Belonging, Death, and Women in the Arts – In Conversation with Margi Brown Ash.

Brisbane’s own playwright and actor, Margi Brown Ash, presents a double bill of her shows He Dreamed a Train and Eve.

He Dreamed A Train. Image supplied.
He Dreamed A Train. Image supplied.

The first show, He Dreamed a Train, is about belonging. “We had just finished a season of Eve when I got a call saying my brother was diagnosed with a terminal illness,” Margi explains;

I had always wanted to write a work about belonging. I didn’t feel like I belonged in Brisbane back then. I had lived in Sydney, New York, and there was not a lot of art making happening in Brisbane. Not like Now. My brother’s diagnosis got me thinking-how do I belong when something comes along and shatters my world?

The second show, Eve, is based on the life of Eve Langley, author of the novels White Topee and The Pea-Picker, and is a blend of fiction and fact. In the 1930’s and 40’s, Langley was seen as an eccentric, eschewing typical gender roles and claiming Oscar Wilde as her alter ego (she even took his name by deed poll). Her husband had her committed to a mental institution for seven years. Margi initially came across Langley’s work doing a play when she first moved to Brisbane in 1989. Something struck a chord. “She finds all sorts of wily ways to survive. She’s got three children, her husband isn’t around much, there’s little food, and yet she finds to make it work.” Herself balancing the demands of being both an artist and a mother of young children, Margi connected deeply with Langley’s story, and he resilience in particular.

Both works are obviously very close to Margi personally- does this mean she approaches them differently to other people’s work which she has more distance from? She says no. “I approach it the same. I call the woman in He Dreamed a Train ‘The Woman’, not ‘Margi’. She would say things I’ve thought, but would never say. She’s colder than Margi.”

I have to ask- why the double bill? “Both shows are about belonging, they’re also linked thematically by death”, Margi explains. “You have an experience, and then there’s a one hour break where you can discuss the shows, the themes and how they relate to your lives…It’s like a mini festival. We wanted to push our own boundaries, contribute to Brisbane’s a sophisticated arts hub.” The two shows are in fact part of Margi’s belonging trilogy, but the third show Home had a run quite recently in Queensland Theatre Company’s Diva season in 2015 so it isn’t a triple bill- this time.

Margi works in a very collaborative way and is very enthusiastic about her colleagues on this project, having long wanted to work with director of He Dreamed a Train, Ben Knapton. “Ben brought visual dramaturgy to the work. It’s high-tech, very different to Eve with its bush, mulch, leaves and smells. Ben’s visual dramaturgy is not just AV. It transforms, it enters the actors, it’s emotive and shows the inner landscape of the characters”, Margi says. It seems she has also somewhat resolved that tension between her role as artist and mother who Eve explores as Margi will perform both shows with her son, Travis Brown Ash. When asked what this experience is like, her answer is simple and genuine. “I adore it; he is so generous. He is a composer, musician and also an actor and we use all those talents.”

Margi wanted to tell these stories because;

They’re stories we don’t talk about. As an artist, you often don’t talk about your children as it’s unprofessional. Sometimes you don’t know whether others have children…When it comes to dying, we don’t talk about it. When my dad died, Mum was told to get over it. As a therapist, I’m also interested in how we see things that are normal (like grief) and give them a diagnosis like complicated grief disorder.

Another thing which isn’t discussed a lot is how difficult it can be for women in the arts; Margi states that out of the 28 major arts companies in Australia, only one is run by a woman. While the vast majority of the theatregoing public is women, we see far fewer women’s stories on stage. As Margi puts it “Women are the ones who bare the children…I put off directing for 20 years to have my family. You still have to compromise – many men don’t have to compromise.”

So come and see two of those comparatively rare women’s stories on stage and catch He Dreamed a Train and Eve from 29 June – 16 July at the Brisbane Powerhouse’s Visy Theatre. For more information visit the Brisbane Powerhouse Website.

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