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In Conversation with Fiona Spitzkowsky

The View From Up Here is a new play by Fiona Spitzkowsky. The creative journey began seven years ago and the show has since been postponed twice due to Covid-19. Third time's a charm right? We catch up with Fiona ahead of the highly anticipated world premiere at Theatre Works this month.

Q: Can you recall a specific moment that prompted you to write The View from Up Here?

A: The View From Up Here focuses on the complex relationship between sisters, and between mothers and daughters, but the first element of the work that actually settled in my brain was the landscape; the people who populate the landscape came much later. I started writing the play while on an arty farty retreat that some very dear friends/wonderful artists used to run each year in January. We would stay for a week in a ski lodge at Falls Creek, with everyone working on individual projects but coming together for shared meals, games, and walks through the stunning landscape. The first part of the play I wrote was a description of waves of grasshoppers that would pour out of the long grass as you walked along, and the hidden fish at the silty bottom of shallow creeks that ran along beside the footpaths. I didn’t know that was the beginning of a play, it was just a bit of prose in a notebook. But somehow, that section has survived endless rewrites and the imposition of human narrative, which seems like a fitting nod to the landscape that inspired it.

Q: What are some of the themes you wanted to explore in this work? A: I think at its core the work is about different ways people can love each other. It’s gone through a lot of change, a lot of rewrites, with new elements being added or old ideas being excised but it’s always boiled down to that. I wanted to interrogate the idea of family bonds as sacred and the nuclear family as society's preferred unit of organisation and confinement. This necessarily led to grappling with the concept of ‘unconditional love’ and who it serves: what we ask of those we love and what happens when they say no. From this, cycles emerged as a central image: life cycles, menstrual cycles, cycles of violence, and what happens when a cycle is interrupted for better or for worse. Although the landscape has always been part of this work, over the years since I first started writing it our world and our landscapes have been transformed under the increasing threat of climate catastrophe. This naturally began seeping into the play – I wouldn’t say it is a Climate Change Play ™ but I think it’s difficult to write a play that is set contemporaneously that doesn’t acknowledge the reality we are living in and the future we are creating.

Q: Can you take us through the development and dramaturgical process involved in creating a new Australian work and the impact of Covid-19. A: This play has been a long time coming. I began working on it in 2015, it had its first development reading in 2017, was originally programmed for 2020, postponed until 2021 and then again to 2022. For most of this time, I have been supported by Li Satchell and Julian Dibley-Hall of vimh. I was unfathomably fortunate that Jules and Liv from vimh took an interest in the work, the support that they provided over the past five years – organising readings with actors, providing feedback, and generally championing the work – has sustained its life. It is rare to find a company who will provide such sustained support for a developing work, and I cannot thank them – and the actors, some of whom have been with the project since 2017 – enough for their commitment to this story and to my development as a writer.

Writing for theatre is a uniquely collaborative form of writing, your words naturally shift when spoken by someone else who is coming at the text with their own perspective and experience: characters in this script were completely transformed once embodied, for which I’m incredibly grateful to the actors who gave so much of themselves to the process. This can also be a very isolating experience, as you spend long stretches of time by yourself with these characters, developing their voices and their narratives, and then open up that world to other creatives and their feedback. Jules, Liv and the actors always approached the development process with genuine care for the work and curiosity about the world we were all creating together, which made this process an enjoyable challenge and ultimately resulted in a story with much greater depth.

While so many plays and productions were lost to the endless postponements caused by COVID-19, in some ways I feel lucky that the production was pushed back, because I was able to use that time to continue to fine-tune the script. I had the support of a phenomenally supportive and invested director, dramaturge and actors (including Andrea Mendez who was not able to take part in the final production but who gave so much to the development process), who endured hours of cold-reads over Zoom, rolled with rapid and often quite radical changes. They gave me the space to stretch the work, test its boundaries, break it apart and bring it back together. They trusted me, they trusted the work, and without them it would be a completely different play or – more likely – it would have ended up in a drawer somewhere.

All writers have those drawers and so often stories will languish there. And I’d hazard a guess that a lot of people have stories that they’d like to tell that never even make it onto paper to be placed in those drawers. I am incredibly fortunate to have been supported by a stellar company to develop this work over the past few years, but I am also in the immensely privileged position to be able to do that solo writing work that it required. I work part-time, I don’t have a family to support, I have a room of my own with a desk and a laptop and wifi and coffee and scotch finger biscuits. We talk about the New Australian Work as an object, a finished product, but work is a verb. If we want to see New Australian Works we need to support the artists making the work, and more importantly those who aren’t right now because they can’t afford to. This is not just a matter of pay, it's about superannuation, comfortable working spaces, equipment and childcare (to quote Hot Brown Honey, the revolution cannot happen without childcare). It’s about creating more opportunities to remount and tour shows so that projects that took years to create can live longer than a two-week season. I know I am preaching to the choir here, but it’s always good to have a reminder of the severe economic barriers that exist within our industry, especially in election season.

Also want to shout out to my wonderful and incisive friend Gen who delivered some hard truths about the work in its early stages of development. Sometimes you need to be jolted out of your comfort zone.

Q: The production team behind this show is committed to a process that prioritises sustainability and the lowest possible carbon footprint. Can you tell us about some simple measures that other theatre makers can take to reduce our impact on the environment?

A: We’re very lucky that the vimh Artist Directors are some of the founding members of Sustainable Theatres Australia, and that we have been working with Christian Taylor (also a founding member of STA) to test sustainability practices with this production. There are a whole range of different strategies that we have been using and that you can read about on the STA website, but one of the most powerful ideas I’ve taken away from this process is to trace the journey of every element of the production from its creation to use in the production to disposal and look for ways of improving sustainability at every stage of that journey. For instance, ordering materials locally rather than from overseas cuts down on the carbon footprint of those materials, sharing resources like costumes, props and set materials across productions and theatre companies ensures that the lifespan of materials isn’t cut short when the season ends. Cataloging every item involved in production and its journey is a lot of work, but it's an important commitment to make to help stave off catastrophic climate change (says the writer who didn’t have to do any of that work). I hate to put it in economic terms, but it may also help reduce costs by sharing resources or changing the materials you work with. It’s not about draconian measures that limit your creative vision, but utilising creativity to find new ways of working that value the earth and its resources as much as you value your work. THE VIEW FROM UP HERE

By Fiona Spitzkowsky

18-28 May BOOK HERE


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