TW Talks Tuesday: An Interview With Christopher Bryant & Jessica Dick

Goodbody’s unexpected death left an enigma. In Melbourne 45 years later, playwright Christopher Bryant read about her and was transfixed. Her story seemed to flow into that of another pioneering theatre figure, Betty Burstall, founder of Melbourne’s La Mama.

CB: As I was widening my research I discovered that Buzz had toured with a show, Twelfth Night, to Melbourne with the RSC, and this was close to the time La Mama had started up. So I segued from her life to Betty Burstall’s and imagined what it would be like if they had met as I saw their similarities.

Writer Christopher Bryant & Director Jessica Dick

Buzz Goodbody brought theatre to a new audience before her suicide at the age of 28. He read about the sexism and misogyny that shaped their reception in the male-dominated theatre hierarchies of the 1960s and ‘70s. He saw other parallels in their passion for staging plays in intimate spaces to make theatre come alive for all kinds of audiences.

CB: Buzz was very forward-thinking. Now plain-clothes Shakespeare is not revolutionary but back in the ’70s it was amazing. Even after her death she contributed so much to theatre; why don’t we know who she is?

Bryant had a fellowship at the State Library of Victoria and the luxury of delving deep into the histories of both women. With Goodbody, he found little and has had to speculate and fictionalise for his script for The Other Place.

CB: I spent a month reading handwritten letters from Betty Burstall to her lover and vice versa, which was amazing, like reading a novel. Then with Buzz there was mostly a question mark. Reviews, photos, Judi Dench mentions her… Her suicide note burned into my brain: “I am a tortoise without a shell”.

What we do know is that this politicised young feminist became the RSC’s first female director. True to her principles, she agitated for a space in which to present plays for 70 pence a seat, with actors in T-shirts and jeans. Like La Mama, it was intimate and not always comfortable.

Actors such as Ben Kingsley embraced the stripped-back approach to the nation’s revered canon. Charles Dance, another acolyte, reportedly said “it wasn’t the other place to us, it was the main place”.

Goodbody aspired to create “democratic, accessible and popular theatre for the masses”, writes Alycia Smith Howard in her history of The Other Place.

In the 1970s, when some of her peers regarded Shakespeare plays as elitist, she saw the popular art that he had intended.

Burstall, a familiar name to anyone with even a passing interest in Australian theatre, was mobilised by a visit to New York, where she saw actors present unfunded, original work in small cafes. She returned to Melbourne and created La Mama in 1967.

A recent fire at its Carlton home has been a major setback, yet La Mama as an entity is solidly embedded in Melbourne. Noted actors and writers from David Williamson to Cate Blanchett are part of its history and its theatre, poetry and music seasons continue to champion the model of giving artists their first break.

Burstall and her peers in the ’60s had quite a different task to Goodbody’s, striving to create local work amid a dominant British and American culture.

As Williamson has noted: “Betty came along and gave Australian actors the opportunity to do their own accents on stage and for writers to tell their own stories”.

Jessica Dick, director of The Other Place, believes both women “created a kind of national indie theatre”.

JD: Even though Buzz only worked in Shakespearean theatre, that kind of interpretation then went out and grew massively in the UK and internationally, in all those companies like Bell Shakespeare and Shakespeare in the Park productions. She knew that Shakespeare was writing for the people more than anything and his original plays had to compete with bear-baiting and prostitution for the same price.

It might have seemed obvious for Bryant and Dick to produce the play with La Mama, but they opted to keep a slight distance.

JD: The story is shared by these two women and equally split between them, so if you put it at one of the theatres, one is immediately elevated in terms of the locale and attachment to the story. To put the play on in Theatre Works, which existed because of places like La Mama and The Other Place, drives the story forward.

The venue also resonates in a meta-theatrical way. A story of women in independent, fringe spaces is being staged in an independent theatre facing a precarious future amid funding uncertainty.

It’s telling that Bryant’s play – also unfunded – is as much about theatre itself.

CB: The idea of the women meeting shifted from a naturalistic story to something almost meta-theatrical. There are the two roles of Betty and Buzz. At one point, one became a local legend, the other took her own life. Then the cast of five operates as kind of a Greek chorus, talking about women creating powerful and dramatic theatre. The script begins with Elizabethan theatre, goes through expressionism and postmodernism and magical realism, so the chorus acts as a guide for the audience.

Bryant and Dick broadly agree that, unlike funding challenges, some battles become easier to fight due to the legacy of people such as Goodbody and Burstall.

JD: There’s no way now someone would write an article about me being unconventionally attractive – as they did in the same paper where, in Buzz’s case, she was getting a four-and-a-half star review for her Hamlet. They’d say things then like “how do you get people to listen to you if you’re not attractive?” These are not questions I’ve ever been asked. I’m the recipient of the benefits of what many of these women have done. So I felt a pull to the play not because any of this happened to me, but as an ode to the people who have done this for us.


Read more about The Other Place here.

This interview was originally published in THE AGE by SONIA HARDORD. 

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