BRISBANE ON STAGE: Six Years Living With Reagan Kelly

Mar 1, 2019 | ArtSpeak, News

“It’s sort of about the fragility of love” Stephen Sewell narrowed his gaze and flared his nostrils like a swine who had just caught the scent of buried truffles, “which is strange because you’re such a bastard”, which was of course followed by his distinctive bellowing laugh.

It was 2013 and I had just finished reading aloud the first draft of a play that was then [jokingly] titled ‘Lewis’ Play’ – funny right …? Despite the blasé title I was a complete mess throughout the reading. My body involuntarily contracted itself into a web of tightly knotted limbs, as I read the first draft aloud to my cohort, bursting into tears at some point in the second act, and somehow I managed to pull a muscle in my neck, which felt sore for weeks after. Up to this point in time I had made no comment about what I had been writing, which might sound strange, but like many writerly types I am an expert at dodging that much loathed question: “so, what’s it about?”

A few days before this ordeal, back in Brisbane, I was sitting in a friend’s living room floor with hundreds of individually cut up pieces of dialogue spread across the carpet when it dawned on me, like the certainty of death, that when I returned to NIDA I would experience nothing except humiliation, shame, and, if I was lucky, maybe some mercy. Perhaps Stephen Sewell would lovingly pull me aside, put his hand on my shoulder, guide me to the exit and gently release me back into the real world, back to Brisbane, back to the heat, back to the humidity, back to delirious nights out in The Valley.

Prior to arriving at NIDA I had been in a toxic, but not entirely unpleasant, chemically dependent long-term relationship with Brisbane for roughly five years. At NIDA I was writing completely out of instinct but I am sure some part of my brain understood that I was attempting to dramatise those goon-guzzling years, alongside the general sense of unease I was feeling in my personal and family life at that time. Yet, in saying that, the play is only incidentally autobiographical and mostly those instances are used in the pursuit of a laugh. Common practice among us “funny people”. More to the point, there is often a moment during the writing process where the story takes over and the person who claims to be the writer just tries to hang on. That was absolutely the case in this circumstance.

Things did not go the way I imagined they would. In fact, the first draft was received glowingly, as was the public reading at the end of the year, and to my great surprise the show, now titled ‘Reagan Kelly’, was the first play written by a graduating playwright to be programmed as a part of NIDA’s student production season … To be fair, the previous writing cohorts were never required to write a full-length play as a part of the course, so despite “making history” it has more in common with Steven Bradbury than William Shakespeare. In amongst all the hyperbolic and excitable feedback I was receiving at that time, I kept hearing one particular piece of critique which was both delightful and perplexing: “it’s just so Brisbane.”

There were very few examples of Brisbane onstage or in literature that I was exposed to prior to writing Reagan Kelly, with the very powerful exception of Richard Jordan’s remarkable early play ‘25 Down’ that premiered at Queensland Theatre Company in 2009. In many ways Richard’s play motivated me to really start trying to write in the first place. As is the case with most new plays 25 Down seems to have disappeared from people’s memory but to this day it remains one of the literary constellations that I navigate from. There’s a lot to be admired about 25 Down but what seems to linger for me is how Richard Jordan was able to realise a story so filled with blistering humour, deep pain and genuinely complex ideas, whilst still evoking the particularities of Brisbane with such love and detail. It still takes me by surprise how profoundly the specifics of place can evoke such strong feelings inside of me. I suspect this effect is only compounded by the fact that very generally speaking theatre and especially non-theatre going Australian audiences so rarely see the specifics of their worlds reflected back at them with any nuance, insight and understanding. But obviously Richard Jordan is not the first writer to find inspiration in the city Brisbane. Novelists like Nick Earls and Rebecca Sparrow similarly conjure tragicomic visions of Brisbane in ‘Zig Zag Street’ and ‘The Girl Most Likely’ respectively. Both these books though seem to orbit around David Malouf’s now seminal Brisbane classic ‘Johnno’.

In 2015 I attended Jim Sharman’s NIDA production of ‘The Tempest’. As fate would have it I was seated next to David Malouf but of course I was unaware of this at the time. Jim, the dedicated mentor that he is, pulled himself away from one of his pre-show cigarettes and ducked and weaved through the seating banks to introduce us. “David, I’d like you to meet Lewis Treston, a young playwright who I’ve been mentoring. Both Queenslanders”, then with a Cheshire Cat grin he vanished, leaving me alone with the David Malouf. Now, I need to confess something here, at this point in time I had not read a single book by David Malouf but I knew the name and that name was very intimidating. If I had my time again I might have asked him about the fraught, complex and damaged relationships a lot of artists seem to have with Brisbane. A relationship that seems to be equal parts affection and contempt. “Tell me David!”, I might have begged, “can the creative soul survive in Brisbane or is it doomed to be slowly eradicated by the city’s unbearable ordinariness?!” Was there any hope? Had David Malouf found a deeper wisdom since he wrote those famous passages in Johnno in which he tore Brisbane a new one …

“Brisbane is so sleepy, so slatternly, so sprawlingly unlovely … It is simply the most ordinary place in the world … A place where poetry could never occur.”

