‘Request Program’, a play by Franz Xaver Kroetz
A Black Bag Trilogy Performance,
Detached Gallery, Hobart, 5th to 14th August, 2022
Earl Art Centre, Launceston, 25th to 27th May, 2023
Language is vital to me. Whatever the writing project, I am always conscious of its beauty, power and utility. One of my attractions to Drama is that I see it as a traditionally language-driven art form. But not all playwrights agree; take Franz Xaver Kroetz:
‘Authors like Shakespeare and Goethe have glorious monologues that flood the theatre with words. This endless verbalizing is a lie. This perfect harmony between heart and tongue exists only on a stage. I wanted to use language realistically to dramatize the tension that arises when the correspondence between feelings and language breaks down. Even Brecht swindled when it comes to language. His peasants speak more intelligently and more beautifully than any university professor. I wanted to smash this convention of stage language. I do not believe that people can heave their hearts into their mouths and speak their inner torments trippingly on the tongue. Language should not be the central element in drama. Language exists only on the surface of our consciousness. The great human struggles are played out in silence and in the inability to express oneself. Language should have the same function in the theatre that it has in reality.’
Kroetz’s most performed play is ‘Request Program’, written in 1971. ‘Written’, but it is a play without any language. The solo performer is silent for seventy minutes. For that period the audience watches a woman, who lives alone, arrive home from work and proceed through her customary evening activities. Just before the end of the play there is a moment of acute tension.
Last year, Tasmanian audiences had the privilege of experiencing this work performed by acclaimed Hobart-based actor Jane Longhurst as the second part of her ongoing ‘Black Bag Trilogy’ project. I caught up with Jane for a conversation during her first run of ‘Request Program’, and a mutual edit of this after her second run earlier this year.
Leigh: Thanks for your time. Tell me a little about this extended theatrical project of yours.
Jane: In 2018 I was lucky to be supported by Arts Tasmania and the Regional Arts Fund to construct a year of mentoring for professional development. I had just turned fifty and, famously, actresses often struggle to find roles past fifty. I wanted to give my skills a reboot. Initially, I travelled to New York City to observe ‘Elevator Repair Service’, an innovative theatre ensemble, devise new work. Whilst there I happened to see (actor) Dianne Wiest in a free performance of Samuel Beckett’s ‘Happy Days’. I already knew about ‘Request Program’ through (director) Robert Jarman. So, I thought: you want a challenge, Jane? Why don’t you perform ‘Happy Days’ and ‘Request Program’. Mad non-stop language versus lack of language. After these, the final part of the trilogy will be a devised work, a new work, inspired by the themes of the first two, also addressing issues of social isolation and disconnection, which Becket realises in an absurd and Kreutz in a realistic way. I’m thinking of something involving famous Tasmanian ‘Domestic Goddess’ Marjorie Bligh.
Leigh: Already the subject of a book by Danielle Wood and a musical by Stella Kent. When can we expect to see this?
Jane: When it’s done. The labour that it takes to produce and perform your own work is very intense. You need a lot of support. And if it takes me another five years to realise project three, so be it.
Leigh: In addition to what you have already said, what drew you to ‘Request Program’?
Jane: I must admit to having a personal fascination with daily tasks and domestic mundanity. I thought I’d like to take these tasks and elevated them theatrically.
Jane: Largely as a key to accessibility. With theatre, you can take an audience into some very special and memorable places. This play is not theatrical, but it is memorable. It is special and different.
Leigh: Tell me about the title of the play.
Jane: It’s also been known as ‘Family Favourites’. The way Christopher Lawrence has curated the soundtrack, we listen to a standard request program. Through the company of the radio soundscape, you have relief from the silence of the play, and as well you get a glimpse in a very clever way into other people’s lives who are also listening to the radio.
Leigh: Who might be like your character.
Jane: Yes, it’s a community of individuals, just like when we were isolated for Covid.
