On the Hot Seat With Wayne Tunks

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By: Kelly McConville

Sitting down to interview ‘Sydney’s most prolific playwright’, was quite the task! Maybe I’m a pushover but it would be a challenge not to be charmed by local playwright Wayne Tunks.  Sitting down at Elwood eatery ‘Hawk and Hunter’ to talk theatre with the man is like sitting down with a close neighbour for a chat about who Karl Kennedy is flirting with these days. Warm, engaging and clearly passionate about his work, Wayne calmly sips his long black as he enthusiastically answers all my questions about moving to St Kilda, working on Neighbours and his latest theatrical offering, ‘Flame Trees’, (at Theatre Works during March.)


So Wayne, your play ‘Flame Trees’ has a distinctly Australian flavor. What is it that you enjoy about writing in the style of Modern Australian Drama?

“I guess I’ve always loved Modern Australia as a genre. I’ve sent some of my work overseas and they always say ‘it’s very Australian’, and I think that’s just the voice I have. You know, I grew up in Blacktown in Sydney’s west where Cold Chisel was like an institution. I often joke that ‘Khe Sanh’ was the national anthem that we used to recite every morning at school.  Growing up in that area and working in so many different industries, I’ve just really grown to love Australian stories and Australian language. I think we are fascinating because we have such a bastardisation of so many other cultures all thrown together and I think that adds even more to the melting pot of immigration that we’ve had and it just makes for this the most amazing culture. Conflict is part of it that: at any given time there’s a seething thing that could just boil up over the surface and it just makes for good drama writing.”


What excites you about the genre of drama? In reading reviews about your work, the two main aspects that are associated with being ‘your thing’ are dialogue and characters. Do they contribute to the beginning of a new story?

“Yes, definitely. I like to observe people and it’s quite often just from something that I’ve seen that will pique my interest and I’ll go ‘wow, that will make a really great character, or a really great story’. And there are so many different styles of theatre, but I love that naturalistic kind. I do love it when somebody sees one my plays and they go ‘Oh my god, I can relate to that story’ or ‘I know somebody just like that’. That’s when I know I’ve done a good job. Those are the stories I want to tell. I want to tell real stories about real people that people can relate to.”


With your play ‘Flame Trees’, what was that element that piqued your interest? Was it that Cold Chisel song?

“I think that the story came first and then the title was just a clever little play on words. It was then fun working in the references; Cold Chisel does get a good mention in the show! But it was more about that whole bushfire thing. I think, what is more of an Australian story than bushfires? I’ve worked a lot with suburbia, and then over the past few years I’ve really been interested in small country towns. I just find that they are an amazing snapshot of time. Just the fact that everything is so insular means that they’re just so well designed for Drama. Anybody who is from a small country town will say there’s so much drama going on in those places and I guess it makes it really interesting to write about. You know, we’ve all had our own experiences with bushfires and what they can do. Every year you’re watching those tragedies on TV and I guess I’ve often wondered what the background is with some of those stories. What happened to someone who is an arsonist and why would they make that decision to light a fire? Because you watch the news all the time, you know they talk about how so many bushfires are started by arsonists and I guess most people like me wonder, ‘why the hell would you light a fire?’ That was one of the reasons why I wanted to write this play.”


How much research did you do into arson?

“I did a lot … (gushes). The internet is so wonderful! When I first started writing I would have to go to the library! Whereas now, I can just sit there on Google for half a day and have so much research that it’s not funny. Often I like to talk to friends and send out different questions or sit down and have coffee with people and ask ‘what do you think about this?’ It helps to just get that general consensus and make sure that I’m not just having a solo thought.”


What about the decision for the character of the arsonist to be female? Not to be too stereotypical, but I’d have thought for any playwright, it would be an interesting choice to make.

“Yes definitely. I guess that’s part of the story: why would someone do this? I am very much against saying a man should do this and a woman should do that. I often write for women, I love writing for women! My female actress friends constantly thank me for writing great female roles, but it’s because that’s what interests me. And most of my close friends are women and I understand women probably better than I understand men (which doesn’t help in my dating life!). But, I enjoy putting women into a traditional male situation and seeing how they react and respond to it.”


