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June 9, 2011 / Siobhan Argent

The Joy of Text, Robert Reid (interview)


Published June 2011 by Beat magazine

True to its titillating title, The Joy of Text manages to link literary theory with sex. Melbourne playwright Robert Reid explains how he wrote a play that makes thinking about text sexy.

MTC describes The Joy of Text as a “satirical dissection of education and its discontents”. That’s kind of vague, but fortunately Reid is happy to elaborate. “Aside from being set in a school, [this play] comes out of the idea that education, when it’s done properly, is a very intimate thing. At its best, there are two minds touching each other and making a connection that transcends institutional boundaries of what we think is acceptable, particularly between different age groups.”

Set in a high school around a precocious young student, The Joy of Text mixes a questioning adolescent mind with the dangerous elements of social boundaries and sexuality. Reid’s idea for the play emerged after he read Mark Davis’ book Gangland, which discussed the year in which two controversial books were released: The First Stone by Helen Garner and The Hand That Signed the Paper by Helen Davidenko. “[Davis] called [it] ‘The Year of the Helens’, and that’s always stuck in my head as interesting that those two books came out at the same time, caused the same sorts of literary scandal.”

On the notion of boundaries, Reid has specific ideas about how adolescents are restricted by the education industry, something he explores in The Joy of Text. “I think the education system and organised religion, corporate governance and even government itself all share an inheritance from the industrial revolution, which was about dealing with objects en
masse
, rather than negotiating each individual variance.” So the industrial revolution caused the loss of individuality? “That’s part of it, yes.”

While Reid is a prolific playwright and generally writes between seven to fifteen plays a year, he’s now more cautious about how and when he presents his new work, particularly since he no longer produces his own work at Theatre In Decay, an experimental underground theatre company he founded with Anniene Stockton in 2000. “In the old days [running Theatre In Decay] I’d write a first draft and pelt it on stage, whereas nowadays it’s much more considered. I’ll write a first draft and put it away, come back to it, redraft it, put it away…until it’s actually ready to go on stage.” That doesn’t signify he’s slowed down. On the contrary, Reid argues writing plays is a compulsion for him. “If I don’t write them, I don’t sleep. They go round and round in my head and keep me up, so I’ve got to write it, get it out of my head.”

And while Reid was a fairly fast-paced play creator in the past, his new approach to composing plays means he is also more relaxed about the goals behind his work. His original manifesto for Theatre In Decay argued that “If theatre claims the moral ground of high art, then we take the brutal and scatalogical low ground. Real art comes from the gutter. From the sewer.”  Nowadays, he argues he has a clearer idea of what he was trying to say. “It’s not that real art only comes from the gutter or the sewer…it’s more a matter of being able to get your hands dirty, of being unafraid to deal with real humanity and real human issues, and the experience of being a person as opposed to [performing] a completely intellectual exercise.”

It arcs back to his childhood, when he was writing plays before he even knew what they were. “I started writing when I was in primary school, maybe ten [years old], writing short pieces for the school newsletter and little radio sketches that me and a friend would play to kids over lunchtime.” But it was when he wrote novels that his abilities became more apparent. “When I’d write [a novel], [the prose] was often really truncated and undercooked, whereas when characters started talking, I could go for pages and pages. So I look back on it now and go, ‘well, I was writing stage directions and dialogue’.” The audience for Reid’s The Joy of Text are likely to be thankful that he realised his calling sooner rather than later.

The Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) play The Joy of Text will be playing from 10 June to 23 July at The Arts Centre, Fairfax Studio. Booking details are available via the MTC Theatre Box Office.

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