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Atlantis

letter from Los Angeles

"The more embarrassing something is, the bigger the urge I feel to share it," says playwright Lally Katz.

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Show: Atlantis
Company: Belvoir
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Humiliation and truth go hand-in-hand for Lally Katz

Date: 8 Nov 2017

Lally Katz jumped on a plane to Los Angeles the day after the opening of her autobiographical comedy Atlantis at Belvoir. She wrote a long letter to Audrey when she got home (and yes, she said you can read it).

“I’m writing this from an apartment building full of elderly Russian Jews in Hollywood. This is where I live at the moment and probably where a lot of my future work will be set. It will be about the community here and about my marriage to my Venezuelan husband who I met last November.

We got married in February. At first I thought I wouldn’t write about him. But given my track record, that’s seeming highly unlikely. Everything I live, I write. And everything I write, I live. The reason I do this … is because I am compelled to. For me, life and writing have always been intertwined.

In one of the previews I was sitting next to an elderly Latvian couple. They asked me what I thought of the play and I told them, ‘I wrote it. And luckily, I got married in the US recently, because I don’t think anyone in Australia would date me after this.’ They agreed.

It’s usually not the best idea to advertise your STDs. But the more embarrassing something is, the bigger the urge I feel to share it. Because I know if it’s something that has been traumatic for me, there is a big chance other people have had similar experiences and will feel connected.

And this is the stuff that people laugh about the most.

Opening nights are nervy enough as it is when you have a brand-new work going on in front of an audience, but when you factor in that the characters onstage are representing real people sitting in the audience, it gets a whole lot more stressful.

Something I’ve learnt in the years of writing about myself and the people in my life is that when it goes bad, it goes really bad. When you write about yourself, you risk making yourself an easy target. Though, this has absolutely been painful and at times made me doubt myself as a writer, it hasn’t made me doubt myself enough to stop. I am fascinated by life. I love people. I see every moment in life as a potential scene. And I’m the vessel that is taking me through life, so I’m observing myself too. For high-risk writing, there are also great rewards. Nothing is better than an audience connecting with your play.

Atlantis is in some ways my most personal work. But there have certainly been others. Leading up to Atlantis, I braced myself remembering some of my other plays which I exposed myself and my relationships in:

Lally Katz and the Terrible Mysteries of the Volcano (2006)

It premiered at Theatreworks in Melbourne. Luke Mullins played Lally Katz, a male detective, investigating the disappearance of a woman named Wendy.

His assistant was my stuffed toy, Lion, played by Brian Lipson. My parents still call Brian, ‘Lion’. The great Margaret Cameron played Wendy. It was set in Canberra as a tropical island. My great friend and former flame from 1998, playwright Angus Cerini was at the opening. He asked me afterwards, ‘Am I the character Greg who keeps trying to hump the set?’ He wasn’t the only guy to ask me that.

The reviews for the most part were damning to say the least. Cameron Woodhead said, ‘See this show if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to watch Lally Katz eat her own brain in public. For over two hours.’

The truth is, that’s now one of my favourite reviews of all time (and he’s since given other plays of mine great reviews). I was also the usher for the show, because we couldn’t afford to hire one. Which meant that I had to sit in the front row and make an interval announcement every night. This definitely upped the humiliation. My mother was sick for a week after seeing the show. But I remember talking to director Simon Stone afterwards, who was still studying at the Victorian College of the Arts at the time. And he told me he loved it. As did two other directors who I love. Rosemary Myers (director of Atlantis) and Bruce Gladwin [of Back-to-Back Theatre Company]. Ralph Myers saw it on a night with six other people in the audience, which led to my working in Sydney.

Return to Earth (2011)

A very personal, sort of super naturalistic and surreal play inspired by my family in Tathra. The Melbourne Theatre Company produced it and it was not a huge success. The audience loathed it. But watching it, I learnt a lot about what the MTC audience would like in the future.

Neighbourhood Watch (2011)

That opening night at Belvoir remains one of the best and weirdest nights of my life. Suddenly there we all were, watching this story about me and my neighbour, Anna. And there was my street in front of me. The whole time I’d been living out the story on Mary Street, I’d been writing the play in my head. And now, here it was.

Anna came to see it one night. And the two of us sat together, watching our lives. She remains deeply proud and deeply shamed by it. This is the only play of mine threatened with legal action (so far). I really should have changed character names.

Back at the Dojo (2016)

It was worse for my Dad than it was for me. It was very personal to me because it was based on family stories I’d heard all my life. My brother says that my Dad had no right to be humiliated by it and he should be honoured that I wrote a whole play about him. My parents maintain that I should have warned them about the scene of my uncle’s death. I really thought I had. They were there on opening night and apparently, my mother’s gasp was quite audible.

Minnie & Liraz (2017)

It was on at Melbourne Theatre Company earlier this year and was a big hit with audiences. This was a story inspired by my grandparents (who are also characters in Atlantis) and how my grandmother played matchmaker for my cousin.

I had hoped that my cousin and other family wouldn’t find out about this play. But they have a Google alert on me. I am also hoping that my husband won’t find out too much about Atlantis. He couldn’t make it to Sydney to see the show and everyone kept saying what a shame it was. ‘No, no,’ I’d tell them. ‘It’s really for the best.’

Stories I Want to Tell You in Person (2013)

This I actually performed as myself. In the rehearsals, director Anne-Louise Sarks had to really push me to write about the stuff I felt uncomfortable about. I felt certain that if I wrote about my boyfriend at the time (who was called The Full Jew in the play), that it would ruin our relationship. So I cut out everything about him. Suddenly the show wasn’t making sense. She told me I had to put it all back in. She was right (though we did end up breaking up).

Annie really pushed me to talk about how I felt personally about things, which embarrassed me. But she was right. If you don’t go into specifics, if you don’t push what you feel comfortable writing about, then it won’t be true. And to me art must ring true. And of course you run the risk of humiliating yourself. But personally, I’ve always felt that art is worth the risk.

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