The Readers- Interview with Elizabeth Nabben
"Scott had come home from his first day so shaken from the job and I was really worried about him, facing possible electrocution and asbestos. Together, we decided it was a virtually impossible casual position for him to continue in. It was much later that I found out Scott had started writing a play about the experience! Belvoir 25a gave us a platform to say "okay, let's aim for that date". A few months later, Scott had written his very first play" .
-Director, Dramaturg and Partner, Elizabeth Nabben
‘The Readers’ is Scott Smart’s first play, which is amazing considering the fact it’s been selected out of 150 odd submissions for Belvoir’s new 25a program, and additionally has been chosen to be published by 8th Buffalo Press. Prior to this feat, Scott has worked as an actor on Australian TV (Winners and Losers, The Dr Blake’s Mysteries, Neighbours…) and all of this only after obtaining his masters of biotechnology at Melbourne University. Even a master of all trades like Scott needs to collaborate on a project like this: ‘The Readers’ is directed by Scott’s partner, a well-known performer in Australian theatre (The Rover and Dance Better at Parties at STC, In Real Life- Darlinghurst Theatre co, only to name a few…) Elizabeth Nabben.
The story, of the conversations that take place between two men working as electricity meter readers under a difficult and demanding boss at Auspower, is inspired by the writer’s real-life experiences.
Elizabeth took some time out of preparing for her directing debut to speak with me about the play, the collaboration, Belvoir’s new program, and the world we live in generally!
What’s the play about?
“A young man Lachlan has been struggling to find a casual job and ends up working as an electricity meter reader in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney. He is trained by Peter, an older man, with wonderful life insight. Ultimately ‘The Readers’ tells the story of this beautiful, gentle, very Australian male friendship. While the two men bond at an intellectual level, they must navigate their way through the obstacles that their job presents them with: $18.22 an hour, risking electrocution, dog mauling, abusive residents and asbestos. This paints a broader picture for Sydney and its trappings as it grows increasingly expensive and negates opportunity for its residents.”
What genre are we talking?
“It’s definitely a very gentle brand of Australian comedy. It’s squirmy and funny and that recognisable style of Australian humour. You know, we understate and downplay so many of our situations as Australians. Where Americans might emphasise it, we bury seriousness and find the humour in that.
So it’s a naturalism that is uplifting. Also, there’s poignancy in seeing a member of the ageing workforce wanting to hold on to their job and a member of the younger generation really just struggling to find their feet”.
How is it relevant?
The Belvior 25a program took submissions on the first day of the year and that’s the same day Scott finished his play. Scott finished working as an electricity meter reader in September last year. To me, it’s relevant because we’re putting on a play we wrote now for now. We moved to Sydney a year ago from Melbourne and the rental prices affected our relationship as artists with casual work so dramatically. I’m looking at the generation I’m in where people are just not able to get ahead, so much of our lives are about planning for just how to pay rent that week, and society is so geared towards- especially in your late 20s- ambition and status (“have you made it?” or “have you not”?). And I think that Scott was floored, when he took this job, by the dignity of this man (the character of Peter) who trained him. Scott wanted to really celebrate the people who are invisible to us, the legs of Sydney. The play tries to respect and acknowledge the creative abilities and the intelligence of those who have essentially become the working ‘poor’ in Sydney. We say we have no class in Australia, but I think as Sydney gets more and more expensive we are experiencing a class divide and an opportunity divide. And it’s the distinction between the people who have financial connections, who are able to actually make roots in this city, and the people without; whether it’s due to illness or just financial hardship, who find they are just not able to get ahead.
How much has been fictionalised?
We were inspired by Scott’s real-life trainer and the beautiful way that he shared so much with Scott about himself. So we deliberately mimic this style of conversation.
Scott came home on his first day so devastated by these conditions. I actually had never seen him so shaken by any kind of casual work. So we wanted the tone and the intelligence of his trainer in the piece, but we also put a lot of Scott’s experiences in, in a fictionalised matter. For example, his roots from NZ, his inability to locate a casual job prior to this one, being unable to tap into the science job-market despite having a masters under his belt… Scott has a beautiful way of fictionalising plotting points for dramatic arc, but of course that’s also out of respect of the real people involved.
The play uses the friendship as a spring-board. Also, the conditions of the job, of course, remain. The essence of The Readers come from truth.
What’s it like Collaborating with your partner?
It’s been incredible! When Scott showed me- he had hidden it for some time under our bed- I read it aloud for him on the floor of the lounge room. That was huge for him because, well, he is a kiwi and he grew up on a farm and he is quite private. It was a massive experience for us because although we’ve been together for 7 years and know each other so well, he felt vulnerable of course with it being his first play.
