On Writing: Patricia Cornelius

Patricia Cornelius is a playwright, novelist, film writer, writing teacher and dramaturge, a founding member of Melbourne Workers Theatre, and a mentor to many emerging playwrights.

Her many awards include the 2012 Patrick White Fellowship, the 2011 Victorian and NSW Premier’s literary awards, the 2003 Wal Cherry Award and 10 Australian Writers Guild Awgies.

Patricia Cornelius
Patricia Cornelius

Her new play is Savages, which runs at fortyfivedownstairs from 16 August to 8 September. It’s also produced by fortyfivedownstairs.

Patricia is working with her long-time collaborator, director Susie Dee, on Savages, which is about masculinity, misogyny and the dark side of mateship. She talks with Anne-Marie Peard about the inequity of male and female characters, writing for actors and reminds writers to see lots of theatre and read lots of plays.

What made you want to write this play?
I have written a number of plays that take on the issue of gender. Most of them have concentrated on young women but there have been so many dire incidents with groups of men in teams and on tours and on trips in the news that I wanted to take them on. I wanted to make sense of these men individually and in a pack. Many of the real incidents in the news have made an indelible bruise on our national psyche. They were powerful and called out to be explored.

How long did it take you to write it?
I’ve lost sight of how long. It takes such a long time now to get a work on that the process of workshopping and rewrites and tinkering go on for it seems an age.

Savages is a story about men written and directed by woman; do you expect anyone to comment on this?
I do expect some reaction but I can’t be bothered with it really. Men’s business is solely the domain of male artists? Why should it be? I think that male and female artists should look at both genders in their work. Part of the problem with too many plays is that female characters are poorly represented and all playwrights need to address this inequity.

You’ve worked a lot with director Susie Dee? Tell us something about working with her? Who wins if you disagree?
Susie Dee is a fine director and she’s also a friend. The friendship means we’ve had the luxury of talking about theatre for decades. We argue of course but we agree about the essential elements that make great theatre. We both love actors and she is great at enabling them to take the material into terrific and powerful and funny territory. She likes text and can make it sing. She’s unafraid of going deep and will try everything to make a scene work. Neither of us is sentimental which means we like to cut to the chase.

Can you remember when you knew you wanted to be a writer?
I resisted being a writer for a long time. I tried to be a good actor and never got over feeling too afraid. I always wanted to make good theatre and it took me awhile to be satisfied with the plays I wrote. Now I don’t think about it anymore. It’s like I paid my dues. Wrote some early and inspired gems, wrote some stodgy numbers, experimented as much as I could, wrote mostly what I wanted to write and always wanted to say something, something strong enough to feel like a punch in the guts. 

How many plays have you written? How many have been produced? Is there an unproduced one that you’d love to see on stage?
I’ve written about 30 plays. There is only one work, an opera titled Cunning written in collaboration with the wonderful composer Irine Vela, which has never been produced. It’s a huge work and it’s got something grand about it. It’s about resistance and what one does to survive: perfect operatic material.

Tell us a story about being part of the Melbourne Workers Theatre?
Performing in the first play State of Defence by Andrew Bovell on the back of a semi-trailer on a building site that was to become the Melbourne Tennis Centre, a hundred or so rowdy building workers looking on and me thinking, “Shit, they’re going to eat us alive”.

What other writing do you do?
I write prose and film scripts. I’m working with Decade films on a project called Dust. And I’m working up to write my second novel, an adaptation of my play Love.

What playwright do you read when you need inspiration?
I read a lot of plays. I read Australian playwrights as much as possible. I don’t read them so much for inspiration but I do often come away inspired. I read them because I want to know what they are writing about and how they are writing them. You learn heaps about your craft.

Apart from plays, what else do you love reading?
I read fiction. 

Any hints to overcome writer’s block?
Walk. Long walks on your own.

What was the title of your first play?

Do you ever hand write or is everything on screen?
I do both. I write notes in a writing book and use them to elaborate on the computer. Sometimes I take off then because the next step becomes suddenly clear.

How does it feel when you’re sitting in a theatre audience watching one of your plays?
It’s the most torturous experience and one I keep repeating. It takes many sittings before I can truly look at the work and be relaxed about it. Actually I’m never relaxed about it. It is something similar to someone driving you in a fast racing car and they take corners so sharply you are pounded against the door and every now and then it seems the driver has lost control and the car spins or lifts up on two wheels or turns over but then it rights itself once again and drives on.

Do you have a writing routine?
I sit at my computer most days, but I think I have a very scatty routing. It’s not always about the discipline of sitting at your desk and writing for a particular number of hours, although that is finally what one needs to do to get the play actually written. Once I’m into a play, I find myself taking my characters everywhere with me. We spend quite a lot of time in bed. I’m constantly placing them in a situation or in a discussion or getting inside their mind, looking for the way I can make them speak.

Are you an early-morning or a late-night writer?
I’m an anytime of the day writer.

Who do you go to for feedback about your writing?
I ask a small number of fellow playwrights and their responses are always invaluable. I also have a couple of directors who I get to read my work. And then there are friends – some friends who have read my work since I began to write and who have nothing to do with the theatre but have great politics and understanding of how the world works.

What’s one of your favourite quotes about writing?
“When I am writing a play I am sometimes frustrated by how stupid I am, and wish I were some sort of philosopher historian playwright, who could make sense of it all, explain it all, like a Freud or a Marx or a mother or a father or a god. But I have realised there are advantages to stupidity. And even though I have not quite lost the desire to make sense of the world, I have become more cynical about it, and watchful of stories or characters or images that comfortably reduce the world, rather than acknowledge its complexity.” Melissa Reeves (Melbourne playwright) 

Do you think actors and directors should be able to change something you’ve written? (Is the playwright always right?)
I think a new play will always have room to change and actors and directors will find better solutions to problems in rehearsal and to not go with these would be madness. I think if the work is being changed in a fundamental way and has become more a blue print for another work then the director has no faith in the original and has another agenda. I think go find another play. Part of making a play live on stage is committing to it, remembering why you chose it in the first place.

What advice can you give to emerging playwrights?
Read plays. And, don’t get stuck with a play in endless workshops and readings. Get it on as soon as you can. Find people who want to put on plays, form a company, find a space, do it, then do the next one.

What do you love most about writing for the stage?
There are so many elements to consider when writing for the theatre, but writing for actors is a fabulous thing. Giving actors enough, to do, to say, to think about, to transform is what I love the best.

Do you read your reviews?
Yes, of course I read them. Theatre criticism is important and can and should be elucidating. I’ve learnt things from critics. I don’t pretend I haven’t felt hurt and misunderstood but mostly playwrights want to know what a critic thinks.

What’s your advice on taking criticism?
I think all you can do is take it on. If it’s negative don’t be disheartened. One thing to remember is word of mouth is more powerful.

You’ve won many awards, which one meant the most?
The Australian Writer’s Guild awards (Awgies) have meant the most to me. They are awards that have been selected by your peers and I’ve always felt especially proud to receive them. 


As a creator, you have to hand your characters over to actors so that they can live. When has an actor made one of your characters into something more than you imagined?
It’s a symbiotic relationship between the playwright and actor. The writing has to give enough and the actor has to take it and make sense of it and fly with it. I’m constantly thrilled and amazed and surprised how an actor can take my words and own them and allow them to unleash emotions and ideas that I wasn’t conscious were hidden there.

16 August – 8 September

Book here

Anne-Marie Peard

Anne-Marie spent many years working with amazing artists at arts festivals all over Australia. She's been a freelance arts writer for the last 10 years and teaches journalism at Monash University.

Anne-Marie Peard

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