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Interview with Wesley Enoch

Wesley Enoch is an award-winning playwright and critically acclaimed director. He has been Artistic Director of Kooemba Jdarra Indigenous Performing Arts, Associate Artist with the Queensland Theatre Company, Resident Director with the Sydney Theatre Company and is now Associate Artistic Director with Sydney’s Company B. The Australian production of his play The Story of the Miracles at Cookie’s Table, winner of the 2005 Patrick White Playwrights’ Award, opened at Griffin Theatre 17 August 2007.

We spoke to Wesley about what inspired him to write Cookie’s Table, why he decided not to direct the production himself and why theatre is so important.

Have you seen the rehearsals for Griffin’s production of Cookie’s Table?

I have been in the first few days of rehearsals just to hear the read and just respond to offers of changes. I decided not to hang out in rehearsals all the time so that the team had the chance to discover things without me telling them. Discovery is one of the best things about the rehearsal room. Sometimes having the writer there means that you go straight to the solution that the writer had intended. By giving space for discovery the team in the rehearsal room has the chance to find new things that the writer may not have intended. The team has been sending me suggestions of changes which has been great.

You are a critically acclaimed director – why did you choose to let someone else direct your play?

I wanted to focus on the writing….What I have done in the past is make the rehearsal process an extension of the writing process. I have usually directed all the things I have written – Seven Stages of Grieving, Sunshine Club, Black Medea etc - this way I can continue the ideas through the play with actors but I am focused on making the production work not just the words of the play. With Cookie’s Table I wanted to make the script the best it could be and not just rely on the skills of the actors to make it work…and I think this focus has created a better piece, it has taken me five years to bring it to fruition but I am happy with how it is going.

Is it difficult to see someone else interpreting your work?

I hope that every playwright wants their play to be more than they could do alone. The problem is writing something in isolation and having to dream everything up in your head. Sometimes you can think that what you have dreamed is the only way of seeing it but I want actors, directors, designers and audiences to be in the act of interpretation when dealing with this work. I didn’t want the play to be overtly didactic and so there are ambiguities and choices built into the script for the production to solve and find. Scripts should be blueprints for production, not fixed pieces of literature which exist with actors. I revel in the discoveries and revelations which occur in the moment on stage between actors and audience.

What inspired you to write Cookie’s Table?

I was going through a really rough trot in my life and I decided to drive to Melbourne from Sydney. Driving along the Hume Highway I got the flash of a story about a tree being made into a table and being the depository of story and history. I then applied and got a three-month residency in Paris and I started writing there. I was writing 3 things simultaneously – a daily diary of what I was doing and seeing in Paris; a discussion paper on the history and changing role of Indigenous Theatre; and Cookie’s Table. I found that I would skip from one to the other, an idea would come to me about the purpose of Indigenous Theatre and it would spark a scene; or writing up my reactions to seeing a picture in the Louvre would encourage me to look deeper into the role of art etc. Inspiration comes from everywhere.

Cookie’s Table is set on Stradbroke Island where you were born. How much of the story is autobiographically inspired?

For me Cookie’s Table is not autobiographical. I have written using the world I know well and tried to create a universal story from it. I love the idea of celebrating and investigating a specific world and creating characters. I have ransacked my life and used my ear for the vernacular of people I know to create characters. But to say the play is autobiographical negates the creative process that I’ve undertaken to create this play. Autobiography is a standard approach for Indigenous Theatre…the purpose of many Indigenous plays is to write our history on to the public record but what I am trying for is to investigate how we make a future and sometimes free ourselves from some aspects of our history.

The play was first performed in Japan – how did that come about?

It was very weird to have the first ever production in Japan. I have been doing an exchange program with a Japanese company for six years, going over to direct shows or observe etc. Two years ago Yoshio Wada the Artistic Director [of Rakutendan Theatre] asked for a few scripts with the view to do a translation and a production. I gave him six scripts and one of them was Cookie’s Table. He loved it and set about getting it translated.

What was the response like? Did this experience influence the Australian production of the play?

It was interesting to see how they dealt with the translation process. There are some words and experiences which would not translate. For example some of the swearing….well there just aren’t many Japanese equivalents. It was amazing working on the Japanese production because I knew what they were saying but didn’t understand the language. It meant that I had to focus on the emotional journey of the characters and the action. This was great to help hone the characters. I thought this was a play about a mother and her son but through the Japanese production I realised it is more about a mother and her daughter and a daughter’s search for acceptance.

From your personal perspective - Why is theatre important?

Theatre is important. I love that theatre is a place where ideas are debated. When many of our news outlets have become more about entertainment rather than debate, theatre is a last bastion of ideas and investigation of our world. Artists play a role in imagining the world as it could be….artists can imagine a utopia or explore the struggles of cultural change.

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