Scott talks about how as the writer you often write about how you’d wish you’d said something, or done something. But in reality, at least here in Australia, we’re always so polite and passive. So I started dramaturging by taking out some of Scott’s motivated anger. I wanted to capture the true tone of the experience, which I was aware of from his second-hand stories.
We were wondering how we’d go as working as partners together in the room. Me directing Scott on his own writing! Scott has to let go of the writing now- it’s done- and I have to help him serve the text as an actor. We’ve been working together and directing each other over the years for self-tests and that kind of stuff, but this is a whole new, wonderful experience for us. Of course, some notes are left to be said outside of the rehearsal room and over the dinner table instead….
How are you finding your directing debut?
We couldn’t believe it when he heard back from Belvoir. I was doing a play in London at the time, and was in a different timezone trying to get a creative team together back home. On that, it’s been such an amazing experiencing also learning to be a producer and a director. When you’re acting you’re often focused on just one track so it was great for me to examine and serve the full story, as opposed to coming from it from just the perspective of my character.
As a first time director, knowing what I love as an actor in the room, I’m really enjoying the way that I can provide both technical support matched with trust and support. It’s been great to give actors the kind of experience that I’ve always enjoyed in a room. It’s so incredible to get that broader experience from directing too. As a vulnerable actor, you rely so much on that outside eye. I love being able to provide that support in this sense.
How are you finding the new 25a initiative?
25a has given us so much freedom. It’s incredible license. They chose the play but they haven’t been prescriptive with how they want it on. The marketing is very much our responsibility which is a lovely thing in terms of getting to champion it ourselves and keep it our own. I think the program will just keep growing and nurture new work. It’s really responding to submissions which is really exciting. It feels really exciting to be getting people in without a big financial expenditure and just experience new writing and new voices in all areas- I’m a first time director and so on. Belvoir are there to help us if we ask them, but they provide us with trust and space too so it’s a great environment to learn in.
Do you see life for 'The Readers' beyond Downstairs Belvoir?
Scott’s play is beautifully structured. He comes from a film and TV background so it’s filmic in that it’s subtle dialogue, but also physical: it’s never just two talking heads. It’s a really exciting work. Being chosen by 8th Buffalo Press is a great opportunity, as we can now sell the play as a book at the Belvoir bar, and then of course we also have a physical script to help us pitch the work to other spaces. This is a work that will really resonate with Australian audiences and in this culture at the moment with so much toxic masculinity- super heroes and aggression, you name it- this play is so the opposite and just speaks to people being kind to each other and trying to get by with gratitude. We’d love to give it another life.
Tell me about the team!
I discovered John McNeill when I was working as a reader for the Harry Potter auditions. ‘Peter’ is such a specific character in terms of his age, his humility, and his gentle intelligence. I was really interested in casting an actor that Sydney audiences weren’t overly familiar with so they could come in and experience the character. John’s a beautiful actor and I’m so excited that he has come down from Queensland to do the show and bring this amazing quality to the story. He has actually had three plays on at Belvoir before, so he is a special talent.
I worked directly with Anni Finsterer in a two hander last year (“In Real Life” at Darlinghurst Theatre Company). Her energy is so exciting and unpredictable. We needed someone who could have chemistry with both of the male characters and Annie bridges that perfectly. She can be strong and also bring so much humanity to the performance.
Scott Smart is, let’s face it, playing himself. This is his first time on stage so it’s been really exciting watching him discover the workings of theatre. He brings his filmic knowledge to the stage, making for an exciting energy.
Grace Ferguson is an emerging female sound designer. It was really important to me to champion a newcomer woman in the industry, because that’s sort of what the 25a opportunity is all about. She is a classical pianist and a composer and she’s come up with this gorgeous sound design for the show.
Matt Cox is a brilliant and very established lighting designer. He is fantastic, obviously. For me, it’s really exciting to have this kind of mix in our team. Of course, as a first-time director I need someone like Matt on lighting design who just can say “yep this is what we need”. Then to have someone emerging (like Grace) and have more creative conversations about style and tone and to feel our way together, is a great balance for me.
Jeremy Allen is a recent NIDA grad who is just killing it at the moment, working back to back. He is so resourceful and subtle and has managed to warm up that difficult black-box downstairs Belvoir space which is a mean feat!
Bronte Schuftan is our stage manager and she is just wonderful. It just couldn’t happen without her.
For tickets and further information on The Readers click here.