In conversation with MKA: The Melbourne Writer’s Festival’s ‘Theatre-in-Residence’.

Tobias Manderson-Galvin
Tobias Manderson-Galvin

Tobias Manderson-Galvin and Glyn Roberts are the creative heart of independent theatre troupe MKA, which has carved out a name for itself over the past four years with its innovative approach to temporary spaces and its focus on new writing.

Their tireless efforts have seen MKA build over nine pop-up theatre spaces across Melbourne and produce over a dozen shows – most notably, perhaps, Manderson-Galvin’s The Economist – that have garnered critical acclaim both here and overseas. Presently serving as the Melbourne Writer’s Festival’s ‘Theatre in Residence’, Glyn and Tobias spoke to AussieTheatre’s Brendan McCallum about their plans for the Festival.

For many, the image of playwrights and writing in general is as a solitary thing – alone at a desk, waiting for the inspiration to strike. Not so with Glyn Roberts and Tobias Manderson-Galvin of MKA, the independent troupe tasked with carrying the role of Melbourne Writer’s Festival ‘Theatre in Residence’. For them, writing is an act of constant engagement with fellow artists and above all the dramatic discipline.

“We definitely are literary people,” says Glyn, “but in our day-to-day to lives we are always working in the performative or performance world … we’re in rehearsal rooms more than we are at our desks, having a little write. We’re sort of this curious, lively, bi-polar beast”

“We are writers”, he says, “but at the same time we are theatre-makers and we are sort of stretched between two camps”.

As Glyn points out, the practice of playwriting is a curious one amongst other literary pursuits. When asked about the persistent conversation as to whether plays can constitute literature, Glyn draws attention to the fact that approximately fifty percent of recipients for the Noble Prize for Literature are, in fact, primarily known for their playwriting – think of Pinter or Dario Fo. Playwriting is, he says, “an important part of the canon of literature”.

Part of the problem, both agree, is that the ultimate end-point of any theatre script is not so much the reading, as the performance. “Most playwrights would love to have a play-script printed, but really the final product is always a performance,” observes Glyn. Compounding the issue is what Tobias cites as the fact that the act of assessing a theatrical script is very different from the critical apparatus brought to bear on assessing other forms of literature. Many people, he observes, are “not seasoned, in whatever means you might be trained, in how to read a play” he notes.

Roberts and Manderson-Galvin mention their dissatisfaction with the presentation of previous playwriting events they have attended. One particular instance stands out for Glyn. At an event featuring noted Australian playwright Stephen Sewell (Glyn doesn’t specify, but presumably the 2010 Melbourne Writer’s Festival where the author was a guest) Sewell was to read out an excerpt of his work. Instead of drawing from any of the dozen or more theatre-scripts he is known for, he read from a novelization of the film script for Animal Kingdom, adapted from Sewell’s stage play by David Michod.

Glyn describes Sewell as “an amazing playwright … but the reason he sort of did that is that he knew the game. He had something in the bookshop and he needed to sell it and he wanted people to go out and get it”.

One can understand both Sewell’s gambit and Robert’s frustration with it. It can be argued that, despite publishing houses like Currency Press and others printing play-scripts, the simple truth is that they are not widely or readily available, unless one already knows where to look and what to look for. The awareness on the part of the wider public, and therefore the promotion to those outside of the theatre community for such a product, simply isn’t there.

Says Glyn, “if he [Sewell] was to pick one of his plays out, there was no way the audience could leave the room and access it; and we thought there was something missing in that final product. The final product – this is, I suppose you’d call it the ‘system’ – is sort of an afterthought.”

So how is MKA approaching this issue? Essentially, by absorbing as much of the proceedings as they can and distilling the raw experience into theatrical form to be presented on the closing night of the festival.

“Essentially we are going to experience the Melbourne Writer’s Festival and, at the very end of the festival, we are going to create a play, a performance – that is, I guess, our reaction to the Melbourne Writer’s Festival – and show what playwrights do and how playwrights sort of work,” says Glyn.

“We’re going to put on a show, because that is the final endpoint of playwriting”.

For a company that made its name through a focus on new writing and the utilisation of temporary spaces, it is a continuation of what has proven to be an innovative and productive arc. Yet the days of MKA as a roving theatre-space machine look to be limited. Glyn acknowledges that creating temporary venues, despite being considered ‘cool’ and succeeding in getting people’s writing out in the public eye, is ultimately exhausting.

“It was almost as cool as Mexican street food”, offers Tobias, “As cool as five-panel hats”.

It was also, they became aware, starting to define the work in a way that neither felt comfortable with. Says Glyn, “we realised the work is good enough to stand on its own feet without putting it in a trendy warehouse space”. Tobias recalls one occasion in 2012 when an earthquake struck during a performance.

“We were in a theatre warehouse space when that earthquake happened”, he recollects. “After the show we came in and said to everyone ‘look, there’s been an earthquake’ … and nobody believed us. They thought that Glyn and I were behind this home-made seating bank with fifty people on it, shaking it.”

“In terms of the space defining the work”, Tobias says, “that was definitely a moment where we went ‘maybe it’s time to come somewhere where people don’t expect the building to fall down’.”

For those taken with the MKA approach – fast-paced, anarchic, electric and often times energized by a sly, transgressive genius – it really doesn’t matter where they end up. Consider the Melbourne Writer’s Festival, their new temporary home. Rest assured their audience is sure to find them at the Toff in Town on September 1 and raise the roof.

What can they expect?

“We don’t know what it is”, Glyn says. “We’ve got some ideas. We’ve got a few tricks up our sleeves”.

Tobias Manderson-Galvin and Glyn Roberts of MKA will be performing their response to the Melbourne Writer’s Festival at The Toff in Town on Sunday the 1 September at 9.00pm.

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