August 2011

Arts & Letters

Out of the box

By Peter Robb
A scene from Stuck Pigs Squealing's 2005 production of 'The Black Swan of Trespass'. © Brett Boardman Photography
Meeting Lally Katz

I’m very ambitious!” Lally Katz said, or rather shouted, confidentially, lowering her eyes toward her glass of Aglianico. She looked like a volunteer librarian being tempted to her very first drink by an ageing sleazeball. Then she looked up. “And I’m also quite good at getting what I want from people!” She contemplated the beautiful and ever so faintly amber liquid in the glass and paused. “Without them knowing!” she added.

Lally Katz is loud even when she’s quiet. I’d found this out a week earlier, in a narrow corridor at the back of Belvoir Street Theatre one morning. I’d heard the sound of running sneakered feet. A figure hurtled round a corner, bounced off the far wall and ricocheted into me. “Peedah!” came a hoarse cry. The figure was wearing skin-tight jeans and a bomber jacket in milk chocolate leather. It was Katz – and our first encounter. She sounded like a frog.

Some of the bomber zips were undone, exposing a soft pink garment. Belvoir Street was busy and we were banished to the freezing unheated theatre over the road. I worried about her throat. Did she have the flu? “I’m always like this!” she rasped at full volume. “I’m like a kid whose voice is breaking!” Katz started life in New Jersey. She lived for years in Miami, then arrived in Australia – in Canberra of all places – in 1987, when she was nine. She and her brother, Michael, who is 17 months younger, found that when they first encountered a group of friendly and curious natives about their own age neither of them could understand a word.

Twenty-four years later she understands pretty well, and deploys the language powerfully through the mouths of Australian actors. Her own voice, leached of generic American, still sounds pure New Jersey. “People think I’m loud,” she bawled into my face in the deserted foyer. “In New Jersey this is normal.”

Ralph Myers, Belvoir Street’s artistic director, told me that last year his wife, by all accounts a quiet, smart and altogether charming person, was thrown out of a late-night theatre gathering in the Newtown Hotel because the bouncers mistook her for Katz. Katz herself was neither drunk nor obstreperous, merely holding forth on theatre at New Jersey volume.

The quiet warning in Fratelli Fresh was delivered in a husky high C that set wineglasses singing and stiffened spines all around the bar. Everyone was listening in. She was explaining that big-time theatre doesn’t scare her. This year she has three plays in production with three major companies in Australia. A Golem Story recently ended its run at the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne, Neighbourhood Watch is being performed at Belvoir Street in Sydney until 28 August and Return to Earth is scheduled to open with the Melbourne Theatre Company in November.

I put it to her that none of these plays attains the wild pitch of imagining that drew tiny and then ever larger audiences to her earlier plays. The Black Swan of Trespass, written in 2003 about Ern Malley, and The Eisteddfod, her first big hit at 25, went on to win prizes at two successive fringe festivals in New York.

That was what elicited the high C, followed by a momentary but total loss of voice that kept the mature folk at Fratelli Fresh rigid in their seats. Katz’s eyes popped. Her cheeks flushed. Her mouth opened and shut noiselessly before dozens of pairs of similarly widened eyes. Including my own. I was making ready for the Heimlich manoeuvre, having no idea how to perform it, when some lifesaving husky gasps came from beneath her sternum, along with an infinitely reassuring sound like the one made by a large black crow in an Australian evening sky.

I persisted. What about the Apocalypse Bear Trilogy, Lally Katz and the Terrible Mysteries of the Volcano or Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd? Or the short films with ominous titles, A Familiar Lullaby, This Time in German and Ingrid Sits Holding a Knife, both scripted by her? Or the plays with the spooky short titles: Smashed, Missing Link, Criminology, Snuff Puppets? The outpourings of an extraordinary dramatic imagination had captivated their audiences.

After a couple of brief appearances in Volcano and Hip Hip Hooray, the Apocalypse Bear first got a starring role in The Fag from Zagreb, which grew out of the night her brother once spent in a Croatian jail. Katz is close to Michael, who left school early to play professional soccer in Sydney, a career he now combines with investment activities. “We often swap over who plays the older sibling,” she explained. “It depends who needs advice and guidance more.” She’s also close to Michael’s “crazily beautiful” wife, Zrinka Lemezina, who sent Katz at least a dozen text messages during a play I watched with her at Belvoir Street Theatre one night. To anyone who has seen The Eisteddfod, Katz’s offhand little mention of sibling role reversals is a bit chilling.

The Eisteddfod enacts the frantic imaginings and the incestuous power struggle of two agoraphobic orphaned siblings. The adult brother and sister are always regressing, and are confined in a stifling bedroom set. The parents of the play have been dispatched in a car smash, leaving their offspring free to re-enact, among their own intensifying fears and longings, salient moments of parental infidelity and rancour. If the play weren’t so devastatingly funny it would be grisly. It feels like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on speed – indeed, like an accelerating excursus through the whole repertoire of American family dismemberments, from Eugene O’Neill through Tennessee Williams to Sam Shepard and beyond.

I wondered what her brother thought of it. And her parents. Katz shouted back fast that the family life of The Eisteddfod had nothing to do with her own. But when I mentioned a few things the play’s siblings said about their parents and a few things Katz had told me about her own, her eyes widened, her cheeks flushed and she stopped breathing again. But only for a minute or so.

What she told me about her parents was no less loving and emphatic and complicated than her account of her brother. As the story came out, I started thinking about JD Salinger’s Glass family and told her so. “I love it!” she shouted. She loves her brother and his wife because they are full of energy. “They stay up late and get up early and love theatre!” Energy is a big plus for Lally Katz.

