Umbrella Talk with playwright Justin Fleming

Welcome to our first Umbrella Talk with award winning playwright Justin Fleming, from Australia!

This week, Justin talks with us under our one big umbrella and tells us why Suzanne Millar and Dean Paul Gibson are some of the coolest directors on the planet; why he swiftly turned down a suggestion to collaborate on an OJ Simpson Musical; why he would never write a play about his life, but if there were to be one written about him, it would have dashes of romance, tragedy and “pearls of comedy”; and things that inspire him include fledgling theatre enterprises like one big umbrella!

Continuing reading below for all this and more.


Justin under our one big umbrella

Justin Fleming has been a friend of one big umbrella for several years now. In 2004, we produced a Meet N’ Greet with Justin Fleming in Toronto. The evening showcased readings from scenes of some of Justin’s most prominent plays and featured talented Toronto actors Ramona Katigbak, Grace Lynn Kung, Geoff Kolomayz, Amanda Levencrown, Sandy Pool and Jeff Orchard. We hope to produce one of Justin’s amazing plays here in Canada sometime in the future.

Justin Fleming's bio

Justin's plays include Coup d'Etat (Patrick White Award shortlist, nominee for BEST PLAY AWGIE award and winner of the Banff PlayRites Residency, Canada), Hammer (Ensemble Theatre/Festival of Sydney); The Cobra, Harold In Italy, The Ninth Wonder (Sydney Theatre Company); Burnt Piano (Belvoir Theatre, Sydney/Melbourne Theatre Company/Herbert Berghof Theater New York, Mainstage Theatre Co, Hobart/Dallas Theater Center/France Australia Theatre, Paris/Centaur Theatre, Montreal); Kangaroo (Square Brackets Theatre); and Junction (NIDA). Burnt Piano won the New York New Dramatists' Exchange Award; Burnt Piano was selected as the inaugural play for the Australia/Canada exchange between Melbourne Theatre Company and the Centaur Theatre, Montreal. The Myth of the Passive Citizen premiered in the Short & Sweet Festival in Sydney. As librettist, Justin collaborated with Thos Hodgson and Martin Charnin on Babel; and with Stephen Edwards on Accidental Miracles (WAAPA/Sydney Theatre Company), the English Tour and London season of Crystal Balls (Compact Opera/Sadler's Wells) and TESS of the D'Urbervilles, which toured Britain before its run at The Savoy Theatre in London's West End. Justin was recently librettist on Satango with Stewart D'Arrietta (Griffin Theatre Co/Riverside Theatres) and on The Department Store with Sarah de Jong. Current work includes plays, The Australians and Backbencher; a screenplay adaptation of Darcy Niland's novel, Dead Men Running; and the musical, For All It's Worth, on the legendary impresario, JC Williamson. Justin has been NSW Vice-President of The Australian Writers' Guild and a board member of The Australian National Playwrights' Centre. He was the inaugural Dr. Anne Clark Writer-in-Residence at St. Ignatius' College in Sydney, and has twice been awarded the Nancy Keesing Studio at the Cite Internationale des arts, Paris.

Justin divides his life between Sydney and Paris with his wife, Dr. Fay Brauer, who is an internationally acclaimed Senior Lecturer and author in Art History, Philosophy & Theory.


What do you drink on opening night?

It depends on the bar of the particular theatre. Ideally - a vodka and tonic about half an hour before the curtain goes up, and then a glass of wine at interval and several after the show. Noel Coward liked 72 dry martinis but I haven't reached that stage - yet.

Who would direct the coolest production of one of your plays?

I would like Trevor Nunn to direct "The Starry Messenger". Or Harold Pinter to direct "Burnt Piano". I’d love to do another play with William Carden in New York. He is truly remarkable. I’ve just worked in Sydney with a brilliant though as yet not widely known director called Suzanne Millar, on "her holiness" which has been utterly inspiring. I am now beating her door down to do "Coup d'Etat" before everyone else will want her - though it would be damned hard to beat the amazing production at western Canada theatre directed by Dean Paul Gibson - I am dying to work with him again! His rehearsals are the most inspiring and entertaining possible - and the result breathtaking. I am hoping and praying that Simon Phillips will direct "origin", my big piece on Charles and Emma Darwin and evolution next year in Melbourne. Some Canadians will recall his wonderful production of "Burnt Piano" at the Centaur in MontrĂ©al. And Kate Cherry - now at Black Swan Theatre in western Australia - would be fabulous for a new play I’m writing soon. I would love to do another adaptation of a French classic with director Christopher Hurrell in Sydney - who is also extraordinary.

