Lee Lewis is Artistic Director of Griffin Theatre Company, Australia's new writing theatre. A Sydney cultural treasure, she is also rightly regarded as one of the country's leading directors. Lee spoke with Siobhan Toohill for this episode of Out the Front in October 2015.
Siobhan: A true leader and advocate for Australian theatre, Lee Lewis has been directing plays for well over 20 years, perhaps longer if we include school. And now she’s sitting with us in our kitchen, enjoying some table grapes. Lee, I wonder if you can tell us a bit about what a director does?
Lee: Every director does a different thing to a different story. I wish there was one thing that a director does, and there are far smarter directors than me in the world. I came to directing via acting, so it took me quite a long time to admit that I was directing. I still think of myself as a person that creates a container for a work, rather than creates the work. I create a shape that an idea can live in, and live enough in to transmit itself to an audience. So maybe, if I do anything, I make sure that the space between the writers and the actors, and the actors and the audience is charged. It’s alive and it’s a space for communication. That’s about arranging people in space, it’s about arranging a whole lot of dynamics to make sure that that happens. But that sounds really touchy-feely, if I talk about it that way.
Siobhan: How did you make the shift from being an actor or a performer into being a director?
Lee: Actually, it was about moving from New York to Sydney. I was working very, very full-time as an actor in America, and very happily. Happily on one level, but then I fell in love with a beautiful Australian man and moved back to Sydney ... I couldn’t work as much as an actor here, which was quite shocking to me. So I put up my hand to direct more. I had directed before but [it] hadn’t been my primary focus. It was something that I knew I was going to do in the future. Being in Australia, when I put up my hand, it turned out there was a lot of opportunity for directors and I just kept directing more and more, and I took the hint. After a couple of years, my Dad said to me, "Are you ever going to go back to acting?” I went, “No, I think I’m a director.” And he said, “Thank god, it took you long enough to figure that out!” I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “You’ve been a director since you were, like, 12.” And I thought, "Ok, thanks Dad, yeah, thanks for that! You could have said something!"
Choosing a play for Griffin is a combination of urgency, that it has to happen now, and a feeling that if I don’t, if Griffin doesn’t do this play, this play won’t happen.
Siobhan: Have you always known that you were drawn to theatre?
Lee: I always knew I wanted to work in theatre, I didn’t necessarily know as what. I knew I would start as an actor, because that was obvious, that’s what every young girl thinks. At that point anyway. And, to be honest, when I was little I hadn't seen any female directors to know that that was possible but I loved being inside a theatre. I loved the space. I loved that there’s something there, and that’s common to every theatre that I’ve walked into around the world. There’s something in those spaces that I love and I’m very comfortable in, and that’s been the case since I was about three. It hasn’t changed. The evolution happened quite naturally, in Sydney. It was far enough away from me, when I was working in New York, and I was working with some brilliant directors, really awesome, and I would have kept on doing that. Then, when I came back, the type of work that I wanted to do wasn’t necessarily happening here and the rate that I wanted to work at wasn’t happening. And so as I started directing, I didn’t really admit that I was directing. I was just taking on projects and doing them. That became directing. I went to NIDA and did the directors' course, and then went back and did the Masters of Directing, and that was to give myself time to acquire comfort in using the word, instead of murmuring, “I’m a director.” I got comfortable with that idea and it just sort of kept going and I don’t think it’s really stopped since then.
Siobhan: How did you choose the works you would produce, then, and what, for you, makes a Griffin play?
Lee: They’re two very different things! Choosing a play for me, in the best version, it’s like falling in love. You read it and it just happens to you, and there’s something, some sensation of falling with it. You fall into the play, it falls into you, and I see it. It just happens, and I don’t know how, it’s mysterious. I can see it fully formed - not to the extent where I make people do exactly what I think but I know that it exists and how it’s going to happen. Mostly the final version of it is pretty close to that, give or take some variations in actors. That’s the best, best feeling version. Then there are other ones that arrive at you, you have to do them. Because if you don’t do them, they won’t happen and you know they’re really urgent for the time. And then there are other ones which are, “I have to take this job.” That’s the nature of freelance work sometimes, there’s that time where you go, for these reasons, I have to do this. So I have to find a way in, so that it becomes mine. I have to think a lot to get to the point where there’s a real and genuine connection. And that’s possible to do, it doesn’t always have to happen without my thinking. It’s not always mysterious. Sometimes it’s just a lot of work to get into it. That’s the different ways.
