Hard-won Wisdom: Interview with Australian Dramaturg Peter Matheson

by Kathryn Kelly*

The rise of dramaturgical practice in Australia is inextricably linked to the demise of robust play commissioning by large theatre companies, the shrinking of production opportunities and the defunding of the national play development infrastructure in Australia. Dramaturgs have become bulwark, consolation and agony aunt all in one. This interview seeks to celebrate and illuminate the role and the practice of one of Australia’s most skilled dramaturgs, Peter Matheson, a regionally based freelance dramaturg, and a dramaturg of fifty years standing, whose impact on the Australian theatrical story is immense.

I first met Peter Matheson in a café in Meanjin / Brisbane when he looked at the pile of books I had brought to the meeting to prove my worth as an emerging dramaturg and snorted. Peter let me shadow him at an Australian National Playwrights Conference, which in 2002 was the peak event for Australian playwrighting.

Across the next decade he was my sounding board, answering convoluted emails straight away in his beat-poet prose, good-naturedly sponsoring a series of ambitious dramaturgical proposals that only a young dramaturg would see as viable and sharing access to his extraordinary network of theatre artists and playwrights.

Peter was Literary Manager with Melbourne Theatre Company, Australia’s second largest theatre company and has worked with almost every theatre company and venue in Australia.  His freelance practice (http://petermatheson.co) spans the country and he has worked with many of the most renowned playwrights in Australia over his five decades of dramaturgy. When I asked him to try to quantify his output, this was his reply via email, dated 9 August, 2023:

Re: you asked

So I deliver…

In my files since 2002: I have 393 individual files, meaning I have created them for a gig or so I have done with them like reading, dramaturging a script or a process for a recurrent person, or once for a response…and usually what I have kept is the script (for sure) and perhaps notes (or files I might need later). I have worked with companies who pay me money or I want to help out since 2002: 14 who are ongoing and 82 who I have worked with once (perhaps twice)

Peter Matheson. Photo: Courtesy of Peter Matheson

Kathryn Kelly:Tell me how you became a dramaturg?

Peter Matheson: Well, I’m not too sure that I ever became a dramaturg.

I love it. In my eyes, you are. You’re stuck with it. You can’t get out of it. So how did you become the non-dramaturg dramaturg?

How did I become a dramaturg to start off with? How did I get the gig with Janis Balodis in Melbourne Theatre Company? I mean, that was pure nepotism.

Being in relationship with artists, basically.

Well, it’s talking about you get a group that supports you over long distance and over time? I wrote a play and didn’t realise what I had done. I didn’t even know the industry.

Was that in Newcastle?

I was in Newcastle, the play was taken to the Australian National Playwrights Conference in Canberra, and Aubrey Mellor (Hands 2015) directed me. And I mean, he’s still going. And the thing that disturbed me was that I didn’t know anything about the industry. Nothing really about theatre. I mean, I had been in the drama club at teachers college. I was basically a primary school teacher in the middle of nowhere. Sorry, Raymond Terrace.

Raymond Terrace is very hip now.

Give me a break. Oh, give me a break. I still have connections there, but the deal for me is that I didn’t know anything.

Welcome to Australian Theatre in 1970.

And the deal then became, “How do you actually do this? What’s all this about? What are they talking about? How are they doing this? Why is that doing that? They’re treating my words as gospel. And I don’t even feel that way about them.” And that was intriguing because, Aubrey, if nothing else, made me come and have a look at a couple of bits of theatre in Sydney, which was a bit of a long call to get me into the industry. And what it actually did to me was made me recognise that that small connection that I had in the mid-nineteen seventies was influential. I mean, it got me a job at Sydney Theatre Company in the box office where the boss of the organisation, Richard Wherrett said, “Hello, are you sure you want to do this? It’s not nothing to do with the artistic side of your thing.” And I said, “I’ve got a wife and kid.” Yeah, of course I’ll hire you? The deal for me was that I learned the industry from the bottom up. You know, third gladiator from the left.

And so continues. I was told Benedict Andrews worked at the Sydney Company box office.

Yeah, that doesn’t surprise.

I think you’d find there would be an illustrious line prior.

I don’t feel illustrious about box office at all. It’s not a dark side of my life, but, you know, it’s that grind doing nothing for nothing. What I did, from getting into the Playwrights Conference, going to university, and part of that was the Newcastle University, being run by a guy called Rob Jordan, who came from University of Queensland down to Newcastle to do, not only historical stuff, but practical  as well. So I actually enjoyed my undergraduate work. I think I did every possible drama course in that course itself.

