Sunday 23 September 2012

Tinkertown: an interview with Nathaniel Moncrieff and Sam Farringdon

Last week I caught up with Perth playwright Nathaniel Moncrieff and producer and co-director Sam Farringdon, who talked at length about Nathaniel’s new play – Tinkertown. Tinkertown follows on from Sleepyhead, which was both a critical and commercial success when it was performed at the Blue Room earlier this year.

Tinkertown is a tragic comedy with plenty of dark humour and combines car chases with dysfunctional father/daughter bonding, music and yaks, apparently. Oh, and nudity – so be warned!

You can check out Tinkertown at The Blue Room between September 25 and October 13. Visit the website for tickets and relevant information.

What’s the inspiration behind Tinkertown?


       Tinkertown was written about two years ago; it came after I had written Sleepyhead. Sleepyhead started getting attention; it had picked up an award and was short listed for the Griffin Award and after that the attention had gone to my head and I had spent six months or more working on an epic Victorian horror piece that was a weird combination of Kafka and Henry James…

         And self indulgence.

N & S: laughs

N:     …and Oscar Wilde, and when that wasn’t getting positive reactions from the people I sent it to, I decided I needed to write something more contained. I worked on an idea I had been tossing around for a while, which was pitched somewhere between Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska and a 70’s road movie, and that was what was to become Tinkertown. I wrote the first draft in about a week and it came after a bad time in my life, so the original draft was a strange amalgam of heavy emotions and also…

S:     Trademarked Moncrieffian bleakness.

N & S: laughs

N:     …humour, I was going to say! So that’s how Tinkertown initially came about. I sent that around and it got a lot of interest from a few people. Sam really liked it and that spurred me on in terms of subsequent drafts. Eventually I was to hone it to what it is now.

During our last interview you mentioned that Tinkertown was meant as a companion to Sleepyhead. Is that still the case, and if so can you elaborate on that?

N:      I think that Tinkertown and Sleepyhead are stylistically similar and in   some other respects…

S:      Thematically as well, because they are about family relationships.           

N:      Yeah, thematically both are concerned in some ways with father/daughter dynamics and I think even from the outset I wanted to write another piece that would complement the style of Sleepyhead. I think while some of the themes and the dialogue and certain aspects of the world of the play cross over with Sleepyhead, Tinkertown differs in terms of being much lighter in tone. Whereas Sleepyhead was a very claustrophobic piece, Tinkertown is much more expansive in its setting, and the journey that takes place is a much more physical one, compared to the metaphorical one in Sleepyhead. 

S:      Tinkertown is a lot more accessible I think.

N:      Yeah, a lot of people will find Tinkertown more enjoyable and accessible than Sleepyhead.

Would you say it’s a progression from Sleepyhead? 

N:      I learned a lot from Sleepyhead about how audiences react to work and interpret a work. How you convey narrative elements to an audience, what needs to be explained, what doesn’t need to be explained, but also how to write humour as well. I always thought Sleepyhead was a very funny play, but as the play was so dark audiences tended to miss the humour. So that was very important to me when I wrote Tinkertown – how to incorporate the dark elements whilst not interfering with the humour.

Tinkertown has been performed in Melbourne, how did that go?

N:      I very much liked what MKA did with the play. MKA are, to my mind, one of the most exciting companies producing works in Australia at the moment. I feel privileged that they have now done two of my plays. What was unfortunate was that I don’t think Tinkertown was quite at the stage that it is now when it was produced, so while MKA did the best they could with the play, at that stage I had not yet heard the play read aloud or seen it performed live, so after I went over to Melbourne to see it performed. I immediately went back and re-worked a lot of it, so the Perth production will be a lot more finely honed.

So, that was my next question, is the Perth production very different to the Melbourne production? 

S:      Just about every week! laughs

N:      Yeah. It’s been great working on the play as co-director because it’s given me free reign to re-work and re-write the elements that I didn’t think were working or could be improved. I am quite a perfectionist when it comes to my writing, so I have been a bit of an annoyance at times to Sam and some of the actors, in terms of cutting lines and adding lines. I think that ultimately that will be a huge benefit to the script; it’s a much sharper, tighter work than it would have been had I not directed it.

Nathaniel and Sam

Tinkertown is being co-directed with Sam Farringdon. Sam - how did that come about and what did you contribute as co-director?

