By Samuel J. Cox
With more talents than the Kardashian-Jenner clan has members, the prolific Perth theatre maker Jeffrey Jay Fowler is a living embodiment is Kanye’s sentiment that ‘you can’t look at a glass half full or empty if it’s overflowing.’ The charismatic theatre juggernaut (who writes, directs, acts, sings, and composes) is building an empire and an impressive legacy. Skyping from London, after a restless night feeling overwhelmed by the work he’s both doing and not doing, Fowler profess that ‘a friend was looking for someone who might be willing to go to London to see Kate Bush perform, and I am definitely that person (laughs). As a playwright and mentor of playwrights, I don’t need to go into an office even when I’m in Perth, so I’m still getting a lot of work done while I’m here. I’m seeing lots of theatre [six plays in six nights], and meeting with theatre companies to explore what we can bring over to Perth.’
Studying ‘Theatre Arts’ at the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) and ‘Contemporary Performance’ at the School Of Creative Arts (QLD) straight out of high-school, Fowler then spent a few years in the industry before doing a Post Graduate course in Directing at National Institute of Dramatic Art in 2010.
Fast forward to today, and after living and working in New York for a year, the twenty-eight year old has returned to Perth take up an Associate Director role with the Black Swan State Theatre Company. Brought in with fellow Associate Director Stuart Haulsz (see our interview with Stuart here) to ‘create new programs and new networks’, Fowler nurtures the talents of the next generation by managing Black Swan’s Emerging Writer’s Group, seeking to ‘foster the most exciting playwright’s in Western Australia up to the next level.’
‘I’ve taken this program and refined it. I’ve cut the one year script development program down to six writers [Gita Bezard, Will O’Mahony, Joe Lui, Nate Doherty, Liz Newell and James Marzec], because I wanted just enough people that I could speak to them and read their scripts every week. An example of the success of this group would be Chris Isaaks’ play ‘Flood’, which was written during his time in the writer’s group and became a Studio Underground show for this years Perth Fringe Festival. Beyond that, I get to do fun stuff like Assistant Direct shows, and I’ll be Directing next season.’
‘The other part of my role with Black Swan is just beginning. I’m forming a new stream of performance creation where we give artists time and space to skill share and to devise work within the rehearsal rooms at the State Theatre Centre, under the vision of Black Swan. This allows creative’s to get something up off the floor that doesn’t fit within the traditional guidelines of writer and director, and I’ll lead that in the further 18 months I have left on this first contract with the Company. There is a lot of work going on in Perth where people want to lead a project, but don’t necessarily want to be the director or write the script for it, and I think that the State Theatre Company should respond to that. Theatre collectives like The Cutting Room Floor, [Perth Theatre Company’s Writer-in-Residence] Ian Sinclair and the collective I’m a member of, The Last Great Hunt, work in that way.’
‘The Last Great Hunt [formed in December 2013] is composed of seven people who have worked with one another over the last 8-10 years in different ways. We were a group of theatre makers who had stayed in Perth and gotten to a certain point where we wanted to step up our game. Forming together was like making pact that we liked one another’s work and wanted to be recognised together, because we thought that we were making work of a similar quality, even though we are very different artists. I think the strength of going into a cohort like that is that the more you collaborate the better you become at getting the best out of one another. It makes us feel less alone and centralises our producing. Artists tend not to be perfect, or even good, producers. I’m certainly a mediocre producer at best, but I’ve had to produce works to get them off the floor. I think collaborating is really important to any theatre maker. I remember when I was just beginning in the theatre and studying at WAAPA 11 years ago, I thought that good theatre was made by dictator-directors, where one person was totally in charge and making all the decisions. My opinion on that has really evolved over my career. Over time I’ve come to discover that everyone has their own creativity. You do need a strong leader, but I think that a good leader is someone who is able to draw that out of everyone.’
‘The most important quality I need as a writing mentor leading the Emerging Writer’s Group is the awareness to phrase everything as a question. I let the writer have his or her own vision; rather than make them write the play I want them to. I recognise that they have to be working on something that they are passionate and really care about, because I’ve known a lot of playwright’s to accidentally, almost subconsciously, write something that they think will be successful. I really believe that playwright’s should write something because it has a piece of their heart in it. I think that the best thing you can do as a dramaturg or mentor supporting someone through a play writing process is to make sure that they are being really honest with themselves. The way to do that is to ask them the right questions, at the right time, and be gentle with them, allowing them to discover things for themselves.’
‘In terms of my own writing, I have a pretty wonderful defense mechanism, which is that whenever I get a show onto the stage I’m initially very happy with it, however over time I reflect upon them and they embarrass me a little. I see faults in scripts that I’m shocked I never saw at the time, and I find looking back at footage of my plays too painful.’