But obviously I was never able to ask these questions because I hadn’t read the book yet. And, perhaps David would not have approved of my intense line of questioning, so maybe it all worked out for the best? Whatever the case I’m sure Reagan shares the same feelings that David Malouf’s semi-autobiographical protagonist in Johnno felt towards his hometown.

A few months after my awkward encounter with David Malouf Reagan Kelly premiered at NIDA and the following morning I enjoyed breakfast with director and fellow Brissy-boy Benjamin Schostakowski and his wife Myfanwy in their aesthetically charged kitchen. Benjamin sipped his morning coffee as the emails rolled in. The faculty at NIDA loved the show, as did the students, maybe more so, the agents were big fans, some guy from Channel Seven said it was the best thing he saw all year, and rumour had it that an artistic director was changing their flights to check the production out. I know now that this would all amount to nothing, which is often the case, but at the time Ben and I, along with the cast, crew and designers felt pretty good about ourselves. Maybe too good? Regardless of how each of us felt, all of this was a new experience to me and I had my doubts. “Darling”, I said to Ben in this demented Broadway starlet voice that we exchanged all serious information with throughout the production, “is this all just a lot of silly-billy-business or are they serious?”. “Baby”, he replied in the same voice, “trust me; if they don’t like it, you don’t get the email.”

Later in the season the then new Artistic Director of the Queensland Theatre Company (as it was still called at the time) came to see the show. I lined up for my handshake post-show and fortified by two glasses of champagne I suggested: “You know they’d enjoy it in Queensland Sam”, which remains one of my most daring of foyer-talk manoeuvres to date. Needless to say my plan didn’t work.

But would they enjoy it in Queensland? That’s the question I am still asking myself. The age old green room wisdom suggests that Brisbane will always turn its back on Brisbane. Apparently audiences don’t show up in droves to see their city realised on its stages. But is that just another theatre myth like not saying “good luck” on opening night?

In more recent years Brisbane’s leading theatre companies, Queensland Theatre and LaBoite do seem to be casting their net a little wider and embracing stories based in North Queensland (‘The Longest Minute’ by DeBase), Gold Coast (‘Hedda’ by Melissa Bubnic) and the Sunshine Coast (‘Single Asian Female’ by Michelle Law). But there are a few distinctly Brisbane stories that have bubbled to the surface, like the hugely successful ‘Prize Fighter’, which in large part takes place in a West End boxing gym (but admittedly it’s the scenes in Congo that linger in my memory) and ‘Brisbane’ by Matthew Ryan set in the 1940s exploring tensions between Australian soldiers and allied US troops. I can’t account for every production that has taken place in Brisbane in recent history, especially in the independent sector, but the number of plays produced on a main stage level that have a distinctly Queensland, let alone a Brisbane focus, is surprisingly limited. But, that’s the economics of theatre, isn’t it? And I’m sure someone out there is gearing up to argue that work can possess a “Queensland-ness” without necessarily being contextualised within a Queensland setting, and in part I agree with this imaginary person so long as the theatre companies are employing Queensland artists, but even with these concessions my hunger for the specifics of place goes unabated.

The end of certain chapters in your life can arrive from the most obscure of circumstances. In  early 2018 I went to see the wonderful Greta Gerwig coming of age film ‘LadyBird’ with my sister. I had long since put Reagan Kelly to bed and was happily working on a number of other projects. However there’s a moment towards the end of the film (spoiler alert) in which LadyBird speaks with the kindly school nun, which answered a question I didn’t even know I had been asking …

Sister Sarah Joan: You clearly love Sacramento. 
Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson: I do?
Sister Sarah Joan: You write about Sacramento so affectionately and with such care.
Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson: I was just describing it.
Sister Sarah Joan: Well it comes across as love.
Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson: Sure, I guess I pay attention.
Sister Sarah Joan: Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?

I almost fell out of my chair because everything I had written finally made sense. And, with that, I knew I had to find a way to make ‘Reagan Kelly’ happen in Brisbane.

 As a matter of principle I try to avoid even suggesting what any other artist should do with their talents. That’s their business and I expect the same respect and privacy in return. So it’s entirely counter-intuitive of me to it get ideological about the importance of putting Brisbane or at least Queensland on our local stages. But, let me just say, that’s what I have attempted to do in some of my writing and I hope others will attempt to do the same in their arts practice. Because despite the city’s heat, despite its stifling ordinariness, despite Clive Palmer, despite its infuriating ideas about so many things, despite my aspirations to live in a chic townhouse in some glamorous part of the world with a poodle named Coco, even despite myself, I love this part of the world. I spent some of the most important years of my life living in Brisbane and it only seemed right that I should contribute to the artistic conversation that helps define this city. As an audience member I look forward to the diverse, colourful and emotionally conflicted stories about Brisbane that are to come. Reagan Kelly is just one take on what is an incredibly remarkable city once you pull back the first layer of skin. There are interesting stories in every bar, every bus stop, every street corner. Brisbane is worth seeing on stage.

Lewis Treston
March 2019