Back in the ‘seventies when I (Leigh) started attending theatre, two out of every three plays were Australian originals. The Nimrod in Sydney, the Australian Performing Group and La Mama in Melbourne produced fresh local drama that spoke directly to audiences about their own lives.
Fast forward to 2022 and what has been built from that exciting beginning? Hardly anything. In the ‘nineties we saw the rise of the celebrity director, less interested in developing local writing talent than showcasing their skills with radical re-interpretations of the classics. Alongside this, the major professional companies increasingly employed playwrights for stage adaptation of literary works, rather than develop original material.
So, a thoroughly workshopped original full-length local play produced by a professional theatre company is these days a rare sight. More’s the pity, and hats off to Blue Cow Theatre for spending their precious grant money on this very thing. Amy’s Tattoo is the second of Alison Mann’s plays Blue Cow has produced. It was performed at the Theatre Royal Studio in September 2022. Before that I saw Alison’s The Surgeon’s Hands in 2016, and the Tasmanian Theare Company’s production of She’s Not Performing in 2013.
Alison has been a recent nominee for Best New Writing for the 2023 Tasmanian Theatre Awards.
Leigh: Thanks for this. First up, why do you write for the theatre?
Alison: The communal experience. We have the audience and also the team that produces the work. Theatre is a very good space to share ideas that are difficult to look at and to talk about, but the audience is in a safe space to explore these things. Also, I love language and how theatre communicates in such a visceral way.
Leigh: That’s the hit: you’ve got the language and ideas and the shared experience.
Alison: And the whole team with you on the ride. Writers spend so much time by themselves.
Leigh: Some of those things also relate to cinema. Would you consider writing for the screen?
Alison: One day I would love to write for film. I think it’s a very different experience and a very different form. With theatre, another thing I love is the ‘liveness’, people embodying characters on stage. There’s no escape from the liveness.
Leigh: It’s happening in real time.
Leigh: In cinema the screen is a bit of a barrier. I do think theatre is more confronting.
Alison: I hadn’t thought of it in that way, but yes, it is. Theatre is a very specific experience.
Leigh: Have you ever been an actor?
Alison: When I was in college. I did drama in years eleven and twelve. At Hobart College I had two wonderful drama teachers who made us work hard.
Leigh: Who were they?
Alison: Tiv Remiss and Michelle Harris. Then, at UTAS, I was in the PLOT Drama Society and I did some performing there, which I really enjoyed. I loved the experience but quickly realised that I was not cut out for acting. That embodiment.
Leigh: And directing?
Alison: No, not really. My small experience of being an actor made me think seriously about writing characters that people want to play.
Leigh: What was the inspiration for Amy’s Tattoo?
Alison: There was a time when I was seeing all these adverts for Ancestry DNA at home testing kits. At the same time on Australian Story and other places there were people who were donor conceived not having any access to their genetic heritage. That’s what I wanted to explore. Now that there are at home DNA testing kits, anonymity is near impossible.
Leigh: Is it?
Alison: Yes. That was the springboard for the play. If one family member of the donor is on these DNA websites, and millions of people are, you can find your donor. At the same time Victoria, for example, has opened all its records.
Leigh: Why did you want to write a play about this?
Alison: I thought it strange that one kind of ancestry was open and another closed.
Leigh: Can we dig a bit deeper?
Alison: The organisation ‘Donor Conceived Australia’— a representative came on opening night— estimate that ninety per cent of people who are donor conceived don’t know they’re donor conceived. When someone, through an at home DNA testing kit, discovers who they thought was a biological parent, is not their biological parent, for example, there is enormous emotional fallout. People become suicidal. There are thousands of people potentially facing this.
Leigh: You saw the dramatic possibilities.
Alison: I wanted to examine this aspect of donor conception which is rarely explored. With John’s journey in the play we see a fallout in the family and a confusion of roles. John finds out his mother is not his biological mother, by accident. He comes across some photos of his ‘egg donor’ in his parents’ things. He realises he has seen the woman before. He emails her the photos and asks ‘is this you?’ and she say ‘yes’. Her name is Amy and she is a tattoo artist.
Leigh: Before we get into the substance of the play, I wanted to ask you about structure: you present the play with the scenes out of chronological order.
Alison: When I was studying in London one of my tutors impressed on me how important it is to find the ‘form’ for the story you want to tell. With the jumping around in time and episodic nature, I wanted to reflect the kind of chaos going on inside the characters.
Leigh: Also you keep the audience’s attention up, keep them thinking.
Alison: I always thought of the play as a kind of mystery, a kind of thriller. The whole play is about fragments of information. Rose (John’s mother) doesn’t know he has discovered he is donor conceived. Amy doesn’t know who John’s parents are. The audience is trying to figure out what’s going on at the same time as the characters.
Leigh: Another thing is that it tends to emphasize the themes over the drama, or highlights them through the drama. If you have the standard chronology, the audience simply follows the story, they think about the issues after, but if you mix things up, they’re more inclined to focus on the issues as the play is unfolding. While they’re watching your play and trying to work things out, they’re also thinking, what is this about?
