Late last year, Benjamin Law sat down with Melbourne Theatre Company to reflect on the journey he’s taken towards his debut stage play, Torch the Place – from its development through MTC’s NEXT STAGE Writers’ Program to its first public reading at MPavilion in 2018. Torch the Place will premiere at Arts Centre Melbourne in February as part of AsiaTopa.
You’ve written books, essays, columns, for TV, are a regular contributor to a number of publications, co-host a radio show… the list goes on! Working with MTC is your first foray into playwriting though – is it something you always had an interest in? How has the process differed from your other writing projects?
I’ve always loved theatre – one of my native habitats is a theatre foyer; I’ve also written a nasty little comedy micro-play for the Sydney Fringe Festival before – but always as an audience member. But I’ve always instinctively known there are some stories I want to tell that are far better suited for the stage, because of their immediacy, their batshit ideas, or theatre’s immediate ability to foster a sense of community and communion.
‘Even when I’ve written so-called serious longform journalism, there’s still dark humour to be found. I love seeing tragedies unfold in the midst of a celebration, and unintentionally hilarious things that pop up in the midst of grief. That’s how life works. It’s also good theatre.’
It’s been helpful to have TV screenwriting experience up my sleeve – there are some similarities – but it’s been equally thrilling and intimidating (in a healthy way) to collaborate so much more intimately with actors and other key creatives in a way screenwriters often aren’t afforded.
What have you enjoyed about the process of being commissioned with Melbourne Theatre Company as part of the NEXT STAGE Writers’ Program?
Look, even just being in the same room with my friend Ellen van Neerven alongside playwriting greats like Patricia Cornelius, Angus Cerini and Joanna Murray-Smith for our Day One photoshoot was surreal. But also being in the womb of the oldest Australian theatre company, in amongst all that history, and knowing you’re now part of it, is bloody intoxicating. And working alongside legends like Brett Sheehy, Chris Mead and Dean Bryant – you couldn’t ask for more.
In late 2018 your NEXT STAGE commission, Torch the Place, had a reading at MPavilion. What was is like having the play brought to life in public for the first time?
To be honest? Insanely exposing. In TV, actors usually read our scripts at the very end of the process, when the writers and producers have gone through every last line of action and dialogue with a fine-tooth comb and the scripts are more or less locked. Having actors brought in halfway through the writing process – when everyone is fully aware the play still isn’t quite finished – felt like getting onto a stage flustered, half dressed and with your balls half on display.
‘I’m not religious, but going in to see a brilliant play is what I imagine going to church, the mosque or synagogue is like for believers.’
However, what you also get – and what’s invaluable – is seeing and hearing audiences react to what’s working and not. Also getting the actors’ input on where they feel the story or characters are wobbly is so important.
Your writing deftly moves between comedy and drama. How do you decide on a genre when you embark on a new project?
Actually, I’m not sure there’s that much separating the two. Even when I’ve written so-called serious longform journalism, there’s still dark humour to be found. I love seeing tragedies unfold in the midst of a celebration, and unintentionally hilarious things that pop up in the midst of grief. That’s how life works. It’s also good theatre.
How do your real-life experiences or observations weave their way into your storytelling?
Coming from a non-fiction background especially, I’ve always been geared towards thinking of how to convey real-life stories to an audience or readership. In the end, it’s still all about truth: sometimes it’s literal and factual truth; other times it’s about emotional and universal truths.
What do you most enjoy about the theatre experience as an audience member?
That sense of walking into the room as strangers and coming out as a community. I’m not religious, but going in to see a brilliant play is what I imagine going to church, the mosque or synagogue is like for believers.
What do you think the future looks like for Australian theatre, and what would you like to see more of on Australian stages?
‘Diversity’ is a buzzword that I think is starting to feel cosmetic for some people. What that conversation is really about is who is and isn’t included. Do we have enough women, disabled people, queer folks and non-Anglo people represented in both cast and crew?
It’s starting to change, and a show like Belvoir’s Counting and Cracking – one of the best things I’ve seen in years – is testament to that. I see writers and friends like Nakkiah Lui, Declan Greene, S.Shakthidharan, Tommy Murphy, my sister Michelle Law, Jean Tong, Michelle Lee, Disapol Savetsila and so many others absolutely slaying it. But it’s only a start. For instance, Asian-Australians are a bit over one in 10 of the population nowadays – roughly proportionate to how many black Americans there are in the US – so we’ve got a long way to go.
You always seem to have many projects on the go at once; what else have you been working on?
Every week, I co-host the pop culture show Stop Everything with Beverley Wang on ABC RN, and I interview public people about private topics in the back page of Good Weekend. We [did] a two-part major documentary for the ABC TV about Chinese-Australian history called Waltzing the Dragon (which screened on ABC TV in July 2019; it can currently be seen via iView), where I go on road trip with my mum and dad across regional Australia, our major cities and across China, and discover Australian history has always been defined by a Chinese presence – centuries before the First Fleet arrived, in fact. And I’ve also edit[ed] the anthology Growing Up Queer in Australia.
Benjamin Law's Torch the Place plays at Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio, from 8 February to 21 March 2020.
Published on 2 January 2020