The Influence

For playwright Lally Katz, David Lynch’s excavation of the strangeness of ordinary suburbia pointed the way to her own uncanny work. By Neha Kale.

Lally Katz

FBI agent Dale Cooper sits at a diner booth and gazes out the window, toward a bright light. Behind Dale, the young woman Audrey Horne is leaning over her own booth as she watches his face.
Sherilyn Fenn as Audrey Horne and Kyle MacLachlan as FBI agent Dale Cooper in a promotional still for the TV series Twin Peaks, and Lally Katz (below).
Credit: Maximum Film / Alamy (above), Thomas McCammon (below)

When Lally Katz was young, she felt overpowered by her imagination. Katz, who was born in New Jersey and relocated to Australia as a nine-year-old, has gone on to become one of the country’s most prolific playwrights. She has written more than 50 plays, including A Golem Story and Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd, both of which won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. She also wrote the libretto for Kate Miller-Heidke’s 2015 opera The Rabbits, based on the book by John Marsden and Shaun Tan, and which won four Helpmann Awards.

Katz revisited her Miami childhood to write Atlantis, which opened in 2017 at Belvoir, directed by Rosemary Myers. She collaborates with Myers again on Hans & Gret, a psychological thriller that follows a pair of privileged teenagers grappling with the disappearance of young people around them. It premieres at the Adelaide Festival next month. To write the play, based on an original concept by Myers, Katz returned to American artist and filmmaker David Lynch. For Katz, Lynch’s cult 1990 series Twin Peaks was an early introduction to all the worlds that could exist under the surface of this one.

You first watched Twin Peaks when you were a teenager in Canberra. What kind of impression did it make on you?

I remember the advertisements that would ask Who killed Laura Palmer? And when the show started, it was so normal. But then there were the things that would break through from another world. I remember when Leland was dancing with Laura’s cousin Maddy. He is going to kill her, and she is screaming. I was behind the couch crying and crying and not being able to watch. My mother came in and asked why I was watching it. I said, “I love it.”

It was entirely its own thing. So much of it spoke to me of Canberra. The suburbs are so dark. Everything is so normal but also so strange. It felt to me, or showed me, that a certain reality existed that I was afraid of and excited by.

I still find suburbia a haunting, magic place. The houses, the lights! Twin Peaks opened me up to idiosyncratic characters and to how horrific things and funny things could sit together and make each other stronger.

Twin Peaks revolves around the strangeness of everyday life. Lynch has an incredible ability to make the familiar language of small-town America – diners, high schools – unfamiliar, charged with feeling and mood.

It made me realise that finding the extraordinary in the ordinary is important. That the stuff that I find interesting could mean something to an audience. David Lynch is someone who trusts his own artistic intuition. I have always felt that writing in some ways is like channelling or something. And you have to clear yourself for it, get out of the way, be a vessel for it. I have always been afraid of my imagination. Twin Peaks confirmed that a person could be possessed by another self and destroy the things he loved most. It really haunted me. It’s something that I’m still scared of.

Twin Peaks also plays with morality in a fascinating way – in terms of who we think of as a “monster” and who we think of as “good”.

Yes. That’s so true – and all of this can shift all the time and does. There can be a pleasant face to a monster. In my teenage years I read Laura Palmer’s diaries, written by David Lynch’s daughter. I started copying it out in my own diary. I was a rebellious teenager who ran away from home one time. It was way overblown.

When you are a teenager, you feel things so deeply.

You romanticise characters. My eyebrows still haven’t recovered from trying to be Audrey. When I was in high school, I would wear these ankle-length tartan skirts because I wanted to be like her. I was living in Los Angeles when the new season of Twin Peaks came out and a bunch of Australians who were also obsessed with it would watch it all together. So often with a TV show it is like, this is what it is. But Twin Peaks left room for the mystery of what it was. What is this show? What is this world? It was allowed to sit in the space between audience and performer. People could dream into it.

Twin Peaks is set in the fictional Twin Peaks, Washington, an unremarkable American town. But underneath the small lives of its characters, there is violence, secrecy and betrayal. Like so much of Lynch’s work, it powerfully blends the ordinary with the epic. How does this inspire you as an artist?

Well, I guess it just made me feel encouraged. The stories that I want to tell are often small stories about small characters that mean something to me. I feel often that the universal is in the specific. I’m not really big on a huge plot or characters that represent different themes. For me, it’s about believing that there could be meaning in these seemingly small events. That is the dream – to take these characters and these stories, the audience and myself and connect with some aspect of the universe. It’s about going – oh, that is possible. I feel like the only thing that transforms us is stories. It’s about keeping faith in that. I was talking to the amazing illustrator and children’s book author Shaun Tan – he was saying that if everyone just made work about what is going on right outside the front of their house, it would be spectacular.

It means honing the quality of our attention.

It’s so easy to not. It’s so easy to be somewhere else in your mind. I think especially with the internet, we are constantly looking down on ourselves and comparing our lives to other people’s lives. I left all social media because it was causing me so much anxiety. It also made me lose my own life. We are constantly seeing these other lives and saying, I should be there, I should be doing that. When really, all we need to do is look at what is around us.

Many of your plays deal with the heroism of everyday people. I’m thinking of Neighbourhood Watch, which revolves around Ana, a Hungarian–Australian World War II survivor. In Twin Peaks, Laura Palmer was a regular girl enduring something horrible. It demanded that the community face up to what is happening.

You are right. Almost anyone that you talk to, even if you don’t enjoy talking to them, will have an interesting story, even if they are the most boring person on earth. In real life, Ana from Neighbourhood Watch and I were in Coles in Kew – this most ordinary of ordinary places. But there she was, this magic person who lived through all this stuff. And I thought, that’s almost everyone here. They feel like ordinary places but they are not. Everyone’s stories are walking around the supermarket.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 18, 2023 as "Lally Katz".

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