Peter Matheson at Jute Theatre. Photo: Courtesy of  Peter Matheson

Those were halcyon times in terms of the repertory in Newcastle in the nineteen eighties.

We were part of an explosion of theatre in the area. There were a lot of people who came to that course. So being involved in that was really fun. I was working in that industry as a playwright and aiming for plays that went on. I got involved in the industry really, really heavily. And I was meeting people like Janis Balodis who have a head similar to mine about critiquing and stuff. I mean, I always hated him because he was always so bloody good. He’s very precise, very clever, very concise.

 The first major Australian play to deal with post-war immigration. Currency Press, 1985. Photo: Web

Too Young for Ghosts really needs to be revived.

Well, what was interesting for me was that he and his daughter, Bridget, who is now a director in Melbourne, they put on a show that was the Latvian version of Too Young for Ghosts, and No Going Back. They placed those on stage in Latvian when it was supposed to be spoken in Latvian and in English. Which for me, sounds like an absolutely marvellous piece, because Janis if nothing else created some really interesting characters in that relationship. But I think it’s been performed once and you know, will it ever again? Probably not.

For me, it’s the landscape. The way he deals with landscape is the thing I love about it too. But anyway, I digress. So the word, “dramaturgy,” you really connected with it a little bit with the National Play Festival when you were given a dramaturg. And the moment you stepped into the role of dramaturg was when Janis tapped you on the shoulder?

It had to be, because back in Newcastle there was just no space for them.

No. Well, they were non-existent in Australia at that time.

Yes, they were non-existent.

Dramaturgy was a job title at the Australian National Play Festival, but the first person who says, “I’m just a dramaturg,” that I can find… 

Who was it?

May-Brit. She’s the first person that says, “I am a dramaturg. I’m not doing a gig.”

Yes. But she had to work for that. I mean, in Sydney Theatre Company. I was there at that time, too. She had to push.

That’s also Richard Wherrett recognising that there’s more to playwriting than being a director. And that’s one of my arguments is oftentimes, director’s don’t really understand what dramaturgy is, and that’s a bit scary.

And they think they can do it themselves. And sometimes they can. 

It’s also that they don’t have the experience doing it. It’s all got to do with megalomania.

It is. Are you there to serve the playwright and the play?

The answer is no. What I find really amazing is that often times the best directors are the ones who are the most draconian, because they just take over the concept of what the playwright is doing and make it better.

I think will to power is the thing of directorship, and it’s despicable in many respects, when you step back. But it’s also a burden, watching a director hold a rehearsal space, and their will holding it steady and bringing the production to fruition. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

So Janis says to you…

He wanted me for other things because ultimately, the fear was that he was increasing the artistic creative side of the thing to allow him to do more support for Roger Hodgman, the Artistic Director of the Melbourne Theatre Company, and more support for his own productions, because he would get one or two productions a year in the small theatre.

The deal became, “Will you come down? Because I can’t read this many plays. Let’s do it for eighteen months.” And it was thirteen years for me. The deal for that was, “Yes, if you do these other things.” So what I walked into was an education system that had been running for a while and had fallen to pieces once Nick Enright left the company.

Then it was, “Oh, Somebody’s doing the programmes and we need someone to replace them.” That included copy as well as dealing with the publishing. So, those two were added. I was given a year’s grace to find out if I could do it. And I decided to add dramaturgy and named myself as a dramaturg, too, because I didn’t know what it means. So therefore, everybody else had to not know as well.

Portrait of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, the “patron saint” of dramaturgs. Photo: Web/Wikipedia/public domain

I think Gotthold Ephraim Lessing coined it so no one would know. No, seriously. People think it makes sense in German and Spanish and French, but it is still an elusive word..

When I describe it to people and talk the German thing, they kind of look at me with the same dead eyes that I do if I’m speaking in Swahili.

But I also decided to do other things, like make sure that the archives were. I did a lot of work with that over five or six years, and also added more info to background research in the company.

So I would produce documents for the education programme. But also, in the time of the creation of the piece, so if the designer needed something on design, I would say, “Look here, look here, look here.”

I also took over the reading for the company. The play reports that I gave to the AD and company heads, I kept them.

Aren’t they in the archives at Melbourne Theatre Company?

No, I took them.