Alison: Yes, there is that other layer to think about and work your way through. That makes me think of Brecht and breaking down the realism.
Leigh: I think Brecht aims to present his drama at a distance. He’s more concerned that audience doesn’t get too emotionally involved so that they can preserve their capacity to judge.
Alison: I do write for people to be emotionally involved, to invest. I’ll agree with your idea of the issues being more upfront if the work is more stylised.
Leigh: Okay, these are things that are gained. What might be lost?
Alison: All the time working on the play I was thinking: is there enough information, or not enough? That fine balance where you’re withholding information, you have to make sure you’re not withholding too much, so the audience doesn’t get lost and switch off.
Leigh: What you think John’s motives are in seeking Amy out?
Alison: When you’re a teenager, it’s such a key time for identity formation, and to get this new information about who he is, it sets up a huge curiosity.
Leigh: So he turns up and he’s curious and he starts to find that he is sexually attracted to this woman, and suddenly the play goes up a gear. From her point of view, it seems to me the opposite is occurring. She doesn’t know who he is, but she’s sexually attracted to him.
Alison: In the first scene she doesn’t know who he is, but in all her subsequent scenes she does.
Leigh: Is she then still sexually attracted to him?
Alison: There’s a phenomenon when people who are related, but haven’t grown up together and had that bonding time to seek closeness, there is a curiosity. When that happens as adults, that desire for closeness can tip over into the sexual. It’s called ‘genetic sexual attraction’.
Leigh: It makes psychological sense, although it is something that has never occurred to me. This is what the play is about.
Alison: Yes. This is something that counsellors talk about to people wishing to connect with those they are related to, as adults, whom they have never met. They need to be aware of it. But these people in the play don’t have any grounding, any knowledge. They don’t know what they’re getting themselves into.
Leigh: What flows from this. What are you saying about sexuality or familial structures in our society?
Alison: It’s very complex subject matter.
Leigh: Sure, but it doesn’t affect most people.
Alison: I think it’s interesting for people reflect on families. What family means. Why does some family creation have secrets and others don’t. What is a family connection. The play is also an exploration of different types of motherhood.
Leigh: Let’s talk about the family. Why does it exist?
Alison: There are many reasons. To support people and for them to grow, for safety and belonging.
Leigh: It is a fundamental building block for the way society is organised. You have family and there are rules concerning how family operates. And this is what I see in your play. It is holding these structures up to light in a very original way.
Alison: The play explores secrets and knowledge. People’s knowledge about themselves. People’s knowledge about other family members. I wanted to explore a certain narrative. The narrative often sold by the million-dollar fertility industry is that donors have no responsibility or connection to the child created by their ‘donation’. But, if this child enters the donor’s life, whether by accident or not, it is much more complicated than this. And the connection to each other can’t be denied.
Leigh: Your role shifts, you become a mother therefore you cannot be a lover.
Alison: I don’t even think we have the language at the moment for Amy’s and John’s relationship. This is a very specific situation that has only arisen in the last thirty years or so years.
Leigh: But the taboo is ancient.
Alison: When I was writing this, I was thinking about the ancient Greek tragedy Oedipus.
Leigh: Oedipus makes love to his mother, but it’s not a sin for him until he realises who she is.
Alison: Until he’s aware of it. Which to me is about secrets.
Leigh: The knowledge carries the stigma, which is the same in your play.
Alison: I would say that the ‘sin’ is keeping the knowledge from the people.
Leigh: That’s a slightly different sin.
Alison: It’s the withholding of knowledge (Oedipus not knowing who his parents are), that leads to such tragic circumstances.
Leigh: Let’s turn to the tattoo, which obviously is a symbol. Can you talk about that?
Alison: I was interested that people go to a tattooist to alter their body permanently. A tattoo artist has a lot of power, and trust from people. They put something new into people’s bodies that are there permanently.
Leigh: We’re looking at the DNA etcetera here.
Alison: Rose, John’s mother, has chosen Amy (as an egg donor) to alter her body and partially make John’s body. Amy’s DNA will always be with them.
Leigh: But when Amy actually tattoos him, after the party, what does that mean to her, and to him.
Alison: I suppose again it’s that physical reminder. For me it compounds the image.
Leigh: Is it ownership?
Alison: Yes, it’s marking.
Alison: Absolutely. One thing Amy is unaware of is John’s age.
Leigh: He lies to her.
Leigh: So that also brings up the concept of consent, because he’s underage.
Alison: Yes. There’s layer upon layer.
Leigh: Let’s clarify something: Amy does not have sex with John, is that right?
Alison: I guess we don’t know.
Leigh: So they might have had sex?
Alison: I did want people to think: did she? Didn’t she?
Leigh: She denies it.
Alison: Yes, he also doesn’t admit it, so I guess it’s up to whether you believe them.
Leigh: Do you believe them?
Alison: I do.
Leigh: Okay, now given that, the scene where she tattoos him looks like an act of sex.
Alison: Yes, it does. She straddles him. The needles are penetrating.
Leigh: Was that your decision or a directorial one?
Alison: That was a directorial choice but at the same time, it’s a symbol of the kind of penetration. He also yells.
