To sculpt space and carve time

To sculpt space and carve time

Australian playwright

To sculpt space and carve time

John Romeril — one of the pioneering playwrights of the post-war generation in Australia. He wrote his first plays, I Don’t Know Who To Feel Sorry For (1969) and Chicago, Chicago (1970) while he was a student.

 Since then, he has written over 40 plays, several TV scripts and movies, and has won several awards. He is a progressive writer who critiques American hegemony and racial discrimination in Australia, supporting the rights of the marginalised and the ethnic minorities.

An admirer of the leftist German playwright Bertolt Brecht, who developed the technique of distancing from the characters so as to elicit a rational response or critique from the audience, Romeril developed his own unique, improvisational theatrical style. Many of his plays grew during workshops and performances.

Romeril often explored the theme of war in his plays, and his most well-known play, The Floating World (1975), combined his memories of growing up with his father’s and uncles’ wartime experiences of fighting the Japanese, with his impressions of a neighbour who had been a prisoner of war. The play dealt with the historically complex relationship between the two countries and his own fascination with Japanese drama styles and culture.
Excerpts from an interview...

You say you write from life — your own experiences. What kind of themes form your work? Is there a commonality among them?

Is life the well I draw dramatic water from? Far too tranquil an image. I’m more like the time-worn milkmaid — one bucket and 80 grumpy cows to milk. My working hypothesis is: if something’s happened, it can be dramatised. That’s a simple measureable truth. My additional belief is: I have acquired during 50 years the trade skills I need to lend theatrical form to whatever it is that’s happened or is happening in the world. In a way, this makes every play I pen a history play. It’s the theatrical testimony of a witness, albeit of a certain kind. I could liken the process to alchemy. I grow plays into shape in (lab assistant fashion) the petri dish of my imagination, always knowing the theatrical gold I seek to create is born of the base metals I find around me.

If that’s content stroke topic, what about form?

The best thing I’ve heard as to the nature of theatre-making, I owe to Chikamatsu Monzaemon. In 1828, this great Japanese playwright — he who invented a genre (the double-suicide play) — is said to have argued that “the drama is neither wholly fanciful nor yet utterly naturalistic. Rather, it exists in the gap between the two.” A powerful insight. No surprise, therefore (you use the word ‘commonality’), that the common thread in all my work is to do with theatre’s dialectical nature. What I think the drama best depicts is oppositions at work: big/little; close-up/long-shot; who’s who, who matters, and why should we care? Who’s coming up/who’s going down; who’s in the money, or not; in love or not; young/old; living/dead and so on. Common to every play is a desire to utter a prayer, a plea to register a vote for sanity (for empathy), for sense up against madness and mayhem, and the inevitable coming of the dark. Another insight I like is: what we in the theatre do is sculpt space and carve time.

Which is your favourite work, and why?

Of my own work I have to nominate The Floating World. I like it’s a tragi-comic mix of highs and lows. Its theatrical musicality, its theatrical attack, its ferocity — it has made my name. It has been remounted several times; the text is on some school syllabuses, so it’s a payer – it’s paid the bills and got me a fair bit of credit.
Which has been your most popular staged play, and why?

The Floating World. Because it’s exciting theatre craft on a topic of some gravity and moment.
Which of your works was the most difficult and one you almost gave up, but did eventually write?

Didn’t happen. Everything I’ve set out to write, I’ve completed. To an actable, producible point. Or else it’s still a writing in progress.
You have written just one film script, ‘One Night the Moon’...

Not true. For film and TV I have penned and produced at least 10 screenplays.
 What’s the difference between play and screenwriting. Which do you enjoy more?
What I enjoy most and love most is what I’m best at: theatre-making. Both mediums (unless documentary) are pictorial— kinetic and dramatic. All land a narrative, and in all, a dramatic pulse has to be beating.
Why haven’t you written more film scripts?

Film scripts are usually commissioned. Plus, they cost big money. And I’ve had no Hollywood Johnnies approach me of late. Know any moneyed people? I rarely meet them.
Have you read any Indian works or seen any Indian film?

Read and seen plenty. I go back to (Satyajit) Ray in my beatnik days. I have some merchandise from an outdoor screening of Mother India, and I keep a watching brief. No current faves. I did go to some Bollywood flicks and got ‘the form’ — a dance drama for the screen! My script, One Night the Moon, is a music drama for the screen.

Your views on contemporary Australian writing and its bright stars, and why?

Too many to mention. In the Australian Writers’ Guild, my membership number is 566.
What are you writing now?

Been working with (theatre director) Paul Brown on a two hander regarding uranium mining and the British Atomic Tests in Australia — the fallout, the legacy. One male role, one female role, one helluva topic. The title is Romancing The Atom. I term it ‘a nuclear opera’.

You’ve been influenced by Brecht and Russian playwrights in your early years. Who are you impressed by today?

I’m impressed by good shows whenever and wherever I encounter them. It’s a social medium. The work of many hands. And it’s the clapping of hands that signifies and measures the worth of what’s being/been performed — and what has now, at the end, disappeared into the dark. I know the kind of theatre I want to make. Its origins lie in me — influenced greatly as I am by the world as I find it.

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