An Interview with Hilary Bell
I met with Hilary Bell one evening at the Atlantic Theatre before a performance of her play Wolf Lullaby. I waited for her in the theatre, watching various people dress the stage, examine the set for damage, eat a quick egg roll before the play. Ms. Bell arrived casually dressed, wearing jeans, a black leather jacket, a bright red scarf. Her most striking feature was her hair, newly dyed a deep burgundy. When I asked her about it, she joked, "If I were a man, I'd have grown a beard." She is a strikingly beautiful woman, a soft spoken and thoughtful speaker.
WG: Tell us a little about growing up in Australia. I know your family is in the theatre and your parents even founded a theatre in Sydney.
HB: Well, one thing that was interesting was that my parents were the last generation of artists who had to leave the country in order to study, to learn about their profession. You know, Australia's only been "white" for two hundred years and the acting profession is still kind of finding its way. [Australia] definitely has its tradition, but it's been heavily influenced by English and American theatre. My parents left in '60 for England to work for the Royal Shakespeare Company and came back in 1970. They decided that the most important thing to do was to start a theatre that was dedicated to doing both Australian plays and classic plays told in an Australian vernacular. And that doesn't mean doing Shakespeare with words changed, but making it relevant to Australian society. Not doing it with British plummy accents or wearing boomers and a codpiece.
WG: What IS that particularly Australian essence?
HB: What's really interesting about being an Australian writer today is that we're still kind of figuring that out. We've so much been defining ourselves by what we're NOT: we're not Americans; we're not European; we're not British. And in a way, you know, geographically, we're more Asian, and Asia has had an influence. But it's hard to say; we're still kind of figuring it out. I think there's a very particular Australian sense of humor and an Australian sense of irony and a kind of dryness. You know, there's been such a cultural cringe that we're now reacting against that and then there's also been such a tendency to stereotype ourselves into kind of Paul Hogan yobbos. [note: Bell translates "yobbo" as being roughly equivalent to "redneck"]
WG: Did you always know you wanted to go into the theatre?
HB: I think I always felt like I wanted to work in the theatre, but I don't think I knew what as. My parent's theatre philosophy probably had a profound effect on me. There have been so many plays written since 1970 specifically for their quite odd-shaped little theatre space. It was built in an old horse stable and had a tiny triangular stage with a big column in the middle and there were lots of plays written with that in mind. There was once a tendency to be quite parochial and talk about things that were simply Australian, and now writers can take a bigger bite and write more universally and write about world issues rather than just local things. So it's been kind of interesting to grow up among that because you know, age-wise, I was born in 1970 and I kind of grew up through that.
WG: Did you read a lot as a child?
HB: Yeah. Well, another wonderful thing about my parents was that they read to us all the time. We had stories every night. Both my parents are very passionate about books so we were very exposed to [them]. And they would also push us along to things we weren't necessarily quite ready for, rather than baby books, and we were exposed to theatre. You know we went to shows a lot because they didn't get baby sitters. We'd come along to rehearsals.
WG: You have attended very impressive schools. [Bell is a graduate of Australia's National Institute of Dramatic Art, the Australian Film, Television and Radio School and most recently, the Juilliard Playwrights' Program in New York.] What has been the importance of study to your writing?
HB: That's a good question. I think that I don't respond well to academia and I never have. And the three courses I've done have all been non-degree courses. They've all been very practical, so I have no tertiary degree at all. I've got the odd diploma, but nothing that would get me a job in the university. They've all been very hands on and the best thing for me about being at school primarily has been the structure that it gives you. Early on when I was writing, when I wasn't getting jobs, I just loved the fact that every week I had to turn up with some new stuff. Then being at Juilliard, when I was more developed in my career, and I had a commission for something in Sydney, it was just so nice to have a community. It's such a solitary job. You're sitting alone most of the time, and [it was good] to come in every week and share your work and get a response and be guided by two very experienced people. [note: Bell studied under Marsha Norman and Christopher Durang at Juilliard.] And then in a very practical sense, I was brand new in New York and just finding out how the business works here. There's a very big difference, on a basic, every day living level as well as a creative and inspiration level, and I appreciated having access to student actors. And the school provided tickets to dress rehearsals and previews and that was really useful.
WG: You got to do it on a level where you could learn the most.
HB: Yeah. I don't think, I mean, I've never done this kind of studying, but don't think I'd really respond well to reading tomes about the "well-made play." You know, it might be interesting if I could relate it to something I was in the middle of working on, but in theory, it just doesn't excite me.
WG: Which playwrights do you admire, and why?
HB: They change as I go along, but one of my constant favorites is an English writer Caryl Churchill. I think she's really very exciting. I think she's amazing, and I love the fact that she never keeps still. I mean, she's been so successful so many times, but she never sort of settles on one particular comfortable place. She keeps pushing further and further, really into more abstract areas.
WG: Are those the kinds of things you try to do in your work?
HB: Yeah, I do. I do. I feel like it's sort of odd to be my age and of my experience and already be trying to get away from what I've done, but the challenge to try something new each time is what's most exciting. And there are definitely styles and forms and subjects that keep pulling you back, and you shouldn't resist that, if that's naturally your area, but I think there's no point in ever repeating the same play that you've done before.