Leigh: So, with Beckett you have Winnie babbling away constantly, if only to cover a desperate emptiness, and with Kroetz the nameless protagonist is silent throughout. I was wondering that given that centrality of language is usually one difference between, say, stage and film, how do you think this material might present as a film with all film’s sophisticated technical possibilities?
Jane: I think nothing can duplicate the pressure-cooker environment of sixty, a hundred and twenty, three hundred and sixty people, and a cast, delivering a text, even a play with no text, because of the immediacy of live performance. That’s what makes this work so powerful and why I I’ve had a wave of responses from people who’ve seen it.
Leigh: Of course I agree, and what you’ve said is a bit of a given for theatre. Does the fact that you don’t speak at all change the way you physically move?
Jane: I would say that I am speaking in my mind the whole time. There is a monologue in my head.
Leigh: Is it an articulate monologue or something you’re just saying to yourself?
Jane: It is an articulate monologue but it’s no different to what I think we all do, you know, you’re washing up and you think ‘I haven’t been there for ages’ and you just spin off that. It’s the way I find that I get through doing the work, by coaching and coaxing myself through the action.
Leigh: But still, did you feel any need to heighten your physicality?
Jane: Not at all. If anything, the challenge is to resist that and to not to ‘act’ but just ‘be’.
Leigh: Tell me a little about your approach to acting in general.
Jane: My approach to acting has refined as I’ve got older. I think for all artists you find your groove, you find a way of working and you bring your bag of tricks to any given role or play or context. And by about the age of forty you know what you are capable of, and there’s a great relief with that. I came out of VCA as a classically trained actor and went straight into television, so I had to grapple with the technicality of a type of performing which was completely different. But I knew from VCA that the work that appealed to me most was not that where I hid in another character, like say a Meryl Streep who is unrecognisable from role to role. I don’t do that, I am more of a school of thought which is about mining the truth of any given moment, but filtered through my passion, my character. I don’t feel I need to go out and become a serial killer to play a serial killer…
Leigh: I’m pleased to hear that.
Jane: …but as much as I can I seek the human frailty or the truth of any given moment. Then I temper it artistically through the choices of a given circumstance.
Leigh: So, there’s always a bit of Jane Longhurst in any character you play.
Jane: I think so.
Leigh: Robert Maxwell (previous interview 07/07/2022) talked of various schools of acting that he had used in developing his craft. Do you have a paradigm or a methodology that works as a guide for you?
Jane: I’m too much of a magpie with these things. I just cherry pick and rely on different modes of being I’ve been exposed to, either through my training or through my projects. But I’ve reached a point that I’m now so self-accepting of what I’m capable of, I don’t try and pretend to be something that I’m not. I come into a project, role, character and If I’ve got something that the director sees is going to serve that role, that’s fantastic, but if I’m not what they want, then best to part ways.
Leigh: Have you had that happen?
Jane: No yet, but I’m up for it. Theatre is so demanding and becomes such a preoccupation that if I’m going to put that amount of energy into a project then it has to be pretty special. I’m not going to do just anything. It has to be meaningful.
Leigh: As you move through a run, do you feel from performance to performance that your character is changing or evolving in any way?
Jane: I don’t think so. There are only seven performances (first run). I guess I recognise that my impulses and instincts from the beginning are still serving the work. Rather than evolving, I’m finding a surety with the performance that I trust is working for an audience.
Leigh: But naturally, each performance is subtly different, and largely because of the audience. Back in the ‘nineties I took a play of mine, ‘The Tryst’, down to the Adelaide Fringe. It had finished a Sydney season and by then the content of the drama was white to me. Watching the play night after night, what I noticed was the successive dialogues between the audience and the actors, and how these slightly altered the play each night. How aware are you of the audience?
Jane: About five per cent of your brain is listening to the audience. The whole time. When you hear a person shuffle, that determines when you turn a tap on.
Leigh: I was thinking of something more psychological. The woman in the flat is completely engaged in what she is doing, but Jane Longhurst is 95% engaged. What’s that 5% doing to your performance. Anything at all?
