A Q+A with Mary Anne Butler

— by Jess Ong

Mary Anne Butler, photo by Katie Saunders

BROKEN is a new play by the multi-talented Mary Anne Butler. A distinctively NT work with a universal theme, BROKEN wrestles with matters of chance, choice, hope and fate – posing the question: when you find yourself empty, how do you start again?

Behind the scenes footage and other bits and pieces can be found on BROKEN‘s Facebook page.

Artback NT’s Communications Manager, Jess Ong, caught up with Mary Anne to hear her thoughts on the inspiration behind BROKEN and how this goosebump-inducing work came together.

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Artback NT: Where did the idea and premise for BROKEN come from?

Mary Anne Butler: I’d had this character called ‘Ham’ floating around in my head for a while. He was a ‘salt-of-the-earth’ Territory born and bred bloke. I knew he worked on the mines, and that he was a rural SES volunteer.

I was also fascinated by a news story from 2007 in which a woman rolled her car on the Stuart Highway, north of Tennant Creek. She was trapped in it for three days without water or food – literally metres from the highway – but no-one could see her because the car was behind some scrub. It got me thinking about how tenuous the act of driving out bush is.

Then I had a conversation with a friend’s partner one day. I didn’t know him very well so I asked him about himself and he revealed he’d been an ambo. I asked him to tell me some of his stories from that time – which he did – and he also revealed that when they come across someone in distress, the greatest fear that person has, is being left alone. So an ambo will look that person in the eye and reassure them that they won’t be left alone. This fascinated me, because I felt that an extremely vulnerable person being cared for by someone who was in control and competent, must forge an imbalance in terms of relationship power. I asked him if bonds ever formed from these chance emergency encounters. I recall him saying that yes, bonds did form, but they weren’t ‘real’ so – ultimately – they had to be let go.

So in my writer’s brain, a new character – Ash emerged. A woman involved in a rollover. And Ham finds her, then tends to her and they spend several hours out in the desert, waiting for ambos to come. And what happens in those few hours is that they form an emotional attachment because both of them are a bit lost in life – and the romance of the desert creates a pressure cooker for them to reassess their current lives, and imagine a life together.

…but that in itself is not dramatic. In drama, there is a school of thought that three characters are the best number for creating conflict – and drama is conflict. So I created Mia – Ham’s partner – who is back at home, waiting for him, with issues of her own.

I guess for me plays are a combination of inspiration, chance, and then lots of hard work – what I call the ‘crafting’ of the drama. The idea and premise come from a combination of these. Usually I have a ‘lightning bolt’ moment of inspiration which sets of a heap of questions in my head, and as I circle these questions [and they circle me], we gradually get to the point where the crafting takes over.

Artback NT: Do you feel BROKEN could’ve worked in a different landscape or was the aridity and isolation of Alice Springs just what the story needed?

Mary Anne Butler: I drove from Alice Springs to Glen Helen one day, and on the way back my radiator over-boiled and I didn’t have enough water to refill it. I stood by my car and there was no traffic, either way. As night started to fall, I got an incredible sense of how alone I was out there – on what is quite a main road in the NT’s context – and it both terrified and fascinated me. Dingos called across the landscape with their thin, eerie, high-pitched yowl and I thought I was done for.

A lovely bloke with a sensible water container turned up and helped me out; but that moment – which offered me a firm sense of me being nothing in this vast landscape – stayed with me. As BROKEN took shape, that arid desert landscape became a character in its own right.

Designed by Ciella Williams

Artback NT: BROKEN is an all-encompassing, emotional play yet there are only three characters – how did you develop their stories?

Mary Anne Butler: It’s kind of hard to explain, but this might help: I was writing a play a few years ago, and I’d done this ‘plotting’ workshop – so I thought I would apply what plotting I’d learned to this play. I plotted out the journey for my protagonist [Zoe], and there I was, writing away – when it came to the point that Zoe was supposed to do something which I had on my plotting sheet. Well, she just wouldn’t. She wouldn’t do it. I ended up talking to my computer screen, as if I was talking to her, cajoling her. She still refused. In the end, I literally said – out loud to my computer screen – “Well you tell me. Then. What do you want to do?” And – I kid you not – she set off on another path. So I wrote down what she did and we got out of that particular plotting hole, me led entirely by her.

…sometimes I think writing is a kind of madness, but mostly for me it’s about doing lots of research, making sure I know the world and the characters really well, and then getting my brain out of the way of my instincts for the first draft. Just let it flow. It’s pivotal for me to then re-engage my brain in drafts 2, 3, 4 etc – to sort out logical contradictions and script anomalies. I don’t pretend to understand the process, but I do love it because it is so fluid and exciting.