S:      I just imposed myself on Nathaniel’s work (laughs) and he just lets me do that. Obviously I read the very first draft of the script and immediately I fell in love with it. I had read a lot of Nathaniel’s previous scripts, they were mostly film scripts at that point, and when I read Tinkertown I immediately recognised that it was the most accessible thing he’d ever written. It’s funny, because I actually went back and read the first draft a couple of weeks ago, and compared to where it is now, the thing is actually a mess – but that’s only in the context of what I know the script to be now, in the process of the last year and a half of it being re-tooled. So I think that it really was quite something when I first read it, and that’s something that has carried on until now. In terms of my role in our relationship, I joked before that Nat brings the creativity and I bring the organisation and the practicality, and that’s really quite true to a certain extent. Nathaniel and I work very well together because we share a lot of the same artistic passions and ideas, and we bounce of each other quite well. We can throw ideas back and forth and reign in each other’s more outlandish ideas, or recast them as something that works a lot better for both of us. 

You produced Sleepyhead, is directing more of a challenge?

S:      Well I am producing Tinkertown as well. Producing and directing is a huge challenge in that it’s essentially twice the amount of work, but the way that we had planned it was that I was always going to produce and provide assistance in terms of direction, and Nathaniel would take on the most of the direction. That’s pretty much how it’s worked, but at the same time the direction has been collaborative and that’s something that I have really enjoyed. It has been really quite difficult at times, but it has been made considerably easier with the support we got from The Blue Room and also the support from our mentor, Mark Storen. He’s an amazing actor, writer and director in his own right…

N:      An incredible person all round…

S:      Yeah, he’s an incredible guy. The actors that we’ve had: Phil Moilin, Tessa Carmody, Hannah Day and Jeremy Levi – they interpret our vague, overlapping ideas and messy direction and deliver them to a tee, giving us what we want.

Sam - has this given you any ideas of your own, in terms of writing?

S:       It’s certainly inspired me. I have always written stuff, I just never really shared it with people, and I always tended to write more poetry and short prose rather than plays. It certainly has inspired me, and working with Nathaniel and Mark and Phil, Tessa, Hannah and Jeremy has inspired me to work on something of my own writing. I am really just happy to be involved in the whole creative process; it’s just fantastic to be among creative people and to be creating a piece of art. That’s exciting in itself and I hope to continue that. Regardless whether I continue to write, as long as I am around these creations, the creative process and these creative people I am quite content.

Nathaniel, Tinkertown has been described as a tragic comedy. Are you attracted to this genre or is it more of a means to get across what you are trying to say?

N:      I think all my work ends up being incredibly dark one way or another, it’s just the kinds of characters I’m attracted to, the kinds of stories I want to tell, so even if I aim to do a light comedy, which I aimed for with Tinkertown, it ends up being something quite twisted and quite dark. I don’t intend to write tragedies; just often the stories that linger in my mind and end up coming to fruition end up being grim in nature.

S:      Well, all the anecdotes that you tell, the stories from your own life are tragic comedies as well…

N:      Yeah, I think my sense of humour is kind of bent - I have a very dark sense of humour and that is reflected in my work. Even Sleepyhead, I thought that was a very funny play, it turned out that not that many people thought it was quite as funny as I did.

S:      The comedy in Sleepyhead was much more subtle, you have to be looking for it to find it in parts of it.

N:      This play gives the audience more permission to laugh. I think in Sleepyhead, because from the outset it’s such a grim world with characters that are so irredeemably messed up, that when the humour enters into the picture it’s harder for the audience to realize they’re allowed to laugh. I think Tinkertown from it’s very first line tells the audience what sort of play it is going to be and what sort of humour it’s going to possess. I think audiences will have a much easier time enjoying the comedy in this play.

Phil Miolin as Chester

Tell me about the character Chester?

N:      Chester is a character that is looking for redemption. He wants to fix his failed existence – he’s murdered his wife, he’s spent most of his life behind bars, and so he’s come out and he wants to make things right with his daughter. He’s such a fuck up, for want of a better term, that he just keeps making situations worse for himself. The reunion with his daughter just doesn’t go to plan, and that’s where we begin the play. From there it’s all downhill, one mistake after another.

S:      His intentions are always good, but he just doesn’t think things through enough for them to happen quite the way he intends them to.

N:      Yeah, he’s got a skewed way of thinking and he’s got a very skewed sense of honour, which…

S:      Which probably comes from his life behind bars and having to justify his way of life.

Tell me about Tammy, Chester’s daughter?

