THAUMATURGY AND TRANSCENDANCE: AN INTERVIEW WITH ALANA VALENTINE

Alana Valentine

Thaumaturgy. Defined as “the use of magic, the art and science of wonder working.” Taken from the Greek thaûma, meaning miracle or marvel, and érgon]], meaning work.

Alana Valentine is one of Australia’s most talented playwrights and thaumaturgy is her favourite word. “It’s the idea of ritual… creating power… creating wonder. And that’s what we do.” A smile blooms on Alana’s face and her eyes light up as she rolls the word on her tongue. Thaumaturgy…

Magic is certainly what Alana creates. As a critically acclaimed playwright (she’s won awards in the 2012 Stage International Script Competition, the 2013 AWGIE Awards, the 2014 Australian Writers Guild Awards, the 2017 Tasmanian Theatre Awards… you get the idea), she has made her mark.

And yet, Alana Valentine (whose name means “My Darling, My Love”) did not grow up in a creative household. Her step-father was a P.M.G Linesman, and her mother developed photography prints in a film laboratory.

“I didn’t get taken to the theatre when I was a child. When I was younger, football (Rugby League, in particular) was my theatre. You’d go to the game to see these characters performing a gladiatorial act in front of an audience.”

It comes as no surprise that one of Alana’s first plays in Sydney was Run Rabbit Run (Belvoir Street, 2004) and told the story of the South Sydney Rabbitohs in their fight to get back into the NRL. Like Run Rabbit Run, many of Alana’s plays are verbatim, a style that is often seen as being more authentic as they play is based on a true story and constructed from actual interviews.

Sonder. Defined as “the realisation that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.” Coined in 2012 by John Koenig in The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.

“What I love about interviewing is that you can ask people things that you wouldn’t normally ask. It’s this wonderful act of trying to make a genuine connection with someone.”

The result of combining spirit and passion with purpose and craft is something beautiful. An art form that gives voices to the voiceless.

“Verbatim privileges the voices of people who are not often put on the main stage. I love it. I love that it empowers communities to see versions of themselves, and see what’s good and what’s bad. Any good art should look at the cracks and problems. Otherwise, what are we holding the mirror up for?

I think it’s a human right to see yourself reflected in that way. I think writers have a cultural responsibility to bring these stories of voiceless communities to the stage. And verbatim gives you the chance to do that.”

This idea of using conflict to encourage discussion is something that Alana is familiar with.

“I’m always attracted to ideas where I know there will be no answer. I’m always drawn to imponderables, the mysteries of human nature. I think the best ideas have no answer.

In fact, when I did a degree in Museum Studies at Sydney Uni, I found myself coming in more often than I needed to. I loved being in an environment where people would enthusiastically disagree and it was considered a good thing. I was gratified by the seriousness with which competing ideologies could debate. It was normal and welcome, and I loved that.”

Bittersweet. Defined as “pleasure accompanied by suffering or regret.” Also refers to a poisonous woody vine in the nightshade family.

The need to push and to explore is something that drives all writers.

“I think that the desire to write comes from a place of having something unique and passionate to say about the world you live in. We call it discipline to make ourselves sound virtuous, but it’s really something quite different. It’s the fact that you become very unhappy and collapse inside unless you’re doing it. It’s your way of seeing the world. You filter the world through your writing and if you’re not doing that, you start to jam up.”

As romantic as it sounds however, writing is not as simple putting pen to paper. For a moment, Alana and I break our roles as interviewer/subject and bond over our frustrations. We’re just two writers talking about how any criticism of your work is personal because you always put a part of yourself in your work.

“Life is hard, and being an artist is really hard. It just comes with the territory. You’re never satisfied and there’s always this feeling like you want to do more. It’s about always wishing you were better, smarter, more strategic… You have to make your peace with those feelings being a constant thing.”

Green-Eyed. Defined as a person who is jealous or envious. First seen in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (1596).

There’s a brief silence as we both pause to consider ourselves, before looking up and considering each other. I ask Alana how this sense of competition affects her relationship with other writers.

“The thing about other writers is that you love watching how cannily they pull off what you’re trying to do. People think writers are competitive. We’re not. It’s just that you see this genius and you think, I wish I’d done that. It’s this beautifully conflicted relationship of deep love and deep envy.”

Alana shares a similarly complicated relationship with Shakespeare. Although she admires the Bard’s work (“I think that any playwright who says they don’t admire Shakespeare is being disingenuous. He’s clearly a genius.”), she disputes the perception of him as transcendent.

“I struggle against the notion that there is some kind of universal human experience for which he can speak. What I say, very strongly, is that his plays are about Elizabethan England. These plays are very specific to attitudes and values at the time. Even though Shakespeare was an incredibly visionary thinker, he can’t help but be of his time.

Even if you dress the actors up in contemporary suits, it doesn’t make The Merchant of Venice a play about the GFC. If you have an all-Asian cast for Macbeth, you don’t suddenly have a play about Thailand. If I want a play about Australian politics or the unconscious fear that’s driving One Nation, I need a playwright from now.”

Does this mean that Alana expects Shakespeare to lose his place in the school curriculum? At the risk of disappointing our younger readers, the answer is no.

“I can’t see Shakespeare going anywhere in a hurry. The beauty of language and the complexity of character… the craft and the insights are worth studying. I’m a great believer in conserving elements of the past that are indelibly beautiful, and Shakespeare is that.”

Alana will speak to The Bard, theatre and capital C Culture on the University of Sydney’s Outside the Square series. To be or not to be? How to be cultured: Shakespeare in the 21st century will be held on 17th August 2017 at The Old Rum Store, Chippendale Creative Precinct.

Alana Valentine is a graduate of The University of Sydney (GradDipMuseumStud, 2001)

Article by Theodora Chan (BA, MECO 2010; BA, HONS 2012), Co-Founder and Content Director at Pen and Pixel.