Leigh: Like a climax. And, in fact, it is the climax of the play.
Alison: It is the moment.
Leigh: I assumed that they’d had sex, but with her denial I realised that she’d only tattooed him. But that tattooing combines many issues.
Alison: Yes, everything comes together. And it’s from that night she realises that it’s all got to stop.
Leigh: Do you have a tattoo?
Alison: I have one on my hip. I got it when I was nineteen. I picked it off the wall, in a tattoo parlour in the nineties.
Leigh: Why did you do it?
Alison: I don’t really know. The recklessness of youth!
Leigh: Let’s look at some of your other plays.
Leigh: This is the third play of yours I’ve seen. Before this were She’s Not Performing and The Surgeon’s Hands. In She’s Not Performing we follow a woman searching for her lost daughter who thinks she has seen her in a strip club, so she starts attending strip clubs to try and find her. The Surgeon’s Hands concerns a young woman doctor with a difficult relationship with her surgeon father who decides, for complicated reasons, to operate on her own genitals so that they will be more aesthetically pleasing. For men? For her father?
Alison: For many reasons. Through the play I wanted to explore why people, do modify very intimate parts of their bodies and selves. It is partly an extreme symbol of how the character was so driven towards an idea of ‘perfection’. How she is moulded by the people around her.
Leigh: Is there a thread linking these plays?
Alison: They’re all about family, family structures and searching for family. Looking for answers to secrets. They’re all very visceral. There’s a lot of stuff about the body: a strip club, cosmetic surgery and tattooing. Another commonality is the characters’ emotional turmoil, that is then expressed in physical terms. The internal becomes external. My writing is influence by David Cronenberg’s films. His work is infused by body horror extremes.
Leigh: Crash is perhaps his most extreme film, which also I think most relates to your dramatic material. It’s about people wanting to have sex in wrecked cars, because they are aroused by car accidents. A vicious satire on consumerism and materialism. No-one in real life is sexually turned on by car crashes…
Alison: Some people might be.
Leigh: …still, it’s a metaphor. Suppose I attended an Alison Mann festival and saw these plays in sequence, one striking thing they all have in common is sex, but a particular type of sex. In each case the sexual content is proscribed by society, like been turned on by car crashes, which could well have been the basis for a fourth Alison Mann play.
Alison: Okay. But in The Surgeon’s Hands the content is not erotic. You talk about consumerism, for me the girl in The Surgeon’s Hands is like a Barbie Doll.
Leigh: It might not be erotic, but it is still sexual. What I’m suggesting is that you are using these sexual scenarios as metaphors to talk about society. Their extremity and originality shock us into thinking about societal conventions, what’s normal, what’s not, and why. So, in Amy’s Tattoo we have a fresh look at incest.
Alison: It is a take on it. Yes. And the fallout.
Leigh: In these three plays, you take sex and you put it in a particular box which makes us look at various forms of behaviour in a new light.
Alison: Societal receptions, societal structures.
Leigh: When I watched The Surgeons’ Hands I thought of Frankenstein.
Alison: Frankenstein is one of my favourite books.
Leigh: Works like Frankenstein or, say, Dr Jekyll, are like myths. You can’t quite nail them down and because of that they radiate multiple meanings. I think your plays do this as well.
Leigh: They raise a multitude of connected issues, presenting an extreme story that is credible while you watch it
Alision: I think I go to extremes partly because of engagement. It’s extreme, but aslso it’s grounded. The characters are identifiably real.
Leigh: So what’s next for Alison Mann?
Alison: I’m working on a new piece.
Leigh: With (dramaturg) Peter Matheson and Blue Cow?
Alison: Yes. This one, at present, has a focus on siblings. I’m obsessed with family dramas. There are more monologues. And I’m playing with storytelling.
Leigh: What playwrights have inspired you?
Alison: I love Tennessee Williams.
Leigh: Who also skirts sexual taboos.
Alison: I also like Pinter. And Beckett. Also (Australian playwright) Angela Betzien. She writes extremes too.
Leigh: What do you like about Pinter?
Alison: The power of his language and the violence of his language. And what’s hidden by it.
Leigh: Is it a craft thing you’re talking about?
Alison: A craft and style thing.
Leigh: What about Angela Betzien?
Alison: She doesn’t shy away from difficult subject matter. Her wonderful play, War Crimes, is about violence between girls.
Leigh: And Pinter is about violence between men, or the threat of it. Beckett?
Alison: The existentialism. I love Krapp’s Last Tape. Very funny and very sad. The humour and the darkness.
Leigh: Which is a nice note to pause on. Alison, thank you so much for your time. It’s been fascinating. I look forward to your next production.
Alison Mann is a playwright based in lutruwita/Tasmania. She studied writing for performance at the Royal Court Theatre and Soho Theatre in London. Amy’s Tattoo was shortlisted for the Queensland Premier’s Drama Award 2022-2023.
Leigh Swinbourne, based in nipaluna/Hobart, has published two short story collections and a novel. He has six plays digitally published with Australian Plays Transform. His work has been shortlisted for The Patrick White Playwrights’ Award and the Tasmanian Literary Prizes. You can read more about Leigh’s work here