01 November 2010

Me and Robert McKee: Playing with the Realities of the Real and the Written

Me and Robert McKee playwright Greg McGee on rugby, writing and his latest play ...

Born in 1950 in the South Island town of Oamaru, Greg grew up in a working-class family who never went to theatre. At Otago University he studied law. He was regarded as one of the top rugby players of his generation, twice trialling for the All Blacks. Tall and rangy, Greg has a genuine modesty.

Me and Robert McKee

DOTW: McGee interviews always seem to start with rugby so why should we be different? Your career was kicked off (pun intended) by Foreskin’s Lament, a play about rugby, New Zealand culture and generational conflict and that captured the zeitgeist of the time (1981 and the Springbok Tour).  Central to the play is the conflict between ‘intellectuals’ and rugby supporters.

GG: Those were the days. There was a period when anyone with pretensions to an intellect wouldn’t admit to having anything to do with rugby. When I reviewed Chris Laidlaw’s book Somebody Stole My Game for Metro magazine, I talked a little bit about how the attitudes to rugby in the general populace have changed. Rugby is now part of the entertainment matrix and rugby players are now celebrities, whereas in the old days you couldn’t actually be an intellectual and have an interest in rugby. It was very hard to do that and rugby was hated by a lot of the middle-class liberals.

DOTW: It was war.

GG: You know everyone was out on the streets protesting against Apartheid and so on, but there was also a huge anti-rugby sentiment there because rugby was perceived to be rural at a time when the rural marginals were perceived to be holding the urban seats to ransom through the first-past-the-post electoral system. It was rural, red-neck, misogynist and kind of Muldoonist, because the Rugby Union seemed to be in cahoots with Muldoon in refusing to be bound by the Gleneagles Agreement so I think the urban liberals associated rugby with all those really kind of prehistoric attitudes.

DOTW: You were a long-haired rugby player when a lot of your peers still wore ties and blazers.

GG: There was also an intergenerational thing going on. By the mid-seventies it was all afros and beads and everything changed so quickly. But for the few years before that, the fight between young and old was at its most terrible. The Tour was a touch-stone for that conflict as well.

DOTW: When and why did you start writing?

GG: At primary school, actually. I started filling exercise books. I’m not sure why.

DOTW: In the play Me and Robert McKee, the character Billy says writers are paid to tell lies.

GG:  I started early. I remember telling a tall tale or two at morning talk. I once told the class that my father used to let me back the van out of the garage in the morning, and it must have sounded plausible. My mother got a call from the teacher asking what was going on.

DOTW: Was school a positive experience?

GG: Yes, but it can’t have been all positive. As a five-year old, I ran away from Casa Nova School in Oamaru. The headmaster saw me escaping out the gate and sent the whole of Standard Four after me. We lived a kilometre away from school and it must have been a sight – this big group of kids tearing down the highway chasing me all the way home.

DOTW: The art and craft of writing is a strong thread through Me and Robert McKee.  It features Billy, a writer who teaches a writing course, and his best friend Mac, a banker and would-be producer. Mac offers Billy a screenplay to write. However the offer is not all it seems. What was the play’s genesis?

GG: I saw the bourgeoning popularity of writing courses and thought, how can I put a stop to that waste? How can I persuade more people to take up something useful, like merchant banking? Seriously, the impetus for particular stories comes from a myriad of elements, but in this case I saw – or heard - these two characters very clearly, and they seemed to have a lot to say to one another!

DOTW: Billy talks about the terror of the blank page. He makes writing sound difficult.

GG: Writing isn’t difficult. Everyone does it. Writing something worth a damn is extraordinarily difficult. As Billy says in the play – “Anyone can write…Writing is the great free market of artistic expression. There’s no prohibitive overheads, you just need pen and paper. There’s no professional organisation you have to join before you’re allowed to do it, no exams to pass, no subs to pay, no fees, no licence. It’s open slather. Entirely self-regulatory. You can do whatever you please. Like banking.”

DOTW: Billy talks about the importance of listening for a writer. What do you mean?

GG: When Billy talks about the importance of listening, he’s not talking about having an ear for dialogue, though you do need that as well. Excuse me for quoting my own play again, but Billy says it better than I could: “You won't write anything worth a damn unless you learn to listen. Unless you learn to open the channels. And pray that in that moment of quiescence, that moment of acute calm, Someone will speak to you. A character. And tell you things that you never knew you knew. A story. Everything - everything - depends on the authenticity of that voice. Character is destiny: destiny is story.”

DOTW: Who is Robert McKee?

GG: This is what Wikipedia says about the man who is probably the ultimate screenplay guru:

Robert McKee, born 1941, is a creative writing instructor who is widely known for his popular "Story Seminar", which he developed when he was a professor at the University of Southern California. McKee is the author of a "screenwriters' bible" called Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting. Many of Hollywood’s active screenwriters claim him as an inspiration. Rather than simply handling "mechanical" aspects of fiction technique such as plot or  dialogue taken individually, McKee examines the narrative structure of a work and what makes the story compelling or not.

DOTW: How do you feel about the play?

GG: I really like this play on the page, the way it combines humour and emotion and plays with the realities of the real and the written. And I think it’s very theatrical, without being physical theatre, but the leap from the page to the stage is the big test and, as always, it’s both exciting and terrifying. I’m very grateful to have Conrad Newport at the helm and Chris and Paul bringing it to life.

Me and Robert McKee opens in Circa Two on November 6. For tickets, call the Circa Box Office at 801-7992 or go online at www.circa.co.nz.

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