I’ve admired Lally Katz’s anarchic but gently optimistic view of the world ever since I saw Neighbourhood Watch at Belvoir in 2011. There was something unique, something indescribably wonderful about the play that captured something that is the experience of theatre-going for me. Since then, I’ve tried to read and or see as many of her plays as possible (with varying degrees of success) to try and see how everything fits into this Katzian world she’s created across the Australian theatrical landscape in the past decade.
The story of Stories I Want To Tell You In Person began at Belvoir following the success of Neighbourhood Watch. Commissioned to write a new play for them, Katz decided to write about the global financial crisis, something she confesses she knew nothing about. Having spent her commission on seeing various fortune tellers and psychics in
(numerous times), she wrote the play in twenty-four hours and sent it off.
After feeling like Theatre had dumped her in the gutter, quite literally it
seems, Katz had an idea that perhaps all was not lost. And what seems like
perhaps one of the most perilous undertakings for any creative – to explain
where their ideas come from – has become a quite surreal and deliciously
entertaining seventy-five minute piece of theatre in Belvoir’s tiny downstairs
space. New York
It’s essentially Lally Katz having a conversation with us, the audience, for the duration. And for the most part, it works wonderfully. She tells the story of growing up in New Jersey, then Canberra, of trying to fit in, of her early theatre works, her two essential ingredients for writing a play (the Apocalypse Bear and the Hope Dolphin), and her various relationships, passions, successes and critical failures. Katz, it seems, is a compulsive storyteller, obsessively so, and cannot write about an event unless she’s lived it, captured it in her head and then seemingly transcribed it (the story of seeing Neighbourhood Watch with the real Ana is quite beautiful, and captures the wonderful meta-theatrical nature of this show.) Here, in the ninety-three-seat Downstairs Theatre, there is nowhere to hide and, standing in front of a shimmering gold curtain, Katz embodies the old adage “the show must go on,” as indeed it must.
At it’s heart, intertwined with the idea of storytelling, is the idea of magic, of believing in it, and of trying to make it last, trying to make sure it doesn’t disappear on you. Part of the magic of this production is the way in which Katz just talks about herself – not so much her characters, although they do appear as they naturally must, being extensions of her own life – but about herself and her life, her ups and downs, her work, her adventures, the many bizarre things she’s done and said and been a part of. And it’s a terribly brave thing to do, to get up in front of an audience every night and talk about yourself, to open yourself to them and ask them to laugh at you, with you, about you, to be there on the journey with you as you tell them your life. And for the most part, it works. However, the piece still has an episodic feel to it, and I’m not sure whether it’s the writing, the direction (by Anne-Louise Sarks, which is quite subtle and restrained, and almost quite invisible), or some kind of combination of the two. It feels a bit like an episodic documentary, maybe a web-series of five-or-ten minute short films, ‘Being Lally Katz’ I imagine they’d be called, with the joinery still showing, not quite hidden or as clever as it could be. Part of it is deliberate, too, to say ‘look, we’re telling a story here that jumps six or eight months of time so the only easiest way to do that is to draw attention to it, to make it clear that we’ve changed location and time.’ And fair enough. But for Katz to have to keep saying ‘Now I’m in Australia/Mississippi/Canberra/New York/wherever,’ seems a bit too heavy-handed and obvious, too contrived, for the production’s otherwise quite free-wheeling style.
And as is typical with any of Katz’s work, there is self-deprecation by the bucket-load, but it’s never malicious or cruel, but rather makes light of her inconsistencies and her contradictions; her humanness, as it were. Sarks talks about this in her program notes, saying “I often see a little bit of myself [on stage]. And I think you might too.” For much of the play – if you could even call it that; I prefer to simply call it a conversation – you get the impression that what Katz is doing is peeling away part of the mysticism that surrounds the process of making theatre, deconstructing the magic at the same time as perpetuating it. For underneath her hyper-energetic and wildly optimistic outlook, you could argue that she’s been hiding in plain sight, and this is where she reveals her hand, shows you what she’s all about. “People see her as a kind of wacky young woman who is being self-deprecating and isn’t very clever,” Sarks said in The Weekend Australian. “But that doesn’t add up. She’s ambitious and incredibly perceptive. You don’t get to where you are by accidentally stumbling there.”
As for the magic, I won’t spoil it for you. But by the end of it, it’s pretty hard not to be laughing with the rest of the audience, to not have been caught by Katz’s infectious enthusiasm and optimism; to not be a convert to the World of Katz. And maybe, just maybe, the Apocalypse Bear will make an appearance.
Fn: For another dose of Lally Katz's work in
this year, Griffin Theatre Company are staging Return To
Earth with Arthur, a theatre company, in September as part of
their Independent season. Sydney
Theatre playlist: 8. NY Psycho Freylekhs, The Klezmatics