Out of bed and on the job: David Burton (Interview 2)
I was delighted to speak with David – Dave to his friends – Burton late last week about his playwrighting, and especially his latest work Lazarus Won’t Get Out of Bed. I can tell from the outset that he is upbeat – excited even. It was a good opening night the preceding evening – the buzz is good he tells me. But as we talk I can see that he’s just as excited by the opportunities that are out there for a young playwright. “I can’t keep up; anyone who says there aren’t enough creative development opportunities or support programs for young writers is not trying hard enough, or not looking in the right places.” We go on to speak a lot about support during the course of our conversation; it becomes a theme almost.
Lazarus Won’t Get Out of Bed is directed by Travis Dowling for AS Theatre, and it’s chock-full of other USQ graduates – actors, technicians, designers – Dave himself is a graduate and now tutor at USQ. It’s not surprising that there’s a strong University of Southern Queensland (USQ) connection. USQ is a co-producer. As Dave puts it, this is “a guinea-pig project” and an innovative, genuine attempt by the University’s School of Creative Arts to assist its graduates to create a footprint or a firmer foothold in the independent theatre sector in Brisbane. Technical and logistical support has been enthusiastically given by USQ, he tells me. It’s welcome news for young artists and creatives starting out in their careers. As Dave notes, “It’s an uphill battle for indie artists who have fight for their existence.” Despite the battle, this is someone who had clearly not sat back and waited for things to happen. Like many of his colleagues, he’s a realist about job opportunities, and points to a lack of communication between the independent sector and those with “the cash and the wherewithal.” He’s emphatic about the importance of harnessing what he calls, “the power of the creative input in the industry.” He mentions ego, talent, big fish, small ponds, but then brushes them away. “There’s no room for ego; you have to ask for help, learn what doors to knock on, and how to write grant applications!”
Despite the obvious – the dearth of material and financial resources – I ask him what’s not working in the sector, and he doesn’t hesitate. The theatre industry in Queensland could get, as he puts it, “… a whole lot friendlier. There’s too much cynicism about the work going on – far more are keen to point out what’s wrong than what’s right about the work.” I hear the disappointment, but also the reproach, “We really do need to be far nicer to one another, not tokenism just … more respectful. With the competition for funding, time, stage-space, and audiences, anyone who gets a show up in this state is pretty amazing!” But right now, the feedback from the night before has been good, “very supportive,” he tells me, and he’s pleased and relieved.
As we talk via Skype, I learn that David’s a craftsman-writer – my words, not his. I think again of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and the 10,000 hours of practice for mastery. “I try to write and produce something every day – a scene, 2,000 words, whether it’s a mediocre blog post, or a poem. “I’m working on my creative process – trying to perfect it, though I’m a long way off. I read, watch movies, and the discipline of writing is important.” He’s mindful of the traditions and craft of play-wrighting. “I have to keep sharpening the tools.” He’s always written, he tells me … short stories, and, as a student, found a new medium in the drama classroom.
I ask him how he settled on playwrighting, and about the themes that interest him. “I like the collaboration and support that writing for the theatre give me. I liked the writer’s autonomy, but was frustrated by the solitude; I like the balance in writing for performance.” He describes himself as “a terminally self-involved Gen Y-er,” and I promise I’ll quote this self-summation – it’s too good a line to pass up. It also goes a long way towards positioning his work right now – at least the subject matter of his latest piece. “I write about anything going on in my life. I teach, so I am involved with youth and themes associated with young people. My plays reference popular culture, comics, they’re issues-based things.” He adds that young writers in Queensland seem to be employing darker themes, “depression, sexuality,” but from a quirky angle. And that brings us back to Lazarus …
Good writers, we’re told, write about what they know. Dave tells me this play came from what he calls “a place of solitude that represented my place as a postgraduate, though it was 6-7 months before I got around to it.” Since then he has received creative development support from ATYP (Australian Theatre for Young People), Queensland Theatre Company, and then USQ. Whilst support and collaboration are great, there does come a time when the solitary writer is on his own with the work, and thrown back on his own resources. “In January-February this year there were too many voices,” so the script of Lazarus … was consigned to the fabled ‘bottom drawer’ of the writer … for a bit. It emerged for the production now playing at !Metro Arts. “Of course, I am now itching to rewrite the whole thing,” he tells me, “but the director won’t let me.”
He gets back to the influences on his work as a writer, and the classics emerge as keys. “You know, I think in Oedipus that Sophocles got it really, really right,” he notes only half-jokingly. He feels safe, he tells me, within the conventions of what he calls the “granddads” of drama. When he wants inspiration, he continues to examine Shakespeare, Brecht, Beckett. “You have to be observant, and pay attention to what they do and how they do it.” He talks about the great plays, King Lear and Macbeth as well as myths and fairytales. “I loved Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz as a kid.” He mentions a children’s play he wrote earlier this year for USQ; it dealt with indigenous land rights. I think as I scribble down his responses, now here’s a scholarly writer at work – and a good thing too – the scholarly angle, the work, and the passion. “Really though, with Lazarus I kept going back to one of the big themes, that of the hero’s journey, the quest.” He pauses, “… the quest – it’s there no matter what you do.” He’s referring here to his own writing. Beckett and Brecht are also somewhere in Lazarus he admits, though it’s neither absurd nor epic. “It’s the quest again, the hero’s journey. Lazarus would like to be a hero, but he can’t.” I think, but don’t say existentialism; he’s on the Beckettian trail here. This ordinary hero’s quest is modern, political, “a critique of traditional fairytales and legends, and what they set up for relationships, the false expectations, the consequences if they’re not met or disrupted by a life event – when you don’t know your up from your down. The play references loneliness and depression …” He trails off and adds, “By writing I feel I understand them.” I take it he means both the granddads of drama, and the life events he continues to chronicle in his own journey as a playwright.
We end what turned out to be a really enjoyable conversation on a more pragmatic note. I ask Dave whether he has an “online presence” as a theatre artist, and whether he uses social media as a way to disseminate or promote his work. Whilst admitting that it’s incredibly useful, he notes that it’s a bit of a struggle to learn what you need to know. He acknowledges that this production of Lazarus … would be nowhere without the company’s and his social application of choice, Facebook. It’s been the production’s principal marketing tool in spreading what he calls “digital word of mouth.” And returning to the theme that’s emerged during our conversation, there’s clearly support needed to assist individual artists and creatives and companies in the use of digital marketing using social media. Let’s do some asking, shall we!