Working with Words: Patricia Cornelius

Patricia Cornelius is an award-winning playwright. She has also published a novel (My Sister Jill, Random House) and acted. Her latest play, Savages, is currently shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Drama.

We spoke to Patricia about writing characters who are often ignored, the bad climate for original Australian works (especially by a female) and having dinner with the women of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls.

What was the first piece of writing you had published or produced?

The first play I wrote and performed was a one-woman show called Witch. It was at La Mama in Faraday Street, Carlton, which is a theatre space unique to our country, and which is the heartbeat of independent theatre in Melbourne. The play was about the witch hunts of the Middle Ages, which took an extraordinary number of ordinary women’s lives in the most cruel and bizarre ways. I didn’t think of myself as a writer and for a long time I defined myself as an actor who wrote sometimes. Witch had a great life force and the material was powerful, and I had a good sense of the theatrical, but it’s a first work and shows how little confidence I had then with words.

What’s the best part of your job?

I can write about whatever I choose. I choose to write about aspects of my country which are often ignored. I choose to write characters that are also often ignored on our stages. There’s an obvious political reason for this but it’s also about my interest in the language my characters speak. I like to write about the world we either pretend doesn’t exist or feel shouldn’t be the subject of our literature. It’s a tough world and the voices are often inarticulate and angry and full of contradiction and. It’s my pleasure to find the eloquence; the power, their right to be heard.

The cast of *Savages*.

The cast of Savages.

What’s the worst part of your job?

I can write about whatever I choose, and discover that no one else in the theatre industry is interested. Too bleak, they say. Too big a risk, they say. Too bad, for my play, I’m afraid. It’s difficult to get a play produced, be it bleak or bushy-tailed. The climate is not conducive to original Australian works and especially if it’s written by a female. The statistics are embarrassing but not embarrassing enough it seems. The emphasis is on stars, on pleasing a subscription audience, on entertainment. I don’t give a shit if my plays entertain. Do they work? Do they say something important? Do they enthrall, shock, stimulate, do they move an audience? These things I care about.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

Writing Who’s Afraid of the Working Class with three other playwrights, Andrew Bovell, Christos Tsiolkas and Melissa Reeves and a composer, Irine Vela, felt incredibly risky. Melbourne Workers Theatre was a company where I’d done what would be considered equal to an apprenticeship. This play was in response to the ten-year anniversary for the company and a time under the Liberal Government led by Kennett. It was a tough play that felt raw and audacious and honest. Four playwrights worked together, complimenting and daring each other, demanding a robust and vital collective work. It was terrific. Each of us thought we would have a heart attack on opening. It powerfully struck a chord, reflected the kind of society we had become. And the audience loved it.

Equally significant was a phone call I received from Jane Palfreyman, who was working at Random House and was ringing to let me know that she wanted to publish my novel, My Sister Jill. I rang friends and no one was answering, which forced me out onto the street to tell strangers the news. I had known for a long time that I had that novel in me but despite the fact I had won a confidence in writing for performance, I knew that writing prose was an entirely different beast.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

The best advice I’ve had was from fellow playwright, Andrew Bovell and that was about reusing images. I had this very fixed notion that once something had been used in one piece then it couldn’t be recycled. He was very pragmatic about it. Why not? If it worked the first time and you still think there’s something strong in it then use it again.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

I read a review in a very, very right-wing magazine of my play, Do not go gentle…. I’m very proud of this play. It is large and works on a beautiful metaphorical level. It is also a gentle play though it has some strong feelings. I was surprised at how nasty the review was. How it attacked the very things I held dear. How unrelenting it was. The very fine and wonderful actors even got a serve. I’ve had bad reviews before, but the viciousness of this one was gob-smacking.

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I would have made a good farmer. All the dramatic ingredients, the weather, the economy, a ewe having problems delivering her lamb, are there to keep me alive and kicking.

There’s much debate on whether writing can be taught – what’s your view?

There is a lot to learn from people who teach writing – technical things, ways of craft, but in the end no one can get you to the finish.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

Write passionately about anything you like. We have so few chances; make sure the work is about something you care about.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Mostly I buy books from bookshops.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? And what would you talk about?

I would join the women at the dinner table of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls. The first act of this wonderful play has six women from various ages and backgrounds having a meal together. Pope Joan is there and Dull Gret from a Bosch painting. If I could get a word in which is rather unlikely, I would tell a few stories about being a woman and try to be as inventive as they are.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

Before I began to write plays I worked as an actor mostly in independent theatre. I once played Claire in Jean Genet’s The Maids. It was an Australian translation and the text was complex and delightful and full of the unexpected. It was a dream play to perform in: so much going on, an audacity and power that took your breath. I often think of this play and am inspired by its life force, by its powerful characterisation, by the intricacies of its story, of its layers, of how it takes an audience by the scruff of the neck and shakes them.

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