Choosing a play for Griffin is a combination of urgency, that it has to happen now, and a feeling that if I don’t, if Griffin doesn’t do this play, this play won’t happen. I think that’s the really important part that Griffin plays in the theatre ecosystem. There are things we can do at Griffin that can’t happen at other companies because the stress of the economics of the companies is so big that the poor little play will just buckle underneath it. [The plays are] too small, either in their voices or in their ideas, to fill 500 seats a night and, therefore, the bigger companies can’t do them. Maybe they would get to that point if they were built on the Griffin scale, and we’ve had [plays like that]. Something like Holding the Man - it started at Griffin, and it was an adaptation of a novel. Adaptations can go badly. This didn’t, it turned out to be quite good. And the response from the audience was huge, so then they were able to move it to the Belvoir space. Then they were able to move it to the Opera House, then to the West End! But you couldn’t have started it on the West End, it would have failed. So that’s the whole point of a space like Griffin, that there’s some place which is small. Big enough to matter but small enough to be protected. There are plays that belong there and writers that need to find a start there, and that’s the nature of choosing a Griffin play.
My job is to develop writers and works, so that they can move into the bigger spaces, into the bigger arenas with larger audiences.
Siobhan: Your most recent play is called A Rabbit for Kim Jong-Il [ed: at the time of recording], and the play has something very powerful to say to us about forgiveness. What are your observations about that play?
Lee: Look, when I first read this play I wanted to do it because I think one of the biggest jobs of the 21st century is figuring out how to forgive the great crimes of the 20th century. That’s the big idea, but I think the little idea is that in a time with increasingly less faith, but still a methodology of forgiveness, how do we face our fear that we won’t be forgiven? And if we are not forgiven for our sins, our crimes, our bad deeds, how then do we live? How do you carry your crimes with you? And how do you still have hope? I think this play talks to that in a way that’s quite, not obvious, it’s indirect. It’s got a talking rabbit in the middle of it, for heaven’s sake, so how serious could it be? But there’s a moment in the play where the central figure - which is the talking rabbit, which has been bred to be the biggest rabbit in the world - is now going to be killed for Kim Jong-Il to eat at his 65th birthday. This is based on a true story. The rabbit has to decide whether to forgive his owner, his friend, for selling him, for betraying him. Everything in us reaches towards the hope he will say, “Yes, I forgive you,” and he says, “No, I don’t forgive you.” And on different nights, when he performs this, sometimes he’s angry that Wertheim even asked for forgiveness, like, how dare you ask forgiveness, and no, I don’t forgive. However that sentence comes out of his mouth, “No, I don’t forgive you,” it’s a shocking one. You can feel people in the audiences going “oooh”, and that’s because, I think, they’re carrying things in their own lives where they haven’t been forgiven or they wish they could be forgiven. It just touches on something huge for us and I love plays that touch on big things in light ways.
So, that was why I chose that play because I think there are big questions in this country about the crimes of the 20th century, and of the 19th century, and questions of how we inherit responsibility for those crimes. And – given the Stolen Generations and the national apology and questions about whether you believe in forgiveness at all – I think for a young male white writer, I don’t think you can write a “sorry story” that is about Aboriginal politics, but I do think you can write a global story about forgiveness. And I think that’s what he’s done, and I think we do need to look at that. When I saw that story, I thought, “Oh we need that at the moment.” It’s not possibly in the ultimate form that we need. Yes, I think there are great Aboriginal writers who need to be writing stories that we need to be listening to but this was a white writer writing towards the heart of forgiveness in this country and I thought we needed to hear that as well.
Siobhan: What’s exciting about Griffin is that it’s an Australian theatre company and differentiates itself by being the only theatre company to produce exclusively new Australian works. What is special about new Australian plays, and how is it different producing and directing new work, rather than plays from an established canon?
