Q&A with Dan Lee by Dan Berkowitz

So I’m just sittin’ home here, not feeling like going out tonight, but thinking, “Gee, wouldn’t it be nice to talk with someone about something to do with the theatre?” When, lo and behold, someone invites me to do a Q&A!?!

Dan Lee’s first play, Bottomless, received the R. E. Ross Trust award for an unproduced play in 2014. It was subsequently developed by Playwriting Australia, Red Stitch Actors Theatre, and the Melbourne Theatre Company, and is scheduled for production next year at 45downstairs in Melbourne. He is also writing two new works for Red Stitch as part of their INK writers program. He’s just flown in from Australia for the premiere of his play Grey Nomad, which will be at the Skylight Theatre through October 8. While he’s wildly jet-lagged, I’m going to throw a few questions at him…

Dan Lee

Dan Berkowitz: In thirty seconds, can you tell us what Grey Nomad is about?

Dan Lee: Grey Nomad is about my parents and their generation. Watching baby boomers deal with their mortality is really interesting to me because… I’m next, I suppose. By that I mean we all eventually find ourselves in the position that our parents were in and, though my parents aren’t Grey Nomads exactly, they and their friends have been grappling with how to enter this new phase of their lives. They don’t want to fade quietly into the background as their parents did or end up parked in front of a TV with the sound turned down in an overcrowded nursing home somewhere. They all seem to be having “the discussion” and so I wrote these characters, two couples, who have made the commitment to hit the road and face their future with a sense of adventure. In Australia, the road is a never ending loop that for some feels like eternal youth and to others signifies the futility of it all. The play is an affectionate look at marriage in confined spaces and vast empty spaces.

Ros Gentle and David Ross Paterson. Photo by Adrian Wlodarczyk

DB: Grey Nomad is set in a small town in Australia, and you say it’s “the most Australian play” you’ve written. So how come it’s making its premiere in Los Angeles?

DL: At first it seems really odd to have such a uniquely Australian play premier here in LA but that’s only until you take a closer look at who is producing it. The Australia Theatre Company’s mission is to share uniquely Australian stories with an American audience and the beauty of this particular cultural exchange is that we have so much in common but we are so different as well. I.e., we both started as British colonies who, one way or another found our own identities. In Grey Nomad the broader themes of aging, marriage, and dealing with smartphones are universal or at least trans-pacific enough for US audiences to relate to them but the details, the setting, the characters and the voices, I hope, are exotic enough to be really engaging and peculiar and funny as well.

DB: This isn’t the first play you’ve written, but it’s the first one to be produced. Tell us a little about how it feels to know you’re about to get the first production of something you created. How much have you been involved in the production?

DL: It’s a strange thing to fly back in time, across the Pacific Ocean, go into a theatre where a group of people are bringing your characters and situations to life. When I started writing plays I made a decision to just stick to the writing, to focus entirely on the craft of writing rather than trying to self-produce, which has meant that I have had to wait for a company to make the first move, so there has been a long time suspecting that I could be just writing into the void so this is a very special place, now, to have arrived at. It is both exciting and kind of terrifying. To see characters who have played out their dramas in my head for years suddenly appear in the room in front of me is… big. Because this first production is happening so far from home and having a small child, I was unable to be here for any of the rehearsal period, I just had crackly, intermittent Skype conversations with Iain (the director) every couple of days. I got updates and made adjustments and re-writes at a distance of 12,000 kms. I completely trust that Iain’s vision for the play matches mine and I’ve tried to keep out of it unless asked.

Paul Tassone and Ros Gentle. Photo by Adrian Wlodarczyk

DB: You describe Grey Nomad as a farcical comedy. The first play you wrote – titled Bottomless, and which is now also scheduled for production – is quite different in tone, and comes out of your own experiences. Tell us a little about it.

DL: Bottomless is set in the prison and “sober up centre” in the remote country town of Broome in Western Australia and I wrote it in response to my own fears about getting sober. I escaped to Broome when my life in Melbourne kind of fell apart and within a few weeks I was asked to take responsibility for a community meeting room for the desperate drunks that were in great abundance. I was soon spending time with indigenous offenders in the prison and visiting the hospital, trying to save people. The play is about a local guy who returns to his home town with a new found hope and sobriety and sets about trying to save his reluctant drinking buddies. It is, in fact, a comedy as well but a pretty dark one. I tried to really create a visceral experience for the audience of what it is like to live with daily alcoholic black outs and sleeping rough; it’s the build up to the wet season and the usual suspects are trying to find shelter and relief from the heat that refuses to be relieved by the monsoon. It’s a bit like Beckett combined with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and it was this play that got the attention of the major theatre companies, won me an award, and put me on the map as a writer but it has been a challenge getting a commitment to produce it. There are a lot of pretty tragic and confronting ideas in it. I wrote Grey Nomad, which is largely set in Broome as well but it’s about the demographic at the opposite end of the socio-economic scale. Nomad was a complete pleasure to write and was kind of an emotional antidote to the long and challenging process of writing a first play about the quest for sobriety while engaged in that quest myself.

Wendy Hammers and David Ross Paterson. Photo by Adrian Wlodarczyk

DB: Some playwrights start writing very young, but you worked in the theatre and comedy for a number of years before you wrote your first play. How do you think your years in the business affected your writing? Do you think you’d be writing the same kind of plays if you’d started as a playwright in your 20s?

DL: There are certainly great advantages of coming to playwriting at a mature age. I think I have a better sense of the stakes. I’ve had enough disaster, and love and narrow escapes to kind of bring some authenticity to the voices and the stories – I’ve got more and better stories, I think. In fact, my addiction issues in the past really blocked me from achieving my writing goals, now I have this momentum, a lot of energy has been released now that I’m coming to the surface and becoming more capable and functional. I feel like good comedy has to know tragedy, it has to breathe it in and be a reaction to it… or something like that.

I’ve also had a bit of the arrogance and ambition flogged out of me, which is a good thing. I gave up on the outcomes and learned to love the process. Stand-up comedy worked well with my desire for instant gratification in the past, but the long hours alone in a room that are required to write a play have really changed my priorities and made me patient. I love stand-up but I had to be careful of that environment which, for me, was one of high ego and low self-esteem. I would probably be writing the same types of plays if I was in my twenties they just wouldn’t be any good.

DB: What’s a fun thing about you that no one else knows? (And we guarantee not to tell…)

DL: I focus most of my obsessive energy on playwriting now but I also have a back garden filled with Bonsai, I mean loads of them. When I moved back to the city with my wife and son I set about creating a silent space filled with Bonsai trees. I spend long hours sitting amongst them. Just sitting, really. I have no idea where I got the idea or how it started but it keeps me honest.

Grey Nomad
Written by Dan Lee
Directed by Iain Sinclair

Through October 8

Australian Theatre Company @ Skylight Theatre
1816 ½ North Vermont Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90027

Tickets: 866-811-4111 or www.australiantheatrecompany.org


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