Multi-award-winning playwright Patricia Cornelius is working on an adaptation of her novel about the fallout of the Vietnam War, My Sister Jill – when she’s not gardening. By Maddee Clark.
Patricia Cornelius is a playwright who makes work with a strong class consciousness. She has a fierce commitment to political theatre, and creates disturbing, physical and lively performances that both challenge and amuse audiences.
Based in Naarm (Melbourne), she is a founding member of the Melbourne Workers Theatre, and the author of more than 20 plays, including Shit, Slut, and Savages. A number of her works have travelled overseas. In 2019, she was the recipient of the prestigious Windham-Campbell award for drama, and with her collaborator Susie Dee presented two plays, Love and Shit, at the Venice Biennale – the first Australian theatre makers invited to do so.
She has also written a novel, a screenplay, and worked in dramaturgy, direction and mentorship.
Patricia, how’s your week going?
Well. Where are you?
I’m in Flemington [Melbourne].
It’s bloody cold, isn’t it?
I’ve just been in development for this play called Runt with director Susie Dee and actor Nicci Wilks – we did that over Zoom. Then we did a two-week season at fortyfivedownstairs. It was about the notion of being the underdog, the runt of the litter.
The first season has just finished on Sunday, so this is the first few days where I have felt really freed from that work. In a funny way, it holds on to you when it’s in performance. You’re wondering if people like it, if it’s still got the vibrancy you hope it’s got. That’s quite distracting. But we’ve just been given a second season at the same theatre, and that means we’ve got another chance to re-examine it and see where we think it didn’t quite take off.
That process could get as deep as saying there’s a whole scene missing. So we’ll get another chance to all work together on that again.
It sounds like the script is a living thing.
You hope so – I know plenty of dead ones! I work with Susie Dee a lot, and especially if it’s a first run of a play, I’d be there during rehearsal and we change it as we get to know what the beast is. As we go, you can hear where it needs editing or trimming. You hear where the gaps are. Susie lets me go at it. I’ll be writing on the spot, pretty quickly, so that Nicci can run with it. I mean I’m not an arsehole, but I certainly tweak it, and the actors are right into that as well because they can hear when it needs to change. Or they’ll even tell you “the order of this is wrong”. They know.
How do you organise your working days when you’re at home?
I’m not disciplined like some men boast about. They’ll go, “I start at 6am and work ’til blah blah, and I’ll have a little bite to eat, blah blah” or whatever. I just think, oh, fucking hell, and I just lie and say, “Oh, me too!” I sometimes write one line and go out into the garden for five hours to reward myself.
Men do say that sometimes!
I know! And I actually think that’s what they really do, they’re not even lying. It makes them sound very focused, disciplined and measured about how they approach everything. If I’m working on something, I’ll still wander about. I’ll go walk up and get the paper, do all that sort of stuff, to get away. I’ll do almost anything to escape it. It sounds like a justification for being undisciplined, but there’s a lot of mulling over things as part of the process. I know a lot of writers who garden. There’s something mindless and very pleasurable about gardening.
These are very basic things, but it’s a way of writing. Doris Lessing calls it “fugging”. She talks about still making meals for her family and at the same time, the work and the ideas are still somewhere in your consciousness. Walking is fantastic too. I get stuck, and I think, oh shit. And then I go for a really long walk, and all of a sudden those ideas are released from the rigidity of sitting at the desk. You can solve problems then that you can’t solve on the page, you solve them out in your garden and in the street. Things get solved subliminally – lovely things.
I went back to school because I wanted to write a novel and I realised I didn’t have the skills. The most fabulous part about writing class was to listen to everyone else and what they were writing – how fucking splendid they were! And what I realised was they rarely ever finished anything. The majority of them were amazing people with really fine minds and gorgeous writing, but they couldn’t get to the end. I understand that. It’s always terrifying to sew something up and to know if you’ve got enough there. There’s the “so what?” factor, is there anything, is it banal in the end? Who gives a shit? Or is it vital enough to get there?
So there’s nothing like a deadline. There’s a point where you have to forget the fugging, you’ve got to get it down. I like to use cards on my wall, so I’ve got a play up there at the moment. The cards help to order my brain, find out where the gaps are, what character I might have left out, all those things. That helps me to get on with it on the page.
What’s on those cards at the moment?
What’s on my wall now is an adaptation of my novel for a commission with the Melbourne Theatre Company. It’s based on my family, and it’s called My Sister Jill, which is a play on [George Johnston’s novel] My Brother Jack. It’s about the experience of a father who was in Changi whose youngest sons are then conscripted to go to Vietnam. It’s a family saga and it’s an anti-war play. I really thought it wasn’t adaptable, but I’ve really enjoyed bringing some physicality to it, to bring life force into it through performance. Because I know the material so well, I can mess with it any way I want – I can make any use of the story.
It’s a political work. I’m just always looking for how to have something that’s got some boldness – something that might give someone’s face a slap. Especially after [former prime minister John] Howard, with that whole nationalistic bullshit and patriotism of retelling our involvement with wars in the past, making it so grand again and wanting to have funds for children’s books about the First World War, the retelling of Vietnam, like, hello!
The Vietnam War was a fucking illegal one. It was indecent. And we joined in the indecency. But we were so concerned with the Digger narrative, protecting those who were involved. And there was no doubt that those working-class men sent to Vietnam were used as cannon fodder, they were wronged terribly, but they were also involved in a very wrong war. We rewrite history so ridiculously, we lie awfully.
There’s also great liberty when it’s your story. I’m of an age where my father was in Changi, so I’ve got bloody good credentials, I can fucking say anything I like. I know what it was like, I know the impact of that experience for him and its legacy on my family.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 20, 2021 as "Patricia Cornelius".
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