It seems like nothing can embarrass the USA. Not electing a bright orange witch’s hat to President, not recurring mass gun violence, and not trashing the global financial markets. Still, that hasn’t stopped Australian-born, but very much Stateside local, the critically acclaimed Amelia Roper from squaring up and delivering some killer blows in her play She Rode Horses Like the Stock Exchange.
Between a string of new plays, her work on the Netflix series Glow, and some other onscreen projects she was tight-lipped about, Roper took time to answer some questions about the Australian premiere of She Rode Horses Like the Stock Exchange on until Sunday in Sydney at Kings Cross Theatre.
Two very straight, very bourgeois couples meet by chance in a very attractive park. Amelia, this seems like the start of a very mainstream offering. What’s the twist?
Yep! I like the edges of things, the crumbling facade. I think that for many people, everyday life looks pretty safe, pretty comfortable and the choice to ignore inequality is a huge privilege. As is the choice to engage with inequality when you don’t necessarily have to, that’s also a huge privilege but a wonderful, beautiful, brave, necessary choice. The characters in this play own so much stuff and they are completely obsessed with the housing market, but we don’t see any of it, they’re in a park, they could be refugees, you have to imagine their wealth. And if you can imagine extreme wealth maybe you can also imagine extreme poverty. And if everyone was better at imaging extreme poverty, well then we might be more outraged at say, Australia’s treatment of refugees. It’s all connected. And if I’m being honest, I’d say, until the last election I think many artists in the USA were pretty comfortable in their liberal lethargy and now it’s like, hi guys, fucking welcome. The great work begins.
OK, that first question was a little disingenuous. I’ve seen the play and it’s surreal and bleak and hilarious! Sorry, no spoilers. So how much time did you spend in parks listening to weeping bankers for inspiration?
Ha! Well actually it’s happening again now, with Trump, which might be why the play just smashed it in Washington DC. Americans are actually really embarrassed when they mess up. It just takes them a while to admit they’ve messed up, or a while for some of them to listen to women and people of color, and people in poverty, and immigrants, and the queer community yelling, “this is messed up!” The moment a person finally, finally chooses to listen to others, that moment, that moment is very interesting to me. This play is about that moment. The Global Financial Crisis is complicated but this play is simple, it’s an absurd, minimalist play about humans. The GFC is more of a metaphor, for the humans.
Amelia, you trained in playwriting at Yale and also you write for TV – and so there your writing for a team – but when it’s just you and a new play – and all your ideas – who is Amelia Roper writing for? Is it one person/many? Is that even a factor? Is it your somewhat internet famous guinea pig?
Easy. I write for the strangers. I don’t write for myself or other artists, I’m all about the general public. I love them. I believe in them. Before I wrote plays for money I worked backstage all over Australia on circus, puppets, dance, comedy festivals and international festivals. I saw some incredible things. My first theatre job was painting sets and hanging lights at Playbox/ Malthouse. I learnt to write by watching the same show every night, noticing the slight differences in performances and how to land a joke, how to keep things precise and short, and how fast the audience will turn on you if you bang on too long. Yale was amazing but audiences were my first and greatest teachers. They remain the most important thing to me, and it makes me crazy when artists laugh or roll their eyes at old ladies sleeping in the audience. I’m like, mate, that old lady just walked up a lot of stairs. She has had an incredible life, she has seen more, felt more, read more than you and she’s asleep because your play isn’t smart enough for her. So step up, and stop telling me she’s the reason you’re uninteresting.
It seems like you’ve been away from Australia for so long. Do you still get to vote here?
Yes and I totally voted, thank you, I would like to get married one day please thanks. If we get gay marriage and someone blows up America my offer of Aussie citizenship is gunna make me quite a hit with the ladies! Finally! Also equality, yeah, that would be nice.
You know I met your parents in the lobby before I saw the show. We got to talking. Turns out we both sort of know you. They know you better. They’re not from Sydney, do they always come to your shows?
Oh! That was you! Mum told me they met a nice guy called Toby. Yeah, they went to Sydney and they saw it twice. They also walked around Sydney and saw a real estate sign that said PREDECEASED ESTATE and thought that sounded very disturbing.