Her father came to Canberra from the US to overhaul the defence department’s computer system. He’d wanted, years earlier, to be a professional baseball player, and information technology was a not entirely satisfying substitute. Katz says he’s “insanely fit but not so well co-ordinated”. Her brother is both fit and co-ordinated, “the only one in the family who can dance”, and when he took up soccer his father was delighted and started playing too.

Both parents were thrilled with anything their kids did, as long as it was done with passion and commitment. It was a big deal when the student Katz, working as a waitress, scored significant tips. “When anyone in my family decides to do something – they really do it,” Katz said, as a way of explaining how theatre has been driving her since she was very young.

Her mother used to see Katz’s high school plays “every single night, even the ones I just acted in”. Mother was in the Peace Corps and used to be a preschool teacher. Now both parents live in a little pink house on the south coast of NSW. Her father plays and coaches soccer and her mother “is totally dedicated and obsessed with saving native forests and animals”. She has just caught a virus from getting up before daybreak to look after a stray seal.

Katz, at nine, found Canberra a little on the quiet side. When David Lynch’s Twin Peaks appeared on TV three years later, she got the ambience immediately. Katz adores Lynch’s work. Canberra sent her inward imagination into turbo drive, and gave it some shaping in the drama she did at the Stagecoach Theatre, where kids followed their own lead. What the kids brought forth from their untrammelled imaginations were mostly monsters and nightmares. Katz remembers how much it meant to be treated as an equal and to find her imagination respected. She was still going enthusiastically to Stagecoach after five years.

All this resurfaced some years later in the Apocalypse Bears. “There’s really just one Apocalypse Bear,” she reminded me, “but he got to be in a lot of plays.” Then she conceded that “in the end of Lally Katz and the Terrible Mysteries of the Volcano, a whole lot of Apocalypse Bears came out and danced.” This was the play in which Canberra itself was reborn, under its own name, as a tropical island, including “a lot of real Canberra suburbs that had been destroyed in the volcano eruption”.

Volcano was the third play staged by Stuck Pigs Squealing, the theatre company that had presented Katz’s first two triumphs under Chris Kohn’s direction, but this was a problematic play. With a cast of seven it was the biggest and most ambitious thing they’d attempted. It was hard to hold together and Katz was rewriting bits right up to opening night. After that she stopped because the actors wouldn’t let her change anything more.

Volcano had what Katz demurely describes at the top of her voice as “a mixed reception!”. The Malthouse Theatre, in the persons of Stephen Armstrong and Michael Kantor, whose commissions Katz describes as having “changed her life”, decided her work needed quieter starts in its smaller spaces. Did it rein in her exuberance? Not to judge by Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd, a ‘Katz & Kohn creation’, which opened at the Malthouse Theatre in 2009.

Meanwhile, she’d been working with Robyn Nevin at the Sydney Theatre Company. “She’s one of my great heroes.” Katz wrote Neighbourhood Watch for Nevin, after closely studying an octogenarian neighbour from Hungary, Ana, for four years. Katz lived across the road from Ana and her dog, Bella, an Alsatian–Doberman cross who can be savage with smaller creatures, in Melbourne. Leave-taking from Ana turned ugly when Katz threw out an old bathrobe Ana particularly admired. Tensions heightened when wheelie bins were emptied and they found no robe. Katz recalled an invitation to put other stuff in Ana’s wheelie bin. They raced back to Ana’s, up-ended the bin and retrieved the bathrobe. Ana loved the gift and, since Katz is now homeless in Melbourne, invited her to share Bella’s bedroom any night Katz liked.

In the course of rehearsals under Simon Stone’s direction, Neighbourhood Watch has been progressively purged of its more outré presences such as the Apocalypse Bear and the Hope Dolphin. The bit I saw in rehearsal reminded me rather of Patrick White’s suburban dramas, all the more for the enduring presence of Nevin herself, whose acting made those plays classics.

Katz said she was getting more interested in structure now. Some of her earlier imaginings had proved problematic on stage. The Hope Dolphin, for instance, is “sort of hard because it doesn’t really speak or anything. It just appears, in the dishwater, a lawn sprinkler, a toilet flushing, anywhere there’s water, especially domestic water – but if you catch it in your hand it just turns into a cheap dolphin trinket”. In the new plays, the imagining happens through time and memory and identity, more austerely and perhaps more powerfully.

Lally Katz is now workshopping a play based on a personal crisis her father went through when he was 20, which led him to take up karate, well before she was born. Her father, who still reflexively chops and slices the air at home, acts in the play too and keeps calling from the south coast to ask her to cut this or that from his story, but Katz is hanging tough. She also wants this writer to mention a man about whom “I can’t say anything because he doesn’t know that he’s my boyfriend yet and I don’t want to scare him”. She feels a mention in print might help him understand.

A few nights later we were back at Fratelli Fresh and the oldies were out in force. Lizard eyes flickered over our table, distinguished necks twisted imperceptibly. “They hate me!” Lally yelled. “I’m so loud!”

“No they don’t,” I said, “they’re loving it. You’re the floor show.”

And she was. A few more drinks and Lally fixed me in the eye. “I look like Bruce Springsteen!” she croaked at auditorium volume.

She did too. And sounded like him.

Peter Robb
Peter Robb is the author of Midnight in Sicily, which won the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for non-fiction and was named a New York Times Notable Book. His other books include A Death in Brazil (the Age Non-Fiction Book of the Year in 2004) and Street Fight in Naples.

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