Albert Belz tells us about his love for the 80s, the town of Geelong, and his attraction to characters who live on the fringes of society.
Take a trip back in time to 1980s Geelong. Think BMX bikes, Walkmans, Gary Ablett and The Karate Kid. And of course, video games – Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, Galaga… all the classics. Thirteen-year-old Jiembra Djalu is the new kid in town. He may be a video game whizz and a genius, but he’s always getting into trouble. A friendship with the old Greek owner of the local arcade, Mr Pavlis, and a chance at gaming glory could see him change his life forever, but this could also mean leaving for a galaxy far, far away.
When did you start working on Astroman?
Soon after I moved to Australia in 2012. I was armed with the beginnings of a loose storyline about a genius kid who loved computer games in the 80s and really started refining it while in Geelong.
In many ways it reads like a love-letter to the 80s, and also to the city of Geelong. Where did your inspirations for Astroman begin?
Yes, the piece was always intended to be a love letter to everything ‘cool’ about the 80s and the arcade culture that came with it. When I was growing up in the early 80s I lived in a small New Zealand township called Whakatane. Other than the obvious size and population difference, Geelong felt quite similar to Whakatane, add one genius and the story pretty much wrote itself.
Your hero protagonist Jiembra (Jim) has a very distinct voice. His vernacular and mannerisms feel very real. Is this a character that existed in your head for a long time? Where did he come from?
Not really, he was still forming as I was writing. I kept the characters looser than what I normally would for an early draft. Mostly because I was more interested in what the actors bought to the table and their insight in the Djalu family’s experience in Geelong. I was at the workshops to listen, watch, and learn and many of those character subtleties and traits about the family and Mr Pavlis were so much gifted to the story by those practitioners in the workshops.
The character of Mr Pavlis is so defined, how did you create him and give him such a big heart?
Like so many theatre/screenwriters, I’ve always been interested in writing those characters who are quite happy to live on the fringes of society, they’re the most interesting ones. One of my favourite moments while writing Astroman was when I discovered that Jiembra and Mr Pavlis were recognising in each other that they were facing another fringe-dweller. Pavlis’ recognition of this is the moment he starts to open himself to the idea of entering another’s life and sharing that big heart of his again. I’m pretty sure this discovery for me was in a workshop.
This is the world premiere of your new play – what are you most looking forward to about sharing Jiembra Djalu’s story with the world?
The first beer afterwards.
Where does your interest in arcade games stem from? Did you have any favourite games growing up?
I think as a kid I was just buzzing out on this new interactive technology that allowed me to create a story in the mind without having to open a book. My folks wouldn’t give me money to play games at the arcade so I wasted many hours at the shoulder of others watching them play. But dad did buy the family a Spectrum 48k computer. I loved programming games into it from magazines. My favourite games at the arcade were ‘all of them’, but I really liked Gauntlet, Ikari Warriors and Star Wars.
Do you think the era of the Game Arcade still exist, or has the information age and social media uprising rendered them uncool?
I’m not sure if a place ruled by gaming geeks of the 80s could ever be ‘cool’. But they certainly became unnecessary with the rise and affordability of more powerful gaming consoles for home use.
New Zealand is your country of origin, but you’ve written a truly Australian story with First Nations’ children as your central characters. What compelled you to tell this particular story?
There were a few reasons for this. I’d just moved to Australia – so when in Rome, write a Roman story right? Except I wasn’t interested in writing a play about white Australia, there’s already plenty of that at the theatre and on screens. I wanted to write about the Australia that I wasn’t seeing or experiencing much of. I wanted to write about an Australia that I was interested in learning more about. And then my 10-year-old daughter bought home a new friend from school. Her mob were Wurundjeri, she was the smartest kid I’d met in a long while and with a mouth that wouldn’t stop, she was happy for the world to know it. That’s what I wanted to write about! That’s when I began refining the storyline I’d started.
You’ve written quite specific stage directions into your play, with an emphasis on video projections and technologies. What do you love most about writing for the stage and what do you find most challenging?
Experiencing the vision coming to life through the actors is my favourite part. The most challenging part is finding the time to sit down and write while ignoring the guilty conscience in one’s head that keeps yelling something about letting the family down by locking the door to sit in front of the laptop.
Do you have any writing habits or rituals you could share with us?
My usual method of writing consists of months of mulling/ procrastination and some note-taking followed by an intense couple of weeks locked away from the family – smashing out a first draft.
What do you find most challenging about completing a new work?
Getting the money to put it on. Enough money so that everyone involved can at least pay their rent and feed their family for the duration can be a lot tougher than the writing of the piece.
Anything you’d like to add about your play Astroman.
Just a big thanks to PlayWriting Australia for their support of the piece, and of course to Melbourne Theatre Company for having the nads to give it a stage. Also, a super-huge thanks to those workshop practitioners who were so open and giving of their stories and time. Arohanui!