Katherine Lyall-Watson: writing for the stage

April 6, 2016

Women are terribly under-represented in so many walks of life and certainly in theatre

Front: Katherine Lyall-Watson. Back: Motherland on stage, photo by: Al V Caeiro

Imagine the thrill of your writing coming to life on the stage or on screen. Every writer dreams of it, but Brisbane playwright Katherine Lyall-Watson has made it happen.

“It’s an incredible experience,” Katherine says. “While I’m writing, I can hear the characters’ voices and I can imagine them moving about the space. But when actors take the words and make them their own, they come to life in a way I never imagined. Even though they’re saying the words I wrote, I’m discovering new things thanks to them.”

Katherine’s play Motherland was recently performed at Queensland Theatre Company’s Bille Brown Studio at South Brisbane.

Based in fact, Motherland intertwines the stories of three very different women from different times—from the chaos of a Russian military coup, through the hell of Nazi-occupied France to a turbulent Brisbane in the throes of the Fitzgerald Inquiry—but all are united in the heartache of exile from their homelands.

The inspiration for Motherland

Katherine says she was originally approached by an independent company called ThreeSisters, who’d heard the incredible story of Nell Tritton from a Russian researcher.

“I was fascinated by the fact that an adventurous Brisbane woman had married an exiled Russian Prime Minister and saved him from the Nazis in World War II. It seemed utterly implausible. I started researching and the more I researched the more fascinated I became. Not just by Nell but by the other women who became such important parts of the story,” she says.

“There are incredible stories all around us. There are people fighting battles we aren’t even aware of… people who have fled wars and revolutions living around us now; people who’ve fought inner demons and those who’ve escaped violent relationships. There are those who are surviving diseases and those who are mourning their loved ones. I’m constantly astounded at the bravery and courage of people.”

The formation of Belloo: an all-female theatre company

The Belloo team (left to right): Caroline Dunphy, Kathryn Kelly, Katherine Lyall-Watson and Danielle Shankey
The Belloo team (left to right): Caroline Dunphy, Kathryn Kelly, Katherine Lyall-Watson and Danielle Shankey

Katherine’s own story is equally as fascinating, and aside from her writing, she is a member of Belloo—an all-female, independent theatre company. Katherine is the writer, Caroline Dunphy (director), Kathryn Kelly (dramaturg i.e. research and development), and Danielle Shankey (producer). The ladies joined forces not with the intent of being an all-women team, but to share a vision and passion.

“I think that the shared vision and passion is partly because we are women and mothers – we understand and support each other and if one of us has a sick child and can’t manage a deadline, the rest of us step in and finish the job. We believe in each other,” Katherine says.

The under-representation of women in theatre

“Women are terribly under-represented in so many walks of life and certainly in theatre. There are far fewer roles for women than there are for men. And once a woman reaches 40, the roles start drying up altogether,” she says.

“Most of the plays that are staged are written by men and the majority is directed by men. This isn’t because women lack talent or ambition. I think we’re most comfortable when surrounded by people who reflect our sense of self, so when men hold most of the powerful positions and those men choose who sits at the table with them, of course they’re going to choose people who make them feel comfortable—other men, from similar backgrounds and schools.”

Katherine says with Belloo, and with Motherland, they are trying to change that, one little step at a time.

The writing process for stage

And if you are wondering how Katherine writes and what happens when she types ‘The End’… you’ll be pleased to know it is not the end of her involvement in the work.

“I definitely write it as a play, not a story. I’m writing from the perspective of someone watching something unfold around me,” Katherine says.

“I find it hard to imagine not being part of the process. So much more shaping and writing occurs in the rehearsal room – I’d hate not to be there for that refining process,” she says.

“From the start I asked Caroline (Dunphy) and five actors to come and work on it [Motherland] with me for a creative development at the Judith Wright Centre—they were the perfect team. That led to a showing at Metro Arts and then to a production the following year. Three years later and the same wonderful team is back together for the production at Queensland Theatre Company and a national tour.

“My passion for theatre goes back to when I was six and got to say, “Look! Here come the elephants!” in a school retelling of Noah’s Ark. I love literature and reading but theatre is my real passion,” Katherine says.

“I feel so lucky to be getting the chance to do what I love and to share a story that means so much to me with audiences.”

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Helen Goltz
After studying English Literature and Communications at universities in Queensland, Helen Goltz has worked as a journalist, producer and marketer in print, TV, radio and public relations. She was born in Toowoomba and has made her home in Brisbane. Helen is the author of eight books and is published by Clan Destine Press and Atlas Productions. She is the original founder of She Brisbane.