Lee: Oh, it’s so different! Directing, producing, new works and new plays, is the riskiest, hardest thing you can do in theatre. Maybe producing new musicals is harder! (laughs) Music adds a layer of difficulty! But the stories, the risk involved, is quite enormous. It’s petrifying, it really is. Every time we have a new play open up, my heart is in my mouth. Because until the play meets the audience, you don’t know if it’s going to work or not. When you direct and produce something like, say, an Arthur Miller, a great play, The Crucible, you know the play is great. The production might not be great, that’s the risk, but you know the play is extraordinary. But at one point, that was a new play and when it premiered on Broadway, it flopped. Fifty-one shows and it closed because that was the wrong time for that story in America. So as a new play, it failed. Now, we open four to five new plays a year, from writers around the country, and I don’t know which one’s going to be the next Australian classic. I don’t know which is going to be the Australian Crucible. The audience will decide. And it might not happen in its first production, it might happen in its second or third production, when it finally finds its right time and right audience, but that’s what we’re working towards. That’s what we’re looking to find. We’re looking for the writers that will write the things that will become the seminal works in the understanding of Australia. It’s that important.
It’s really interesting, I love doing the other plays. I love doing Shakespeare, I love doing Molière, I love the big Americans. I love even some of the great British writers but it’s like … if you were a chef, it’s like making a great apple pie. But it’s not like Karl [Firla] at Oscillate [Wildly] making a deconstruction of a Splice for dessert, do you know what I mean? He’s actually creating something and it could fail badly! You can have people with the right to say, no, that doesn’t work. You’re really in the room with the audience, whereas I find sometimes the audience for classics is a little bit subdued. Because they know they’re seeing a classic, they know the play is good, they can’t critique the play. They can’t say, “You know what, I don’t think Arthur Miller was really that good in this play … Edward Albee, hmm, this wasn’t one of his top ones.” You have to be pretty much on your game to be going hard on those guys like that. But every single new Australian play, every person in the audience has the right to go, “Yeah, not this one.” That’s a tough crowd. When you find a play that actually works, that moves the audiences and connects in its time, there’s nothing like it. There’s really nothing like the feeling that you’ve made something that matters now. It’s quite extraordinary. To make that happen for the writers and to let the actors feel that buzz, that they’ve been the first actor to walk in the shoes of that character for this audience now, and it connects in a way that really matters – wow, there’s just nothing like it.
Siobhan: So where do you see the role of Griffin in development of plays in Australia? And what do you wish that we could do better in Australia?
Lee: We’re the pointy end of the plane when it comes to theatre-making in this country. I don’t have the same kind of money as the state theatre companies, the same kind of resources, but that’s actually a good thing at the moment. I say that because there’s also a pressure on those spaces that I don’t have, and that writers don’t feel. So we’re a really good space for people to experiment in ways that they can’t in the bigger spaces. My job is to develop writers and works, so that they can move into the bigger spaces, into the bigger arenas with larger audiences. And if we do that well – if I build the actors well, if I build the writers well, and the plays well - then the next experience in the bigger venues is positive and then larger numbers of the audience are reminded that the best thing in the world is seeing a great new Australian play. So I feel Griffin’s job, sitting at the point end of the plane, is to work for all the major theatre companies around the country. We need to be producing the confidence in the writers, and in the plays, and in the audience, that new Australian writing is the way to go. They can’t do more than two or three new Australian plays in a year. In a season of 10 per year, even that’s a lot. But if we’re producing four or five a year - and feeding into them the writers, sometimes the plays - that’s a really good development system. And that starts to lead to a much bigger audience of people that are going, “No, I go to see a lot of new Australian plays, and not every play is the best play I’ve seen, but I understand why each one is on the stage.” You know, my favourite thing is when someone says to me in the scheme of the year, “Oh, look, this one wasn’t my cup of tea, but the last one you did was amazing, and the next one looks really good.” And I go, “OK, now we’re doing our job.” Because you understand about the risk involved with new plays ... Sometimes people go and see a play at one of the big theatre companies who have spent a lot of money. I get it, it’s disappointing if they haven’t had a great night out. And if they haven’t had a great night at the theatre, they go, “Well that’s it, I’m not going to the theatre again.” And they don’t think that about films. If you see a bad film, you don’t think, “Oh that’s right, I’m never going to a movie again.” It’s a different thing with theatre. It’s a lot more personal for people, maybe because there’s a body standing in front of you and you trust that body and if your trust is let down you feel more betrayed. It’s a lot more personal, the betrayal is bigger, it matters more. So getting it right is more important.
