Tom Davis is an Australian playwright, whose new play The Chain Bridge is currently in rehearsal at The Street, and due to open Saturday 21st November.
- Tell us a little about yourself and your writing background.
I’m a Canberra-based playwright, a University of Melbourne fellow and a foreign aid / foreign policy analyst. I wrote several plays while completing what my wife describes as a ‘lifestyle PhD’ at Melbourne University in the early 2000s. My writing was starting to get noticed by groups such as the Malthouse Theatre—I was invited to put forward a piece for one of their produced readings—when academia gobbled me up for a decade. Then we moved to Canberra; my son was born; I shifted out of academia. All three changes pushed me in different ways to write again. I wrote five pages of what became The Chain Bridge and applied to The Street’s playwriting program, The Hive, overseen by the wonderful Peter Matheson. The response from readings of early versions of the script reminded me that I could do this. Caroline Stacey, Artistic Director at The Street, saw something in the play, and pushed and prodded me to complete it. ArtsACT generously awarded me a production grant. The Street also came to the party. The rest is …
- What do you love most about playwriting?
I genuinely enjoy the act of writing. Sitting down at my desk with a blank page in front of me and then sketching something out in long hand (I type up later). I especially enjoy playwriting because of all the elements at your disposal in theatre: dialogue, sub-text, silence, physical action, music, design and all the possibilities good actors bring to a production. Plus there’s the knowledge that, at some point hopefully, there will be an audience who will help complete the circle of the story-telling. Finally, I love seeing dress rehearsal when something I’ve written is put on stage by a talented cast and production crew. There’s this thing that is both mine and not mine—it now has its own life, with all the flaws and beauty that involves. Seeing this communal product always produces a moment of deep joy in me.
- What do you find is the hardest part about writing?
For me the hardest part is building the underlying structure, the double helix narrative of ideas and emotions that will support all the layers of story-telling that need to occur in a play. I’ll often write what I think is a great scene and then realise that it just doesn’t fit what the play is really about. Writers like to talk about ‘murdering our darlings’, the problem is in having the self-awareness to know in the first place that a particular scene, or line, is a ‘darling’ that is lost in the wrong play. I’m a softy, though; I tend to put mine in an orphanage file in my computer rather than murder them.
- What piece of advice do you have for aspiring playwrights?
“Be patient,” and, “Have some faith in yourself.” I keep re-learning these things. It is so easy to take short cuts with theatre writing. When you’re stumped as to what a character’s next move should be you write a few bits of tricksy verbal sparring (assuming you’ve got a reasonable facility with dialogue) and you’re over the hump and on to a nice set piece. The problem is that audiences have a very sophisticated, innate understanding of story. They know, even if they can’t put it into words, when you’ve avoided the hard work of making decisions about the direction in which a particular story just has to go. They’ll laugh and they’ll cry—we’re all prone to bathos—but they’ll know that what they just saw wasn’t quite what it should have been. So, when writing, be patient. Have some faith that the answer will come. And don’t kid yourself if it hasn’t.
- Can you tell us about some of your upcoming projects?
My play, The Chain Bridge, opens at The Street Theatre, Canberra, on 21 November. At its essence, it’s a very twisted love story. It’s about the love between parents and children, husbands and wives, and the limits of that love. It involves fights over truth and how history should be told, and the personal cost of surviving horrors such as WWII and the 1956 Budapest Uprising. The key dilemma for the characters is: What part of one’s self can exist free from the history of the people we love?
Another play, The Faithful Servant, has been picked up by The Street and will be put on in the second half of 2016. It’s about our moral obligations to the global poor versus our obligations to our families—which makes it sound very deep and profound, but there seem to be quite a number of sex jokes creeping in. Mbira music from Mozambique is the soundtrack to my writing of this, and is providing some inspiration, as are conversations with Mozambican emigres here in Canberra.
I also have a play-writing commission to fulfill for the Canberra Youth Theatre in 2016.
Tom Davis has a PhD in political science and worked for a number of years as a lecturer, researcher and consultant in international development and public policy. Tom is an analyst and manager in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and an honorary fellow at the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne. The Chain Bridge is Tom’s fourth full play, and the first to be produced by The Street Theatre. It was written with the assistance of the Street’s Hive playwriting program and First Seen performed readings seasons.
Photo by Lorna Sim.