WG: What are the issues that interest you as a writer?
HB: I think that one thing that I'm really drawn to is moral dilemmas. I really like watching people in torment [laughs]. I really like getting some kind of little nut to try to crack. Something to chew on. Something that's so multi-faceted you can keep turning it around and discover other dimensions to it. I've never found theatre interesting or novels or anything where there's a very clear good and bad because then we all know what should happen. But, you know, in my play Wolf Lullaby, it's never really clear who's right and who's wrong and the best conversation that can be generated is "What would you do if you were in her position?" So moral dilemmas are something I think I'm attracted to.
WG: Do you think working off-Broadway gives you more of an opportunity to do more experimental, less traditional things?
HB: I assume so. I've never worked on Broadway. In fact I've never worked Off-Off-Broadway here. I think in theory [more experimental work] can be done Off Broadway, but here in New York, the leap between the levels is so great. It seems to me, to go from Off-Off Broadway to Off-Broadway is a very big leap, because suddenly you're reviewed in the New York Sunday Times and the tickets are 40 bucks. That's quite a jump from being a co-op doing stuff for 5 or 10 dollars. And the next leap is $75 and wearing mink. [laughs]
WG: (laughs) Yeah, I never get a chance to wear my mink otherwise!
HB: So that's another thing that's very different from working in Australia because it's so much more level. I mean, the highs aren't as high and the lows aren't as low. So I think, in all honesty, on Broadway there's too much resting on it to be able to throw on something that you just have an idea about. Do you know what I'm saying? That kind of experimental thing.
WG: Have you ever had an experience where you didn't like the direction in which a director or actor was taking your work?
HB: I've rarely had any sort of horrific experience. The worst experiences I've had have been on plays I haven't been around for, where I've been out of state and have arrived there opening night and thought "Oh, my God!" There was one play I wrote which was quite impressionistic. They decided one of the main characters had just had a miscarriage and she was standing in the water washing her bloodied petticoat, and that was completely invented. So I had to ask at the end, "Why was all that going on?" It's a little disconcerting. But that's one of the hazards of the job. You're not going to be there for every production; hopefully they'll go on when you're dead. So what you try to do when you're writing the plays is make them as "bad-actor-proof" as you possibly can. You try to make your intentions clear with every word you choose. I don't believe in writing stage directions next to every line. I think actors really resent that. One of the things I've been discovering about the art of playwriting is instilling your intent in every gesture and in every word you choose.
WG: You've now seen Wolf Lullaby in three productions: first in Australia by the Griffin Theatre Company, then in Chicago by Steppenwolf and now at the Atlantic Theatre in NYC. How have the productions differed?
HB: One of the things that the sets have all shared is a real sparsity. None of them has had much furniture...maybe one or two small pieces. They've all used chalk. The play tells you that there's a feeling of bleakness, so they've all kind of been stark.
WG: You know, the play is set in Tasmania, and for Americans, when we hear "Tasmania," we think "Tasmanian Devil." (laughs) I mean, I looked it up on the map and everything, but what connotations does that place have for an Australian?
HB: One of the things I wanted to do with this play was take it somewhere where the whole place, not just the people in it, but the whole place has a sense of being isolated and being peripheral and kind of neglected. One of the things about Tasmania is they deeply resent the fact that most of Australia doesn't even remember they're there. I mean, they're not that far away; they're just a little island. It's incredibly beautiful in parts, and then there are parts which are very bleak and industrial. Basically it hasn't got much money at all. Even though it's only separated by a small body of water, I think Tasmanians have come to feel like they don't really count. And so I wanted to instill in this play that feeling of aloneness.
WG: What are you working on now?
HB: I'm working on a new play for a company in Sydney, which is basically about three expert liars in Victorian Sydney, pulling terrible hoaxes on each other and the world.
WG: I'll have to go to Sydney to see it!
HB: (laughs) Well, hopefully you won't. Hopefully it will come here!
WG: How do you make time to write and balance all the other responsibilities of life?
HB: My constant dilemma is all my distractions. I've pretty much discovered that I write best in the mornings, so I just try to push everything else off until after that and give myself a day off on the weekends.
WG: Do you have any plays you wish you had written? Because I have novels I wish I'd written.
HB: Well, that's an interesting question because the process of writing a play is what is exciting to me. And there are things of my own that I'm glad to have written. I guess it's a bit like asking, "Are there any people you wish were your children?" or "Are there people you'd be proud to say you raised?" But there are so many things I have so much admiration for and get so much pleasure from. I mean, any of Steven Sondheim's musicals. I think he is one of the best playwrights. Pretty much anything by Caryl Churchill, Moliere, Shakespeare.
WG: (laughs) Wouldn't it be great to have written a play by Shakespeare!
HB: (laughs) Yeah, I mean, there are certainly things that I love, but I can't think of them in those terms.
WG: It's about the process, not the product.
HB: Exactly. It's about what you get when you take away a comma and suddenly the universe shifts!