In terms of writing characters and stories, when you are going through the writing process, how much do you think about your audience? When story-lining for ‘Neighbours’, you would have had to have been thinking about your audience all of the time. You have so many parameters you have to work within, so obviously when play-writing, you’re running your own show?

“That was my dilemma working for a television show; you’re working with all of these other writers and working within very specific guidelines and I’m not used to that. I’m used to being a one-man show – if I want to write that play I’m bloody well going to write it, so there is a very big difference. To an extent I think about audiences, but at the end of the day you can’t really. I’ll write it and go ‘these sorts of people will like this show’, but I don’t write it for an audience. I write it because it’s a story that I want to tell and I think that the plays of mine that have done the best are the ones that have meant the most to me. If I write a story that I don’t necessarily believe in, then it’s just not going to be as good. I think that it’s the stories that have a heart and a foundation that end up speaking to people the most.”


OK, so you’ve written quite a few plays. In fact, I’ve read about you being touted as ‘Sydney’s most prolific playwright’; do you still get that a lot?

“It’s funny because I think that people think that because I’ve got a new play on it means that I’ve just sat down 3 months before the show and written the thing. I constantly have about 10 different things on the go. Flame Trees I started writing about 5 years ago. I wrote a bit and then I left it and then I wrote a bit and then I left it. Often for me that’s what works best. I can never just go ‘here’s an idea I’m now going to write about it’. I always have an idea, write a little bit, and then leave it to just move around in the bizarre place called my brain. I’ll just leave it there to see what works and then it’ll come out, but when it comes out it comes out fast.”


Do you have many things you start writing and then leave and come back to and you go ‘No, that’s no good’?

“Yes, I’ve got full plays that I’ve abandoned. I’ve got a play that I wrote a few years ago that I was writing and thinking ‘this is the best play that I’m ever going to write!’ and then I had a reading and I just went ‘that is the biggest piece of poo I’ve ever written!’ I think that when you first start out you don’t have as good of a critical eye on yourself, but the more you do this and (this is my 14th year in theatre) so I think by now I know when I should just leave something alone. I’ll mourn it for a day, but then I’ll move on.”


Of those stories you do choose to pursue – beyond the stage where you have the reading and you feel like it’s something worth continuing on with – what makes a story vital for you to tell? What’s that spark where you go ‘this needs to go on the stage’?

“I guess it’s just that feeling I get from it. If it’s made me laugh or it’s made me cry when I write. I’m a very emotional writer, you know I’m there with my characters and if they’ve taken me on a journey then I usually think that that’s going to work. For me, there’s got to be somebody that I identify with and see myself in. You know, writing is the most egotistical business in the world. Every character is a reflection of you somehow, so if I can’t like any of my characters then I must be in a pretty bad place at that time! I need to respond to the characters and enjoy their journey and want to see that journey continue by seeing it brought to life on stage. “


From experiencing success in Sydney, you made the move to St Kilda. What was the instigator?

“Getting the call in 2011 to work on Neighbours. I was living in Sydney and came down to do a little bit of work with the show. I then got a little bit more work with Neighbours, and then the big job came up to move down and I didn’t even have to think about it. I moved to the St Kilda area because I had so many friends there. My established friends were all in walking distance from my house. I guess a few of them have moved away since then, but I’ve made new friends. It’s such a beautiful area. I love walking around and I love the café culture.”


Are you excited Flame Trees played at Theatre Works?

“Yes! Ever since I’ve moved down I’ve wanted to do a show at Theatre Works. When the opportunity came up it was just perfect. Not only because I get to walk the theatre every night but because it’s a beautiful space. I’m really excited to be doing some theatre south-side, because I’ve really only been doing it on the north-side since I moved here. Theatre Works has really found a new life in the last couple of years and people are just excited about going to see good theatre, which is what the industry really needs. It’s going to help us grow if people go ‘that sounds cool, I’m going to go and see that’, not just going along because their aunt’s best friends’ niece is in it’.”


There you have it. A charming man and a disarming playwright.




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