Yeah, a lot of the larger theatre companies in Australia threw their libraries and archives out.. I’m sad to say I watched it happen with one particular company. I couldn’t convince them to keep them.

I’m not surprised. I was averaging reading and writing a report on three hundred and fifty to four hundred plays a year.

Yeah, that’s about standard. I think for a main stage Australian company in that decade, they don’t it now because they’ve stopped unsolicited scripts and the agents don’t send them often. Did you take unsolicited scripts, Peter?

Officially no; but I did because having a writer in there was a little bit different than having a person who reads scripts and therefore tells you how good they are. Sometime in 2000, I kind of worked out the principle that Eugene Ionesco had a bum deal in the nineteen fifties and decided that the only thing he could do was to survive was to migrate to Australia.

And I had this feeling that somewhere out in the Lower Templestowe, Ionesco could be writing to me. How would I deal with that? What happened before I went there was, there was a standard letter.

“Thank you for sending your play, and you know, and we are not going to be doing your play. That’s the reason, thank you very much…” I worked on the principle, that if there was anything that came unsolicited or even solicited that, you know, was there, that I at least had the duty to respond to it and therefore to say, “Look, this is what’s good about your play,” in one paragraph, and in the next to tell them a reason that I actually couldn’t do it.

No wonder you were so tired and physically spent.

I created the forms that I needed to do to respond to the individual stuff that came in so that I knew what was language and characterisation and where those sort of things fitted in in the construction of a work. And so therefore, by the time I was ending my realm in the repertoire, I was dealing with, structure, you know, this is why it’s not working. Is it any good when we get to originality in the bottom?

Your script assessment pro forma is still the gold standard one for Australia in this really sneaky, unsolicited way. I think most people are using versions of what you did in some way or another.

The thing that I’ve found generally over time is how lonely the gig is. How do you stay sane when you are absolutely ignored, and not belittled?

The low status role. I think you’ve got to know that if you’re going into the profession.

You can’t do certain things. And that’s part of the role of what the collaborative group is and where you fit in it.

I did this the first couple of years at Melbourne Theatre Company where I did get dressed up as a prosperous German banker on opening nights.

I think that is how my wife Nell described me at one stage. And going to the opening night, I’d be saying to these people, “What am I here for?” “But you worked on the play.” ”Two years ago!”

I say to my students, you’ll get none of the glory, but none of the blame.

Oh, I don’t know, there’s the potential for blame.

People often will approach me in the foyer or something and say, ”What happened?” The truth teller in the creative team that will know the truth of what’s happened if it’s not gone well.

I often get blamed for things that I’ve got nothing to do with. “What did you do? Why isn’t it perfect?” There is no winning in this game.

I don’t get pinned the way you do. You just absorb it so people must feel free to be more candid or more robust with you.

Because I’m blunt, rude. All those other things I’m called.

Forceful.

I recognised I was a dramaturg for a couple of reasons. Number one is that any time I had a conversation, I took them to the canteen and we drank coffee. And I remember seven cups of coffee in one day, shaking and thinking, “Oh, Why is this happening?”

And it’s not to do with what I was talking about, but it was to do with the number of people that I was actually dealing with, a lot less than I should have. I was given no money. I was given no situation where I could do things for people. And I said, “I can’t do anything for you, but I can give you free tickets to all the shows. And we can talk if you want to.”

So you found the word dramaturgy. You’ve become a dramaturg in a large theatre company. I venture to say that other than May-Brit, that’s the longest tenure of anyone in a company. Thirteen years?

No, there were people in that company a lot longer than me.

Were they dramaturgs?

No.

I think, as a dramaturgical tenure, thirteen years is the longest. I may be venturing too far, but what I’m interested in is that ten year mark is a whole generation, and that’s how I often think Australian Theatre is organised in these ten-year cycles of generations.

My gig in the company was to remain as quiet as possible and do as much glue as possible. And the point for that is that you aren’t recognised.

Although I found a card just recently that I was surprised by, it was from the Melbourne Theatre Company General Manager, Ann Tonks who very politely said, “Thanks for all the work that you did making the company survive.”

And it was a farewell thing, and I thought, “I didn’t realise you noticed.”

But , it was good that way, if nothing else. Why it became real dramaturgy in my book, was leaving Melbourne Theater Company..

Yeah. When you went freelance.

I didn’t actually go freelance. I wanted to be a writer.

I didn’t know that.