Jane: It’s playing with the spontaneity of the performance. People are paying minute attention to what I am doing, so I must not underestimate the power of that detail. Beyond what we’ve rehearsed, my job is to keep listening to the audience.
Leigh: The woman goes about her business. Nothing remarkable happens, but still, time is concentrated, you’ve got an evening compressed into one hour. And also at the end there is suddenly this moment of enormous tension, when your character lays out the sleeping pills and contemplates suicide. How serious is she?
Jane: I think it’s really important that the work leaves the audience with their (collective) heart in their mouth. That sense of, is she or isn’t she?
Leigh: Well, in your performance she decides no. Although not completely. She doesn’t flush the pills down the toilet or anything. She could still change her mind. How did you feel as the character at this point, or was it different each night?
Jane: It always felt consistent for me, what we took the audience through. And a play with no text is a big commitment for an audience. But I was satisfied, doing the work twice, that they were with me right to the very end.
Leigh: Why might she commit suicide. What’s the tipping point here?
Jane: This is her normal ritual on a normal night, there’s nothing, really, to distinguish this night from any other, yet the play is pregnant with the possibility that this could be her last. On stage, I have a whole story in my head. She might do this every night, or maybe this is the night she goes that little bit further.
Leigh: And each night is like this for her. I was thinking, after watching you, how as a young man I went through some very bitter times but I never contemplated suicide. And I guess it was because I always thought that things would get better. Mother Nature equips us with a little pilot light, but with your character that pilot light is flickering, or indeed has gone out.
Jane: One of the reasons for doing the play was to destigmatise this issue, even that of loneliness. It’s difficult to confess that you’re lonely. Nobody likes to admit it.
Leigh: Particularly in a world where there is so much interconnection, although that, in ways, can produce loneliness. People stuck in their room for hours with only a screen.
Jane: This is why I feel this work still has a lot to offer for an audience fifty years after it was written. On our set there’s not even a house-plant, because that suggests life one might be responsible for. She doesn’t have a pet. Robert and I wanted to keep showing very clearly that this is a woman with a job, with a place to live, with a life, but no connection that might keep that pilot light going, to use your metaphor. The political and the personal fall into a kind of Venn diagram for this character because there is so little for us to latch on to.
Leigh: What kind of specific responsibility did you feel for your audience here.
Jane: These days we’re accustomed to trigger warnings. I took on board very seriously a presentation of this work that was respectful for an audience. I approached Lifeline Tasmania who were wonderful in providing us with a Lifeline volunteer for every performance. They were there in the room if somebody needed to have a conversation. I know that it was taken advantage of at least once. Also I made sure that all marketing material showed the play contained suicide ideation.
Leigh: As you said, with your character we have no background information. We know she’s alone. We don’t know why. For acting purposes, did you develop a biography?
Jane: I did develop in my mind a kind of a history and a couple of key moments in the character’s life.
Leigh: You gave yourself a structure.
Leigh: That’s yours alone.
Leigh: Did you share that with the director?
Jane: No. It’s just for me.
Leigh: While I appreciate Kroetz is trying to present the situation as it is, with that focus, the lack of background was a bit of a problem for me. Why is she alone, I asked. Why are there no family members or ex-husband or friends. Why is there no-one she can contact if she feels this level of despair?
Jane: I think most people sitting in the auditorium were asking themselves those same questions. And I think that’s one reason I’m so fond of the work. I like that it doesn’t provide answers. The audience individually fills in the gaps. Everyone conjures up their own biography.
Leigh: I don’t have the text for the Kroetz. I know that in ‘Happy Day’ Beckett details every little move that the character must make. Is that that case here, or was there room for invention or improvisation?
Jane: Kroetz does the same. It amounts to about six or seven pages that he has structured into five parts. He speaks in the present tense. So, Part One: On any working day at about 6.30pm Miss Rush returns home after work, having done her shopping. She enters the house, looks for her mail, finds only junk mail, picks it up, goes to her door, locks it, and enters. Robert and I chose a contemporary aesthetic for the staging.
