Cultural Storytellers: Sam Berkley

playwright and actor Sam Berkley, who used his own upcoming trip as the catalyst for a new play, Flightless Birds.. Photo by Adam Baines.
from left to right: Kate Lumb (Assistant Director), Sam Berkley (Writer, Actor), Colin Garlick (Actor), Chelsea McEwan Millar (Actor), Ben Van Lier (Actor) and Jonathan Hodge (Director). Photo by Adam Baines.
Sam Berkley is the writer of Flightless Birds, a new play premiering at Musgrove Studio next week. Renee Liang spoke to him about writing, acting, and being part of Catalyst Theatre.


Sam Berkley is the writer of Flightless Birds, a new play premiering at the Musgrove Studio (Maidment Theatre) next week. He’s also playing one of the characters in this play about mateship, the Big OE and what happens when people have competing agendas.  Renee Liang spoke to him about writing, acting, and being part of Catalyst Theatre Company.

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I’ve been on my ‘big OE’ not once, but a couple of times.  There was a time in fact when I thought I’d never put my itchy feet to rest, but over the last few years age (or perhaps reality) has helped me to be content with putting down roots. But the thought of a play about this very Kiwi rite-of-passage has me coming over all nostalgic.  Just as well I’ve got a backpacking trip planned very soon.

Also off overseas is playwright and actor Sam Berkley, who used his own upcoming trip as the catalyst for a new play, Flightless Birds.  Like many works the starting premise, that of an overseas trip, has evolved into a deeper examination – in this case, the nature of friendship and what happens when old ties are challenged by new relationships.  It’s a problem that will resonate, I’m guessing.

But rather than talking about the problems of growing up (a conversation that could rapidly turn weird), Sam and I shared a nerdy conversation about writing instead.

What made you start writing?

I am trained primarily as an actor (I studied at Unitec) but found that after I finished what that really meant was a whole lot of sitting around waiting for my agent to call and it became pretty old pretty quick. A group of my classmates felt the same way as me and we all worked together to write our first play A City Of Souls collectively. We managed to put that play on in 2008 and learned a lot both as individuals and as a group from doing so. As time has gone on and we have continued to generate and stage new plays I have put my hand up to write some of them (Flightless Birds is my second full play). I enjoy the challenge of writing and find that as well as developing my skills as a playwright, being aware of a writer’s process and different ways that a script can be approached helps me as an actor too. As I have generated more work and had my material produced I have grown in confidence with my writing and now consider myself as a writer and an actor, not just an actor who writes if that makes sense!

Are you an actor first, or a writer first ? (or both?)

It really depends on which part of the process I am in, but definitely both at different times. I try never to write with an idea of who I want to play the role because I think casting the role in your head before you've even written it can restrict your creativity sometimes. So even though as an actor I know I may end up playing one of the characters I try to ignore that and just write the thing. It's important for me to try and write a script in enough detail for it to be picked up and performed by any group of people regardless of whether or not I would be in contact with them. Basically I try to put all the clues necessary for the actor into the text itself so that the script stands on its own two feet and does not need me there in the room explaining everything in order to be performed successfully. I get better at this as I go on but it has been nice to be involved in both plays rehearsal process. It means I can continually assess whether I have been successful in this attempt or not.

Once I get the script to a final draft and rehearsals begin then I stop looking it as a writer and become purely an actor. At that point I don't approach the play as something that is fluid and can be changed, instead I always endeavour to make the material that does exist work and would only go back and make changes to a section based on feedback from the other actors or the director. I think it's important as an actor to approach the play the same way you would any other script which often means not having contact with the author or being able to change things willy nilly. Of course if there are sections that don't work so well or can be improved by making cuts or changes to the writing then I am always open to doing that, but I think it's important to try your hardest to make them work as an actor first before making big changes just cause you can.

How did you get the idea for Flightless Birds?

At the start of this year I had never been on a plane before and I have a holiday planned with my girlfriend to Japan, Switzerland and England this year. Naturally having never travelled before I was/am very excited and nervous about going and felt it would be good to write this play before I did go and have those experiences. Some elements of the play are an exploration of the ideas that Kiwi's seem to have about travel and a reaction to the fact that a lot of the time when I would tell people I'd never been anywhere they couldn't believe it. Often people would insist that I go straight away or become really fervent and preachy about the benefits of travel. I felt like travel is something that we take pretty seriously in NZ and was a good topic to explore in a play because of how passionate people can be about it.

Another main theme of Flightless Birds is friendship and how friendships can change over time. This thread to the story kind of just came out on its own without me ever making a hugely conscious choice to write about it. I guess I'm probably just at a time of my life where I am beginning to recognise that all friendships do change and that's OK. When you stop sharing experiences with a group of old friends you begin to drift apart no matter how long you have known them for or how strong the friendship once was. I was interested in the idea of a bunch of friends hanging on to the memory of their relationships to each other rather than acknowledging the relationships as they exist today. I thought that this idea about a group of friends coming to the realisation that they are not as good friends as they think they are had good dramatic potential and was something I wanted to explore further.

How do you start constructing a play - do you start with words, an image... ?

I generally start with characters and a situation. I try not to worry too much if it feels like the whole thing is just one big stereotype at first because it generally is! As the writing progresses though the characters deepen and I begin to hone in on things in the play that I want to try achieve or explore further. This stuff changes each time as well. Sometimes I have a clear idea of the style or tone I want to create and that informs my writing, other times the message that I am wanting to impart takes shape and gives direction to my work. I have used monologues before to get a clearer idea of characters but did not end up doing this on Flightless Birds although it is something that has helped me in the past.

At what stage do you like to show your work to others?