Siobhan: You’ve got quite a cosmopolitan background, you’ve lived in Zimbabwe as a child and studied and worked as an actor in the US, what does this give you when you’re working on Australian plays?
Lee: I came back to Australia rather than staying overseas and I know a lot of actors and theatre-makers that have moved overseas and enjoy working in the bigger markets. New York’s amazing. The people I got to work with were amazing. But I knew that I didn’t want to be one of those artists that lived my creative life overseas and then moved back to Australia when I was older, because it’s an amazing world here. The life here is beautiful. People are beautiful, there’s space, the food is extraordinary, the health is amazing. I didn’t want to come back when I was 70 and not know anyone in the creative world that I wanted to be a part of. And I think you have to live in, invest your creative life in, the place you want to end up in. So the love of my life and I chose to live here, to make our work here. Sometimes we do travel overseas for work. I’ve been really lucky. I took David Williamson’s Rupert over to the Kennedy Centre in Washington last year and that was an amazing experience, to take an Australian play over to the Kennedy Centre and watch the people from the White House watch it. That was pretty cool but it didn’t make me go, “I want to move to Washington.” It made me go, “I want to go back to Australian and make another one and bring that back here.” That was what was exciting to me.
I think at this time in the world, Sydney is quite an extraordinary place, I think the perspective you can have on global politics from here is quite extraordinary. There’s a coincidence of education and wealth and freedom that is afforded to, admittedly, a very thin skin of the population. It doesn’t extend throughout the whole nation or through all layers of society by any stretch of the imagination but I think there’s enough opportunity here to really engage in the world conversation in a way that there hasn’t been before in Australia, in the world. So I’m very happy to be making work here, because I think there’s a real conversation still between the creative arts and education and government in such a way that theatre makers, artists, in this country are putting their work up before the minds that are legislating and governing and educating, in such a way that they’re a part of the conversation. And I don’t think that exists in many countries in the world. I want the work that I make to be part of the conversation, I don’t want it just to be the entertainment bit. I don’t want it just to be the time off. I want it to be the creative time on.
Siobhan: Drilling into some of those bigger ideas, you are a very strong advocate for diversity in Australian theatre and you’ve spoken out in its past about its whiteness, about the dominance of men in the industry. Can you tell us a bit more about what you’re exploring now?
Lee: I feel an enormous amount of power as a director to put the faces of Australia, the bodies of Australia, on the Australian stage at Griffin and to make it normal. My personal politics are pretty out there. I don’t try and make the company politics follow my line, particularly, but it’s a pretty brave playwright that’ll say to me, no, it needs to be an all-white cast now. And maybe that’s giving them my politics but I’m not afraid of that any more. The last 10 years has really been, for me, about learning how to live my politics as a creative artist in this country and, yes, I do feel keenly the failure of every play that goes up with an all-white cast. I do know that I work in a new-writing company, so if I do have a writer that says, “No, it has to be an all-white cast,” and they can defend the argument, then I will defend their production in that way. But I think we’re at a tipping point. Audiences are starting to feel at Griffin very normal when they see a diverse cast. I don’t think we’ve got enough black writers on our stage, I don’t think we’ve got enough Chinese-Australian writers on our stage, but we’ll get there. And the more we do it, the more normal it feels, and the more normal it feels on our TV screens and on our film screens. It’s just working towards the normal.
Siobhan: You’ve shared the view that storytelling in Australia is more and more about stories of displacement. Can you tell us a bit more about this idea?