‘I think the play that is closest to my heart is ‘Hope is the Saddest’ (2007). It was my second full show and it was a little more refined than my first. It was also my first taste of other people really responding to my work. My debut show had been received well, but I think that when a new theatre maker creates a half-decent show, it is normal to give then a lot of praise because they’re on the right path. The response I got for my second was more genuine, because if you can make two good shows, well maybe you can make a third (laughs)! I also loved the idea behind it, and it contains a little element of my own adolescence it. When I create plays I capture bits of my storyline, and I enjoy having that exist in a diary form. Additionally, the play opened doors for me and took me to other countries. After the 2007 Perth season, we took it to Brisbane in 2008 before putting it to bed for four years. We came back to it in 2012, and we toured New York and South Africa.’
‘My one-man show, ‘A History of Drinking’, took the longest to create, as I had to work out the actual form of the show. There’s two hours of material, of which only one hour is performed per night. It isn’t a straightforward piece with a beginning or an end, it’s interactive.’
‘Elephents’, the last work Fowler wrote, was the standout show of the first Blue Room Theatre season this year (see our review here) and was initially conceived four years ago. ‘The central premise; “what happens if you’re a failure and no one wants to tell you?” stalked around my mind and surfaced every few months, so I knew I’d deal with it eventually. Often what gets me to start working on an idea is the belief that it has the opportunity to be performed. For example, I might meet an actor with whom the idea connects, and see when they’re free. The actual writing of ‘Elephents’ was done full-time in two months, on top of a few years of thinking. How fast I produce a work depends upon how delicate and evasive the idea is, and what the form of the show is.’
This August-November Blue Room season, Fowler is credited as a dramaturg on new play ‘Welcome to Slaughter’. Described as ‘Wolf Creek meets Rocky Horror’, it is the brainchild of Michelle Robin Anderson [the lead in ‘Hope is the Saddest’] ‘who came to me two years ago with the idea. It is about a couple driving through the Australian bush at night who get terrified by something that happens. It’s a metaphor for the breakdown of a relationship, and there’s a lot of material that people will relate to if we do it correctly, because everyone has had a broken heart, or had to break a heart at a point.’
‘Michelle wanted me to write on the project, which is different to being the playwright. I’m not the person whose key ideas are being used, but I’m writing text around a skeleton that she created. We went out to the Hothouse Theatre in Albury-Wodonga (NSW), with actress Jo Morris, and started working out the actual story line in the middle of last year. The Hothouse is a little artist residency on a swamp in the middle of nowhere. It’s absolutely terrifying and super cold at night, and we thought it would be a good place to explore the genre of horror. We watched horror movies at night, played games to scare each other, and devised the play during the day. Beyond that, there was further development Michelle did in Sydney, which I was unavailable for because I was working at WAAPA. I’m actually working on the script here in London, as Michelle has come up with a series of scenes that I’m writing the words for. However, as it’s almost a text-less work, I’m not credited as the playwright. Generally, a dramaturg is actually someone who stands on the outside of the project and gives advice and feedback with the purpose of ensuring that the work is sound and clear to an audience. My role has been vaguer than that, but we needed a word and dramaturg seemed like a close fit!’
‘Part of the devising was going for long country drives at night and telling one another ghost stories, which is why a lot of the final story is told in a car. Indeed, the set is a framework of a car. The original idea was that it would be performed inside a real vehicle, but ultimately what we wanted to do could exist within a theatre, it didn’t have to exist in a contemporary space like that.’
‘The play is very much about constriction and limitations, being stuck with someone and that incredible feeling of claustrophobia that you get in a long drive. We wanted to use that as a metaphor for how it can feel to be in a relationship sometimes, as miserable as that is (laughs), and hope to curate that atmosphere by limiting the space on set.’
‘For me to feel that this play has been a success, I would love to hear people saying that they related to it, and that they were shocked that they realised something about themselves. I really enjoy watching a film, seeing a play, reading a book or hearing a song, and recognising something within myself, or my world, that I hadn’t realised before. In a sense, it’s a miniature awakening, and I love it when theatre or art can do that.’
Fowler’s next show is being written for Curtin University, and the play will be performed in five weeks, although they only met to begin forming the idea just a few weeks ago. ‘I hope I survive 2014! The first time I wrote three plays in a year was 2008, and I swore I would never do that again! I usually write one per year, but this year I will have hopefully done five by the end of it. I want to finish the three plays I’m currently writing. I love the social experience of the theatre and a lot of my friends are involved in it, but I am having unfaithful dreams of making film, and I’ve never fully kicked those teenage fantasies of being a pop star (laughs)! I really don’t know about my future, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. I absolutely don’t regret coming back from New York, and full-time work for Black Swan is great, but when I got the position I felt myself facing this really serious fork in the road. I do recognise the need to get out of Perth and move to other places.’
‘Welcome to Slaughter’ runs October 7-25 at the Blue Room Theatre.
The Last Great Hunt will be debuting its new show ‘Falling Through Clouds’ at the PICA Performance Space from Sept 22 – Oct 11.
Image by Jamie Breen.