Sydney-born director and writer Alex Broun tells Shveata Chandel Singh why the theatre always feels like home.
Alex Broun says his love for theatre began when his sister Charlotte took him along with her for a play. The Sydney-born actor, director and writer started participating in productions at Australian Theatre for Young People when he was around 14 and says one of his fondest memories of theatre is acting in a play at ATYP with Nicole Kidman.
Alex Broun is also a patron of ‘Abhinay School of Performing Arts Inc’ and is best known among the Indians for conducting play-writing workshops with Abhinay every year in June and supporting the Indian talent.
Alex says that as a teenager, he was a bit of a loner but ATYP welcomed and supported him. Theatre is one of the two places, says Alex, where he feels most comfortable in life. Over the last 30 years he has been very lucky to work on many productions as an actor, director and writer and has travelled all over the world working with talented theatre artists from across the globe in creating wonderful work.
He gives Shveata Chandel Singh a peep behind the scenes.
What inspired you to choose theatre as a career?
I don’t think so you choose theatre, theatre chooses you. I had a very troublesome childhood and to cope with that I began telling stories, escaping into the depths of my imagination.
I guess that due to my involvement in ATYP I felt most comfortable in telling those stories on stage. I prefer to tell stories through dialogue and characters interacting on stage rather than through prose (novels) or images (films). I have always thought in theatrical terms in my writing and seen my situations and characters as if they were happening on stage while creating them.
What are your plays about?
I write on a broad selection of subjects so different plays have different insights. But overall I guess I am fascinated by why people act the way they do and what inner machinations drive them to say the things they do and live their lives a certain way. People are a great mystery and through my plays I am always trying to work out what makes people tick, good and bad, and illuminate that.
What do you look for in your characters?
I look for stories, characters or situations that are inherently theatrical. It is the first question you need to ask when deciding what to write your play about – will this be interesting when performed on stage.
How many plays you have done so far?
I have written over 100 ten-minute plays and over 30 one-act, full-length plays. Some people call me a prolific playwright!
I have been lucky enough to have my plays produced in 34 different countries in different languages.
In 2010, in Concepcion, Chile, my play 10,000 Cigarettes was used by a local theatre group “to bring some joy to the community” after the devastating earthquakes.
Although I am Australian, the US is the place where my work is most performed with over 550 productions of my work around the US to just over 300 in Australia.
My play ‘The Voice behind the fence’ was performed in English in Bangalore at the famous Ranga Shankar theatre and received a stunning response where the Indian audience completely embraced the pain of this monologue about an Indian woman locked in an Australian detention centre.
I have had similar uplifting experiences when I have seen my plays performed in Malaysia and Singapore – where completely different cultures respond so strongly to my words.
Who would you say was your mentor in theatre?
My best experience was working with the wonderful Australian theatre and film director George Ogilvie who is truly an amazing director and a wonderful mentor and I learnt a lot from him.
I assisted George on his production of Proof at the Sydney Theatre Company with Jacqueline McKenzie and Barry Otto and also on Norma at Opera Australia, which was also a great experience.
You are known as the Shakespeare of short plays, so tell us how you started writing them?
I started writing short plays in the late 1990s when I was living in South Africa – and I didn’t even realise that was what I was doing.
I had an idea to write a suite of scenes all set on New Year’s Eve, with each scene set in a different country. So the play would be like travelling around the world on one long New Year’s Eve. That collection became known as 16 scenes for the ‘New World’ and it is there on my website. Some of my most successful ten-minute plays were written as part of that collection – ‘Saturday Night Newtown Sunday Morning Enmore’ (originally Saturday Night Birmingham Sunday Morning Walsall) and ‘The First Fireworks’. Both those plays have gone on to be produced all over the world in many productions but they began life as a scene from a larger vision.
I believe ten-minute plays are the theatre of the future. The world is speeding up, we live in a MTV/YouTube/Facebook generation. You are bombarded with 100 stories a day – TV, newspapers, the web, radio, even ads are stories.
So, why write a full-length play that may never be performed when you can say all the same things in ten minutes and have that play performed worldwide? The short form is the way of the future. Young audiences enjoy it. The audience for two hour bore-a-thons is slowly dying out. To paraphrase Andy Warhol: “In the future all plays may be famous for ten minutes.”
What is your favourite play and who is your favourite writer?
I like many plays and playwrights. Shakespeare, I believe, was a master of dialogue, character, and conflict and his plays will endure throughout time.
