I’ve known Sven Swenson and admired his work since 1996, the year his first play Vertigo and the Virginia workshopped for Queensland Theatre Company. Since then Sven’s completed 15 plays, but he notes there are 33 others “in various stages of disrepair.” His latest work, The Bitterling premieres next week as the opening production of the inaugural La Boite Indie program; ‘opening’ and ‘inaugural’ – a lot of firsts, and a lot of expectations. He’s writer and director.
He tells me, “We know we are the indie guinea-pigs, we’re all keenly aware of this. There is constant dialogue between the participants and La Boite, who are extremely supportive and available. They have a genuine and profound desire to see good indie theatre develop.” He goes on, “There’s a real air of excitement right now, and it’s helping us to create at our best.”
I’m glad to catch up with Sven, one of Brisbane’s most prolific and also proudly parochial writers. I want to know more about the inaugural winner (2002) for Road to the She Devil’s Salon and then finalist (2008) of the prestigious Queensland Premier’s Drama Award. His play Beautiful Souls was produced Off-Broadway (2007) and also in Los Angeles. Among other things we talk about beginnings, influences, how he works, and the local theatre scene. He has a few surprises for me along the way.
Sven began what he calls an ‘addiction to writing’ in his early 20s. When he decided to give up acting, “I didn’t fall out of love with the theatre,” he tells me, “but I had to do something.” A friend read one of the pieces he’d written, and persuaded him to enter it into the George Landen Dann playwrighting competition in 1995. “It didn’t win – it was Vertigo and the Virginia – but Robyn Nevin, then AD of Queensland Theatre Company eventually programmed it for the 1999 mainstage season.”
What thrills him is seeing characters come to life and dialogue with one another. His newest play developed in this way. “About 8 years ago I had an idea for a play set in the 1974 Brisbane floods. A few years after that, a character who had only been spoken about in the earlier play Beautiful Souls, started ‘talking’ to me. I’d have to stop what I was doing – the washing-up, whatever – sit down and write down what she was saying. She was so vivid, and her attitudes and opinions were so flaming, complex, and terrifying.” ‘Rose’ eventually found her way into the play which became The Bitterling.
You can’t miss the passion as Sven talks about his work. He writes every week, and acknowledges the influence of the great wits like Noel Coward. “It was all British comedy in my 20s, but then I wanted some balance to the humour.” He found it in the plays of Tennessee Williams, Martin McDonagh, and Louis Nowra. Like others, he sees writing as a craft-skill that has to be honed. “I’ve been writing now for 15 years.”
Getting the conversation off the page and onto its feet is one of the other things that Sven’s passionate about and, as most writers are keenly aware, there’s not that much opportunity to do so in Queensland, or indeed, in most places. By now, we’ve segued into the local theatre scene. “Of course there’s not enough support, but I wonder whether what’s being given is the right kind.” I’m surprised when he tells me that he doesn’t respond well to being commissioned as a playwright. “I’m not writing for passion then, but for the buck.” He acknowledges that it’s not true for all, it’s just not for him. I ask him what he thinks would work, and he’s back like a shot. “I’d like more opportunities to workshop a play in a funded way. Hire the actors and the director, because we need to see the work on its feet. It’s such an important part of the playwrighting process, and what emerges always surprises me. What’s seemingly wishy-washy on the page becomes powerful in action.” He cites the federal and state government-funded MAPS Initiative for independent artists. “When used well, the production services and management are really very helpful.”
Sven’s warmed up now, and he pauses to light a cigarette. “You know, the people I think I admire the most in the theatre are dramaturgs, but there is too much dramaturgy in Australian theatre.” I ask what he means. “Dramaturgs know their plays, but I’ve yet to meet one who understands an audience, and that connection that actors, directors and writers have a sixth sense about.” He’s in full flight. “The first thing dramaturgs try to get rid of is the emotional heart, and the passion. The only thing you can do as a dramaturg is to apply a set of rules. You then miss that indefinable thing that is the core of the play.” He goes on to talk about a scene in Vertigo and the Virginia that his dramaturg at the time said would not work. “It was hard because I respected her so much, but I just knew that moment would work; I stood my ground, and I was right.” It could, but doesn’t sound one bit arrogant coming from Sven, just calm and assured.
Actors love monologues and audiences love monologues, but I’m told they ‘hold up the play.’ If actors and audiences love monologues, what’s wrong with them?
The issue of parochialism pops up as we talk about the settings and stories found in his plays. Parochialism with a negative spin is a recurring theme in some arts conversations around town. I wonder whether it’s not just another manifestation of the cultural cringe; Sven agrees. “The local touches the universal nerve,” he says. “It’s what some of the greatest writers have done; Tennessee Williams or Chekhov, for example, set their stories in a particular location and stayed true to it.” He finishes, “It’s OK for people not to like what I write, but the criticism that really stings me, really burns is when people call it parochial. It infers that our stories are not worthy of being told.”
And once the story has been told – assuming the writer gets that first production – what then? Sven responds, “What can you do? Remount, take it on tour. It’s one of the biggest problems facing theatre in Australia.” We chat about this being a universal concern amongst playwrights. “There’s such a lack of entrepreneurialism here. A play is often just abandoned after putting so much effort into it. It’s easier to get a world premiere than a second production, no question. What this means is that few good plays get the opportunity to become a classic.”
Next week it’s the turn of The Bittlerling to reveal its potential as a theatre classic, and we talk a bit about this before winding up. “The play’s been a slow-burner for me. I got the idea about 8 years ago. For those of us who lived through the Brisbane flood – I was 13 at the time and could only think of how it would get me out of school – the memories are so strong, and the stories come spilling out. They are so clearly remembered by those who experienced it.” He goes on, “There were the tragedies of lives and homes lost, and the stink of the city as the mud receded. We were living in a time of danger, but there was also a guilty thrill, of the danger … and it was a shared thing.”
Ironically the weather in Queensland as we speak is turning wet, very wet. Before the week is out the rainfall records will be smashed, the west will turn green, the south-east’s dams will fill at long last. The drought will have turned to the flooding rains of Mackellar’s old poem. In time, what we’ve all lived through will be titled something like ‘The Great Flood of 2010,’ and there will be other tales to tell. In the theatre, as elsewhere, timing is everything, and I can’t help thinking that despite the flood’s awful devastation, it’s just perfect timing for this play, and a perfect setting for another shared conversation with an audience.
Sven Swenson is published by Currency Press, Australia