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Cybec Electric

Meet Kristen Smyth

i got myself arrested because i didn’t feel safe

Writer and performer Kristen Smyth talks about creating work that questions everything – from notions of truth and traditional social foundations to accepted wisdom – and why the bath is the perfect place to write.

Originally from London, Kristen Smyth started writing for stage after actor Tom Hardy suggested she take a stab during an improv night. A decade later and she has a Masters in Writing for Performance from VCA, her play Pin Drop was shortlisted for London’s Theatre 503 2020 International Playwright Award and her next play No Ball Games Allowed will be running at Theatre Works this March. She tells us about her Cybec Electric play i got myself arrested because i didn’t feel safe and how it came from a place of reflection and nostalgia during the pandemic.

What made you start writing for the stage?

Back in London a few years ago I was friends with the actor Tom Hardy and I used to go to his weekly performance ‘gym’ Shotgun Theatre at Theatre 503 above the Latchmere pub in Battersea. Tom had organised a group of writers and performers to hang out and work on improv and new scenes – all based on Philip Seymour Hoffman’s LAByrinth Theatre Company in New York. I was there as Tom’s mate and happily sat at the back watching everybody do their thing until one day Tom suggested I write something.

I remember watching Tom and Kelly Reilly reading a scene I’d put together based on a recent trip to Central Asia – I was working in international aid at the time, writing stories about women and cotton picking in Tajikistan – Kelly paused after reading and said ‘that’s beautiful’, and I was blown away. I felt an instant connection with the moment, creating characters and emotion on that stage and the possibilities of what you could do in theatre. Specifically on a stage in front of an audience or, as I saw it, a room full of witnesses.

I knew my life and everything I thought about writing had changed, but hah! It took me another decade to turn that into reality and that is a long long story!! Suffice to say when I was in an interview for the VCA’s writing course and Raimondo Cortese and Jane Harrison asked, ‘How come it’s taken you so long to get here?’ I broke down in tears!

Can you tell us more about your Cybec Electric play i got myself arrested because i didn’t feel safe?

I was performing as Queen Jesus in April 2021 at Theatre Works in The Gospel According to Jesus Queen of Heaven – this was my first experience of performing, and it showed me something about the connection between a writer and the audience that until that moment I had no concept of.

There’s something about the alchemy of fear as a performer and hope/expectation as an audience and I wanted to focus on the specificity of that moment with a terrifying testimony of what I had been feeling as a transwoman working through doubt, acceptance and recognition of my authentic self. So it’s a monologue but constructed with four characters providing evidence. But that’s as close to court procedural as it gets!

I found time during the pandemic to pour over nostalgia – memories of a life spent in denial, in terror, in a refusal to accept myself and the consequential chaos that comes with all that and I thought – where better to set all this than inside a military detention centre. So that’s the setting. Orange jumpsuits, barbed wire and snarling dogs.

 

i got myself arrested is as much a political statement as personal memoir and I think it’s never been more important to stand tall and be seen. Not just by those who would hate us but by those who are curious and need headlights to follow.’

 

Why this play and why now?

I think we’ve seen a global shift towards questioning everything – notions of truth, of traditional social foundations and accepted wisdom. This has caused enormous uncertainty to the custodians of power, which as a transwoman and a political campaigner I’m delighted about. A lot of this is very positive and a long time coming but we were already seeing with Trump, Brexit, Abbott, Morrison and now Boris, the almost violent blow back to progressive politics – I think this has been brewing since Obama and of course the wars in the Middle East but the collapse of the neoliberal ‘promise’ accelerated things and then of course came the pandemic.

The world is spinning in a way we haven’t seen since the first half of the 20th century. I’m reminded of a quote about David Bowie by American comedian Sara Benincasa: ‘He was the patron saint of … the freaks; the fags; the dykes; the queers; the weirdos of all stripes; and that most dangerous creature of all, the artist.’ I think that’s our job – to hold what we stand for into the light, to remind the world that we are the guardians of progression.

i got myself arrested is as much a political statement as personal memoir and I think it’s never been more important to stand tall and be seen. Not just by those who would hate us but by those who are curious and need headlights to follow.

Where do you find creative inspiration for your ideas and writing?

I get a great deal from watching the world and listening to stories unfold every day – in the street, on the tram – I think that’s something I missed without realising it during lockdowns. I lose myself in music and reading and make notes to save for later. I write mainly on my phone, often in the bath and that feeling of immersion in water frees me in a way that no desk or determination to ‘write for the next hour’ seems to achieve.

People used to say to me that writers write and I didn’t really appreciate what that meant. I thought that meant I had to dedicate my day to the craft and sit at a desk and even if nothing materialised it would be constructive. Perhaps some of that is true but more importantly what I learnt at the VCA was that we all have stories and ideas bubbling away, we just need to know and appreciate how to use the tools to capture those inspirations and jot them down.

I think of it like an alchemist or archaeologist – brushing away to see what’s underneath. When I’m in a writing rather than gestation period – and both are critical – I write when I would otherwise be flicking through news or social media. Documenting and noting and catching moments – that’s where it begins.

What do you hope audiences feel or take away after hearing your play?

I often cry when I’m writing and I love what Alistair Mcdowall says about it’s easy to make an audience cry but it’s really interesting to make them cry and for them not to know why. I get that often from listening to a piece of music – Radiohead, Kae Tempest or early Cure – a drop in chord or tone that just ignites a tenderness or wave of emotional connection.

i got myself arrested is a heartbreaker, it speaks to how many of us might feel locked inside a prison of our own construction – not just our own, society and family play their part – but ultimately we have the keys to unlock this situation. If this play encourages the audience to think about any of that I’ll be happy.


Cybec Electric 2022 runs from 3–5 March 2022 at Southbank Theatre.

Cybec Electric forms part of MTC’s ongoing commitment to the development of new Australian writing, and is only possible due to the support of the late Dr Roger Riordan AM and The Cybec Foundation.

 

Published on 18 February 2022

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