BROKEN, also had two huge hands: the first one via dramaturg Chris Mead. Dramaturgy is the craft or technique of ‘dramatic composition’, and I find it invaluable as a playwright to send my half-baked play to an intelligent dramaturg to read, and provide me with constructive feedback for the way ahead. Chris is the Literary Manager at Melbourne Theatre Company, and he’s one of the smartest people I know, particularly with structure. With BROKEN I knew what the plot was, I knew the characters well, but also I knew the issues I was facing were structural, as BROKEN was a work that messed with the chronology of time. Chris was pivotal in helping me shape the complex structure of the script, and for that I’m extremely grateful.

The second massive boon to this work was that it was lucky enough to receive one of the Brown’s Mart ‘Build-Up’ grants in 2013. This allowed not only fees for the above sessions with Chris Mead, but it also gave us two weeks on the floor with the amazing Gail Evans directing three professional actors, while they put the script through its paces: refining and polishing it, asking me smart questions, testing the emotional core and veracity of each of the characters.

Gail Evans is one of the finest directors I have ever had the pleasure of collaborating with, nationally. She commits to the script and story in the first instance and doesn’t bring in anything extraneous, preferring instead to let the script to do the work – which, for a playwright, is heaven. Those two weeks led by her were pivotal in honing and refining the text to what it is now, which then went on to win the NT Literary Award as well as getting shortlisted nationally for the Griffin Theatre Award for “…an outstanding play or performance text that displays an authentic, inventive and contemporary Australian voice.” Without the Brown’s Mart Build-Up and the input of this amazing development team, I don’t think the script wouldn’t have got that recognition.

…that’s why I love theatre so much. It’s collaborative. It’s way more fun when you’ve got other people to play with, and the work can only get richer with such smart and empathic minds contributing to the process.

Artback NTReferences to nature feature quite heavily throughout BROKEN – was this a deliberate decision or was it one that came organically?

Mary Anne Butler: Entirely organic. I wrote out of Brisbane until 2002, when I moved to the NT. All my Queensland works are urban dramas. As soon as I came to the NT, the size and scope and power and beauty and danger and tenuousness of this vast, largely unpopulated landscape – Top End, coastal areas, desert – impacted on my work; I guess in part because NT characters now so strongly feature in my work, and they are a product of this environment. It’s just so interesting here. Nature is a massive force which has its own ideas, and we as humans are servants to that, it’s the one thing we can’t control. If a cyclone or a drought or a tsunami or a flood decide to hit, there’s nothing we can do about it – and I actually find that oddly refreshing.

Artback NT: Similarly, the lyricism, contrast and overlapping of dialogue between characters in BROKEN almost leaves it reading a bit like poetry…

Mary Anne Butler: In 2011 I made a trip to Sydney to see some theatre shows as part of my professional development. One of those was Terminus, written by Mark O’Rowe, an Irish playwright. The stage was bare for the entire production – no sets, no props – just three Irish actors telling the story of the play, which was written in iambic pentameter, the rhythm and rhyme which Shakespeare wrote in.

Iambic pentameter has a way of driving a story forward, and Terminus blew me away. I read all of Mark O’Rowe’s other works, which lead me to Conor McPherson – another contemporary Irish playwright. I read all his works, and then discovered Abbie Spallen – also Irish. So this handful of contemporary Irish playwrights showed me a way to write that I hadn’t realised was possible. Their lyrical, sparse, poetic imagery influenced the language of BROKEN as it started to take shape.

Artback NTYou were heavily involved in Highway of Lost Hearts (another fabulous work by Mary Anne), what’s it like to now be somewhat removed from the direction and acting side of BROKEN? Were you ever tempted to take on one of the characters?

Mary Anne Butler: It’s heaven to not be involved beyond writing and producing. While Highway of Lost Hearts was an awesome trip [literally], and it taught me so much, BROKEN offers me a chance to sit back and focus on the script alone, to see how that works in front of a live audience.

I do get to sit in on the first week of rehearsals, and I’m both excited and nervous about hearing BROKEN read for the first time, seeing it come to its feet, terrified of the director and actors asking me script questions for which I have no answers. But I can’t wait, it’s gonna be an awesome week with such a talented director and cast, and an awesome creative crew. I’ve seen the set already – designed by Kris Bird – and it is stunning.

I’m so, so happy to hand this work over to such a talented team of local professionals, and I’m really excited about just rocking up on opening night to see what magic they have woven.

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