Reviewer turned playwright and theatre artist Carol Dance speaks to Shveata Chandel Singh about her new production Indian Embrace, which opens at Riverside Theatre this August
Raised on a farm on the East Coast of America, Carol Dance has an enduring love for the great outdoors. But then in London, she discovered the West End. And that took Carol off on a life-changing journey. “I was into hiking, horse riding, swimming, fishing. Theatre was nothing like the farm,” says Carol, who adds that she was in London as part of her university program.
Now an eminent artist and playwright in Sydney, Carol works on various subjects and does her best to project the diversity of society through her work.
How did you come to Australia?
After university in New York, I moved to Boston to work and ‘discovered’ Australia. A friend of mine arranged a blind date with an Australian student and three months later we got married. Ian, my husband, is a scientist and fortunately he also loves theatre.
We soon moved to Sydney where I worked as a book editor and theatre reviewer for several years. Later, I did a masters degree and became the CEO of the Australian Commercial Disputes Centre.
You were a theatre reviewer for seven years for a local newspaper. What turned you into a writer?
I reviewed plays for the Eastern Suburbs newspaper group of four papers. That certainly broadened my knowledge. It made me think that I too could create theatre. While working at the Disputes Centre training commercial mediators, part of the course was role-playing parties in dispute with a trainee mediator. So I wrote role-plays, some loosely based on the disputes we handled. That was the best part of the job. I loved writing the scenarios. I loved watching the mediators draw crucial information from the parties. I saw a wide spectrum of human emotions displayed by the parties in the disputes.
I suppose some of those ideas are embedded in my playwriting but I haven’t yet written a play based on a particular dispute. I seemed to have drifted into writing about events that I feel strongly about. I mostly write about Australians who live overseas.
What inspired you to choose theatre as a career?
I slipped into playwriting by chance. I read about the Short and Sweet 10 Minute Play Festival and went along to see the finals. I was totally sceptical about how much could be done in ten minutes and was amazed at what I saw. You can create a plot, develop characters, introduce conflicts, and move to resolution all within ten minutes. So later I decided I should also do something in theatre through experience I had gained at the Disputes Centre. I had so many ideas. All I had to do was frame them for theatre.
What is the insight of your plays?
Oh, that’s a tough question because everyone gets an individual response to a play. I suppose I write about the many different ways people react to a tragedy, or to some other dramatic event in their lives. All my plays have an international element to them; basically reminding us all the Australia is not isolated. We’re part of the big world. One of my plays was about a young Cambodian woman, another about a Kenyan Olympic athlete, and another about Russian revolutionaries.
You have worked on diverse subjects but what basically appeals you to write?
I wish I knew the answer to that question. I have no idea why I write. I just do it. I will be chatting with friends and someone will say something that sparks an idea for a play and I am hooked. I have to get started on the project right away.
How many plays have you done so far?
I have written nine short plays and three full-length plays. I am working on three more simultaneously.
What is your favourite play and who is your favourite writer?
There are so many, it is hard to pick. I recall fondly ‘The Political Heart of Children’ produced by Australian Paul Gilchrist, each segment written by eight different people. I don’t like plays were not even one character is happy with the world. Playwrights Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams don’t speak to me. I am not keen on anything too light either. A good play has substance but is also humorous. If you are going to tell people the truth, you would better make them laugh, otherwise they won’t remember it. That is my mantra for the plays I write.
I remember when we moved to Sydney, my first theatre experience was seeing Vanessa Redgraves in Hedda Garbler at the Elizabeth Theatre. At the Jane Street theatre, I saw Judy Davis, Colin Friels, Mel Gibson and others. Watching the actors performing in front of you, only a few meters away, is an amazing experience. I’m convinced that intimate minimalist spaces make for the best theatre experience, for me anyway.
What was your first production?
2006 Short and Sweet, a play about Cambodia.
You have participated in Short and Sweet seven times. Can you share your experience?
Short and Sweet is great fun. And it is a way of learning hands-on the operational part of theatre. No sense in writing a play that is either too complicated or has too many characters to be feasible for a theatre company to mount. Plus you meet experienced, enthusiastic people through Short and Sweet. The actors and directors don’t get paid and yet their CVs are amazing. People who get paid lots to be in a film, for example, are keen to tread the board in a small theatre space for nix just to be part of Short and Sweet. It is all because they love theatre.
Where have your plays been performed, other than in Australia?
I have only had one short play produced in the US, in another ten-minute play festival.
Tell us something about your play ‘Golden Soil’. It seems to be very popular.
Golden Soil was about the $290 million hidden payments the Australian Wheat Board made to Saddam Hussein before the US led invasion/liberation of Iraq in 2003. The story was about how the payments affected the family of one of the Board’s marketing executives. It was a complex play with several plots running simultaneously. I had to do considerable research to write it.
You have done so many plays and have worked with people from different communities. How does that make you feel?
It is just amazing how you become almost like a family on a theatre project. When the project is over, you send a few emails to catch up with people, then fewer and fewer emails. Then you bump into someone from some project years ago and it is like you never were apart. Then you become family with the people on the next play, and so on.
What is ‘Indian Embrace’ is ready to release in August. Can you tell us about it.
Three Australians and three Indians morph into one family, following various internal and external conflicts. There are some classic conflict points in the story. Old Indian versus the new Indian, the traditional elderly Indian and the enthusiastic young Indian who wants to immigrate to Australia, cultural divides between the Australians.
We don’t want to give too much away but there is a tragedy from long ago that haunts one of the Indians and one of the Australians, an expatriate who works for an NGO. The story speaks to Indians who have immigrated to Australia, to Australians who’ve been to Indian, and really to everyone. It is not just about India or Indians, it is about life everywhere.
Tell us your experience of working with Indian community.
I was worried writing about a different culture. But, every Australian-Indian who has read the play Indian Embrace likes it and thinks I have captured something of the essence of Indian culture. So I stopped worrying and decided it must be because I’ve captured something of human culture.
Indian Embrace says that when you get right down to the nitty gritty of emotions, we’re all pretty much the same. I was very lucky that the actor who played an Indian character in my 2013 Short and Sweet play has an Indian production company, Nautanki Theatre. When he learned that the Short and Sweet play was basically one scene from a full-length play set in India he wanted to read the script. He did and the result is that Indian Embrace is showing at the Riverside Theatre, opening 21 August.