How do you find money to survive? I couldn’t get it as a playwright. So I don’t know how I lucked it. And part of it was to do with Australia Council for the Arts (now Creative Australia) giving me funding and getting that distressing number of people, like one hundred and sixty five playwrights and one in three of them having an outcome over an eighteen month period.

I’m still in contact with people who I kind of worked with.

If we were to quantify how many playwrights you work with…?

Oh, well, look, I do have a list. You know, I keep all my record.

I would love to know if it wasn’t too arduous? But even an approximate thing I think people need to understand.
It’s kind of what I want the interview to show, that that there is a hidden infrastructure.
You and people like Franesca Smith maybe half a dozen people in the country  are helping to keep new Australian theatrical work alive.
Basically, it isn’t actually the companies, the companies are, you know, not wanting to kill it necessarily. But they don’t see or understand this work.

The problem is that I do a lot of work with artistic directors when I talk to them about, “Oh, is this what you’re doing? Oh, that’s interesting. Have you thought about doing it this way?” Conversation.

So, for example, a regional theatre company wanted to hire me for a week. And I said, “What’s the issue? What are you actually trying to do? I want to be able to have this playwright maybe hear their own work. Get it up, you know, do that sort of stuff. How many of them have you got?” “Two.”

Okay, what happens if I cut your week down to three days? What does that do? Does that mean that I can use that money elsewhere for me? Or do you want to take it?’

And I said to them, “You know, if you’re gonna ask a playwright to work a full day, what does that mean? Are you aware that by eleven ‘o’clock they’re gonna be lying on the floor?”

“This other playwright I’m working with, I’ve pulled them forward, starting early. So their getting runs on the board so that when they arrive on the eleventh of October or something like that, they will have done a whole series of stuff developing character scene situations, et cetera.”

You’re giving the theatre company a masterclass in play development. You’re giving the playwrights a university course in three weeks…

I’m working with this playwright for the year. I will come back to them afterwards. Yeah, and pick up the pieces and move them on.

So I say to the company: “You therefore have got me for three mornings. What are you gonna do with the afternoons when I send the playwright off to write?”

“Oh well, there’s another three or four people we could use.”

“I’m coming here in a month. Send me what you got.”

What I’m actually doing is moving them forward.

Peter Matheson at group meeting of the Cowshed/Blue Cow. Photo: Courtesy of Peter Matheson

And that’s that content that you have, Peter, that is being lost to the companies and the institutions is actually how to do new play development.
Not just in the dramaturgical interventions and moments, but the rhythm of someone understanding what someone needs to build a play over time.
I think that’s really, really, really, precious. But I think you can do that as a dramaturg because you’re of your speed and your capacity, other dramaturgs actually couldn’t do that.
So they might be themselves exhausted by that morning and not be able to take on another project and another. So I would say to you that that’s not necessarily applicable to others in that way, but the actual ability to stage it out and to say this head needs this with this process and put it together and then come to an outcome is really significant.

That’s to do with primary school teaching.

Do you reckon it’s pedagogical?

I think so. I think it’s talking about  how do you sort your time? So it’s most effective. What are you actually aiming for? What am I doing here?

Yeah, I have to say I feel the same, but in a different way, often in a rehearsal process. I don’t like to go in and be around too much. And people are like, “Why are you going now?’ And it’s like,”Well, I can’t help you anymore, I’ve done the bit that I can do.” And if I just hang around, I’m not helping more. That’s one of the things that comes to you about ten years in. You know where you’re helpful and where you’re not.

My problem is that I don’t actually know what my limits are not that I ever wanna be a director, but I think there’s obviously some sort of sense of control in it. I think what I get off on is the joy of playing with a person’s head. And so for me to be able to play more, I know that there would be a limit to it. I’m very aware of that.

I think in that respect, but, you know, but isn’t everyone a dramaturg?

And it’s also talking about the connection with the playwright.

I mean, that the only thing that Janis ever really said to me was, you know, horses for courses.

Yeah, one hundred percent. Yeah. I take myself off. Like if someone approaches me and I go, “Oh, I’m not gonna work for you.” I know that now.

The problem for me is that I’m put into a completely different situation than that, because, you know, what they’re asking is, I do wanna fix it.

And often times that’s the theatre company. They want to be able to get a better product. And what they’re actually doing is looking for my version of what it is that could change that product.

