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Interview with Paul Galloway

Paul Galloway has worked within the arts as a playwright, dramaturge, copy-writer, journalist and a publicist. He also co-founded ACRONYM Theatre Company in Brisbane, with which he directed numerous productions.

His third play, Realism, was awarded the 2007 Wal Cherry Award for Best New Play and is playing in an MTC production in April 2009.

My latest play was inspired by... reading Robert Conquest’s book on Stalin’s Terror about a decade ago while I was researching another play. I had known, of course, about the purges of the thirties, but the scale and the horror of them are in the details, which Conquest, updating his book with archive materials made available by the fall of Communism, assembled to devastating effect. But the idea of writing a play set in those years really only developed after reading Manuscripts Don’t Burn, which gathers together Mikhail Bulgakov’s letters and diary entries from the thirties. Day by day, year by year, the authorities turned the screws on poor Bulgakov, who only survived because his play The White Guard was a favourite of Stalin’s. He was kept alive, but could not make a living. The pressure no doubt contributed to his early death. The question that struck me then, and which I kept asking throughout the writing of Realism, was what is it about artists that they will persist in creating art when the authorities will do anything, not excluding killing them, to make them stop?

Around the same time I read Clive James’s poem Drama in the Soviet Union, which ends with an image of the doomed director Meyerhold chasing after the departing car of Stalin’s henchman Kaganovich, who is displeased that Meyerhold has not managed to toe the Socialist Realist line with his latest production. This had me imagining for a while a biographical play about Meyerhold told in Meyerhold’s startling, non-naturalistic style. It was a dumb idea, a conceit that could not be sustained for the length of a play, but led me to think of a better one: a play about a company of actors rehearsing a play for Stalin’s sixtieth birthday. (Bulgakov was commissioned to write one in the last year of his life, but it never got to rehearsal.) I set it in July 1939, soon after Meyerhold was arrested and the day after his wife, Zinaida Raikh, was savagely murdered in her flat by the secret police. The news of the murder would provide the tension to drive the second act forward. It would be a comedy.

I love theatre because... it’s not important. And long may it remain so. If it were important, Governments would be interested in it and they’d screw it up for everyone. In the Soviet Union under Stalin, the arts and literature became so important that people were murdered and imprisoned over it. Theatre should never be worth dying for. It should merely be worth living for—one of many things worth living for in a good and varied life. Who’d want it any other way? After all, what is pleasure but the feeling that arises from doing what you don’t need to do?

The best production I've ever seen was... it is impossible to say what the best production I’ve ever seen was. I was a theatre critic for seven years in Brisbane and saw pretty much everything there was to see in that city in that time. I witnessed great and terrible things! Yet what struck me after a few years was that the value of a production had nothing to do with its style. I could enjoy and admire a naturalistic production of a contemporary play one week and, the next, some edgy, physical theatre interpretation of a classic and, after that, some knockabout farce done with precision. In a way, Realism comes out of that experience, that theatre is marvellously various by nature and to circumscribe it, to dictate a mandatory style, is to pierce its heart.

My first theatrical experience was... seeing the Queensland Theatre Company production of King Lear as a schoolboy. I was 16, so a theatrical late bloomer. The design placed two seating banks onstage, which for matinees they evidently filled with school groups like ours. This not only gave us the best view of the action but also the ability to see the lights change and dim in the rig, the mechs and the stage managers racing around backstage, and the actors waiting for their entrances. It was one of those intense teenage experiences. No doubt it turned my head. It being my first show, I had absolutely no discrimination, so I am not able to say whether it was any good or not, but it starred Warren Mitchell as Lear and a thin, stooped, jittery young actor, Geoffrey Rush, playing the Fool. Rush impressed me not long after his entrance when he told Lear that if he had an egg, he would give him two crowns. What two crowns shall they be? asked the King, playing the straightman. Then in a beautifully economical piece of business, Rush produced a real, fresh egg and, cracking it on the throne (‘Why, after I have cut the egg i’ the middle and eat up the meat...’), leant back and poured the contents into his open mouth, swallowed, and – the barest pause – finished the line holding the two eggshells: ‘... the two crowns of the egg’. It seemed to my young self that this raw-egg-eating business revealed an exceptional dedication to the art and I am not surprised that Rush went on to have a successful career.

The worst thing to happen to me in the theatre was... as an actor many years ago, drying desperately during a performance of Peer Gynt. (Even as I recall it now, the cold perspiration gathers.) After a silence like the Dawn Service, the actor playing Peer noted the wide-eyed terror in my face and gave me a helpful cue. But it was of no help to me. I stammered something inarticulate and began to move around the stage, hoping that might trigger something. At length he gave me another cue. But he had essentially thrown a drowning man both ends of the rope. After an eon of stammering ‘yes, yes, yes’ and quelling the urge to flee, a line came to me—it may have been from another play—but saying it seemed to get me going again. We spluttered to the end. After the show, friends in the audience said that they hardly noticed. Years later they confessed what I knew to have been the truth: watching it had been the single most excruciating experience of their lives.

When I hand over a script to a director... I’m never happy. The poet Valery liked to say that a poem is never finished, only abandoned. I feel that way about the three plays I’ve written. I could fiddle with my dialogue forever, so eventually the director must prise the pages from my grasp. The birth pangs of Realism have been particularly drawn out, because the last ten minutes of the play requires a radical change of style and tone. With each successive draft I have gotten closer to what the director Peter Evans and I are looking for, but we are not quite there yet. Zeno describes the paradox of the arrow that, because it must always traverse a succession of halfway points, never reaches the target. Revision is like that: halfway there, then halfway again, then halfway again, closer and closer. I get pretty close but I never arrive, which is why I abandon a play before I go mad.

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