Lee: When I first moved here, my Mum and Dad moved to a country town, which at that point was four hours away from Sydney, given the roads. The roads have gotten better, so now it’s two hours away from Sydney. Not a lot of kids in my class had ever been to Sydney, let alone other parts of the world. The dominant story was of the families that belonged there, and that was mostly the white farming families, and it was… I love Goulburn, but it seemed to divide down the lines of, you were either Catholic or Anglican, and you were either sheep or cattle, and that was diversity. That was the range, and I’m not laughing at them, that was the dominant story. In my lifetime, the dominant story of this country has shifted from the power of the people who’ve stayed in one place all their lives, to the power of people who’ve moved around the world and have managed that and gained knowledge from that and excitement from that, and who create from that space.
So now what I think is [that] it’s become the dominant story on the planet, the one of movement. If you are of a tribe that has stayed, it’s a very difficult conversation to lead. And yes, that intersects with conversations about indigeneity in complex ways that I haven’t explored. But I’ve been conscious of the migrant conversation all my life. I’ve been interested to watch that shift, country by country, around the world, and even more so now as North Africa moves into Europe in numbers that we can’t even comprehend in Australia. I feel a certain amount of excitement in watching the shift, living through the shift of one of the big narratives. But I also feel a responsibility to reflect that, so that people who the knowledge that is being gathered by, the tribes of people who have moved, is being shared.
There’s a beautiful story I’m looking at the moment, possibly for next year, maybe the year after, which is actually about the generational damage done in one family by the Holocaust. It’s about the kids of survivors, and the grandkids of survivors, and the great-grandkids of survivors, and the way damage travels through different generations. I look at the Jewish story in relation to the Holocaust and there’s a real knowledge that can be handed on to other tribes that move – about damage and how to manage it, and what to expect - and don’t ever think that the story is done. I think that Australia, if it can do anything, can gather the knowledge of the different tribes that have, of the people that have, moved. In Sydney’s basin, there are members of 200 different nations living here, all with knowledge of what it is to move, to relocate, transplant, to grow again, to build new hope, to translate. And to be able to write that knowledge down, to create with that knowledge, to pass that knowledge on to other people who may need it in the future - I think that we’re sitting in a really good place to be able to do that in a peaceful way here. I find it, again, a very exciting place on the planet to be, if we can just listen.
Siobhan: Change is constant, and we’ve seen this in the recent changes to arts funding and administration; there has been really strong and vocal response by artists and the art sector. Do you find this response heartening? Is there a way we can tap into this energy, or the possibilities of what it might represent?
Lee: I think that the challenges are enormous, I’m facing them myself at Griffin. We’re a small-to-medium company caught up completely in the shift in funding models. Bluntly, I’ve lost $200,000 in funding in an organisation that can’t afford to do that. But I also look at it and go, “OK, it is what it is. How does Griffin, as an organisation that prides itself on being nimble, reshape? How do I see this as an opportunity to create a different shape for the producing layer of the company in a way that isn’t along the old models?” And I think that you have to look, I think probably what being nimble is, is looking for the opportunities in what others would see as a crisis.
Siobhan: In this world of change, what is your vision, what is it you stay true to for Griffin theatre?
Lee: The writing. Always the writing. Always about the writers. There are plays that I will fall in love with, there are plays that have to go on now, and my job as the Artistic Director is to find the money, and the resources, to put them on now, so that they don’t miss their time. It’s so hard for a writer to look at our society and go, “Oh, this is what you’re worried about, this is what you’re deeply worried about, I know how to create a story that will help you with that.” And for that to land on stage, in the right time, so that it arrives at the audience in such a way as it actually helps us, that’s my job. It’s to make sure that that happens, and I will do that at any cost. There have been artistic directors before me that have done it with no money, there will be artistic directors in the future that will have no government funding, that’s coming. Twenty years from now, all of the theatre companies will need to be completely independent of government funding, because the questions about education and health will come to the fore, they just will. And that’s OK. So we are forewarned, and the job of the next 20 years is to find a real independence. And how do we do that? We’ve had a great period of support from the Australia Council, where they’ve been supporting important ideas in the growth of Australian theatre. Now there are companies that have been grown, and now we’re capable enough of creating our own funding. Maybe not quite yet but that’s what we’ve been pushed towards. And I can feel the need for that push and I go, “OK, I think we’re up for the challenge.” If the last 20 years has been about being responsible business people, we’ve learnt how to do that. Show business has become a business in Australia, in a really good way. Now we need to make it really self-supporting.
