Between the Streetlight and the Moon – Melita Rowston Speaks

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Between the Streetling and the Moon, photo by Clare Hawley

Melita Rowston is a playwright, performer and visual artist and her new play Between the Streetlight and the Moon has its world premiere early this month at the Kings Cross Theatre Sydney (KXT).

She sheds light and insight on both the play and her life in this eloquent and informative interview. I look forward to attending a performance and view her work first hand while the season is running until May 27, 2017.

Melita, do you recall your first theatrical experience and the impact it had on your future as a playwright?

I was studying painting at art school in Melbourne when a friend invited me to a Melbourne University Student Theatre production at La Mama.

The tiny theatre space (an old factory) was packed. Our chairs encroached on the stage. The actors brushed past my seat as they entered and when they performed just a few feet in front of me, I could smell their sweat, see their spit and return their gaze.

Not only was this sense of communion, this gathering, this exchange of energy so exciting and new to me, it was also the first time I saw actors speaking in Australian accents and exploring what it meant to be Australian on stage.

I was mesmerised. That was the beginning for me. Little did I know that a few short years later, I’d swap the paintbrush for the pen and start writing for the visceral world of live theatre.

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Playwright, performer and visual artist Melita Royston, photo by Dave Quinn

What was your response to being one of five finalists for the prestigious Sydney Theatre Company Playwright Award in 2016?

Utter delight. We underestimate how powerful validation can be when we’ve been slogging away in the arts for a while.

I’d been sitting on a draft of this script for well over six months, unsure where I needed to take it or what to do next. That email from Polly Rowe (Literary Manager at STC) was like an injection of inspiration.

I rented a flat in the Blue Mountains and wrote madly. When I wasn’t writing, I was walking mountain trails plotting new scenes and scribbling dialogue into a notebook. I was inundated with ideas, how the plot could take a different turn, I even relocated the play to Europe instead of Australia!

After that week of ecstatic writing I holed up with actor Lucy Miller in her family’s home in Leura. We sat by the fire reading scenes out loud and furthering them.

The STC nomination also spiked Anthony Skuse’s interest. He connected me with Eloise Snape from Mophead Productions and the next thing I knew, we were planning to put on a play together!

A little bit of validation goes a very long way indeed.

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Between the Streetlight and the Moon, image courtesy Kings Cross Theatre KXT

What incident or experience inspired you to write the play Between the Streetlight and the Moon?

I had two pieces of inspiration for this play.

Between the Streetlight and the Moon borrows its title from a line in the John Patrick Shanley play The Red Coat. That play is about pure, spontaneous young love.

A love very much like the love my lead character Zadie had for her mentor, the artist Jeff – her ‘moon.’ After Jeff breaks her heart, Zadie settles for reliable ‘streetlights’ so she doesn’t get hurt again.

I liked the idea of Zadie being between the streetlight and the moon, how that ‘between space’ is just as interesting as those fixed states.

My other inspiration came unexpectedly one day in the Musée D’Orsay in Paris. I was looking at Édouard Manet’s painting of Olympia when I noticed a tiny painting hidden in the corner.

The painting’s sketchy brushstrokes depicted a woman looking at the viewer through the spokes of her fan. It was nothing like his other pictures.

I felt as if this woman was looking into me. Her gaze was electrifying. It was clear to me she was in love.

The woman was Impressionist painter Berthe Morisot. Manet painted 11 portraits of her, each one incredibly complex.

But when I looked into their history, I couldn’t find any trace of an affair.

I knew I could use those paintings and this mysterious relationship between two dead artists as a way for my lead Zadie to come to terms with her past.

The paintings allowed me to combine the suspense plot of a detective story with the transformative power of art to change the way we look at each other and ourselves.

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Melita Rowston, photo courtesy artist

Has the rehearsal process resulted in any significant changes to the play? Have you seen the play differently now it’s a reality?

