This year’s National Play Festival playwrights answer Five Questions about playwriting craft and careers
A woman in a nightgown sits in a changing room. She does not know who she is. A girl is getting dressed, refusing to answer her phone. The woman stares at her, and she returns her gaze. They speak, edging around what they have both lost.
Can we trust the intimacy of strangers?
We talk to Olivia Satchell about her play I Sat And Waited But You Were Gone Too Long, female agency and the encounters that can only happen in exclusively female spaces.
The very early drafts of this play dealt with the under-representation of female agency in The Odyssey. Is it still driven by that?
I began writing this play because I was angry about the fact that The Odyssey can only exist because Penelope waits patiently at home for Odysseus. No Penelope, no home, no reason to return. By way of thanks, Homer doesn’t even have the decency to grant Penelope selfhood. I fantasised about emancipating her from this narrative, but a Greek Nora became less interesting as time wore on.
Now, the play is still built on imagery from The Odyssey but is instead driven by the possibilities of female intimacy and chance encounters. It is a conversation that takes place between two strangers, a motherless girl and a woman who has forgotten who she is, to consider how we can process loss without disintegrating.
You employ a lot of tacit space in the script. Why is this important?
I’m interested in how language cannot be enough when expressing this loss. Language can be haphazard at the best of times, and proves an ill-fitting glove when we try to explain how we are feeling and those feelings cannot be fathomed, let alone expressed.
We need more than language. We need touch. We need song. We need the silent presence of somebody who expects nothing from you.
I’m interested in how far this ‘not-language’ can be pushed and in how much the audience will understand without these two women having to speak.
The play’s action takes place in one very specific location, a female changing room.
I’m obsessed with swimming pool changing rooms. I swim a lot and so spend a lot of time in this space and it is a space that seems, to me, to be unique. I don’t know anything that makes me feel the way I do there – safe, where my body is just that and very little more, and I feel like I am just one of many similar to me.
There’s always an old woman who sits naked whilst she gets her breath back. A baby girl singing to the hairdryer. Two pre-teens sharing a shower and arguing about how to use shampoo.
I have had exchanges with strangers in this space that could never occur outside. I have helped middle-aged women who have gotten caught in their bras, untwisting the elastic so they can heave their breasts inside. I have shared hairbrushes, deodorant, advice on swim-strokes.
I have seen three generations of women help each other get dressed.
I wanted my play to be set in a safe space that could not be stayed in. A sanctuary, for a while, before returning to the outside world. And this seemed like the perfect option.
It’s a place defined by masculine absence, what sort of intrusion does this protect the dramatic action from?
I’m less interested in masculine absence and more interested in the potential of female presence.
Melbourne writer-director Jenny Kemp, who I look up to as a mentor and art-queen, has focused on a ‘female dramaturgy’ in her work. This is defined by an interest in vertical rather than horizontal time – in plunging down into a moment rather than moving forward through a traditional conflict-driven narrative. I have tried to pursue something similar – allowing these two women to sit together, for a moment, and through their encounter with each other discover something about themselves that will make them both stronger.
It is true that there are no men in this work but I hope that is not what makes it notable. It is not about the absence of men, but is instead about how women can use each other to create a sense of self.
The playscript seems to be written with a specific ensemble in mind. Is that true? After its first incarnation, how would you feel about another group of artists working on it?
I wrote this play as my graduation project for the Masters of Directing at VCA. I have definitely written it knowing that I will direct it (although I do not know how to direct it yet). What I have also known is the people I will be working with, or at least hoping to work with. As this team has become more and more concrete it has allowed me to write each succeeding draft around them. In particular, I have deliberately written offers into the script for them to respond to, things that I have no idea how to do. For example, one of the two characters is a songwriter and some of her songs feature in the work. I wrote this character for performer Rosie Clynes, who I met at VCA last year and who I know can not only write music but can also sing the pipes off a church organ. So it’s her call on what those songs will be.
I would feel great about this play being made by another team. I think it’s dangerous to claim expertise and would love to see what other artists would make of it.
Saturday 30 July, 12pm
Olivia Satchell’s work includes Heart Dot Com and solo performance My Name is Truda Vitz (Somersault Theatre Company). In 2016, she has assistant-directedSplendour (Red Stitch), Bright World(Arthur/Theatreworks), and Back at the Dojo (Stuck Pigs Squealing/Belvoir). She co-founded new writing development company Somersault Theatre in 2013 and co-curates Melbourne performance program Small and Loud (The Workers Club).