Nathaniel Moncrieff is an emerging playwright in the West Australian theatre scene. As a member of Black Swan's Emerging Writers Group in 2013, he wrote a fantastic play, A Perfect Specimen, that we are proud to present in our 2016 season as part of the Black Swan Lab in the Studio Underground. Directed by Stuart Halusz and featuring a fantastic team of actors and designers, A Perfect Specimen tells the true and tragic tale of Julia Pastrana, the ape-woman. We caught up with Nathaniel to discuss this world premiere production.
What inspired you to write A Perfect Specimen?
I came across the story of Julia Pastrana in around 2008. It was in an old paperback book about famous circus performers called Very Special People by Frederick Drimmer. My housemate at the time had lent it to me and it likely sat on my shelf gathering dust for months before I finally read it. Most of the stories in the book were fascinating, but the chapter devoted to Julia was so epically strange and tragic that I had to look it up afterwards to make sure I hadn’t just read a work of fiction. After that I spent the next four years relaying the story to people - all the while aching to turn it into a play, but fearing I wasn’t yet a skilled enough writer to do it justice.
When the Black Swan Emerging Writers Group finally provided the opportunity to write the play in 2013, the timing was fortuitous. I’d just lost my job and relationship over a period of two weeks and was generally in a place where I wasn’t sure what to do with my life, or whether I even wanted to continue writing. I approached A Perfect Specimen with the notion that this could be my last play, so I really set about putting everything I had into it.
Do you have a favourite character in the play?
What drew me to the story in the first place was the character of Theodore Lent. There was an incident mentioned in Drimmer’s book that took place later in Lent’s life where he was arrested for tearing up every banknote on his person and tossing them into the Neva River. For me this seemed to point to a man who was being eaten up by the guilt of his former sins. That was the key to unlocking Lent as a character - this man who realises too late the price of his greed.
However when I came to write the play I was in such an emotionally desolate state that I found it was Julia who I was really identifying with, and that made the writing of her scenes quite taxing at times.
How many drafts of the play did you do?
The most recent draft is the eighth and that looks to be the final one. Certain scripts you write can have a painless birth but a troublesome development. I’ve had previous plays go through over twelve drafts and still not get to the point where they deserved to be on the stage. What’s been beneficial during the revision process for A Perfect Specimen has been the brilliant dramaturgical input of the inimitable Hellie Turner. While Specimen arrived more fully formed than many of my works, it’s still been helped immensely by the feedback of someone so knowledgeable, perceptive and honest.
What lengths would you go to (or have you gone to), to get someone to read your script or support your work?
I think in order to make any headway as a playwright, perseverance is definitely the key. Prepare to have emails not returned, funding applications rejected and critics slaughtering your work. But if you’re willing to subject yourself to that struggle, then it’s worth it to find the people that will return your emails, and that will be wanting to support you. Black Swan, The Australian Theatre for Young People and MKA:Theatre of New Writing, for instance have been instrumental in helping my career and I’ll be forever grateful to them for that. So whether it’s joining young or emerging writers groups or entering pieces for awards, the important thing is to get your work seen and to find your own way into the industry.
What was your experience like at being a part of the Emerging Writers Group?
I actually miss it quite a lot. I’d been a part of the group since its inception in 2009 when it was called the Young Writers Group (until I assume its members grew too old and they had to change the name). Back then I was a playwriting novice and had only one unproduced play under my belt, so I was in awe of all these writers who were much more experienced than I was. But it became a brilliant way to share ideas and work, to vent frustration or praise, or to simply indulge in heated or hilarious conversations with like-minded artists. A lot of close friendships were forged from that group and it was invaluable being under the tutelage of Adam Mitchell and Damon Lockwood. And of course it’s been instrumental in helping my career and building my relationship with Black Swan. So I can’t recommend that group enough to budding WA playwrights.
A Perfect Specimen is at the Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre of WA from 30 June to 17 July 2016. Tickets on sale through Ticketek.