I am thrilled, honoured and indebted to director Anthony Skuse for guiding this script to production and for his elegant hand in bringing my words to life.

After an initial company read I completed significant rewrites in response to his provocations. I was also fed by the actors’ responses to their characters and was able to reflect that back to them in parts of the rewrite.

On the floor, Anthony is constantly questioning and quizzing, seeking to further crystallise the themes and plot points to heighten the journey for every character and, of course, for our audiences.

Did the writing of the play require extensive research?

I spent a month in Paris writing, walking, frequenting cafes, looking at art and generally trying to ensconce myself in Montmartre as a local, so the whole trip was a wonderful ‘excuse’ for research!

I’m a bit of a nerd. I really love academic research. As I started writing the first draft I chewed through quite a few academic books on Morisot and Manet, their lives, their art and the lives of the other Impressionist artists in their circle.

Have you developed a particular pattern or schedule for writing?

Deadlines are my best schedule. They push procrastination out of the way and force me to sit down and write in every spare moment. That includes train trips!

How long did the writing take?

I like to have a few different projects on the boil so if I get hit with a setback or stuck on something, I can channel my creativity in another project.

I had the idea for this play back in 2010. I did a lot of thinking and musing on it, as well as keeping an eye out for books to read or related exhibitions to visit.

In the meantime I had another full-length play (‘Crushed’) open and started directing and performing again.

In late 2013, Somersault Theatre did a call out for new scripts for a series of roundtable development readings.

My pitch for Streetlight was accepted in early 2014. I wrote a first draft by their May deadline. After that development I put the script on ice for a few months to let everything sink in then set a deadline in December for a rehearsed read with friends. A month of crazy rewrites ensued.

This has been process from 2014 till now – short bursts of crazy writing with a deadline of a reading or award to aim for.

After our first full cast read in March this year I had two weeks to rewrite large sections of the script before rehearsals started. It was mental! But I work best under pressure.

Your talents cross many creative fields. What helps to sustain your energy and enthusiasm?

I follow the trail. If I’m passionate or curious about something (anything) I jump in and see where the journey will take me.

That’s probably why I’ve ended up directing, writing or performing in the last couple of years as the subject has dictated the role I need to take.

Recently, I’ve followed the trail of a giant 1970s worm puppet that used to be a tourist attraction in a small Victorian country town, a story my grandfather used to tell me about stealing Ned Kelly’s bones from the Old Melbourne Gaol, and how the abduction of a girl a few blocks from the house I grew up in altered my perception of Australia’s ‘she’ll be right culture.’

Aiming for the moon rather than the streetlight is ambitious. What are your future aspirations?

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Detail Between the Streetlight and the Moon, photo by Clare Hawley

For me the ‘moon’ is in the stories. If I see a gig or an award in the moon, I know I’m setting myself up for failure. The only thing I can rely on is following the story.

I’m planning a big European trip with my partner. We’re going to stay in Lisbon for a week and see every single Fado singer that city has to offer. I think there’s a story in that. We’re also going to track down our respective Irish ancestors in Dublin, County Limmerick and County Clare. I’d love to learn more about my ancestors as that land has always resonated deeply with me.

Lately, I’ve become fascinated with my great, great grandmother who was a missionary to the streets and lanes in Melbourne in the 1920s. Apparently she had some run-ins with Melbourne’s famous brothel owner Madame Brussels.

In the 1890s she travelled around country Victoria setting up Methodist churches. The image of a white European woman, riding a horse and carriage around the Victorian bush spreading the word of God is really potent for me.

I’m also going to start painting again. So that’s a pretty big moon to reach for.

Rose Niland, Special Features NSW, The Culture Concept Circle, 2017

Between the Streetlight and the Moon

May 5-27
Tue-Sat 8pm, Sun 5pm

KXT Kings Cross Theatre
Kings Cross Hotel,
Level 2, 244-248 William Street,
Potts Point, Sydney

 

 

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