Leigh: I’m assuming Beckett’s influence on Kroetz. Beckett also uses broken language and silence plus the subject matter here chimes with much of Beckett’s. Normally in theatre drama comes out of language, most often combined with physical interaction between characters. Here dramatic tension is generated by what the audience understands but is actually unexpressed by the character. We intuit her loneliness, but then as an actor you must somehow project this. Everything has to be conveyed of her increasing desperation. How did you address this challenge.
Jane: I like your word ‘intuit’. In this play, the audience must work.
Leigh: I think they’re willing to work.
Jane: I think so too. Everything you see, all those actions over the durations of sixty-five minutes, there’s nothing theatrical about it.
Leigh: It’s anti-theatrical.
Jane: Yes. Which doesn’t mean it’s not without drama. It’s the confluence of the location, the intimacy, the single woman, the domestic ritual that we all do and we all know and there’s nothing special about it and I like the fact that the work still generates an emotional response.
Leigh: Jane, if I did this as an actor, everyone would walk out within ten minutes. Somehow, you convey the tension underneath.
Jane: Some of the things I tried to do give clues into the personality of the woman. Her fastidious nature. Folding up tea-towels, folding up toilet paper, none of this was talked about in rehearsal, it just happened. As an actor I honoured various actions concerning the character because they felt right in this context for this work, to portray this woman in these small minute gestures.
Leigh: Fine, but I tend to think something more is going on. Peter Brook writes in the opening of ‘The Empty Space’: ‘A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged’. But that man must move in such a way that persuades someone else to look at him. A physical charisma perhaps.
Jane: I think it’s the act of being in the moment. With ‘Request Program’ it is the traffic of those tiny little gestures and actions that makes the work. The audience attends to these. They bring themselves to these.
Leigh: You know, as a writer I’m always concerned to entertain my audience. Maybe it’s an insecurity. Prose or drama when they read or hear a statement, I need them to be wanting the next. Kroetz, to some extent, throws this out the window. It’s important to him, I believe, that we feel in some sense the overbearing tedium of this woman’s life.
Jane: Although he does say in the text, in the preview notes, that he doesn’t want to provoke the audience into boredom. Earlier you mentioned the compression of time in the play.
Leigh: Sure, that’s working away. While we’re watching it we’re not aware of it being compressed.
Jane: But he urges a creative team to honour the real time aspects, so for example when the microwave needs to cook for two minutes, it takes two minutes. He also says that he does not want an audience to be trapped in this woman’s world for three and a half hours. And you have the radio.
Leigh: I wonder would it be better if we were a little more bored? Often, I found myself listening to the radio rather than focussing on the character.
Jane: Turning the radio off towards the end does impact. That silence.
Leigh: Sure, that’s a powerful moment. You sense something’s about to happen. I did very much feel that Kroetz had great sympathy for this woman. She’s marginalised. She’s not wealthy or anything. The audience can readily identify with her. Extending this, do you think the play has a broader political dimension?
Jane: Yes. When Kroetz wrote it as a young man he was in his communist phase. He was saying: look what the state does to these people.
Leigh: Not just the State. Capitalism.
Jane: Very much. You go to work, you come home, you rinse and repeat. There is no connection to any real dreams or aspirations. He was railing against the wheels of capitalism. What it asks of workers and what it asks of individuals.
Leigh: The individual cost.
Leigh: And perhaps Kroetz would think that anti-capitalist note is a good one for us to end on. Jane, thanks once again, and good luck for the next project. I look forward to it very much.
Jane Longhurst is an award-winning actor, broadcaster with ABC Local Radio, voice artist and popular presenter of events big and small.
Leigh Swinbourne has published two collections of stories and a novel. He has six plays digitally published with Australian Plays Transform. You can read about his work here.