And how do I do that? Making the playwright excited about doing it in the process? Yeah, one hundred percent. And the joy for me is playing with those brains. Some people are amazing. Some of them are absolutely stultifying. But the point is that they’re willing to take anything that works, which is great.

No, that’s really interesting…I’m gonna go back to our questions.

Oh, please. Yes. You better get some sort of answer.

So the first one is about toolkits or approaches to share, and then the second one is about describing a particular intervention that you felt was successful. We’ve done projects and maybe we’ve done milestones. And then there’s advice. So they’re the three things to cover. If that was okay.
If you have toolkits, approaches, ideas, things that you use often that you felt comfortable in sharing, is there one that springs to mind when I say that to share?

Not really. Because it’s horses for courses. I mean, it’s interesting for me when I suddenly realise, “Oh, you mean you can’t do structure? Oh, that’s interesting. Why can’t you do that? Oh, have you thought about doing this?” And this and this and this and this.

And you know that assessment pro forma you’ve got, that is a toolkit and what we’re talking about, recognising and standardising so that you don’t have to re-invent it.

Who knows? I’m not saying it doesn’t change overtime, but it’s also styles of work because you know that that one fits. One thing I’ve recognised is that when you pass through, you pass through and that it falls to pieces or transforms to a different thing.

So toolkits, horses for courses.

Would you want any more than that? It seems to me that I don’t feel as though I’m the same dramaturg talking to one person as I am to another.

I think that’s actually why you’re good.

The other thing would be, and again, this is my language, like in an intervention so that you know, that notion of backwards and forwards, could you describe one where you really felt like the intervention landed in some way for the playwright.

I think it’s got more to do with how excited they might be. I’ve just solved your problem. “If all you did was this and this and this and this and that. Would that make it fine? So why are you doing it that way? Is there a better way to do it?” That sort of stuff.

And so you don’t see it as an offering.

I do see it as an offering. I always see it as an offering, and I often speak about that. You know, the Rent routine about who owns the creativity of this piece. It’s not me. You pay me for my work, if not personally otherwise, and the deal becomes, I am paid for my genius. You just receive what I do. And I put that in the bit of the front of my website.

Yeah, you have it stated really clearly. And I think a lot of people, when they do dramaturgical framings, it’s often about how the dramaturg unlocks something.
And the solution lies with the playwright. I think that’s something really distinctive about your practice Peter. “Here’s the shape. What do you reckon? Take it or leave it or whatever. But here it is. Have a go,” and that’s something you’re really able to do. It’s really unusual and that you’re not offering the same shape to everyone.
So you’re not someone who’s trying to impose a template. “Oh, I’ve got my four things that I like and I’m gonna suggest you just take one of those.”
I think what’s really distinctive, is you’re in the world with them. And that’s unusual. I think a lot of dramaturgy, where it’s a bit gauche or people complain about it’s where they’re getting in positions of some notion of what a good impact might be. It’s not the old fashioned thing we’ve got anymore, like that whole contemporary form versus tradition, that has well and truly died, as it should have, as a binary. But you’re getting the theatre company’s aesthetic. So you need to do this or you know you can’t have ten people in a play. You’ve gotta have four to tour it.

At the moment, the most enjoyable time ever that I ever had doing that was with Stephen Carlton with Constance Drinkwater and the Final Days of Somerset. Yes, where he brought the play to the playwright Award, (Queensland Premier ‘s Dramas Award). And his main character was French. And I said, “What are you trying to say?” “I’m trying to talk about Australia now.” ‘How does France affect us? And the character transformed into Hop Lee.

And then advice for young playwrights.

Don’t give up your day job.

“What is this playwright trying to say, are they saying it? If they’re not, why not?” What can you do to make sure that they do?

So I spend, you know, three hours going through the fifty six pages, getting the plot points in order and seeing where it’s wrong and what the issues are.

That’s answered all my questions, my friend.

It’s your world. I’m just a part of it.

It’s fantastic. Thank you for your generosity. As always.

I don’t feel at all generous. It’s really what I do.

I know. That’s why it’s so nice. Because it doesn’t have strings.


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Photo: Courtesy of QUT

*Kathryn Kelly is a dramaturg, theatre historian and a Senior Lecturer at QUT in the Acting and Drama area in the Faculty of Creative Industries, Education and Justice (CIEJ). Her research interests include dramaturgy and socially engaged, feminist and transcultural performance practices . She is company dramaturg with Belloo Creative.

Copyright © 2023 Kathryn Kelly
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