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December 4, 2021

The write stuff with Reg Cribb

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Thomas-Murray_Grant-Cratwright,-Francesa-Savige_Photo-By-Matthew-Duchesne-034-WEBWriter Reg Cribb is probably best known for the film Last Cab to Darwin. As a screenwriter and a playwright Reg is passionate about telling stories slightly off the grid, detailing the Australia that exists outside our capital cities. His play Thomas Murray and the Upside Down River is being performed at Lismore City Hall this week and he is engaged in several Q&A sessions to share his experience.

Why do you write ‘regional’ stories? 

I was raised in rural Western Australia. My father was a bank manager and we were transferred all over the state. I lived in 10 different country towns and attended five different primary schools before I went to boarding school in Perth. I am drawn to stories from the far-flung reaches of our country. The characters are extreme, the struggles are many, and the more we drift towards an urban culture the more I want to tell stories from the forgotten parts of Australia.

How do you source your stories? What process do you go through to transform your ideas into something that will work for stage?

I get out among it. For example, I spent three weeks driving down and camping on the Darling River to find the narrative that eventually became my latest play, Thomas Murray and the Upside Down River. It came from the stories of people who lived in the area. You have to be open to let the landscape speak to you and be fearless in finding a way to put that on the stage.

I love your fascination with ‘ordinary’ Australians. What have you come across in your research that has astounded or moved you?

Stories from the rural back blocks are not boring to me. They live such extreme lives compared to us in the city where our worlds intersect and tend to blend in to one. I certainly don’t find them ordinary. But you need to scratch the surface beneath the funny anecdote or the cracking yarn. Once you do that, you meet people who have incredibly complex relationships with the land and the indigenous presence of their country. In the city we give lip service to these concepts but in the country they live it! For example: On the Darling River a farmer of four generations was dealing with the drought revealing a massacre site on his property. In Broken Hill a cancer-riddled cab driver had driven 3,000km to Darwin to take control of his own death. In Arnhem Land, I lived with David Gulpilil in his humpy for three weeks and went crocodile hunting with him. These stories are truly amazing!

How do you develop character? I am intrigued how a playwright doesn’t just use a strong personality as a template to build a character. Do you start from scratch, do you use a bit of this and that… are you a bit of a Dr Frankenstein when it comes to character construction?

The first port of call in regard to character is what is the character’s objective? They might have a larger-than-life personality and many great eccentricities, but it is their personal character journey that you need in a narrative. Who are they at the beginning of your story and who do they become by the end? And what obstacles stand in the way of their achieving their objective? Characters who don’t change do not make for compelling drama.

I would imagine that the key to a show like The Upside Down River is authenticity – you have to get it right. What were the challenges you faced in crafting this story? 

Apart from ensuring that the dialogue sounds authentic and not clichéd, the main challenge is bringing an epic story to the stage. An 800km journey down the length of the Darling River on a tiny theatre stage is a terrific challenge. Our esteemed director was not daunted by it and neither were the performers. In the past I have written epic, very cinematic theatre that presented huge challenges for the stage. But they are the kind of stories I am drawn to. I tend to write plays I want to see myself!

How do you decide what to leave out? Novels have this massive emotional landscape that seems almost limitless… but you have only just over 90 minutes or more.

You have to learn to edit anything in the script that doesn’t advance story and narrative. In my early days of writing plays, I wrote lots of unnecessary dialogue and indulgent non sequiturs. They were always enjoyable to write, not so enjoyable to watch on stage. A lean and compressed script makes for a tighter play.

Climate change is ironically a ‘dry’ subject, difficult to tackle in a way that is ‘real’. How did you tell the smaller story of what climate change can mean?

No writer ever wants to preach to an audience or bash them over the heads with a ‘message’ or ‘worthy’ play. As soon as I began my research on the Darling River I realised very quickly that the impact of European farming methods on an unforgiving landscape was going to feature as a strong theme in this work. The river itself is a character in its own right. Thomas Murray, the protagonist, has impacted on the landscape, and in turn has been impacted upon. This is an issue that we give lip service to in the sanctity of our urban environment, but out there on the land it is something that they grapple with every single day.

You have also investigated the relationship between landowners and Indigenous Australia. Tell me how you developed this part of the thread and why you felt it was integral to the story.

I didn’t really know what story I was going to tell about the Darling River. During my research, the bleached bones of the past were being thrown up out of the river beds and it was simply a theme that could not be ignored. Any story set in rural Australia, especially remote rural, is going to encompass, in some shape or form, the relationship between White and Black Australia.

How do you feel about the latest production of Thomas Murray and the Upside Down River? Do you feel they really capture the spirit of the work?

I am overwhelmed by this production. I can’t imagine a more authentic rendition of this story. It is a play that could be royally messed up because it is so ambitious and epic. But Chris Bendall’s respect and passion for the work shines through in every dramatic moment on the stage.

What does it feel like as a writer to see your work in the flesh? Is it always as you imagined, or do things change, or do you get new ideas?

It is the great pay-off for the exhausting and lonely process of writing, seeing your words made flesh on the stage. I love being surprised by different interpretations of my work and by performances that are even stronger than I imagined. I have seen some godawful productions of my work but the writer can’t afford to be precious. Trust and open dialogue with the director and the cast are paramount.

If you had one piece of advice for aspiring playwrights, what would it be?

Be brave and ambitious. Write big themes with high stakes. Go towards subject matter that you give a damn about because then the audience might just give a damn too. Don’t just write to the dictates of the marketplace and avoid writing the ‘hip and cool’ play with lots of ‘in’ jokes that only your funky theatre friends will get. Work out exactly why you want to write theatre – and it had better be a good reason. Send stories out there that absolutely need to be written. Don’t be lazy. Research, research and research! Get your hands dirty with research. Don’t just sit at home on the internet and find your material. Get out there in the world. That is the fun part. And read everything. You cannot be a writer if you are not a reader.

Screenworks presents Reg Cribb in conversation with writer Charlie De Salis at SAE Theatre in Byron on Thursday. Tickets are $25 and $15 for Screenworks members. 7pm.

He is also in conversation with director of Thomas Murray, Chris Bendall at NORPA City Hall on Friday.

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