Lally Katz has bad habits. When she knows she has a play to write, she cleans the house. Then she goes to the fruit shop and does some general life admin just to kill time. She used to drink endless cups of green tea to help her focus but she quit that habit when she realised the caffeine was making her feel perpetually anxious (she kept thinking people in the street were trying to fight her).
Yet somehow, in between urgent fruit purchases and domestic duties, Katz manages to write, and write well. In 2011, three of her plays premiered on main stages across Australia. She’s collected numerous awards locally and internationally. Her one-woman show, Stories I Want to Tell You in Person, closed at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre in late August and the Sydney premiere of Return To Earth opened just last night at Griffin Theatre Company.
Directed by former Griffin Studio resident director Paige Rattray (The Sea Project, Cut Snake), Return To Earth tells the story of Alice (Shari Sebbens), a young woman who returns home after years of contactless, unexplained absence. Tracking Alice’s reintegration into the familiar community from which she’s been estranged, the play is about family, forgiveness and the process of reconnecting.
Like a lot of Katz’s work, Return To Earth melds fiction with autobiography. Katz wrote the play in 2006 as an expression of how she was feeling during the famed ‘Saturn’s Return’ period of her late 20s. Alice’s story was inspired by Katz’s own experience of visiting her parents in Tathra – the sleepy south coast town where the play is set – and the feeling of rebirth she experienced during the trip. “I was amongst really amazing nature and everything was really bright. It was this feeling like ‘I’ve just come to the world… I haven’t been here before.’”
While Katz created Alice’s character as an expression of herself, basing characters on real life has sometimes led the playwright into trouble. “My dad wasn’t thrilled with his character,” says Katz, who explains that while the parents in Return To Earth may have similar language patterns and traits to her own, generous creative license was used in their realisation.
It’s this ability to imagine the extraordinary from the ordinary that got Katz through the hospitality shifts that helped her make ends meet as a writer in her 20s. Rather than disdain the work, Katz loved the exposure it gave her to different types of people. “Everything has always felt interesting,” she says. “Everywhere you go there are characters and stories.”
While Katz may have no problem finding inspiration, she admits that the process of writing can be a struggle. “I love writing, but like most writers I’m always on the run from it,” she says. “When I’m not writing I’m like, ‘Oh, I love writing. I can’t wait until it’s time to write again’. And then when it’s time, I just hate it.
“It’s very easy to start doubting stuff as you’re writing it,” says Katz, “but when you have a deadline you can’t do that. You just sort of have to begin and feel what you’re writing.” As a result, almost all of her work is produced at the last minute, including Return To Earth, which was written over four days and changed only minimally from its first draft.
Once renowned for her inability to relinquish creative control (sitting in on rehearsals and sneakily trying to influence the production), Katz has had very little to do with Griffin’s upcoming production. However, she’s excited to see how her work is realised by director Paige Rattray. “You always live and die with every performance of your work,” says Katz. “I’m always nervous, no matter what.”
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