EITHER OR and Theater J in Melbourne! – in Arts Hub

Tashmadada brings Keneally and Roth to Melbourne
Arts Hub
Friday, June 08, 2007

Australian author Thomas Keneally and American playwright Ari Roth, the artistic director of Theatre J in Washington DC, will be coming to Melbourne to discuss Keneally’s new play, Either Or.

The play, which had its world premiere at Theatre J this year, is based on the true story of evangelical Christian youth leader and SS officer Kurt Gerstein, who tried to sabotage the Nazis by alerting the West (even approaching the Pope) to what was transpiring under Nazi occupation.

“I met Ari Roth in Vienna in March this year at the International Congress and Festival of Jewish Theatre,” explained Deborah Leiser-Moore, who invited both Roth and Keneally to Melbourne to speak about Either Or. “I was presenting my work at the Australian Embassy. Ari Roth’s session was a reading of his play Peter and the Wolf (and Me), which was followed by a passionate discussion.

“He told me about the play he was working on with Tom Keneally. I was immediately interested, both by the themes of the play as well as the nature of their collaboration. Roth said that when he first received the script, it was fascinating, but clearly written by a novelist.

“Roth was intrigued enough to suggest to Keneally that they work on it together. Keneally, in his humble way, agreed. So began Keneally’s Washington DC’s Theatre J residency, where they worked quite rigorously together on the script, making it much more performative.

“I emailed Ari to ask how it was going, and also followed his blog entries, which quite clearly described the process. It sounded very exciting and was obviously a fruitful collaboration. The response to the play when it opened was very strong.

“Because of the Australian connection through Keneally, I thought that if this level of artistic exchange was happening over there in Washington between an American and Australian, then the natural extension of this was that we should also have it here – to reciprocate!

“One of the aims of my company, Tashmadada, is to take up opportunities to create in Australia the international exchange and dialogue between artists that occurs regularly in Europe and the US. I feel that there is a strong hunger from Australian artists for this to occur.

“So, in my passion for it to happen, I suggested to both Roth and Keneally that they come to Melbourne to talk about the play and their collaboration. They both agreed. It seemed to me that the natural extension of the evening discussion was for them to run a Masterclass for practitioners, to talk more in depth about novel versus script writing.

“I see this as Tashmadada’s first of an ongoing exchange with international artists.”

In the play, Keneally continues his interest in the nature of good and evil by following the trajectory of Gerstein’s moral awakening, seeing it as a contemporary analogue to the many bureaucrats and technocrats in the Western world, including Australia.

“In expurgating some of the most painful details of Holocaust history, Keneally finds a way to tell a cautionary tale for our times,” Ari Roth said of the play.

Keneally and Roth worked collaboratively to produce the final script of the play, and will be discussing the nature of their collaboration and the themes of the play with Monash University’s Associate Professor Mark Baker, who runs a program in Holocaust and Genocide Studies, part of the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation.

“After first reading Either Or, I emailed Keneally to express my admiration, but also pointed to certain story-telling challenges I thought needed to be addressed,” Roth explained of the genesis of their collaboration.

Keneally said that he had described Roth’s notes as having “great resonance” and would like to work along the lines Roth had suggested “to make the play immediate and intriguing”.

“Above all, I am a bugger for exposition – and as you no doubt know, exposition is the besetting sin of novelists, and much easier to scrape by on in the novel than on stage,” Keneally added.

And so Roth and Keneally, who is the author of Schindler’s Ark and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, will also be running a masterclass looking at script writing versus novel writing for published novelists and established theatre practitioners.

Keneally and Roth were brought to Melbourne by Victorian Writers’ Centre and Tashmadada, a contemporary performance company founded in 2006 by Deborah Leiser-Moore and Richard Zimmermann. Tashmadada is committed to bringing together Jewish artists and providing a forum for discussion about the arts.

Thomas Keneally and Ari Roth will talk about Either Or on Thursday 5 July, 7 pm, at the State Library of Victoria, Village Roadshow Theatrette. Tickets cost $25 or $18 for Victorian Writers’ Centre members.

The masterclass takes place on Friday 6 July, 10am-1pm at Glenfern, 417 Inkerman Road (corner Hotham Street), St Kilda East.