Playwrighting in New York with Alexandra Collier

Alexandra Collier is an Australian playwright who moved to New York six years ago. After completing her MFA from Brooklyn College, she was recently involved in The Women’s Project’s, We Play For The Gods. Alexandra talks to Billabout about the project, how self-promotion is a tricky business and how she pays not to use the internet.

I’m from Melbourne originally. My parents traveled a lot when I was a kid before the age of 5, so when we got back we lived in North Carlton.

I originally came to New York to train with the SITI company, a theatre company run by Anne Bogart. They have a summer training program every year at Skidmore in Saratoga. I just packed up everything and said a very sort of indecisive goodbye to everyone. I was like, “I’ll see you later”, but I knew I wanted to stay in New York after it finished. I think that moving here with that kind of delusional optimism that it was all going to be really easy is the best way to do it.

We started working on We Play For The Gods in early 2011. They commissioned a writer, director, and producer lab, to create a show for their main stage season. There were seven writers, four directors and three producers. They gave us a very open starting point and we created it from scratch; it was a long process. I really think to survive in New York, you need a sense of community, you know – it’s hard to do it on your own.

We used Google docs and a lot of Drop Box. In some ways seven writers are a lot because you have to integrate everyone’s point of view. The rewriting process is a relay and requires communicating with people all the time. It takes time. We forged really amazing relationships. It was kind of incredible because everyone came out of the process still getting along – surprisingly, there weren’t any arguments. There was a strong producing team that oversaw everything and it made it easier for people to work with each other. I think that if we were in charge, it would have devolved into Lord of the Flies or something.

People are very professional in America, they’re more polite which avoids run ins. Australians can be a bit more direct and blunt and that’s sometimes a different way to work. There’s a culture of generosity here (in America) and I think that’s because there are so many opportunities. In Australia there can be limited opportunities, so maybe there’s a fear that there isn’t enough to go around so people hold on to their ideas and projects and guard them more closely.

Tall Poppy Syndrome is passé now. I hope it’s going away. I would like to embrace the fact that it’s not going to happen any more, but maybe it’s because I’m being thoroughly Americanized and this country has taught me how to promote myself in a way that I didn’t know how to.

Self-promotion as an artist is always tricky because it’s exhausting. It often takes away from the work you want to be doing – writing or taking photos or creating whatever you’re creating.

I just turned off Facebook for a week because I went to this writers retreat. It was the biggest relief because all I did was work on what I was actually working on and I didn’t tell anyone I was working on it, and so for all intents and purposes, it didn’t happen.

I actually pay not to use the Internet. I downloaded this software called ‘Anti-Social’ it’s $10.00 a year or something, and it let’s you lock yourself off the Internet, or any number of websites for up to 8 hours. It’s totally awesome and ridiculous; it’s something that I should have free will over. It creates this mental barrier, so when you can’t check it, you realize it’s just an addiction. We got an amazing amount of work done at the writer’s retreat. Greta Gertler and I would get up in the morning shuffle around the kitchen half asleep and get some caffeine. She’d go into her bedroom where she kept the keyboard and I was in the living room and we would write for three or four hours and then she’d come out at 1 o’clock and we’d both scream out the word ‘Lunch!’ at each other with great joy.

You have to find something you really love doing and then you have to find a group of people who will do it with you and will help you do it. And that’s why people come to New York. Because there is so much enthusiasm here. And if you are an artist people will get genuinely behind your work if they think your any good. So it sounds simple, but i think when you find the people and collaborators you really connect with in the world, hold on to those people for dear life.

Some of my favourite Australian playwrights include people like Jenny Kemp, I love her work. I loved Andrew Bovell’s plays, but I never saw any of them until I saw his film Lantana and the play When the Rain Stops Falling. There’s Maggie Cameron, this amazing performance artist/writer. I saw a play of her’s in Melbourne and I went on my own. It was like one of those theater experiences where you go on your own and you have the best time ever. Probably because you’re not answering to anyone when you see a show on your own…

I’m currently developing The Taxi Project, a performance piece that winds through the streets of New York in a taxi cab for three audience members only. It’s been produced in the Other Forces Festival by Incubator Arts Project, January 2013.

In the fall, Alexandra is having a reading of her all-Aussie play Underland – subscribe to her website alexandracollier.com for more details.

As told to Pete Maiden.

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