All the World’s a Stage for WA Playwright Bovell




Ask any dramatist, and they’ll tell you it’s never easy to write a good play.

Kalgoorlie-born Andrew Bovell is no exception here. Though he’s universally recognised for his ability to bring dynamic characters to life on stage and screen (he has won countless awards, including the London Film Critics Award for Screenwriter Of The Year in 2002 ), he insists he’s never sure how a work will go until it meets its audience.

Andrew, who lives in South Australia, is currently in town overseeing the Black Swan production of his play Things I Know To Be True. And yes, he can rest easy with this one; Perth audiences are lapping it up. Meantime, Nicole Kidman has been collaborating with Andrew to turn the story, about a suburban family with its share of struggles, into a TV series.

Andrew chats to The Starfish:

Is it especially rewarding to see your work staged in your home town?

There is a lot of history for me in Perth. I feel a mixture of pride and trepidation when my work is done here. This play is especially important because of its themes of family and love. So much of my formative experiences were about being a member of a strong family and a result of growing up in Perth.

When you sat down to write this play, what were you hoping to achieve?

I wanted to write a play capturing the complexities of parental and familial love. I wanted to capture the push and pull of family; to show it as being resilient and strong even in the face of tragedy. And I really wanted to capture the feel of an ordinary suburban Australian family.

And at this early moment, gazing at the blank screen, do you already have a firm idea of what will happen with each character, or does that evolve along the way? 

I had the shape of the play, that it would unfold over four seasons and that each season would focus on one of four children but I discovered the characters through the writing. I learned about them as I created them. I came to know them as I wrote. I had the shape of the play but not the content. That I had to discover.

Did you quickly sense that you had a hit on your hands?

I don’t think you ever know that while you are writing. It’s not really until the play connects with its first audience that you start to understand how it will resonate. And then it’s such a relief. Because a play is nothing until it meets its audience.



How difficult is it to write a powerful play? And does it take many drafts? What, for you, is the most challenging aspect to get right?

Every play is a struggle. It’s an act of courage. To expose the way you think and feel about the world is a risk. But you can’t write unless you are prepared to take that risk. Each time I sit down to write, I think I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know where to start. That’s when the discipline and craft of writing becomes very important. Some plays come in a rush. Others are like drawing blood from a stone, you move forward centimetre by centimetre. This play came in a rush but then there was a lot of honing and shaping and editing that followed. That is still going on. It’s an evolving text. Everyt ime I watch it I discover a little more and want to rework the dialogue.

Though Things I Know To Be True,  is so “of its time”, when it was written, gay marriage wasn’t yet legal in Australia. When you chose to include a transgender character, I imagine that may have seemed more “outrageous” to theatre audiences than now, just seven years on?

Trans characters and stories were less visible on our stages when I wrote the play. It was important to me to include a trans character as a part of a family, as a son or daughter, as a brother or sister. The conversation has changed enormously in seven years but it is still very much an ongoing conversation. Originally, the part of Mia was played by a cis gender man. Now, it’s very clear that Mia needs to be played by someone with lived experience. I’m glad that the play gives a trans or non-binary actor the opportunity to be seen and to perform.

Have you noticed any change in the way audiences now react to Mia’s story?  And as this play has been performed around the world, does this vary in different countries?

The scene in which Mia comes out to her parents remains very painful to watch. I have seen the play in England, America, Spain, Germany and Australia in three different productions. The responses are the same. The shape of this family is very familiar to people all over the world.

Are audiences generally becoming more mature, for want of a better word, in their acceptance of diversity?

In the world I move in, diversity has always been embraced. Theatre sits at the vanguard of that, of ensuring that our stories come from a diverse range of voices. It hasn’t always been like that, of course.  But at the moment diversity is celebrated and championed. And the world is so much richer because of it. But there is always resistance to change. The conversation is ongoing.

David Williamson has said he upset his friends when he wrote plays, basing the characters on people he knew. Do you do that too, and has it cost you friendships?

