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Cultural Storytellers: Melissa Fergusson

Melissa Fergusson
Renee Liang talks about the difficulty of taking risks in theatre, and interviews Melissa Ferguss

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Renee Liang talks about the difficulty of taking risks in theatre, and interviews Melissa Fergusson about her new play Motherlock.

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I’m a front-row girl. Yes, it’s because I’m a nerd (always have been). But the real reason I sit up front is because I love how theatre can be so in-your-face.  Of all the art forms, it’s arguably the most confrontational – because drama is by nature, dramatic and the actors are right there in front of you. It’s a form that demands discussion of the big issues: life, death, love, family.  The key word that all drama teachers go blue in the face using is conflict.

Little wonder, then, that writing drama is often an uncomfortable experience.  You see, audiences know as well as I do that theatre is for the big issues, and so they come like Romans to an amphitheatre, baying for adrenaline, disappointed if they don’t see guts and blood.  (Well, maybe I’m overstating it a bit, but sometimes it does feel that way.) In the world of theatre, as opposed to certain corporate ventures, taking big risks is seen as a virtue. And you can be damn sure that the same audiences wetting their lips for a bit of emotional excitement are also the smart ones who can spot a fake.  So what do writers do? Some do lots and lots of meticulous research.  The lazy ones borrow from their own lives.

Quite recently, I found myself urgently explaining to a close friend the difference between fiction borrowing from reality, and documentary.  “You’re being defensive,” he said.  Defensive? Maybe.  But that’s because I know how difficult it is persuading an audience, let alone those who know me, that the characters I write are not me.  But then they are me as well. I have to inhabit them for them to be real.  And for good risky theatre talking about the big things, that’s really hard.

That’s why I was impressed when I met Melissa Fergusson.  Not only has she written a semi autobiographical play about her experiences as a solo mother, she is also directing another actress, Virginia Frankovich, in the role. That is incredibly brave and incredibly risky.  I asked her how she did it.

Renee: You've had a very colourful life so far... what's been your journey toward being a playwright?

Melissa: I have been writing regularly in my journals, on pieces of scrap paper and napkins for over 20 years. Recently, I was inspired to commit to the pen, follow my heart and indulge my passion, words.

Renee: What's been your journey as a mother and how is that reflected in Motherlock?

Melissa: My journey as a mother has been altogether different. Each pregnancy had varying challenges and Motherlock reflects and questions the stigma attached to raising children alone, in and out of wedlock.

Renee: How long did it take you to write Motherlock?

Melissa: I started on the draft of Motherlock a year ago, final draft eventuated  in July 2010, after workshopping the monologue with my script advisor.

Renee: Was it hard or easy to write something so autobiographical?

Melissa: I found it easy to write semi-autobiographical information, sometimes remembering the detail can be the difficulty.

Renee: What is it like directing another actress (Virginia Frankovich) in the role of the "mother"?

Melissa: Great question. Virginia is not a mother, nor been pregnant, so my direction has been paramount in her credibility as the "mother". As a director, I am very focused and objective with the subject matter at hand.

We are nearing the end of our rehearsals and one of the scenes has been extremely poignant, in reliving a particular experience as the "mother".

The rehearsal process has been very unique with only myself and Virginia present and we have worked organically to bring the "mother" to life.

Renee: Has your background (in many disciplines) helped you in producing Motherlock?

Melissa: Definitely. I have travelled the world, working in 5 sectors, which has given me insight into many peoples lives, cultures and ideas. Human relationships have been significant in my career, especially in the health and arts sector. Motherlock voices many messages for both men and women alike.

Renee: Do you regret taking so long to come to writing? 

Melissa: No. I am now fully committed to play writing and have three other projects in the making. No regrets, my style of writing is very topical and controversial so you need the maturity and experience to tackle those subjects, exposure to life and travel definitely change and challenge perception!!!

Renee: Motherlock is unusual for a NZ play in that its first major exposure will be overseas.  How did you arrange this and how do you think you'll do in Melbourne?

Melissa: Auckland Fringe is not eventuating until 2011. I wanted to produce Motherlock in 2010 so I looked at the international fringe circuit and choose Melbourne, to showcase the play. Melbourne is the hub of theatre culture in Australia, so the perfect place to pilot Motherlock.

I have established networks into Melbourne already and working closely with my publicist to build our profile and exposure through marketing, blogging, print and WOM.

Renee: What would you like people to come away with, after watching your play?

Melissa: Motherlock touched, moved and inspired me. It changed my perception about motherhood.

Renee: What are your future plans for the play?

Melissa: Motherlock will be touring NZ in 2011, Hamilton/Wellington/Dunedin Fringe, also Edinburgh and back to Australia, very ambitious plans!! I have a two year vision for performing Motherlock internationally.

Renee: What else are you planning?

Melissa: I am writing three more plays and directing others in NZ and Australia in 2010/2011.

Written by

Renee Liang

8 Sep 2010

Renee is a writer who is exploring many ways of telling stories, including plays, short stories, poetry (which she also performs), and cross-genre collaborations with composers, musicians, sculptors and filmmakers.

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