At Catalyst when we are developing material we meet pretty regularly, about once a week normally and I basically begin to share the material as I generate it, so pretty much straight away. Having the material read and being able to hear what people are enjoying about the play and what they want to see more of helps me to focus my ideas about the plot and direction to take the play in. It also makes sure that I keep on a regular schedule and don't procrastinate or put off generating more of the script week to week!

How important are readings and workshops in the development of your plays?

Very important. Having a group to share the material I create with has become quite essential to my process. I have improved in confidence as a writer so now find that showing the script to people does not need to be done with the same frequency as I have done it in the past. I can go for longer periods of productivity under my own steam more easily now than I could when I was first beginning to write, but it always helps me to keep on task knowing that I have people to show the script to and being able to drive towards that. While we have not always had the ability to hold full workshops, mainly due to financial restraints, we try as much as possible to hold as many reads and group discussions of the script as are beneficial for the writer and I find these to be useful in continually re focusing my goals for the script and improving it's quality.

Is it easy to "let go" of a character you've written and trust the director/actor?  Do you find it easier because you've been on the other side, so to speak?

I actually find it really liberating to let go of the writing stage of the process and begin to approach the material as an actor. I find that as a writer it is a very solitary process and while there is effort from the group to improve the show by being available for readings and critiquing it regularly, it is really up to you as the writer to take responsibility for making the necessary changes.

Once you begin to rehearse the play however you find that you all share the responsibility for its success and that there is a team working towards making the play the best it can be, not just you as a writer carrying that burden yourself. It is great to work really hard on your script but I think it's important to remember that in order for the play to really come alive the actors, director, and technical team all need to put their own stamp on the show and take ownership of their individual roles in creating it.

Sometimes the best thing you can do as a writer is to get out of the way and let them do that. Although you might think that your vision for the show, or ideas about how to perform certain sections, are the best ones, it is important to remember that the script is not meant to be a monument to your greatness as a writer but a framework that supports and encourages the teams individual creative talents. It is the combination of a team of peoples different views and approaches coming together that can really make the show a success.

Do you follow any "playwriting rules"?  Do you find them useful?

I have never studied playwriting or done any classes or anything like that so at this point my process has really just been to make it up as I go along! As I write more and more though I have created some guidelines that help me to focus and be more productive with my output and the quality of the material I create. Many of these things do not have anything to do with the techniques of actually writing the play, instead I find it more helpful to focus on my work habits and how they can change at different parts of the process. For instance when I am generating new material I find it helpful to write late at night when there are no distractions. However when I am editing existing material it is much better for me to work during the day. Having other things I can go and do to clear my head and distract myself keeps me from getting too bogged down in the changes I am making. I tend to lose sight of the reason for changing them in the first place if I am not careful! As I work on each new play I definitely set myself tasks that I want to try and achieve to help improve my writing in general or the script itself but these things change depending on the project and are not a set of rules applied to everything that I write.

How does Catalyst as a company function to develop new work?

Quite early on we realised the great benefit for us as artists of creating our own material. Since then Catalyst has decided that we are a company dedicated to creating new works that are relevant to us as young New Zealanders. We are still a very young company so our process for deciding what we want to write about and who is to write it is constantly evolving.

Catalyst exists to support and nurture its members however, not only to create opportunities for us as performers, but as writers, dramatists, directors and producers too. So basically we figure out how many shows we want to do in a year and then people put their hands up to take the reins on them, becoming the head writer, or sometimes the solo writer of a project. The group then exists to support that writer in creating and developing the script and eventually staging the production. Everyone in the group has different roles at different times and the roles may change as the project continues to develop. In this way we are able to teach ourselves a lot about all of the separate tasks involved in developing and producing a play and as our individual skills develop in different areas the strength of the group as a whole develops too.

Is there much "role swapping" within Catalyst?

There often is because there has to be at times! Most of the core members of the group and (up to this point at least...) all of the writers are actors first and foremost. This does sometimes create difficulties with scheduling and the way that tasks are shared out. Due to the nature of acting work there is often very little warning about when you may get work and because it is so unpredictable it does sometimes throw schedules out of whack when people pick up jobs. However we created this group to generate opportunities for ourselves as actors and it doesn't make too much sense to be turning down work when it is available. Sometimes it is difficult making everything that needs to happen for a production occur on time and to the level of quality that we expect from ourselves, especially with everyone's shifting schedules, but the group is always there to take up the slack and get things done on time when others become too busy or unavailable. Because of this we are able to maintain the pursuit of our acting careers while always having something to work on when times are slow.

What are you working on next?

Catalyst has two further plays which we will be staging this year. The first is called Heroes written by Jonathan Hodge. It's a theatrical look at our national game, rugby. It examines some of the people who play and why they do and tells the story of a group of friends who are brought together and forced apart by their love of the game.

The second show late in the year is a black comedy called Making a Killing and is written by Ben Van Lier. This play gives the audience a look inside the skewed world of a bunch of psychopathic merchant bankers and will have the audience questioning the role that money and greed can play in our society. Heroes will be staged from the 22nd September to the 1st October and Making a Killing is on from 17th to the 26th November. Both plays are on at the Musgrove studio just off the Auckland Uni quad.

I will be involved in both of these productions in various different production roles, possibly as an actor also although this may change as the projects take shape and our casting options become clearer. I will also be working on some of the marketing tasks involved in generating advertising for these productions so will have lots of different things to keep me busy! I have another play which is at first draft stage which was shelved in order for me to write Flightless Birds, so will pick that up again and continue developing it, possibly for next year’s season so I'm well ahead of the game!

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Flightless Birds
The Musgrove Studio, (Maidment Theatre), University of Auckland
13-21 April, 8 pm
Book here.

(Catalyst Theatre Company, and Catalyst Theatre Blog)

Written by

Renee Liang

7 Apr 2011

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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