We ask this year’s National Play Festival playwrights to answer five questions about their writing process and what inspired their work.
Maxine Mellor’s The Silver Alps won the prestigious Max Afford Playwrights Award 2014 and received a week-long development earlier this year as part of the National Script Workshops 2015 in Sydney. Maxine speaks to us about the inspiration behind the The Silver Alps, her worldview and what makes a bad person.
Johanna Spyri’s Heidi’s Years of Learning and Travel and Heidi Makes Use of What She has Learned feel quite present in The Silver Alps. What’s the connection?
The main character in The Silver Alps is called Heidi. That wasn’t her name originally; for a while there it was simply Deb. Monosyllabic packet mash potato Deb. But I wanted to give her a name to try living up to, and Heidi seemed right (because of some subliminal association that Heidi = young girl full of possibility on picturesque mountain). When I read the stories, and soon after, through partial coincidence, found myself on a road-trip through the staggering Swiss Alps, I realised just how potent this small change was. I had given my Heidi a curse when I gave her that name. For her, every gumnut in the mash-potato snow reminds her she’s not in Switzerland, and she could never be as sweet and pious and good as little Swiss Heidi.
Through the play, sections of the first book are read aloud by Heidi’s daughter to entertain herself on their road-trip. I quite enjoy juxtaposing those readings against the developing darkness of the scenes. The lines take on different meanings depending on how wary or trusting you are. This is something I’m interested in in general: can anything be innocent anymore, or do we sully it with our cynicism? Do we read between the lines too much, or not enough?
A lot of your plays invite audiences into a warped version of reality and The Silver Alps is certainly no exception. Is this something you carry through everyday life?
I think plays should take us beyond the ordinary world. They should have some magic that turns life into art, since there is no avoiding that the theatrical experience is engineered anyway. Why try to disguise it? Why not use it to make theatre a unique experience, distinct from other art forms? A theatre is a three-dimensional space that can hold much more than words. It can hold whole worlds that help us to understand our own.
With The Silver Alps, funnily enough, I wanted to write something that explored character perception more than it played with theatrical style, but found I kept looking for opportunities to show a sort of secret otherworld – the inner world of Heidi’s mind, perhaps, though I couldn’t rationalise it to begin with. During the transitions between scenes from one motel room to another almost exact motel room, an old woman in a silver dress danced, seductively, like the silver trunks of the ringbarked gums glimpsed out car windows on the highways they were driving. The need to include this character was incredibly hard to articulate, and she nearly got the axe several times. But, thankfully, as I started to break the reality of the world I had created in other ways, this character grew in importance. I reminded myself of the advice let content inspire form, and realised that Heidi’s fragile state of mind allows for deviations from the reality of the story: just like her mind, the story cracks open with glimmers of her past mixed with potential and alternate futures, and is coloured with trippy hallucinations.
As for my own perception of reality, like I assume of most creative people, I find it’s pretty unavoidable to not search for meaning and connection between things in life. I see faces and characters in the inhuman (hello dancing lady tree trunks), try to find the humanity in the inhumane, and the humour in the heartache, and vice-versa. I play devil’s advocate a lot to try to keep myself from making judgements that rule out other possibilities and viewpoints. And when there are too many bugs wriggling around in the subconscious web of connections, I try to capture them with words. Sometimes it works. More often than not I’ll be the first to admit, I got all tangled up in the strings.
Do you consciously gear your playwriting toward the fantastical or would you say you are drawn there by other forces?
I’m very much inspired by real life, especially the psychology behind people’s actions. It’s exciting to explore the complexities of a character’s worldview, and have them defend it or abandon it throughout the course of a play. With The Silver Alps, I’ve been exploring this idea of what makes a person bad. Thought or action? Are you a bad person if you intend well, but make mistakes? What if you have bad thoughts but act benevolently? What even is bad? It’s these very human questions and the scenarios they live in that drive me to write. Ultimately, I hope that my work can help people question their own beliefs, concede other viewpoints, and maybe even foster a bit more empathy out there. Art helps to ignite this personal insight in its audience.
The Silver Alps takes us literally on a journey along the Great Australian Divide, what other divisions are explored in this play?
Recently, I was reminded of the original title I had proposed for this work: The Great Dividing. Somewhere along the way it became The Silver Alps and it stuck all this time, but it’s always worth a look in the rear-view mirror … And the original title is gaining on me.
Dividing refers to not only the range, but the emotional distancing between the characters as the play progresses, and the division of opinion of what is right and wrong I hope the audience experiences.
More abstractly, Heidi sees the other female characters in the play as divisions of herself at different ages – child, teen, woman, elder – destined to turn out exactly the same unless something or someone intervenes. Maybe, she thinks, some people are better apart than together? How can Heidi be of any use to anyone when she feels so divided from herself and unable or unwilling to take action?
Do you have any advice for new authors regarding writing and developing material for the stage?
Maintain interest in life. Associate with all sorts. Question everything (even this). And don’t be afraid to share your work.
See THE SILVER ALPS at the National Play Festival 2015.
Thursday 23 July, 8.15pm
Saturday 25 July, 12pm
Photo credit: Maxine Mellor at the National Script Workshops, March 2015. Photo by Enzo Amato