Black Swan State Theatre Company has put in a few initiatives over the last few years to foster emerging local Perth talent, and their next production, A Perfect Specimen, is a perfect example of those initiatives in action. Playwright Nathaniel Moncrieff was part of BSSTC’s Emerging Writers Group, and the play he developed throughout that program is now seeing its world premiere as part of the company’s Black Swan Lab. Moncrieff generously shares his insights about bringing this play to life and his life as a playwright.
How does it feel to have your work be produced by BSSTC?
It’s been extremely humbling, and just a dream come true to see this particular play brought to life in such an elegant and sumptuous fashion. I love doing independent theatre shows, but after a while you get used to the compromises that budgetary constraints always pose, particularly in terms of staging and design. But to have such an outstanding design and tech team on board for this production, with a cast featuring some of the best actors in Perth theatre, is really wonderful and gratifying, and more than a little surreal.
How do you think this script sits in the trajectory of your practice as a playwright? Do you feel more like an old hand or more like a novice?
By the time I came to write A Perfect Specimen, I had the advantage of having worked on the Perth productions of Sleepyhead and Tinkertown, which taught me a lot about theatre writing, direction and staging. Those were certainly “novice” plays, but both were still extremely valuable to my education as a playwright. I had a much better sense of my strengths and weaknesses as a writer by the time I came to write A Perfect Specimen. So in that sense I feel like more of an old hand, even if I’m still learning with each new play and production.
How difficult was it to hand over your script to the director, and how closely have you been involved in BSSTC’s production/rehearsal process?
Well with directors it’s always a relationship based on trust and communication. When Black Swan told me they had decided to program the play, I knew that they’d take care to bring on board the right director for the piece. I had never met or worked with Stuart [Halusz] before, but he’s been an immensely generous and collaborative director throughout the production. Even though writers don’t necessarily need to be involved in productions of their work, I personally find it beneficial from a dramaturgical perspective, especially where new works are concerned. Often it’s hard to recognise what’s not working or extraneous in a script until you’ve heard it read aloud, which is why I find being present at readings or rehearsals invaluable to the final product. So being included in the rehearsal process for Specimen and having such a supportive director and cast and has been really beneficial in terms of the tightening and fine-tuning of the script.
What themes or ideas sit at the heart of this play, and why are they important to you?
I’ve been attracted to writing plays based on real events these last few years because of what the past can tell us about where we are and how we have or haven’t changed as people or nations. Beyond its incredible and fantastical narrative, the Julia Pastrana* story reveals many uncomfortable truths about human nature, greed, exploitation, and the way we perceive and commodify beauty or “ugliness”. And these elements are still fundamental to the operation of capitalism and our society. There’s a very clear moral at the heart of the play, and it derives from the tragic true fates of Julia Pastrana and Theodore Lent. I can only hope that the play moves people to consider how this moral might pertain to their own lives, or the world around them.
Have your feelings or approach towards this piece changed significantly from page to stage? How do you separate yourself and your emotions from the final product that we’ll see on stage?
I think A Perfect Specimen was always going to be a make or break play for me. After writing Sleepyhead and Tinkertown in 2009 and 2010 respectively, I spent the next couple of years experimenting with different genres, but more often than not ended up abandoning plays, concerned that I was still repeating myself stylistically. By the time I was given the opportunity to write Specimen for the Black Swan Emerging Writers Group in 2013, it was at a time of great upheaval and uncertainty in my life. I was suddenly single, jobless and broke and direly needed something to throw myself into. So the prospect of the Malcolm Robertson Award was the perfect motivation to really push myself creatively, and to write something that was far more mature and ambitious than anything I’d previously attempted. In the process it became imbued with a lot of personal pain and grief, which isn’t always beneficial to the work, but I think in this case added a rawness and realness to what Julia experiences in the play. So I don’t think the play would have turned out anywhere as successfully if I’d attempted it at any other point in my life.
What do you think sets you apart as a playwright, both here in the Perth market and nationally?
That’s a tough question. In a way I think I’d like to leave that for other people to answer. But I do think that locally and nationally there are a lot of of phenomenal playwrights and each of them provides a distinctive and vital voice during what we can safely say is a troubling time in our history. So I can only hope that my own contributions are valid and purposeful in this regard.
What keeps you going as a playwright? What’s in development and where are your creative muses taking you next?
Finding the drive to pursue as playwriting career hasn’t always been easy. I’ve been disheartened at times when scripts or productions haven’t turned out as intended, but I’ve learnt the benefits of not taking it to heart, and to listen to people’s criticisms and feedback. As long as someone has engaged with your work, they’ll likely have something insightful to say about it. Awards can provide validation and reassurance that you’re succeeding in your craft, but in the end you don’t write plays for awards – you write them for audiences. So I suppose I’m driven by the desire to create work that people will find enjoyable or illuminating, and to continually grow as a writer.
Since Specimen, I’ve written another play for Black Swan entitled The Burning, which was adapted from an unpublished non-fiction novel my father wrote about the Kalgoorlie-Boulder race riots of 1934. I’m particularly proud of that play, and I think its content is particularly relevant at the moment, so I really hope it sees the light of day at some point. I’ve also been developing a new piece set in Australian in the nineteenth century, combining real and fictionalised elements. Its elements are still falling into place, so I can’t say too much at this stage, but I’m optimistic I can finish some semblance of a draft in the coming months.
A Perfect Specimen runs from 30 Jun to 17 Jul in the Studio Underground at the State Theatre Centre of WA.
For more information and to purchase tickets, visit BSSTC’s website here.
*For more information about Julia Pastrana, visit the following sources: