An Australian in New York: Micharne and the Civilians

They say if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere, but Australian playwright Micharne Cloughley’s major career opportunities have actually come out of New York. The 2011 NIDA graduate is soon to work with New York theatre company The Civilians as a resident writer on a new project at the iconic Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Micharne-Cloughley-2014Cloughley began her study at NIDA after working for several years in television development and production. Soon after she graduated, she spent a year in New York where she connected with The Civilians, a company she’d become familiar with while studying.

“The Civilians had a play called This Beautiful City, which is a look at the evangelical movement in the United States. So that had particular resonances with a piece I was writing called One Flesh, which looks at Christianity in Sydney — particularly young Christians in relationships,” Cloughley says.

The company specialises in what’s known as “investigative theatre”, which is similar to verbatim theatre, in that it’s research and interview-based, combining journalism and playwriting. The topics explored by the company are generally quite broad — for example, Cloughley previously was involved with one of their works called Be the Death of Me, which looked at death in New York. The Civilians has won many accolades since its inception in 2001, and now has a residency with New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of the “Met Museum Presents” series.

As part of her own upcoming residency with the company, Cloughley is serving as head writer on The Way They Live, a piece of theatre which investigates the Met’s American Wing.

“We’re asking the question of what it is to be an American,” Cloughley says. “The Wing has work from the 1700s through to the early 1900s, so it’s very exciting with that broad a scope to look at — particularly the divisions and the idea of ‘how the other side’ lives, whether that be the wealthy and the labourers, the colonisers and the native people, or the free and the slaves.”

The work will involve interviews with curators and visitors from the Wing, and will be performed at the museum in May 2015.

In Australia, Cloughley has had a show at the Adelaide Fringe Festival and many readings of her work. She also participated in the JUMP mentorship program run by the Australia Council in 2013, where she was mentored by Tony Award-winning playwright Warren Leight, but says the opportunity to work with The Civilians is a career break unlike anything she achieved in Australia.

“We have a lot of interest in new writing in Australia, but New York has more opportunities purely by the fact that there’s 300 million people in the country and everybody who’s excited about theatre goes to the one place,” she says.

Cloughley says she, and several other emerging writer friends have found “moments” of opportunity in Australia, but that it can be difficult to maintain the forward motion a playwright needs to develop.

“I know a lot of people who have had development at, say, the National Script Workshop, which is great, but that’s kind of your ‘moment’, because there aren’t really a whole lot of other places to turn after that.”

New York has a strong culture of development, which Cloughley says isn’t quite as healthy in Australia, for a number of reasons. One advantage New York writers have is that American Actors Equity allows writers to workshop their plays in stage readings, which can involve 29 hours of rehearsal and performance, for which the actors are only paid a $100 stipend for their time. Cloughley says having that clear financial arrangement for readings encourages development.

“A writer doesn’t go into the process thinking they’ll be paid for every hour they put in,” Cloughley says. “They go into the work because they think it’s important, and other artists have that attitude as well, but the structures here can make it difficult to bring in other artists. But I’m not advocating for not paying artists.”

Cloughley is being supported through the Australia Council’s early career residencies program, which gives an artist in their first five years of work up to $30,000 to allow them to work with a host organisation and develop their skills.

Featured image: The Civilians’ This Beautiful City. Photograph by Graig Schwartz

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