N:      Tammy is the antithesis of Chester because she’s been estranged from him since she was a baby, and was raised by her mother’s sister, who was a strict religious woman. She was raised in a very morally upright environment, so when they meet at the beginning of the play they are at complete odds in terms of beliefs and ethics. That sets the dynamic for the rest of the play, in terms of these characters who want to get along but just can’t, because they’re different in almost every respect.

S:      Tammy’s moral compass is a bit skewed as well, but it’s skewed towards righteousness, that’s where a lot of the conflict arises.

N:      Tammy has a lot of her father in her, but she’s in denial of that fact. The more she spends time with Chester the more her darker side comes out.

Felicity Groom

The music is performed by Felicity Groom, how did that collaboration come about? Does she perform live?

S:      Yes, she performs live. When we started talking about Tinkertown as a Blue Room show we were really adamant that it would be scored by live music, as music was a huge part of the influence for Nathaniel. I could hear the sounds for the music echo throughout the script. That was a reason that I think it resonated with me so much. Felicity was an acquaintance of mine, and when we were throwing ideas around as to how we could approach the live music her name came up because we really thought that her music had a haunting, ethereal quality to it that was fitting to the landscape and mood of the piece.

She’d worked on something for Renee Newman-Storen, Mark Storen’s wife at the Blue Room, which was received really well. So we arranged a meeting with her and she’s really lovely and very hardworking and was very passionate about the project as soon as she’d read the script. So all the stars aligned and it worked out for the best.

N:      When I wrote Tinkertown I was listening to a lot of folk music and a lot of blues and country music. Stuff like Jackson C. Frank and Townes Van Zandt – artists like that, and so the first draft of the script were very much littered with a lot of musical references and so music was very important to the world of the play. When we conceived the piece we really wanted a songwriter to come along and not only enhance the mood of the piece, but to also compliment the narrative. The example that comes to mind is Curtis Mayfield and the Superfly soundtrack, in which the film and the soundtrack are almost synonymous because the lyrics heighten the narrative and they really add a lot of depth and convey a lot of different angles and elements to the audience.

S:      It’s important to know that when Felicity’s on stage she’s a part of the world; very much omnipresent within the world, and her music expresses the mood and landscape of the piece. That was really important to colour the play. It’s not a case of her tacking on her music in between scenes, her music lives and breathes within the scenes and it gives the show as much life as the characters of Tammy and Chester do.

N:      Yeah, Felicity really has a knack of connecting with the play, her music and her lyrics really tapped into what I was going for when I wrote the piece. A lot of aspects of the characterisation that I didn’t discuss with her, she just automatically picked up upon. She’s done a fantastic job.

What else have you been working on? How’s Turn of the Screw coming along? Have you given up on it?

N:      The Turn of the Screw play I think is a tremendous piece of work, it’s sort of like Victorian Gothic Psychedelia.

S:      If that’s even a genre? It’s Moncrieffian! 

N:      It’s incredibly grotesque work and I’m not sure at this point in my career that it would be wise to unleash it – it’s experimental and certainly my most fucked up play. Not to mention that it would also be an incredibly costly piece of work. If any supremely well-funded organisations showed interest and were willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a play and potentially lose it, then I’d say I’d have one piece of work for them to see. It might fall by the wayside. But I have been working on another epic, completely uncommercial piece of work.

S:      I wouldn’t call it uncommercial, it’s just very very black.

N:      It’s almost at its first draft stage and I’m very happy with the way it’s going. It’s based on a true story so I’ve had to do a lot of research and work hard to combine the real life and fictionalized elements. It will be by far my ambitious work. It will be quite a few months before anyone will get to look at it, besides Sam I guess.

Is there anything else you’d like to say in general or about Tinkertown? Come and see it?
S:      It’s worth mentioning that we’ve had a huge amount of love and support from everyone involved at The Blue Room: Susannah, Thom, Kerry Roger and Sally. They’ve been hugely supportive from the beginning. As first time director doing their first show we are extremely grateful. It’s great to work under the banner of a theatre company that is recognized for excellent work. It’s a huge honour.

N:      We are very grateful. Also we wouldn’t be talking now if it weren’t for MKA and their ongoing support, both with Sleepyhead and this play. The Blue Room have been hugely supportive. We have an amazing crew as well.

S:      They’ve worked with enthusiasm and commitment. We really have the most talented people and it’s mind boggling just how great it is to work with these people and it will hopefully all show through in the final result.

Credits: Photographs of Nathaniel, Sam, Phil Miolin and Felicity Groom by Sophia Muoio

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