Lachlan Philpott: A Sense of Place
When I teach playwriting the first thing is to get to know the people I am working with. No embarrassing rhyming name games.
Like many teachers, I just ask people to talk about themselves - I am Lachlan Reynault Philpott, I was born in Sydney but then we moved out west. My first memories are of the rat plague and the rats that took my baby sister from us and so on.
As traffic flows to the centre of the city each morning, people come at it this task in different ways. Some order their information chronologically, others randomly bump all over the place. Some repeat facts they can’t get past, others focus on people, or places. Some conjure a mood that captures their essence as if they were an olive. No matter how the person shapes what they are saying, the rest of the group always seem to enjoy the variety.
When that exercise finishes, I ask the collective writers to talk about their work- the words they are writing down. It is then that something odd occurs- the little paths, the back way and the side roads from before disappear, get blocked or blown up. And suddenly everybody is using the same road to talk about their work, like we are all on some congested freeway heading through the petrol haze into LA.
And I say LA because the way people talk about their plays suggests to me the way people talk about their films as they cruise down the freeway washing down the drivel with their drive thru bucket of greenteamegamocochinofrappe. Always through the frame of story and character. I get why film talk is about story and character but theatre is different and to many writers the unspoken imposition of the solitary route can present an issue.
Try as we might it is not easy to change a system which seems to need writers to pitch the story. At some point we writers are going to need to talk about characters and protagonists and other terms that turn your shit black with boredom. But what I think would have helped me before I became aware of my process is if my entry point had been seen as being as valid as more traditional ones. It is helpful to acknowledge that writers and theatre makers connect to material in a range of ways. Some lucky people do think in narrative and character terms. But others think mood, are driven by an question and some begin with a sense of place.
The workshop I ran recently offered tools to writers who don’t naturally begin with plot and character by acknowledging that there are lots of ways to connect to and develop ideas, even if in the end some fool only wants the synopsis.
In the recent workshop we collectively examined the value of connecting to place. As homage to both Elinor Fuchts and Gertrude Stein, we talked a lot about landscape because I was interested in asking how a writer can take the audience hand by hand and allow them to step into the experience of the world of the play rather than just sitting and looking at it.
People often say: Why is a sense of place important when theatre is essentially about people?
So I ask them…tell me this… You have just met somebody you are interested in them. You want to find out as much as you can about them. I give you a choice. You can have ten minutes talking with them or you can have ten minutes to look through their bedroom and home- their underwear drawers, under their bed, their mail, in their bathroom cabinet, the view out their window. Which do you choose?
Few people choose to talk.
Writers and detectives need to get information wherever it is offered and the world offers so much. I am seduced and fascinated by place-the smells, sounds textures and chorology. I take the time to stand still in one place and watch, listen, smell and touch the unlimited constellations of possibility unfold.
I once got asked to co-write a play set in Stockholm. I tried to write it and gave up. I don’t know Stockholm. I’ve only been there once and have no real sense of what it is like to live there, to walk down the street there, feel lonely or in love there, to know summer is coming or going there.
All of my plays have been inspired by strong connection to place: a chaotic high school in Inner-city Sydney, an abandoned junkyard full of buses, a tattoo parlour in a dodgy suburb, a strange little house with a palm tree full of baby ibis, the plastic Sydney gay scene, the dizzying pulse of Kings Cross.
We know that people love theatre when they relate to the characters on stage, when people are experiencing the same things, asking the same questions. The same thing can be said about place.
I live in Sydney and I write about Sydney. I am constantly trying to make sense of the city’s complex patterns and rhythms.
Audiences also like stories that come from the place they live in, love in and try and make sense of every day.
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