Growing up I was influenced by the plays of Pinter, Beckett, Strindberg, Ibsen and Arthur Miller. But if I had to choose I would say my favourite writers are August Strindberg, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, with Sarah Kane a modern favourite. And favourite plays would be William’s ‘A Streetcar named Desire’, O’Neill’s ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night’, Strindberg’s ‘A Dream Play’ and Kane’s ‘4:48 Psychosis’.
Tell us a bit about your work as a director?
I directed Woomera by Josh Wakely and Purgatory Down Under (both at The Old Fitzroy Theatre in Sydney) and was assistant director to George Ogilvie on David Auburn’s Proof at the Sydney Theatre Company in 2003 and Nick Enright’s The Man with Five Children at the Sydney Theatre Company in 2001.
I also assisted Ogilvie on Norma at Opera Australia in 2004. I was Assistant Director to Wayne Harrison on ‘Alone It Stands’ by John Breen for its Australian and New Zealand tour in 2002 and 2003.
I have also written and directed three short films: ‘Broken’, ‘Running Short’ and ‘Ryan’s Goal’.
You have worked as an activist for refugee rights with the Refugee Action Coalition. What was that like?
Australia has a shameful record on its treatment of refugees and it is wonderful to be involved in trying to encourage more compassionate treatment for refugees through the Refugee Action Coalition.
I also attended the protests at Baxter detention centre in 2003 where I wrote my long poem, ‘The Red Dust of Baxter’. More recently I have taken on a role as a National Ambassador for ‘Welcome to Australia’ where I have been able to continue this important work in trying to change society’s harsh views on refugees and newcomers to Australia.
You have also worked as a rugby journalist. How did that happen?
I used to play rugby in school but I was quite badly injured when I left school so I started writing about rugby. I travelled to the Rugby World Cup in South Africa in 1995, which was an amazing experience, and that was where my Rugby writing career really took off.
I stayed in South Africa after the tournament and worked for the South African Rugby Union as Media Manager and later as Media Liaison for the Springboks from 1997 to 2000 under Nick Mallett.
Since returning to Australia at the end of 2000, I have continued to work extensively as a rugby writer for the Australian Rugby Union, the International Rugby Board, Inside Rugby and newspapers such as The Daily Telegraph and the Sydney Morning Herald.
In 2007, I was the media manager for the Melbourne Rebels in the short-lived Australian Rugby Championship.
Tell us something about Short+ Sweet?
I have worked extensively with Short+Sweet, the largest ten-minute theatre festival in the world and have played a vitally important role in its growth across the globe. From 2004 to 2006, I was the artistic co-ordinator of Short+Sweet Sydney and from 2005 to the 2008, I was the artistic co-ordinator of Melbourne Short+Sweet.
In 2007, I was the artistic director of the inaugural Short+Sweet Singapore and in February 2013, I helped to launch the first ever Short+Sweet Dubai and will again be involved in that festival in February 2014.
Your recent play on Swami Vivekananda was well taken by the audience, so what motivated you to do a play on his life?
I was asked to write the play by the Vedanta Centre in Sydney as part of the celebrations around the 150th birth anniversary of Vivekananda.
I didn’t know a lot about Vivekananda before I started writing the play but I greatly related to his story of searching for enlightenment and then carrying that message to the world.
It was an incredibly powerful story and it was a great honour to bring it to the stage.
It is very tough to depict the life a person who was from a different cultural background through play or theatre, so how you choose actors who can justify the roles?
We were very lucky to have a number of actors involved in the production who were from India. Also many important episodes from Vivekananda’s life took place in America and England so the Australian actors were well trained for playing those.
A big part of the production was getting females to play males and Indian to play non-Indians and vice-a-versa. This was to signify the idea of ‘oneness’ that Vivekananda was so passionate about through his life to mirror the theme in the form. It worked extremely well with the audience responding with standing ovations at every performance.
You roped in few Indian artists in your play as well?
We were very lucky to have Shaheb, who travelled all the way from Kolkata to play Vivekananda. Shaheb has a wonderful singing voice, has an uncanny resemblance to Vivekananda and is also a brilliant actor so we were incredibly fortunate to have him in the title role.
His performance was mesmerising, moving and truly world class. We were also very lucky to have a number of Indian actors based in Australia playing key roles, such as Bali Padda who superbly played the young Vivekananda and Suparna Mallick who was brilliant as Bhuvaneswari, Vivekananda’s mother. Carlos Sivalingam, a Sri Lankan actor, played Viswanath, Vivekananda’s father and he also did a superb job. Carlos, Bali and Suparna were already based in Sydney so the only actor we brought in was Shaheb.
After the highly successful season in Australia, hopes are high to tour it next year to Malaysia, Singapore, Mauritius, South Africa and India – funding permitting!