JJ Fowler
Features, News, Performing arts, Theatre

A collector of ideas

Writer, director and actor Jeffrey Jay Fowler is one of six artists who make up The Last Great Hunt, a small but acclaimed Perth-based theatre collective that has developed a reputation for making innovative and engaging theatre since its inception in 2013. Nina Levy had a chat with Fowler ahead of the premiere of his latest work for The Last Great Hunt, Improvement Club.

It feels like there’s a small but vital revolution happening in the Perth theatre scene. When once the only direction for WAAPA’s many talented acting and musical theatre graduates was East, in recent years we’ve seen the rise of a new generation of small theatre companies and collectives, created by young practitioners who want to see opportunities developed at home.

One of the key players in this revolution is Jeffrey Jay Fowler, associate director at Black Swan State Theatre Company and a lead artist with Perth theatre collective The Last Great Hunt. A playwright, dramaturg, director and actor, Fowler makes work that is smart and funny, relatable and provocative; work that feels relevant. The plays he has written have won a bevvy of awards, including the the 2016 Adelaide Fringe Best Theatre Award, the 2015 Fringe World Tour Ready Award and Best Performance at Melbourne Fringe 2015 for FAG/STAG (co-written and performed with Chris Isaacs), the 2014 PAWA Award for Best New Play for Elephents (in which he also performed), the 2013 Fringe World Martin Sims Award for Best New WA Work for Minnie and Mona Play Dead and the 2012 Fringe World Best Theatre Award for Hope is the Saddest (which he also directed). As director of Black Swan State Theatre Company’s The Eisteddfod, he scooped the 2017 Award for Best Director at the recent PAWA Awards, with the show taking out Best Mainstage Production.

Minne and Mona Play Dead
Jeffrey Jay Fowler’s 2013 play, ‘Minnie and Mona Play Dead’.

When Perth born and bred Fowler graduated from the National Institute of Dramatic Arts’s Graduate Diploma in Directing in 2010, however, he had no intention of coming home. “When we (the founders of The Last Great Hunt) were graduating there we really no opportunities for mid-career artists,” he recalls. “You could emerge in Perth, but then once you’d emerged, you couldn’t make a living for yourself. We were all pretty frustrated.”

But then Katt Osborne had the idea of gathering together a group of her fellow theatre-makers – Fowler, Gita Bezard, Adriane Daff, Chris Isaacs, Tim Watts and Arielle Gray – into a collective, says Fowler. “It was pretty hard to get funding but we felt like if we banded together we could pool our reputations and get the attention of the funding bodies and the community in Perth to be able to create something that stood apart. We decided that we would be able to create something here and, potentially, not just create careers for ourselves, but also opportunities for the people coming up after us.” And thus The Last Great Hunt was born.

Dedicated to making work in Perth, The Last Great Hunt currently includes six artists: Daff, Gray, Isaacs, Bezard, Fowler and Watts. “We all make very different works and we work together in different constellations,” says Fowler. “There are writer and directors and puppeteers and visual artists.” And, like Fowler, the collective has made its mark on Perth, gaining not just the attention of critics but of the likes of Perth Festival artistic director, Wendy Martin, who named The Last Great Hunt’s New Owner as a favourite work from 2016 and the company as one to watch in an interview with Seesaw last year. Most recently, the collective’s collaboration with Side Pony Productions, The Irresistible, has been shortlisted for the 2018 Helpmann Award for Best Play, alongside the likes of Sydney Theatre Company and Malthouse Theatre.

Although Fowler has multiple strings to his bow, it is writing that was and remains his first love. “I think that the first things we want to do in life are often the first things we’re praised for and I have very vivid memories of my grade 6 teacher Marilyn Benthein being very proud of my poems that I wrote,” he says with a laugh. “From a young age I identified that this was something I might be capable of doing. And my drama teacher in high school, Frank Murphy, was inspirational. When you’re a young person and someone says, ‘hey you’re good at this,’ you follow at that. And so in my head, my writing ability became potential playwrighting ability.”

Although Fowler does perform, writing and directing come first. “I sometimes act in shows but I don’t think of myself as an actor. I love creating roles and The Last Great Hunt is a vessel to create roles for me and the other members to perform. At the end of the day, I’m an artist because I have something to express or something to say, and so writing always sits centrally, and directing and acting sit as complements to being a playwright.”

The pathway from that initial idea to script is different every time, reflects Fowler. “It’s the same with directing. I don’t have one methodology. There are a few similarities… probably deep frustration, late nights, long periods of procrastination and then, at the end, deep satisfaction that it’s actually happened.

“Sometimes I just suddenly feel like there’s an idea there. I might write down a title or a few words or a sentence and leave it there in a notepad. Once there are enough ideas together I might talk about it with someone else. Collaboration is really important to me. There haven’t been many plays that I’ve sat down and written by myself. But ideas, they come in little bits and pieces, and if you start collecting them and putting them together, eventually you have enough for the seed of a play and you plant that and keep working on it.

Improvement club
The promo image for Fowler’s latest play, ‘Improvement Club’. Photo: Cameron Etchells.

“You have to go, what is the idea, and how does this idea want to be written? Thinking about Improvement Club, because that’s what I’m putting on stage next, that was the longest gestation period from idea to script. The idea first came to me in 2011, when I was joking around with a group of friends and I said that I wanted to start a club where every day we have to improve. At the end of the conversation, I thought, that’s actually a kind of funny idea. I wrote a couple of scenes in 2011 and I got shortlisted for the Edward Albee Scholarship but didn’t get it and I thought, ‘I’m just not ready to write this one.’ So I did plenty of other projects, and worked for Black Swan and I was busy enough.”

Then two years ago, Fowler pitched the idea to The Last Great Hunt. “We did a two week workshop on the idea of what would happen if someone started a club with the singular goal of improving,” he says. “It would be an allegory for the society we’re currently living in where self-improvement is pushed upon us constantly, by a system that’s trying to sell you the idea of a better you; how we sometimes end up frustrated; and how improvement works both on an individual level and also a social level… and these ideas do battle. In that workshop we really focused on where that storyline would go… but after that I still thought, ‘I’m not really ready to write this.’ That’s never really happened to me before. Usually if an idea turns up it wants to be written. I am known for not finishing plays until we’ve started rehearsing – pressure really fuels my process – but I’m usually pretty self-motivated and something about this idea wasn’t clicking.

So what changed?

“I think I have shifted a bit as a person – improved, if you will,” says Fowler with a grin. “What the play wanted to be about – and I really do believe that ideas, when they come into the universe, pick who they want to be written by – what the play wanted to be about is what it means for different people to improve and, without killing the play for anyone who comes to see it, why anyone would want to improve themselves in a world where some people are living below the poverty line, not having access to education, being treated unequally because of some bracket they fall into, be it a gender bracket, a race bracket, any categorisation that might disadvantage you.

“I think that in 2011 I couldn’t have written this play because the conversation, socially, wasn’t where it is now or as accessible as it is now, but also because in 2011, when I was one year out of NIDA, I wasn’t really thinking about other people in that way. I probably would have written a play much more focused on self-improvement, personal optimisation; a pretty selfish outlook on what excellence means. Instead, I think what this play wanted to be the whole time – and I discovered while writing it and workshopping it with the cast – is that idea that the ultimate improvement is not about pushing some people above others, but actually bringing everyone in line.”

Improvement Club is playing State Theatre Centre of WA’s Rehearsal Room 1, 27 June – 7 July.

Pictured top: Fowler in the award-winning ‘Fag/Stag’. Photo: Robert Catto.

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