On Writing: Fleur Kilpatrick

Fleur Kilpatrick was 17 when she was the co-winner of the State Theatre Company of South Australia’s Young Playwrights Award.

She’s since completed a theatre degree at Monash University in Melbourne, studied directing at VCA and competed a Masters of Performance Writing at VCA. She’s worked as an assistant director for Bell Shakespeare and Red Stitch; is artistic director of independent company Quiet Little Fox and her most recently performed play, Insomnia Cat Came to Stay, was nominated for best theatre at the 2013 Perth Fringe, won audience and critical support at its Adelaide and Melbourne seasons, and is part of the 2013 Brisbane Arts Festival program in September.

She’s written her newest work, Braves, specifically for The Container Festival at Monash University in August. It’s a cabaret-style piece that was motivated by her hatred of homophobia and inequality and one of its biggest challenges was creating a piece that would suit the intimacy of a being performed in a shipping container.

She talks with Anne-Marie Peard about how finding the right collaborators is vital for theatre writers; how playwrights should read plays, newspapers and children’s books; and how the only way to over come writer’s block is to keep writing.

Fleur Kilpatrick. Photo by Sarah Walker.
Fleur Kilpatrick. Photo by Sarah Walker.

What made you want to write Braves?
Braves took up residence in my head a long time ago. I used to have conversations with my beloved grandmother in which she would tell me how “there are such a lot of gays in the world today” and I point out that there were just as many in her youth but they were all in unhappy marriages. Braves is the story of one such marriage. My grandmother is not around to see it but, in a way, it is a loving jab at her and a not-so-loving punch in the face of homophobia. I believe that the effects of such bigotry are more far reaching than many would have us believe. Bullying damages not only the bullied. By not standing up to homophobia, even the straightest of us are doing ourselves a disservice and allowing our community to be shaped by intolerance and fear. That’s what made me write it. Then I threw in songs, the occasional laugh and a dig at some of the worst lyrics in the history of musical theatre. 

How long did it take you to write it/how many drafts?
I tend to think of myself as quite a slow writer and usually take months to approach anything like a first draft, but I actually wrote the majority of this in a two-week binge. It is still being drafted and, as a new work, I will be looking at this initial season at The Container Festival as a development rather than a finished product.

Did you write it specifically for The Container Festival?
I did. I am so proud of MUST for curating this season and, as alumni, I was delighted to be given the chance to create something new for them. That said, I’m certain this will go on to have a life outside of the festival, but it felt like a wonderful chance for me to try something quite different.

Why are festivals like this so important?
I love festivals of all shapes and sizes. For artists, there is something so invigorating about getting to create and perform work alongside your fellow creatives but festivals like The Container Festival are sometimes even more exciting than the big city ones. For us, it is a chance to do something different and make a truly intimate piece of theatre/cabaret – something to fit into a shipping container. I make my living off of my art but I love working without the pressure of having to make money. It is so rare to just be able to take some risks and I think it brings out the best us all. The Container Festival has not even begun and already there is a sense of breathless, manic creativity in the air at Monash.  I am returning to MUST for the first time since 2008 because I want in on that!

As you’re a writer, performer and director, is Braves a piece you’d like to hand over to an actor or is it something just for you to perform?
Ha! I do have a habit of writing things for myself then handing them on to other actors! 

This piece may well end up going the same way of Insomnia Cat Came To Stay, which began with me multitasking as writer/director/actor before I handed it over to director Danny Delahunty and actor Joanne Sutton (along with an incredible design and animation team). I’ve no doubt its next stage of development will see Braves with a new director and a couple of the incredible actors from Quite Little Fox have already put bids on the role of Molly, but it has been really special to get to work in this in a paired back way. I am actually incredibly excited to perform the role. I write best when I really understand the voice I am writing for and I think this was the reason this piece wrote itself with such ease; it has been a long time since I have written for myself but I haven’t forgotten my voice. I am also more ruthless with my own writing than any director I have yet encountered. Plus actor Fleur is very understanding when writer Fleur cuts whole pages so I think it has been invaluable for this process.

What’s it like working with Roderick Cairns on this piece?
Working with Roderick is just a joy. Like all my favourite collaborators, he is extremely multitalented (in addition to his outstanding musicianship, he is a WAAPA-trained actor) which makes him the perfect collaborator for a new work.  He has a lot of input into all elements of the production and I really appreciate this. This is my second collaboration with Roderick Cairns and he brings such a unique sound to the work and plenty of opinions, which I love.

Can you remember when you knew you wanted to be a writer?
I was the co-winner of the South Australian State Theatre Company’s Young Playwrights Award when I was 17. Part of the prize was having our scripts workshopped and given a rehearsing reading by the company. My script was embarrassing but the process absolutely blew my mind. This was my first introduction of the collaborative nature of writing for theatre and I just fell in love. All those individual minds working to bring a single, unified artwork to the stage! I was smitten. I initially trained at VCA as a director, but I think from that moment on I always knew that writing and directing would be of equal importance to me. 