I am very protective of those I love and care for in my work but my view of the world can’t help but be shaped by those I share my life with. Every character in this play has a little bit of me in them, from Rosie to Bob. So if anyone is up there, it is me.



When did you decide you wanted to write scripts for a living, and how did it come about?

I was studying at UWA. I was starting to write poems and short stories. I started to go to the theatre and became excited by the possibility of writing drama. It seemed like a different world. I didn’t know how to get there. And then I applied for the Victorian College of the Arts, which had a course for playwrights then. And to my surprise, I was accepted. I packed my bag and went to Melbourne, not knowing anyone or anything. I’ve been learning ever since. I don’t really know how these things happen. It’s chance, luck, courage and then hard work. Lots of hard work.

Which playwrights do you most admire?

Arthur Miller. Harold Pinter. Joe Orton. Caryl Churchill. Edward Albee. Jim Cartwright. Athol Fugard. Patricia Cornelius. John Romeril.

Your works are staged around the globe, but you chose to remain based in Australia. Why is this? Would you say this has both helped and hindered you, professionally?

I live on a farm south of Adelaide. But my work has allowed me to travel and live in different cities. I have spent a lot of time in New York and London. And Madrid and Athens. But I always come back to the farm. Perhaps if I had moved to Los Angeles to write for Hollywood earlier, I would be richer but I wouldn’t be happier. My life on the farm has kept me grounded.

Do you see much live theatre? What has impressed you of late?

I tend not to go to the theatre or to watch films when I am writing. I hang back. But when I’m in New York or London or Sydney I’ll try and see new plays. I want to see what people are writing right now. I saw Ivo Van Hove’s adaptation of A Little Life at the Adelaide Festival. I saw his production of A View From the Bridge in London a few years ago. He changed the way Miller was done. I’m going up to Sydney to see my friend Patricia Cornelius’s play Do Not Go Gentle at the STC next weekend. I try and see new work at Belvoir and Griffin in Sydney.

What would your advice be to aspiring playwrights reading this in WA? Where should they study?

Be brave. Write about things that matter to you and the world. Dig deep. Don’t be afraid of emotion. Don’t be afraid of failure. Hang out with actors, directors and other writers. See as much theatre as you can. You will learn something from every play you see and read. Do courses, if they are available.

Nicole Kidman is turning Things I Know To Be True into an Amazon TV series, are you heavily involved with/excited about this?

Yes. I’m a producer on the series as well as having written the six episodes. I’ll be involved in casting and the shoot. It’s very exciting and a great pleasure to work with Nicole.



In this age of Netflix, and streaming, is it harder than ever to get people to come to the theatre?

Yes. But I think if the work is good people will come. There’s nothing better than being a part of an audience in the theatre when it’s good. But the opposite is true also. There’s nothing worse than being in the audience when it’s bad.

With screenwriting generally more lucrative than writing plays, what keeps you doing the latter too?

Playwriting keeps me honest. It’s a more exposed medium. I feel freer as a writer for the stage than I do for TV or film. I love writing for those mediums but I like to return to writing a play whenever I can. Maybe, it’s because it was my first love as a writer. And my relationship to the production is usually closer in theatre than it is in film.

You joined the Black Swan board late last year; what have you gained from this experience?

I’m still finding my feet but I like sitting at the table with people from other fields, business, industry, philanthropy, the law etc. We all have something in common… a desire to help make Black Swan the best company that it can be. It’s exciting to be a member of the board as a new Artistic Director shapes her vision for the company.

Are you working on a new play at the moment?

I’ve recently returned from Madrid where my most recent play premiered. It’s called Song of First Desire and it tells the story of a family whose lives were fractured during the Franco dictatorship in Spain. The company and director I wrote it for have done productions of Things I Know to Be True and When the Rain Stops Falling before. I have a long standing relationship with them. But for now, my time will be devoted to the TV series of Things I Know to Be True.

Things I Know To Be True is on now at the Heath Ledger Theatre. To buy tickets visit