Q&A WITH SUZIE MILLER - 2008!
The world premiere season of Suzie Miller’s play All the Blood and All the Water was at the Lennox Theatre, Riverside Parramatta from May 8-30, 2008. At the time she submitted to a Q&A with Stagenoise.com … Prima Facie, Jodie Comer and RBG were far into the future
Q: Playwright or lawyer: which came first in your list of “when I grow up I want to be …”?
SM: From an early age I wanted to change the world – although I don’t think I quite knew what that meant, possibly going and living in Africa with as much food as I could carry!
We didn’t have a drama department at the secondary school I attended, so science was my first call, then law, then theatre!
Q: Do you still wonder what you might be when you grow up?
SM: I still want to change the world!!! Or at least the little bit that I can change.
Q: Where did you grow up? (Brothers? Sisters? School?)
SM: I grew up in St Kilda, Melbourne, just before the gentrification of that suburb. St Kilda was an amazing mix – the landing place for the latest wave of immigrants, a mix of Christians and Jews, the red light district, cheap high-density living, and streets filled with kids playing cricket on the road while dodging speeding cars.
I was sent to the local Catholic school, along with my little brother and sister, where the majority of kids were from immigrant Italian, Greek, Mauritian and Indian families. My childhood was spent flitting between the homes of various school and neighbourhood friends where I would be fed what seemed like bizarre food concoctions, and would spend hours wondering why all my friends tanned in the sun and I went bright red.
At one stage my Dad worked up in Arnhem Land, NT and my family moved up there. This was my first introduction to Indigenous culture and heat. Heat like a Melbourne schoolgirl would never have dreamt possible!
Q: Could you tell us a bit about your first play, Births, Deaths and Marriages?
SM: In 2000 I was accepted into the NIDA playwriting studio and as part of that course was expected to write a play that could be presented as a rehearsed read. BDM came about through that process. Francesca Smith, the director of the course at NIDA, and now a close friend of mine, worked as the dramaturg before the NIDA read. The play was later selected for the Australian National Playwrights Conference in 2001.
The play itself was about a man and a woman in their 20s living in Sydney who had nevertheless both fled the same rural town with a sense of personal shame. It is an examination of the scars we carry and I would like to think ends on a hopeful note of self-determination and self-acceptance.
Q: Your playwriting has been very successful so far in terms of critical recognition, does this make for any kind of conflict with your legal work?
SM: I always say that the way I deal with it is trusting the juggle – I realise that the work in the law keeps my feet firmly on the ground; this is because I work with street kids in Kings Cross and as such, I am offered a very real slice of human nature on a daily basis. I work two days a week in law, both days in court, and the other 3-5 days I write, and take emergency calls from people in need of legal advice, or organise with the help of an assistant, the upcoming court cases I have listed. I also have a job-share partner at the law job who I can have a laugh or cry with. The theatre writing allows me to have a release from the legal work and the legal work allows me to avoid becoming too self-indulgent when it comes to my writing. I am actually employed by a huge law firm, which has placed me in the Cross, and they are enormously supportive of having “an eccentric playwright” amongst their legal staff.
In other ways, the law informs the actual content of my writing. In Cross Sections the stories from the streets were the inspiration, All the Blood and All the Water also has a strong tie-in as I have many Muslim and non-Muslim clients; and my next play Reasonable Doubt is about two jury members who have an affair and put the notion of relationships through its own trial. That play is being premiered in London, NY and Edinburgh this year.
Q: What was it like to work with Edward Albee?
SM: Awesome, intimidating, humanising, hilarious, life-changing and affirming!
He is a phenomenally astute man even in his late 70s – sharp without niceties; he is nonetheless a man who has heart and soul. We are also both members of PEN, an international organisation for the human rights of writers in countries where they are punished for speaking out. Aside from his inspiring writing tips and opinions, it was also exciting to hear his own personal stories, he freely chatted about his times with his mate Tennessee (Williams) and some of their own “in” jokes to each other in their plays. Besides feeling like one was in the company of a walking, talking icon, it was also like befriending a wise generous soul of the theatre.
I really acknowledge Albee’s contribution to this play, his faith in it really pushed me further with it. Furthermore, Riverside Theatres came on board directly after the Inscription (Albee) workshop and have been steadfast in their support and development funding for the redrafting and ultimate production of this new Australian play. I was lucky throughout the entire development process to have John Sheedy as my director, he has put together a production of the work that inspires me.