What playwrights do you read for inspiration?
Who ever I can get my hands on. Here in Australia we have such outstanding writers and I learn so much from them on every read. Daniel Keene, Raimondo Cortese and Patricia Cornelius each take up a fair bit of my bookshelf. I love what comes out of the Royal Court Theatre in England and have a fairly decent collection of American plays, but I think our own writers are world class. They are pushing the art form to its limits and exploring with true subtly and insight our ever-changing national identity.

Apart from plays, what else do you love reading?
I have a particular love of children’s books. Those authors know how to capture the imagination in an opening line and hold the most hyperactive of audiences spellbound. They feed the reader’s imagination and create imagery so powerful that years later, we still know what it felt like to climb into a wardrobe, have snow crunch beneath our feet and coats give way to the branches of trees. We know the way to Neverland: “Second star to the right and straight on ‘til morning”. These stories stay with us.

Any hints to overcome writer’s block?
Just keep writing. Fill page after page with terrible writing and eventually you will break through and find the gold again. But I would also add that playwrights have a unique advantage: we work in a collaborative art form. I am so blessed to have a strong, supportive company around me and, when I get stuck, it is often their input that helps me find a new path forwards. Find your collaborators. Find the people who will read your work to you and, for the price of a cup of tea, will help you untangle the mess you have made for yourself. 

Do you ever hand write or is everything on screen?
All my first drafts are handwritten. There is something so tactile and private and immediate about sitting down with just a pen and an empty page. It unlocks a part of my brain that a screen and a keyboard seldom can.

How does it feel when you’re sitting in a theatre audience watching your play?
I love it. In theatre we need to relinquish our words. They become something greater than us. It never stops being nerve wrecking but I write plays to seen by an audience and there is nothing like hearing your words hold an audience spellbound. 

And how does it feel when you’re performing your own work to an audience?
Oh gosh. I try to forget just how sick performing Insomnia Cat made me and this will be the first time I have performed since then, so I’ll get back to you on that one. But I do think Insomnia Cat was quite a different thing because it was about my own battle with insomnia and what a failure I felt like for not being able to do something as simple and fundamental as sleep, so hopefully Braves will be a very different experience! I am playing a character instead of myself and I have always loved performing cabaret as it is just so immediate and intimate. Plus I love that I have Roderick Cairns up there with me so I’m actually incredibly excited.

Who do you go to for feedback about your writing?
I am so fortunate in this regard. This part of the process is so vital. New writing is a fragile thing and I am so lucky to have a group around me who encourage when encouragement is needed and butcher when butchery is called for. Frequently I am writing with a cast and crew in mind and so the actors and creatives can have a say from the very start of the play’s life. I am drawn to actors who have a bit of a dramaturge brain and their generosity and insight never ceases to amaze and humble me. 

Do you think actors and directors should be able to change something you’ve written? (Is the playwright always right?)
The playwright isn’t always right and the director and actors will definitely discover new things in the room. I am quite irreverent with my words and am almost always eager to change things if they seem to not be working on the floor, but I don’t believe they should make major alternations to the words without involving the playwright.   

What advice can you give to emerging playwrights?
Find your people. Revel in collaboration. See and read as much theatre as possible. Plays are written for the stage and you need to understand your medium. Never underestimate the value of a good story and always remember that you are writing words for an audience. A script is to be spoken aloud and it needs to evolve and grow beyond the page. You must give it room to grow.

What do you suggest emerging playwrights read?
The newspaper. Look for where your own downfalls are (say structure or character or dialogue) and seek out playwrights that do these things exceptionally well.

Do you read your reviews?
I don’t seek them out but I read them when people send them to me. Even with my most devastating reviews, I usually end up agreeing with a reviewer eventually. I try hard not to give reviewers opinions more weight than those of any other audience members but it can be hard and I’ll admit to being able to recite Cameron Woodhead’s (senior critic, The Age) most damning review almost word for word. Sometimes a good memory is a curse.

What’s your advice on taking criticism?
There is an art to taking criticism and there is also an art to giving it. Find the people that know how to critique a play in a way that starts a conversation rather than ends it. As brutal as it may be, criticism should make you want to race back to your desk and keep working. If it is crushing your love of the story then perhaps you are valuing the wrong opinions. Criticism is so important for our growth as artists, but it can hurt a lot. What makes us good at our jobs is that we really, really want to be good at our jobs so it will always be hard but when all else fails, go and watch Tim Minchin’s ‘Song For Phil Doust’ and swear along with him. Then have a cup of tea and go write your next play.

Container Festival poster
Container Festival poster

Can you tell readers how easy it is to get to Monash University for The Container Festival?
By car, it is the easiest thing in the world! Just jump on the Monash Freeway and go see some art. Public transport has not been kind to Clayton but this festival will be worth the travel. Container after container packed with theatre, cabaret, music, dance, visual art, games, burlesque, poetry, puppetry, exhibitions and more. The festival runs from 2 to 20 August, so come and get some art in you!

The Container Festival
Monash University, Clayton
2–20 August
Facebook page

Braves: 8 August at 8.00pm, 15 August at 6.00 pm, 16 August at 6.00 pm

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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