Siobhan: Another big change is digitisation, how has the rise of digital media and digital cultures changed the way you think about making theatre?
Lee: It’s completely altered my head in relation to what theatre-making is. It’s taken me a while to process it in relation to play-making, because play-making is a very old way of telling stories, and we’ve built up a lot of institutions around that idea. But I’ve started to, maybe, pull away in my head around the idea of the company, away from thinking about theatre companies and towards thinking more about sports. I tend to look at what the AFL does more than I do look at what other theatre companies do. I’ve started looking at other story-making companies, as other companies get into the idea of narrative, it’s become more and more interesting. The doing of theatre, the telling of story, the coming together in a room to share a story will keep going, that’s not under threat at all, not in the way that TV and film probably is collapsing into one screen experience. We’re actually in a really great place, but how we go about the making of it and sharing of it, and the spreading of it, all of that is up for grabs as far as I’m concerned.
And it is quite exciting but what I’ve also realised is where I get excited, other people get quite scared. And pulling apart a company and saying we’re going to put it together in a different way, it takes a little bit of time to convince a board and the staff that you’re not the most insane person they’ve ever talked to. And for me, learning to actually look for the crazy light in their eyes, where they go - it's not that they’re crazy, but they’re looking at me like I’m crazy – that’s what I’ve learned how to do a lot more. I’m quite excited about where we’re going, but I get a little bit frustrated at how slowly we’re going there. Because we’re, again, an old industry, with old resources and old ways of thinking about how we spend those resources. I would like to move further down a path, faster. I’m a bit impatient. But funnily enough ... every few weeks, I go back into a rehearsal room and do a very old thing, which is make a story. So my life goes between wanting to be 20 years ahead of where we are, and going back to something that is 2000 years old.
Siobhan: And finally, Lee, what are you looking forward to most in 2016 in Griffin’s next season?
Lee: I can’t answer that question, because they’re all my favourites! I’m lucky, I get to direct three of the works in next year’s season. One’s by an emerging writer out of South Australia; one is written by one of Australia’s great directors, Benedict Andrews; and another is written by a very established Australian playwright, Justin Fleming, and that’s an adaptation of a Molière into a very Sydney telling. So I get three very different experiences in the rehearsal room, but you see I also get to program two other plays - which I would have loved to have directed. But I’m giving them to Darren Yap to direct, and to Gail Edwards - two huge directors that work mostly in musical theatre and huge, huge productions, and I’m making them take all of their skill and work out how to put a play into the Griffin space.
Next year is an extraordinary season for Griffin and the job of next year, for me, is not worrying about next year, but actually the year after, making sure that we can take the real gains from next year and put it into 2017, in this changing environment. And make sure that the story of Griffin and the excitement that the audience has every time they walk up those stairs, they’ve got to have a completely different storytelling experience, a completely different night in their lives. That’s the job, to make sure that experience never goes away, no matter what happens with governments or funding or digital or old-school or anything like that. Every time they walk up the stairs, it’s got to be a completely new and exciting adventure for them. Because they’re an extraordinary audience. I do think the audience in Sydney is quite unique in the world. It’s far less conservative than in other cities. It’s very privileged yes, no question, but there’s also enough education in the room to know that that privilege exists and to critique it. So it’s a very self-critical audience, and they’re very hard on our plays. But by the same token, when they say it’s been a good one, I do believe them. So that’s the job. Actually, all the way through 2016 is working to make sure that 2017 is even better.
Siobhan: Thank you Lee Lewis for sharing a little bit about your approach to storytelling tonight at Out the Front
Lee: Thank you!
Recorded in October 2015.
Interviewer: Siobhan Toohill
Producer: Adrian Wiggins
Photography: Brett Boardman
Art direction: Sara Jinga
Transcript: Fiona Wright
Subbing: Matthew Collins
This interview has been proudly sponsored by Pure and Applied.
Published by: Adrian Wiggins in Interviews