What scares you? What can't you write about?

Myself or anything autobiographical. What scares me about doing so is that if the play flops, it means your life is considered a train wreck or worse -dull. I also can't write a total monster. There must be something of salvation. I was most impressed with "downfall" - the movie on Hitler’s last days. There were moments when you felt his utter disillusionment. Of course he deserved it, but it is still better drama and more true to life if there is something human in there.
I also can't write most of what other people suggest I should write. Someone recently suggested I collaborate on OJ Simpson the musical. I swiftly declined.

What do you want to write about that you haven't yet?

I am keen to write another science play. There's a possible commission being offered to me by a New York theatre and I think the play should be on the people through time who explained how our brain works. It is a dazzling story. Plenty of conflict, big ideas, big emotions.

If someone was to write a play about your life, what genre would it be? (e.g. comedy, tragedy, melodrama, horror)

As long as it's not a farce. There would have to be romance in there. I am very romantic about certain things. There has been heartbreaking tragedy in my life and there have been pearls of comedy. I don't recall any melodrama though my mother chased my brother down the hall with the wooden spoon when we were kids and whacked him on the bum. He had some of those fire crackers called "throwdowns" in his back pocket which explode on impact. so there was a loud bang and all of us - my mother included - collapsed in laughter. But I have experienced horror. working on "Tess of the d’Urbervilles, the musical" in London leaps to mind. in fact it pole vaults to mind.

How do you deal with praise? With criticism?

You have to be very careful because people lie. They don't lie when they say they didn't like the play. But they often lie when they say they did. I have got better at detecting insincerity - and they do it for the best reason - they don't want to offend, and especially on opening nights which are meant to be fun. But there is no doubt that praise in print - whether in a letter or in the newspapers - is seductive. and adverse criticism is depressing, though you do get better at moving on. praise from a respected critic is quite wonderful, and oddly, adverse criticism from a respected critic is easier to take because
you know they care. There's one fourth string critic in Sydney whom no one takes seriously whether he raves or pans, because everyone knows he can't distinguish a play from a production, a performance from a role, and has no inkling of the process from page to stage. so whether I receive a good or bad response from him, it's flimsy and worthless.

Where would you like your work to be produced?

Almost anywhere in Canada and the USA. The National in London would be nice - even the Cottlesloe - but it's the lion's den. For reasons which I cannot understand, my work in the UK has been confined to librettos for musical theatre or opera. This is pretty depressing, because I would like to do a play. I have done one play in Poland and would love to do more in Eastern Europe. It is fabulous. "Burnt Piano" was in Paris and I would love to do it in Berlin, where there are 130 active theatres.

Where do you write? Pen or keyboard?

Oh, I make endless notes before I start on the computer. A notebook is a good idea, and I keep it very close at hand whatever I’m doing. I don't write down dreams or anything I think of during the night because as Jerry Seinfeld demonstrated, it is usually gibberish. I am amazed that only 20 years ago I was handwriting scripts and then typing them up on an old typewriter. But the ease of a computer is too good to be true.

What would you like academics to write about your work in 50 years?

That I was a minor writer of major themes - not the other way round! If they said that my work was concerned with the individual against the world, I would think they were spot on. I would haunt their house if they said that any of the plays were 'high art" because that is not my intention. Yes, I do like the audience to do some of the work, but I refuse to believe that that cannot be a popular thing.

What inspires you?

Most forms of audacity. The company of brilliant people. The coming together of big ideas and big emotions. New and exciting directors. Vodka and Tonic. Red wine. And bold enterprises like one big umbrella.

Thanks for reading our first Umbrella Talk with Justin Fleming, your comments are more than welcome! On our next Umbrella Talk, we chat with Canadian Playwright Mark Leiren-Young.