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Interview with Noëlle Janaczewska


Noëlle  Janaczewska is a multi-award winning Sydney-based writer whose plays, libretti and radio scripts have been performed, broadcast and published throughout Australia and overseas.

We talked to her about her plays Songket and This Territory, about what it means to be Australian and if the Australia we see on stage fairly represents the Australia we see in the streets.


You graduated with a BA (Honours) in Human Sciences. How did you ‘graduate’ from that to playwriting?

After Oxford I went travelling, and then to the LSE (London University) to do a Masters in Social Science. It was the era of punk music, ‘rock against racism’, alternative cabaret, community activism and political theatre, and as my primary aim at that point in my life was to change the world, it seemed an obvious and easy side-step. In those early co-operatives, everyone shared the jobs—irrespective of ability or inclination. So I played saxophone and clarinet (badly), composed song lyrics, acted, designed, stage-managed, did admin, directed, wrote, fly-posted, and if the theatre floor needed painting at 2:00 am in the morning, I did that too. After several years however, I realised that what I most wanted to do was write …


Many of your plays follow the stories of migrants and their search for a sense of belonging. What fascinates you about this theme?

I believe that one of my tasks as a writer is to engage with, investigate, interrogate and represent our contemporary reality. And our reality is culturally diverse. So, for example, when I create characters, I’m just as likely to have a Kim Yong-su, a Martinho Melo or a Ruth Kempinski, as I am a Libby Johnson, a Bridget O’Brien or a Barney McKee.


What inspired you to write Songket?

I was researching another project when I stumbled across reports of anthropologists being called as ‘expert witnesses’ and cultural interpreters/translators in court cases in the USA and elsewhere. My original academic training was in anthropology and the social sciences, so my interest was piqued—particularly by that whole vexed issue of ‘the cultural defence’. I wanted to explore how the law did or didn’t accommodate cultural diversity: what does happen when one person’s culture is another’s crime?


Songket is a type of material with an intricate pattern of gold or silver threads – a story woven into fabric. Chan and Koua look at the same pattern, yet they interpret it very differently. What triggered your interest in the difficulties of cross-cultural communication and translation?

Like most writers, I’m fascinated by language, its power to shape, limit and transform our personal and public lives. I love too those inherently untranslatable words like the German Schadenfreude (pleasure in someone else’s misfortune) or the Portuguese saudade (a mix of longing, nostalgia and sweet sadness). As a dramatist, I’m drawn to society’s fault-lines, its points of tension and contradiction. The spaces, both literal and imaginary, where different traditions and worldviews come into contact; those areas of community and individual life that are in flux or transition, because I think these are the areas and interactions that reveal the most about a society.

There’s a well-known quote from one of my all-time favourite writers, the 17th century English poet John Donne, which I have pinned up near my desk -

‘ … all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.’


Songket and This Territory both ask what it means to be Australian and to belong to a nation of Australians – has the notion of being Australian changed in recent years? And if so, how?

Hm … This is a complex question and not one I can answer in a few lines, so I’ll offer an observation and a comment by way of response. First the observation: In stark contrast to his rather parochial predecessor, we now have a Prime Minister who speaks Chinese (Mandarin); I hope that indicates some kind of shift. As for the comment: I’ve come to the realisation that a part of being a (non-Aboriginal) Australian is feeling a part of somewhere else.


Do you think the Australia we get to see on stage fairly represents the Australia we see in the street?

No, not really, and not often on our mainstages, where as Lee Lewis deftly pointed out in Cross-racial Casting—Changing the Face of Australian Theatre, the faces and bodies we see reflect only a small section of contemporary Australia. Ditto the stories.


This Territory was written in the wake of the 2005 Cronulla riots. It centres on a violent incident witnessed by a large group of young people, but they disagree about its details and significance. When did you decide to write a play about racial tensions amongst young people?

Tim Jones the Artistic Director of the Australian Theatre for Young People approached me a few months after the Cronulla riots with the idea. It was great material for youth theatre, as the majority of those involved in the riots were in their teens and twenties, and ATYP and Powerhouse Youth Theatre, which is based in Fairfield, were getting together to collaborate on the show. I guess they approached me, not only because I’d written for young performers and large-casts, but also because of my background and interest in cross-cultural theatre.


You developed This Territory in consultation with young people across Sydney. Tell us more about the development process.

The big issue—or one of them, at least—when you develop a play or performance from news and current affairs, is how do you avoid what I think of as ‘journalism for the stage’, where the material is typically structured as a kind of debate. So one of our starting points was: what can theatre offer that a magazine article or news report can’t? There were two other things we discussed early on: 1) that as our subject matter was complicated and messy, the play didn’t have to tie up neatly or offer clear answers, and 2) We weren’t interested in doing any kind of Romeo and Juliet story.

The show’s director, Becky Chapman, and I talked with and interviewed community and youth workers, academics, and young people across Sydney. We wanted to examine the underlying issues, rather than the riots themselves, and so we asked the young people not only how they saw their lives now and, say five or ten years hence, but we also sought their opinions on such issues as nationalism and belonging, ANZAC Day, the way the flag has become a part of the architecture of Australia, refugees and the ‘War on Terror’.


What is the message you want to get across in This Territory and how do people—especially younger audiences—react to the play?

I prefer questions to answers; ambiguity and complexity are my terrain rather than ‘messages’. So saying however, I’d like the play to spark debate: about nationalist myth-making, about ‘roots’ and the value we place on history and ancestry, and about how we live in a culturally plural society—now and in the future.

Not sure if this is too ‘off-message’, but here are a couple of excerpts from a notebook I kept while I was researching This Territory, which give some context:

‘In his book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah advocates cosmopolitanism rather than multiculturalism. Multiculturalism, he argues, actively encouraged certain groups to hold on to traditional and ‘authentic’ values and practices (thereby denying them the possibility of change), whilst according other groups the space to change and evolve in response to new circumstances.’

‘Theatre is not necessarily a cosy space, designed to make us feel good about ourselves. It is a place where the most basic human expression—that of the imagination—must be allowed to flourish.’ Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, The Guardian, 13 January 2005


What are you currently working on?

Right now I’m writing a piece called There's Something About Eels … for ABC Radio National’s Radio Eye program, and working on what I call Performance Essays for the PowerPoint Age. I’m presenting one of these, The Hannah First Collection, 1919—1949 in Shanghai in November. I’m also working on new projects with director Sally Sussman and her company Australian Performance Exchange, and I’m a member of the 7-ON playwrights’ group, along with Donna Abela, Vanessa Bates, Hilary Bell, Verity Laughton, Ned Manning and Catherine Zimdahl. Check out our blog at: http://sevenon.blogspot.com

Find out more about my work at http://noelle-janaczewska.com/


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