Kat Henry (Interview 16)

Photo: Kat Henry

Much of the talk in town and on the interwebs right now concerns gender equity in the theatre. Women playwrights and directors and actors continue to battle what many are calling, perhaps intemperately – but who can blame them – ‘the boys’ club.’ It’s not just here either; American and British women have their dander up as well.

When a woman succeeds in securing a paid job as a director or actor, or when she wins an award for playwrighting, then it’s cause for celebration. So it was last week when expatriate Brisbane writer (she now lives in Melbourne) Shannon Murdoch won the prestigious Yale Drama Series award for her play New Light Shine. As they used to say before digital technologies arrived to spread news in a flash, ‘the wires hummed’ with the news. Shannon was congratulated, contacted, and readings were being set up just-like-that. Hoorah! I’m told New Light Shine was one of the ‘must see’ works at this year’s National Play Festival. I wonder if it has been secured for an Australian production yet and, if so, who will direct? Whatever the answers, it’s a thrill to see Shannon Murdoch’s work being recognised in this way.

There are two women directors currently at work in Brisbane on productions: Andrea Moor on Water Falling Down for Queensland Theatre Company, and Kat Henry on The Ugly One by Marius von Mayenburg for the independent company 23rd Productions.  Greenroom interviewed Andrea last year when she was working on Tender – you can read the review here. I was delighted to meet Kat Henry a week or so ago at the theatre and to get her to agree to an interview.

As we speak we touch inevitably on the subject of creative opportunities for women in the theatre industry, as well as the lack of women in leadership roles. We talk for a bit about the number of women who led the way creating a ‘national theatre’ in Australia before theatre became ‘professionalised’ and male-dominated from the 1950s. Kat notes of the current debate on the lack of women in the industry, ‘Whilst I know I’m part of it, I’ve tried consciously not to be a part of this conversation, and to expend my energies on my directing.’ I understand this; it’s a wrangling with the status quo which can be frustrating and exhausting by turn. We wonder whether the lack has to do with women being cast and constrained – still – within the boundaries of traditional gender roles? Kat wonders out loud about challenging and breaking the mould. She goes on, ‘… and, really, the fundamental ways of working, the hierarchies we construct are counter-intuitive to creativity.’

The word collaboration comes up many times. I gather it’s fundamental to Kat’s own process as a director, and it certainly provides a counter to the traditional hierarchies set up in the ‘creative industry’ of the theatre – we laugh at the oxymoron in the term. I ask her what defines her work as a director and she tells me that ‘ … it comes out of finding yourself in a room with a new set of geniuses and you know you want to buy in. Every project, every new collaboration produces a new dynamic that shapes the work.’  Kat continues, ‘I’m still bringing my own world view to the work, but it’s with a new set of people.’

“I have spent half of my life in Sydney, but I keep coming back home, feeding my directing self in what is a marvellously supportive, safe and excellent collaborative atmosphere.”

Born in Brisbane, Kat trained in Sydney for the music theatre before doing a degree in philosphy and religion. ‘I began directing and eventually completed the NIDA Directing course.’ She then worked for a while with visual art works and installations. ‘I was so used to acting, but I wanted to know how to manipulate the visual elements in production.’ We talk a little about the many directors Australia-wide who come from an acting background – the actor-auteur. Perhaps knowing about the acting process makes for a better director? Kat thinks it does.

I’m curious what influence, if anything, her university studies in religion and philosophy have had on her work. She responds, ‘Questioning, an intellectual expansion, understanding and analysis. I think I have a more holistic world view and the ability to articulate it.’ The work from her own company Stella Elektrika she describes as ‘… multi-media and cross-disciplinary. We can choose various approaches and collaborations with new media artists.’ She knew from that outset that she wanted to work this way, and especially with film theatre. She is joined by collaborators Deer House Pictures for The Ugly One.

And what about her relationship with 23rd Productions?  She tells me that she was approached to do a show for them some time ago. ‘At the time I was unable to do the play they had in mind for me, but I kept looking for the right one. I definitely wanted to become involved, but it was a busy time for me.’ When eventually The Ugly One was proposed – what she describes as a ‘sharp, witty and tightly constructed actor-centric play,’ she jumped at the opportunity. ‘I couldn’t have been happier,’ she says.