Q: People might think there is an autobiographical element to The Emotional Anatomy of a Relationship Breakdown … what do you think? (No or yes don’t count as an answer.)
SM: Interesting!! Who hasn’t been through a relationship breakdown? Myself and all my friends when in our 20s found that either one or other of us was going through the ups and downs and beginnings and endings of relationships. I remember with my own break-ups thinking “no this is different, I’m not like all the others breaking up, this was real, intense etc”, but in reality there was some ordinariness to everyone’s break up. I guess this play was a funny take on that. Recognising some of the patterns in break ups, the scales swinging wildly in terms of which ex-partner held the power, and it seemed that when you wanted to be in control you weren’t and when you didn’t care you were!!!!
I studied science before law school, and I wanted to plot the emotional terrain of a relationship breakdown the same way I would plot the life cycle of an earthworm in Biology 101!! When the play went on it was a funny, familiar examination of some of the stereotypes and roles that are easy to laugh at once you are at the other end!
Q: What prompts you to start plotting out a play?
SM: I was explaining this to students at a guest lecture the other day, and how it is often just one thing that catches your eye or your attention, that somehow sticks and keeps asking you questions. For example, Cross Sections came about when a young rent boy client was left by the side of the road bleeding after being hit by a runaway cab. I remember the look on the 21-year-old homeless guy’s face. After all he had been through – assaulted countless times, childhood abuse, beaten up by people in authority – and yet here he was, so shocked by this latest lack of humanity “how could he leave me there to die like a dog by the side of the road?”
He was weeping more about that than his significant injuries. It made me just contemplate how he could still have had such faith that he was shocked by that, and also to ask why the cabbie would have driven off? Why did he see this young man as not worth stopping for, and don’t we all at some level allow street kids to be invisible?
All the Blood came about after interviewing young people involved in the riots and with all the tribal grouping going on, I wondered about those young people who might fit into both groups and how they grapple with identity. Again it was that personal observation and the need for answers that kept me interested.
Q: Would you tell us a bit about All the Blood and All the Water?
SM: The play is about identity and race, and about what it is that makes us need to define ourselves in opposition to the “other”. I became keenly aware of fear and misunderstandings being blown into other dimensions, about mistrust that was built on lack of communication. I was in a unique position directly after the Cronulla riots where I interviewed many young people both involved and not involved about what they thought about what was happening.
It was astonishing to me that they all said the same thing, they felt disrespected. It didn’t matter what “side” they identified with, each young person I spoke with felt hurt about being humiliated or taken for granted, culminating in disrespect, and the need to reclaim that respect.
The play is a fictional account of various relationships that are entangled in this web of identity, fear and loss. The main relationship is a wonderful friendship between Angel and Ryder. Angel is young man with an Iraqi immigrant Muslim Australian father, and an Australian-born Italian-Catholic mother. In many ways, he is a metaphor for Australia generally: how do we identity ourselves as a nation? We talk about a country of multiculturalism but what do we mean by that? How do we make that happen, so that we are not outwardly talking of harmonious multi-cultures but inwardly thinking of assimilation?
I have just sat in the audience of the first preview, 70% of whom were Arabic-speaking school children. The play uses the Arabic language in various places. I was grateful to the actor Fayssal Bazzi for his generosity in translating much of that for me. Watching this young audience delight in the language and laugh at the jokes that only an Arabic speaker could understand was so humbling for me. I had never realised how inviting that small gesture would be for the audience.
Q: You’ve been quoted as saying that you wanted to celebrate the relationships you observe which run counter to media stereotypes – would you talk about that?
SM: One of the really beautiful things that I discovered working with the young people I worked with was the relationships between them. Often in spite of media portrayals, these friendships ran even deeper than cultural ties. I guess I was so heartened by this, not because I don’t have the utmost respect for cultural ties, but because I want to know that we don't just seek out familiar people but like-minded people to be in our close circle. Here were young tough men who crossed that divide that didn’t seem to be happening in middle-class Australia, and to the extent that it did, it wasn’t as much of a risk as it was for these boys.
I was excited to hear young Australians of“middle eastern appearance” and of anglo appearance speak of their friendships with each other. Watching them talk and joke (the ultimate indication of their trust and love for one another) about their backgrounds and their differences, and then to talk about their loyalty to each other amongst the growing pressure to conform to groups was inspiring and offered such hope.
Q: Would you talk about your view of friendship and mateship?
