Hilary Bell, playwright extraordinaire and all-round theatre guru, talks about her role as associate writer on Paul Capsis’s heart-warming one-man show, Angela’s Kitchen.
Paul Capsis and Julian Meyrick and I have been friends for a very long time but I wasn’t part of the initial conception of this piece. Paul was very close to his grandmother Angela, whom Julian also knew. Julian said tell me some stories about her and started hitting the record button and he started to think there would be an important and moving piece in it.
When I say important, we never set out to revolutionise the world or change the face of theatre but it’s important in that it was such a common story in a lot of ways – the immigrant to Australia in the 50s. We didn’t really think about it doing anything other than telling these pretty amazing little stories of Paul and his grandmother’s relationship.
Paul was a little hesitant at first about turning this into a play. He thought who else is going to be interested? This is just stories about my grandmother cleaning the Surry Hills post office. There’s nothing world-shattering in any of that. But Julian took it very gently and softly and went to Nick Marchand who was then running Griffin and Nick was into the idea and they needed a dramaturg – although my official title is associate writer, and I’ll describe what that means.
The show is Paul onstage telling stories about his relationship with Angela, his grandmother, and a bit of necessary context about Malta during the war which required some research, but essentially every single word is Paul’s own words.
What I did was work with Julian to shape it. There were hours and hours and hours of Paul talking on a tape, which Julian transcribed and then whittled down to about 60 pages of stories. Then I came on board and together we plucked out common threads and a shape and a structure. We never wanted to have any overarching literary metaphors or conceits – we weren’t interested in that.
Me coming in a bit later meant that I had a fresh pair of eyes to look at it with and I could see the woods for the trees whereas maybe they couldn’t at that point. I could see certain themes that kept insisting and Julian did too – we agreed on those. Paul was less involved in the structuring but he had final approval. We were seeing themes of endurance and the cost of survival. Again, we didn’t want to hammer any of that stuff home but we juxtaposed things so that the connections could be made by the audience. In some ways that’s a traditional dramaturgy role. I wasn’t messing with the words. I would do a wee bit of editing so if I saw repeats of phrases that were useful then I would capitalise on those or if I saw ones that were redundant I’d get rid of them. Or if we felt that two or three stories were serving the same function we’d choose the best one.
Because we’re talking about a real person – Paul – who’s having to do this in public, and knew that there would be relatives coming to see it, there’s a different kind of sensitivity that you need to bring to bear as an associate writer or dramaturg or director.
The way Paul expresses himself is so idiosyncratic – simple in one way with a little touch of irony and dryness and very sincere and plain-spoken on the other hand – we definitely wanted to retain all of that and not get all literary on it.
One of the pleasures I get from dramaturgy is that you have the joy without the angst of shaping and helping to create something and you’re always making suggestions, fully aware that they may not be taken up. There’s something quite nice about being a midwife rather than the mother. In some ways it’s easier because you’re not exposing yourself to the same degree and the stakes aren’t really as high as when you’re the writer so it’s less painful … less ecstatic.
I’ve known Paul since we were teenagers, I know a lot of the era that he talks about in his own youth, so it was kind of thrilling watching somebody else expressing a time – and I grew up in Surry Hills as well, which is where he lived and his grandmother lived – so it was exciting to see how somebody else saw Surry Hills in the 70s, what it meant to them, and what kind of parallel life was being lived to the one that I was living then.
The biggest pleasure of all was working with Paul and Julian because we had worked together a few times, like 20 years ago, and then not for two decades. I really love them as friends and I respect them as artists so I felt very honoured to be invited to work on the project with them. It rekindled my desire to find projects that the three of us could work on together.
I think the show struck a chord with audiences because it’s so sincere. It’s Paul telling his very personal stories in an unadorned way and not really asking for anything – he’s not asking for sympathy or pity, he’s not asking for the audience to roar with laughter, he’s just telling stories. We’re all a part of families, whether they’re biological or adopted or families of friends or whatever, but the sorts of relationships is something everybody understands.
Also we all have some sort of background of trauma. Most people in Australia ended up here because of traumatic circumstances if you think about it, not all but certainly with the huge wave of immigration that came after the war, and then Vietnam and now it’s happening again. A lot of people take refuge here and that certainly was Angela’s story. They’re escaping poverty, they’re escaping oppression, and when you get here, suddenly – hopefully – life gets better but all those problems don’t go away. That’s what I mean about the cost of survival. What you’ve had to turn your back on, what you’ve had to give up in order to survive is painful and does have an ongoing cost and does affect your children and your grandchildren.
And then there’s Paul’s personality – he’s such an engaging person, he’s so watchable. He’s got a beautiful voice to listen to, not just singing but speaking, he’s got a lovely manner. I think you just look at him and you want to be his friend and he’s so unpretentious and so generous.
It’s interesting now the play is about to be published, the three of us have been wondering if it’s just going to be a text that people read as a description of the Maltese immigration experience or is somebody going to get up and pretend to be Paul Capsis and do it in a theatre? That’s such a bizarre possibility but maybe it will happen. It would be very interesting to see the effect of “not Paul” doing the play. Whoever it is it still needs to be a really warm and engaging performer.