A quick chat with playwright Mary Anne Butler

Mary Anne Butler is a Darwin-based playwright. Her play, Broken, is the first drama to win one of the most prestigious awards in Australia, the Victorian Premier’s Award for literature. For the first time, the play will be staged outside of the NT, at Sydney’s Eternity Playhouse by Darlinghurst Theatre Company. We sent Mary Anne a few questions about life, theatre, and this critically acclaimed play.

Mary Anne Butler
Mary Anne Butler

Introduce yourself!

I’m Mary Anne Butler. I’m a Darwin based playwright with a love of family, good friends, dogs, sparkling wine and great reading matter.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I learned to read when I was four – my sister Sarah taught me because she was sick of me trailing her around the house, begging her to read to me. I wrote my first book when I was five – it’s called ‘How the Rabbit Lost its Tail’. I still have it.

I used to have my nose in a book all the time as a kid and as a teenager – my mum would get cross, we’d be driving out somewhere scenic [I’m talking the Swiss Alps here!] and she’d say ‘get your nose out of that book and look at the scenery!’ – but what I couldn’t explain was that the pictures in my head beat the scenery any day – they were connected to people’s narratives and journeys, and that’s the thing that hooks me in. People’s stories.

I think if I had trusted myself, had the courage and the encouragement from home I would have dived straight into being a writer – but I had a lot of self doubt and parents who urged me to study something to ‘fall back on’, so I ended up teaching, which I ‘fell back on’ for many years. I don’t actually regret that – it’s a great craft on its own, teaching, and it taught me a lot. When I finally made a conscious choice to commit to a professional writing practice in 2008, I had a store of stories busting to come out and I was less judgmental on myself, so that liberated my voice a bit.

What’s the first thing you can recall writing?

As above – my first book, ‘How the Rabbit Lost its Tail’. I wrote and illustrated it. My illustration skills haven’t improved much, but I like to think my lexicon has.

Which writers have influenced your style – and how would you describe your style?

I studied English Literature at University which gave me a bedrock of what you’d call ‘the Classics’. Shakespeare of course. Ibsen. Chekov. I read poetry by Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, novels by Patrick White and William Faulkner. I loved all that stuff. I remember grappling with The Sound and The Fury – and finally coming to terms with it. And being amazed that you could write like that!

In terms of contemporary playwrights: Sarah Ruhl, Andrew Bovell, Mark O’Rowe, Jenny Kemp and Conor McPherson are all big influences.

Novelists: Cormac McCarthy and JD Salinger.

In terms of poets: Sylvia Plath, Dante Allegerhi and Pablo Neruda.

Songwriters: Ani Di Franco, Tom Waits and Paul Kelly probably best encapsulate the poetic narratives which I’m drawn towards.

In terms of style I think I’m still consolidating my voice – but my next play is coming out as a poetic, magic realist work in the style of my three previous plays. This one is even more surreal in its conceit, so I guess that’s what my style is shaping up to be. I find that with magic realism the language can afford to be extremely heightened, so I’ll literally spend an hour playing with words to capture the surprising way a wave curls in on itself in a wild ocean – or the way night falls out in the desert. I try to find surprising juxtapositions to describe something ordinary in a surprising way. A few months ago, I set myself a task to write the best sentence I possibly could and I came up with: “The stars, and the night, and the black-slapping sea…” – that took me ten minutes, and it’s not even a full sentence! And it’s horribly imperfect, so I’ll have to go back to it at some stage. These are the kind of nerdy word games I play with myself…

If you could only see one play again in your life, it would be…

Macbeth. It was my first love, as a play. Still is.

What are your 5 ‘Desert Island’ books?

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the Complete works of William Shakespeare [they do come in a single tome], Dante Allegerhi’s Divine Comedy. Christ, this is hard! Maybe The Poetry of Pablo Neruda because it’s over 1000 pages long. And then I’d want a classic novel which was so long that by the time I’d got to the end I’d forgotten the beginning and could start it all over again – so maybe Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy.

What are you reading at the moment?

I tend to have a lot of books on the go at once, and dip in and out depending on my research needs/state of mind. Piled up next to my bed right now are: Pablo Neruda’s Extravagaria, A Country Too Far: Writings on Asylum Seekers, The Burial by Courtney Collins, Conor McPherson’s The Night Alive and Other Plays and a dog-eared copy of Dante’s Inferno. I need a week off just to read them all!

What’s your favourite way to procrastinate from writing?

Research. That way, I can pretend I’m still working.

What motivates you to write on difficult days?


 If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

A writer. I’d write novels instead of plays.

What’s the most-used app on your phone?

Dictionary.com – but in the Thesaurus mode.

Whose advice do you always take?

Just about everyone’s. I’m hopeless at making decisions, so I often call on my mates or family to talk things through. I’m very lucky to be surrounded by many wise and wonderful people, hence I end up getting some great advice. And if I didn’t do that, I’d probably never move forward with big decisions.

What’s your party trick?

Bringing good sparkling wine along to almost any event.

What inspires you?

People who have empathy, courage and resilience. Humour keeps me afloat. Other writers inspire me. My nephew and nieces inspire me. My siblings. My friends. Good books.

Tell us something on your bucket list.

I find bucket lists odd – I mean; if you want to do something that much then don’t wait until you’re dying or too old to enjoy it – just do it! I feel very lucky that I’ve been able to create the life I really want, and I get to live it on a daily basis – so I don’t really crave much else right now. Having said that, I do have three plays and a novel in train – so I’d like to finish them at least!

Tell us a little bit about Broken, your play set for Sydney’s Eternity Playhouse.