Marius von Mayenburg’s play is ‘exploding all over Australia, and we’re doing the Brisbane premiere,’ she notes. ‘It’s a play with no moral hard line, but it does reflect society’s self-obsession with identity, at narcissism and the homogenisation of society – and the struggle against it, the insanity of trying to be like everyone else.’

… and it’s another German play. Over the past 10 or so years, we’ve seen a slew of productions from Heiner Muller, Roland Schimmelpfennig as well as von Mayenburg. Melbourne’s Benedict Andrews has collaborated with von Mayenburg here and in Germany for years, and Michael Gow, the former Artistic Director of Queensland Theatre Company, programmed Muller and Schimmelpfennig into recent seasons. What’s the attraction? What’s so engaging about these works coming out of Germany, and why are they finding such a good fit on Australian stages?

Kat believes the wider interest in the ‘hub’ of German theatre has emerged in part because the German government supports its artists in a way that many other countries do not – certainly not in Australia, she notes. In Germany there is a vested government interest in ‘exporting’ their culture to the world. As a result, German plays are translated into other languages, and become accessible to other theatres. That makes sense. She is familiar with von Mayenburg’s work, especially Moving Targets which was commissioned by Melbourne’s Malthouse in 2008 and which emerged out of ‘an intense, collaborative process,’ one which Alison Croggon notes in her interview with the writer.  Then in 2009 Kat worked on Muller’s Despoiled Shore Medea Material Landscape with Argonauts for her NIDA graduation piece. The production subsequently travelled to the Adelaide Fringe Festival, and was reworked for La Boite’s Indie season in 2010 as The New Dead: Medea Material.

And what about the content and tone of The Ugly One? What is its attraction?  Kat tells me that ‘the heart of the show is hilarious,’ and that she wants to express the fun in von Mayenburg’s work. ‘You don’t have to get too lofty, and there’s no time in the 55 minutes of playing time to do any intellectualising.’ I wonder if this could also be one of the reasons German theatre has made such an impact on Australian audiences – its irreverence, ironic humour, its tackling of taboo subjects where, when a work constantly undermines itself, there’s nothing left to do but laugh? Maybe it’s simply that they’re very good plays.

As a side-note and from another perspective Michael Billington wrote on the future of German theatre in the London Guardian a couple of weeks ago. He noted of the offerings across a range of its theatres, ‘… that Berlin theatre is stronger in acting, direction and design than it is in new writing.’  He concludes by listing 5 big names in the German theatre world – 2 are women, by the way. At the top is director Karin Beier ‘Germany’s most feted director at the moment: whether adapting the classic Italian film Ugly, Dirty and Bad, or staging the newest play from Nobel prize winner Elfriede Jelinek, Beier can do no wrong with critics and audiences alike.’ Wonder when we’ll see something like that here?


The Ugly One by Marius von Mayenburg
Translation by Maja Zade

Directed by Kat Henry

Featuring: Norman Doyle, Kathryn Fray, Dirk Hoult and Kevin Spink
Set Design: by Jessica Ross
Lighting Design: by Hamish Clift
Sound Composition: by Jeremy Neideck

Season: Wednesday 6 to Saturday 23 April, 2011
Preview: Tuesday 5 April, 7:30pm
Opening: Wednesday 6 April, 7:30pm
Artist Talk: Wednesday 13 April – join the actors and crew for a drink and post show chat.
When: Tuesday to Thursday, 7:30pm
Friday to Saturday, 7pm and 9pm
Where: Metro Arts Galleries
Tickets: Adults $25/ Conc. $22/ Preview $15/ Group (10+) $15
Cheap Tuesdays: $15 (door sales only)

Bookings: (07) 3002 7100 or www.metroarts.com.au


One Reply to “Kat Henry (Interview 16)”

  1. I’m not sure we should measure the ‘gender equality’ of our theatre industry by the quantity of female directors, actors and/or playwrights we see on our stages, but by the quality of work they are creating. For example, in Brisbane we are celebrating the work of Kat Henry and Michelle Miall (to name a couple) not [only] because they are female but because their work is unique, refreshing and it is good! We have to be careful about pidgeon-holing the work of our great female artists as a “win for the girls” so as not to do a dis-service to their work and themselves as artists.

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