Kate Mulvany is a preposterously prolific writer. One of Australia’s most talented and awarded playwrights, scriptwriters, and theatre and screen actors, she is currently adapting Ruth Park’s Playing Beatie Bow for a Sydney Theatre Company production early next year. She is working on the script in a small Brisbane hotel room, where she is quarantining in order to join filming on the new Baz Luhrmann film, Elvis.
Her work includes original plays such as The Seed, based on her father’s experiences in the Vietnam War, and unexpected adaptations for the stage, including acclaimed scripts of Medea, Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South trilogy, Schiller’s Mary Stuart and Craig Silvey’s novel Jasper Jones. She also writes for television; recent efforts include 2019’s Upright, starring Tim Minchin.
Mulvany’s acting career includes much-lauded performances of Lady Macbeth and Richard III (which won a 2017 Helpmann Award) for companies such as the STC, Belvoir and Bell Shakespeare. On screen she’s appeared in The Great Gatsby and The Turning, and she recently starred in the Amazon Prime drama series Hunters opposite Al Pacino, in which she plays an armed Nazi-hunting nun.
Diagnosed with cancer at the age of two and left with a spinal deformity, Mulvany identifies as disabled and lives with chronic pain.
Hi, other Kate. You’re looking spry.
I get out today, so this is the first time I’ve put make-up on. I still have iso-hair…
That’s very of the moment.
The people I’m working for, they’re on the Gold Coast and they said, “You’re legally allowed to leave the hotel tonight at 12.01.” I said, “Is that a problem?” Because I would love that. I’ll be a midnight runner. Can’t wait.
Quarantine certainly makes you refocus your attention. I’ve got a lot of work done. But you learn to appreciate the smallest things. The other day there were these two butterflies outside my window having this little mating dance, and I watched them for about an hour. It was like watching Netflix! I just watched these butterflies, going, “What’s he doing there? I don’t know if she wants to. Is it right that I’m watching this? Should I give them some privacy?”
I can tell you’re a creative, observational sort of person. You’re making a narrative…
Or I’m just really creepy.
Now I gather you’ve been preparing for this production of Playing Beatie Bow, which will open the new Wharf Theatre in Sydney?
Yep. It’s been a great world to dive into. It was one of my favourite books as a kid, so I know this book! I know these characters.
You’re midway through the process?
Yeah. That’s what I’ve been working on during my little Brisbane quarantine. We’re at about the fifth draft.
I’ve just finished the fourth draft of a massive book and I keep sending it off, thinking, “This is it, then! It’s done!” And then – it fucking comes back!
[Laughs] They’re beautiful boomerangs. I never consider a script finished. I’m known for going back in in week three of the performance and going, “Can we just tweak this bit? Add more of this?” As playwrights we have the luxury of hearing and seeing our audience in action, so we can still make those final adjustments – not that they ever really get final.
You’re literally in your little iso-unit there, but you’ll soon be in a whole theatre. Bit weird?
The script gradually gets a family around it. Here, it started with Ruth Park, then I joined her family, then Kip [Williams, director] joins the family, and then all of these other people: and it’s a really good, robust, diverse family of brains and hearts and guts, and they’ll put everything into it. And then in a way I become the seamstress of everyone else’s patches of experience. In a way you kind of wrap yourself up in that patchwork quilt while you’re writing by yourself.
Does it also give you a sense that you’re the keystone, that much depends on you?
In a way, but I put that more on the director – I just go “here!” and throw it to him. You have to have a director you can trust. As a writer, yes, I’m kind of a touchstone, but I really, really need those artists around me to help tell the story.
About 80 per cent of my writing process is just quiet, solitary research. I always say I’ve got various favourite parts of the process but, really, that is my favourite. When you find a little nugget of a story, and you realise that no one’s told this story before –
all of a sudden you can see the character, you can hear the words come out of their mouth; it becomes this desperation to get that character on the page, and to put it out there, into the world.
Research is so ecstatic, isn’t it?
I have to find out every single thing I can about the lives, and the stories, and the histories of those real-life Rocks inhabitants of 1873, so that I can get it right on the page. Look at this book! [She holds up a large hardback of 19th-century maladies.] If I write about someone with smallpox, well, how does that make them behave, how does it make them look, and will they be tired, would they drink away the pain, would they… All that goes into it. It’s big!
You must be pretty aware of your process by now. Have you a mental map of where the blocks are going to be?
Yeah. I never used to plot out scene by scene; I write instinctively, but it can only come from that insane research. I cram as much as I can into my brain and I have that starting nugget, then I start.
I always write chronologically, every morning. I can’t write from Act II, Scene 3; I have to go all the way back to the start, and read, read, read, hear the voices – I have a multitude of personalities coming out of me as I write – and only then can I continue on from Act II, Scene 3. Many, many cups of tea. I have this other thing I do: I don’t leave the desk until I have a moment of, “That’s it!” I don’t go, “Um, I don’t know about that bit; I’m going to wander away”, because I know I probably won’t want to come back. But if I leave on a high – I make a little note: “and she kills him” where I’ve got up to – then I know I’ll be ready to return the next morning.
I think I get more scared as I get older. I think I feel the responsibility, the weight… The moment you say, “I’m adapting Beatie Bow” – about eight times out of 10, people will go, “Oh, that’s my favourite book!” And you go, “Oh god, I really, really hope I don’t mess this up.” I find fear in those moments. That’s why I need to know everything I can, and why I need the voices and minds of the team around me. Then on opening night, you’re like, “I have no control.” Only that particular actor on stage right now has any control, and I’m just going to give it to them. You know? I’ve got to trust my instinct.
In Progress is a new weekly column written by Maddee Clark and Kate Holden, in which they talk to artists about work they are in the process of making, rather than the work they have completed.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 5, 2020 as "Kate Mulvany".
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