Not withstanding the excellent reviews coming in so far for you, Sydney has a reputation as being a more conservative theatrical culture than your hometown, Melbourne. Certainly more so than say, New York where your most recent show recently played in April. How do you think that places you for a premiere of a work about something as tragic and political as the GFC?
Does it? Shit. That explains some things. Well it’s a play about laughing at America, so we’ll see. But honestly, I am most nervous about being a confident lady in Australia, I don’t think Australians like confident ladies. It’s one of the reasons I left. Do I think I’m perfect? Hell no. But do I think I have something to say and do I think I say it well? Yes, actually. Also this might sound terrible, but I think it’s weird when an artist won’t admit they think they might be good. It’s like they’re saying, ‘Hi, I invited you all here tonight to waste your time because I hate you’. That seems… odd.
This play is about seven years old, and it’s been on a bunch of times in the USA. Why do you think it took Australia so long to catch on?
Oh, plays take time. Especially when you’re young. I’m learning to be patient with them and with myself. Once I wrote a play with the Aussie Prime Minister in it and I had to rewrite it fucking four times. That was annoying. This play started as a little short play. And it did many festivals and London and Moscow but it didn’t really get going in the USA until this year. I actually think America is okay at looking at its past but until now, not great at looking at the present. Actually a Huffington Post article I found said something about how uncomfortable my play was, and how it might be too soon. I only discovered that article the other day, it’s from the San Francisco show in 2014.
Mate, hang on. Sarah Ruhl (In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play, Stage Kiss) wrote the introduction to your play! How did this happen?
Ha, yes, she taught me at Yale. And we stayed friends. It’s nice to have people in your life who get what you’re trying to do. We like the same novelists and the same actors too. I think when you’re super young, making art can be lonely, because you haven’t found your people yet, and many people in positions of power or some sort of fake authority tell you stupid things, and squash your ideas because quite frankly, they’re sexist, racist, homophobic, or just not as smart as you. And that’s a bummer. But slowly, if your ego survives, you collect your people, one by one, all over the world, actors, designers, directors, fellow writers, companies, and then you start making better, braver work.
A more recently penned play of yours – Lottie in the Late Afternoon – is getting a staging in Melbourne shortly. Are you bound to secrecy on that still?
I will tell you all about it! It’s a special play to me, it’s feels very, hmm, personal. I just had a feeling, a kinda sad panic, a little heart broken, a little worried about the future, my own and America’s and my generation’s future? And I was thinking about nostalgia and art, and modernist novels, and how we don’t have modernism in the theatre and why not? Why did theatre jump so quickly into the cynicism of post modernism? Is the honestly of modernism too confronting? I was also thinking about how lucky I am that I’m a writer and I can put all my weird, inconvenient feelings into my writing but what about people who aren’t artists. Lottie in the Late Afternoon is a play about awkward sad people who are not artists. I think it’s my funniest play! And sometime next year my brilliant friends at KIN Collective in Melbourne will produce it, including Laura Maitland, Marg Downey and Michala Banas. Michala and I are also developing a TV comedy. I want to be around for rehearsals though and I have a new play called The Big and the Small going up at New York Theatre Workshop in April. Scheduling, Toby, life is just scheduling and naps, naps and scheduling.
Did you ever play that game about going on a picnic and you had to repeat what people were bringing?
Nope. Wait, did you actually get to go on a picnic in this game? Or just plan for it? That sounds like a terrible game.
Ok, forget the game. Could you please round this out by telling us a number of things that the couples in your play are bringing to their picnic?
No. It’ll ruin the play. Props, gags, Toby, life is just props, gags, naps and scheduling.
Amelia Roper, thank you for joining us. Break a leg/bank.
Thank you! We close Saturday so grab a ticket. We’re also selling the book. It’s pretty. Buy one, support Aussie plays. OK, I’m a terrible salesperson. But maybe you can give it to someone special. And if you don’t know anyone special well that’s very sad. But buying things makes you happy! Yeah! It’s a comedy, did I mention that? I always forget to mention that.