Broken was sparked by an incident in 2007 when a woman rolled her car on the Stuart Highway. She was trapped metres from the road with her car hidden behind some scrub – close enough to the highway to hear passing traffic, but unable to get out of her car. She was eventually found alive, 36 hours later – one of the lucky ones. Fatal rollovers are common on these roads. Then in 2010, paramedic Rik Dove told me that when ambos come across someone in an accident, they reassure them they won’t be left alone and keep them talking until further help arrives. He talked about ongoing bonds which could form from these encounters.  And so began the story of a woman in a rollover (Ash), tended to by a passing miner (Ham). Across one long night they forge an emotional and physical attachment with knock-on repercussions, which inevitably impact on Ham’s wife Mia.

Broken was also hinged on a Raymond Carver quote: ‘Emptiness is the beginning of all things.’ I’m fascinated by human resilience – what we endure, how we overcome those dark times of the soul to come back stronger; more intact. So Broken moved away from the literal accident which sparked it, to explore themes of emptiness and isolation, loss and courage, resilience and – ultimately – choice.

How much does the Northern Territory influence your writing, and this play, which is set in the Central Desert area?

My writing pivotally changed when moving to the Territory. Part of that shift is due to the proximity of magnificent landscapes and vast country, part of it the unique characters who tend to gather up here. I have a campervan and I drive from the red central desert to the tropical north, park at the tip of Cobourg Peninsula where there is no-one. Drive 5,000 kilometers down the Stuart Highway through such isolated terrain. I’m awed by the vast distances between any two points, up here. These are incredible landscapes, and I love delving into them because they offer up such rich imagery. I’m also fascinated by people who choose to spend large chunks of their lives in isolated areas, these people have so many remarkable stories – so these characters feed into the work as well.

The Northern Territory also has a creative community and culture which is truly non-judgemental. It’s the most supportive creative environment I’ve ever experienced in my life. It allows for greater risk-taking, and I think some of the creative works coming out of here of late reflect that risk-taking, in a really positive way.

This is your Sydney premiere and the first staging of Broken outside the NT. Has it been difficult to have your work seen across the country?

This is a tough question for me because I want to be positive – but in reality, yes. It’s been extremely hard. I’ve had some pretty brutal rejections for Broken – both before and after it won awards. Two companies rejected it on the basis of: “Do you really think Mary Anne Butler can sell out a season in Sydney/Melbourne” [respectively]. This was said to my face on two occasions. So they weren’t looking at the work in its own right, they were looking at my potential sales leverage for their subscribers, and of course I don’t have much of that in the major cities because I’m based regionally.

And it’s a Catch-22, because if no-one gives your work the chance then your work will never get known and your name therefore will remain ‘unknown’ and these companies don’t program ‘unknown’ writers!

Darlinghurst Theatre took Broken on its merits, well before it was awarded the Victorian Prize for Literature. They programmed it on the strength of the work, taking a risk with an ‘unknown’ writer.

But I think it pays off, as well. I’ve got a bunch of Sydney mates who are long-term theatre-goers and subscribers, and for 2017 they’re switching their subscriptions to Darlinghurst Theatre because they genuinely feel the Darlo program is the most varied and exciting. Audiences want risks, I think. While I understand the psychology of safety in terms of trying to program what you think the subscribers want to see, I also think audiences want to be surprised, and taken into places they’re not necessarily familiar with.

I think it’s difficult for any regional writer to get their work to national attention, and that goes for writers in Bendigo and Cairns as much as it does for writers in the NT. There is a ‘regionalism’ amongst some city-based companies – an assumption that the work is lesser, somehow if it’s from a regional writer. I think as a consequence that audiences are missing out on some extraordinary new voices and stories, and it would be great to see more of our really interesting regional playwrights actively invited into mainstream theatres.

What do you find the most challenging about being a playwright in Australia?

In 2016, just over half the programming across the ten major Australian companies is new Australian work. That’s not a lot of opportunity for Australian playwrights, and what I find the most challenging here is that there’s an undercurrent of assumption that we still need to look to the US or the UK for new voices. There is room for that, of course – we need works from all over. But currently it’s out of balance, and to the detriment of the growth of our own voices, stories and writers.

I spent three months in Dublin last year, and they have huge levels of respect and support for their own playwrights. The Abbey only develops and programs plays by Irish playwrights, and many of the other companies have the same policy – or at least a minimum quota. I’m of the ilk that believes we grow as a nation through seeing ourselves reflected back creatively. I would love to see an increased commitment from the mainstream companies to Australian voices. Let’s say… 75%?

What do you find the most exciting about it?

Everything. I love the playwriting community in this country. I sometimes feel removed from the national scene – and geographically, I often am. But I now feel I have a solid network of playwrights I can talk to across the miles, swap work and opportunities, give each other feedback, support each other, champion each other. From my perspective, it’s a tight and supportive community and I think this benefits us all.

Right now I’m watching Broken being rehearsed for Darlinghurst Theatre at the same time as it’s being remounted for the Darwin Festival; two totally different productions through two utterly different directorial lenses. I am literally flying from one to another to be in the room during rehearsals and to attend the openings and it’s like they’re two different plays. It’s astounding. It’s like freefalling into possibility. The fact that we have such diverse directorial visions in our country is also something that I find incredibly exciting.

Cassie Tongue

Cassie is a theatre critic and arts writer in Sydney, and was the deputy editor of AussieTheatre. She has written for The Guardian, Time Out Sydney, Daily Review, and BroadwayWorld Australia. She is a voter for the Sydney Theatre Awards.

Cassie Tongue

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