supposedly a party girl, who actually was shot. I found it deeply sad that the language of hate and sex was still so nasty and stupid. No feminism here and no legacy of the women's movement at all. Still no pleasure, no passion, no sweetness.
Sex remains a dangerous game for most girls. I wrote the play fast and the poetic form has served me well in the past. The material can be nasty but there's something beautiful in it when the language can take one by the throat and grip it tightly.
You are an award winning playwright having written more than 20 plays. You have, among many others, a Gold AWGIE, Green Room Award and a Patrick White Playwrights' Award. What are three things that we may not know about Patricia Cornelius.
Awards are fantastic and some of them which have had money attached have enabled me to write on. But, the small number of Australian plays produced by Australian companies is so small it is ridiculous. Female playwrights who happen to be the most awarded are so poorly represented its shameful. I would give all the award back if it meant that I could have my work produced.
Platform Youth Theatre and Footscray Community Arts Centre in association with A.R.A.B (VASS) present the professional premiere of Tenderness – two plays: Ugly by Christos Tsiolkas and Slut by Patricia Cornelius – directed by Nadja Kostich at the Performance Space at Footscray Community Arts Centre from Wednesday, 31 August to Sunday, 11 September 2011.