SM: I personally place great value on friendship. It has always been my friends who have offered me growth as a person and the chance to develop ideas, politics and philosophies. Inherent in all of these relationships are trust and loyalty, and a knowledge that when life is rough they will be there for me. It is always interesting to me that there is family and there are friends. For me my friends are also my family, this is not a cliché but a need to have loved ones who can fully understand me.
I noticed with the young people I spoke with that they would often talk about friends and family as discrete from each other, and would often complain about how their family didn’t understand who they were because of their different cultural experiences and that their families would try and pull them back to something that was familiar to protect themselves against loss and to ensure a future that they thought would protect their kids. Yet these same young people had palpably strong connections to their friends, and often the friendships crossed the cultural divide.
Q: Puberty Blues is a long way from the Cronulla of the riots: back then it was pretty white; the riots suggested something else. What do you think?
SM: I think Cronulla itself is still pretty white, and I think the reality is that the riots could have happened on any beach in Australia (in fact watered down versions happen in Bondi and Maroubra from time to time), it is just that Cronulla is one of the only beaches on the train line and so it was easy for large groups of people to descend upon that beach.
I do believe the lack of a suburban mix is an interesting contributor to the misunderstandings that lead to the riots. If we don’t have the “bloke next door with his strange food” that we know and love, then it is harder to remove the fear from the average “anglo Australian”. So we have to find other ways of having a cross-cultural neighbourhood.
It seems to me that relationships on that individual level are the building blocks for tolerance, the one-on-one friendships that develop are accepting of difference and even celebrate it (the different food, dances, family occasions) and so it can only be about fear and apprehension that stops us from going forth. If we can allow the opportunity for those individual relationships to develop then we allow the building blocks for the nation.
Q: Are you hopeful about Australia’s future or do you see a divide that is about poverty as well as culture?
SM: In the Howard years I was pretty depressed, any time I would clock a headline about Howard and his position on refugees or the war, or anything! I would go into a silent decline.
On the morning of the Sorry Speech by Rudd in Canberra, I got up at five and decided after so many years in the Howard era of darkness my 8-year-old son had the chance to witness a great moment. So I bundled a sleeping boy into the car and drove straight down to Parliament House. After the amazing speech and the extraordinary moments on the lawn amongst the crowd, we had to turn around and drive straight back to Sydney so I could go to court for a young Aboriginal girl. The talks in the car with my boy I know he will remember, but equally so will I. It has been a long time since I have been inspired to drive a long distance by a political speech.
Q: Could you tell us a bit about working with homeless youth, as a lawyer?
SM: The clients I deal with are homeless young people living and working on the streets of Kings Cross. I also work with disadvantaged unemployed youth all over Sydney. This allows me to appear in every court in Sydney, at the local and the district court level, and to do my own court appearances and run my own files.
The amazing thing about this job is the stories I hear, the level of disadvantage in our nation is still so high, and so often unrecognised. The level of child abuse that leads young people out of their homes and onto the streets, self-medicating for past pain, unprepared socially for the world, and then destined to work in the sex industry to pay for the drugs they now need to consume to get by, has to be seen to be believed. And I see that on a daily level.
The job makes you laugh and cry almost every day. I remember one day where someone who had been beaten up was waiting for paramedics in the foyer, while another young woman who appeared to have overdosed was sitting close by, with us checking to see if she needed medical attention every five minutes; another client had just given me a statement about a brutal sexual assault and was crying, while another was being calmed by a co-worker after having had a psychotic episode – all this before we got to court that day.
Another day in court I had to explain to a disbelieving magistrate that my client had spent the night in Rushcutters Bay park after having taken too many drugs and while he slept someone had stolen all his clothes so he wouldn’t be able to get to court until my secretary had found him something to wear. As I explained to His Honour, the client was torn: he knew if he didn’t show up he would be arrested but if he did he would be being disrespectful not having any clothing on!
Q: There are two quotes in the media release for the play that would be interesting to have you follow up on: “In our multicultural world, when is blood thicker than water? And “which blood is your truth?”
SM: This is really an attempt at providing some context for the choices young people say they have to make. What if the choice is between family and friends? What if family is wrong? What if friends are wrong? Loyalty seems to go to family first but what if your best friend is also your family? Are the ties to close friends any less than those to whom you are related by blood?
Blood is a repeating motif in this play – the bloodlines, the blood spilt, the blood of the past tortures of Ali, the blood of the damaged girl as a way of finding relief, the blood left on the sand after the riots and the sense of blood being the same thing that runs through all our veins and arteries, the thing that makes us all alive regardless of race or religion.