Digging Through Sin:
Ally Collier Tunnels Down Underland
Ally Collier’s last play, Take Me Home, literally took place in a New York City taxicab. Modesto Flaco Jimenez, the Brooklyn-born actor who drove around the audience members (only three of us at a time), also has a hack license and has worked behind the wheel of a cab. The play was completely steeped in this city where she’s been living for the past 10 years.
But with Underland, her off-Broadway debut, premiering April 3rd at 59E59, Collier is taking us home in a different way: back to Australia where she’s from. Well, not to Melbourne, where she’s from from, but to the outback—to a dusty cracked-earth town in central Australia, with a quarry and a school and a radio station and seemingly not much else.
Ben Gassman (Rail): I just came across these two diverging ideas of home in something else I was reading that made me think of Underland and you. To roughly paraphrase: 1) you can only be home in the place you learned to play with marbles; 2) I am home in May wherever I am. Where is Ally Collier in May? Where did Underland learn its marbles?
Ally Collier: This play is an Australian play written from a distance. It’s authentic but it’s also an imagined place—somewhere in between the two countries.
Erik Ehn (a playwright and teacher) inspired me to write this Australian play on a silent retreat because he said the original meaning of sin is to be outside of oneself. And I thought: I’m outside of myself everyday, because I live so far from my home country. And because of that, I was like: fuck it, I’m going to write an Australian play, with all Australian characters; I’m going to fully inhabit who I am. And it was so much easier to write than anything else I’d attempted in years—I’d been desperately writing American characters or trying to churn out producible American plays. But this was, for the most part, fun to write.
Rail: It feels like it was so fun to write, especially the dialogue between Violet and Ruth—the two bored, misbehaving, and hormonally pinballing 15-year-old girls smoking cigarettes by the shelter sheds as they try to dig a hole to China and out of their small-town lives without raising their teachers’ suspicion. I love this moment where we start to see a bit of discord in their friendship, where Violet is taking her drawing a bit seriously under the tutelage of Miss Harmony, the new art teacher. And Ruth senses her friend drifting into school seriousness and adult-pleasing and away from their adventures.
Ruth comes over and looks at Violet’s sketchbook for a while.
(Dejected) That’s really good. It looks just like her.
I can’t get the eyes right. Miss Harmony said my paintings were expressively expressive.
What if she and Mr. B got married?
They are not getting married.
And had babies.
GROSS. SHUT UP.
Okay. Okay. (Beat) Hey, do you like sushi?
Don’t be a lezzo. Nobody likes sushi.
I keep laughing out loud here. Fifteen-year-olds are pretty funny and terrible. Their hormones are going bonkers. And their logic is wrong, as it should be.
Collier: The 15-year-olds in this play are so real to me. They don’t feel forced or fake. Their dialogue is that rare thing you hope for when you write—it just tumbles out without you having to force it. It comes from an endless well. I love writing teenage female friendships. Cat’s Eye, Heavenly Creatures, there’s so many of them out there in art—they are so fascinating to look at, filled with hatred and love and desire all entwined in that crucial moment before you become an adult.
Rail: Hatred and love and desire. That mix is there in Ace’s relationship to Ana in Take Me Home. It’s there between the newlywed couple in your play Holy Day,which just had a reading at the Signature. Is this the base recipe of a Collier play?
Collier: I think I’m a writer for whom every project is really different. But if there’s a throughline, it’s dislocation. So, there’s not belonging, or trying to find a way to escape from who you are, or from being in love with someone who’s in some way unavailable—a sense of longing. I think that’s it. A sense of longing. Being here and being a foreigner.
Working on the taxi play, Modesto and I had a lot of conversations, and I literally took the words out of his mouth, with his permission. He told me various stories about being a cabbie and I made the love story, the Ana story.
And I extrapolated a lot and made a mystery. There’s always a missing piece. There’s always a person missing.
Rail: In Underland, there’s this inversion of the missing person. Taka just appears out by the sheds from the hole the girls have been digging. He’s just there speaking Japanese and caring for his Tamagotchi. So, he’s missing from his own life, but very present in the life of the play. Is that a fair reading?
Collier: It’s a bit of a mystery to me why that character emerged from a life in Tokyo, from his urban space through this hole. The hole makes sense to me. The girls are digging a hole to China, but they don’t know where they’re going so it reaches Japan.
Rail: None of my holes ever reached anywhere. I love that it reaches somewhere.
(Talking to his dying Tamagotchi.) I am sorry. Sometimes I walk through life in fog. Never making decisions. First I am born, then I am a child, then I am a man with a job, then I have a wife, then here are children. I don’t remember how these things happened. And so, when I saw it, I saw the hole, I thought: here I am! I woke up. I put my hand in. Most of all, I thought, if I go I can see the sky. That’s all I wanted: to see sky. (Taka slowly tilts his head up to look at the sky.) Sora. [Sky]
Why is sky so big here?
Collier: There’s this thing that happens when you get to Australia. You suddenly realize there’s this huge sky around you. It’s vast. Here, in New York, there’s always an edge to everything. In Australia, even in the city, you can always see beyond.
Rail: What do you want your audience to associate with Australia when they leave the play that they might not have been thinking about before the play?
Collier: A new Australian play is an anomaly in New York. Australian companies will come over and do Ibsen or whatever. But this is a contemporary play about Australia written in the U.S. I’m trying to get people to think about Australian culture differently, or just to think about it at all, really.
The first thing Americans do is quote Crocodile Dundee. All these dated cultural references. They’re 30 years old. Americans love to gleefully quote all those things when they realize you’re Australian.
Rail: I’m just gonna put another shrimp on the barbie.
Collier: Fuck off, mate.
I want them—and you—to see Australia as a place that has a wholly unique cultural perspective, history, and voice. It’s an English speaking country, but that’s about where the similarity starts and ends with America. Australia is weird but gloriously so. We know how to enjoy life down there in a way that Americans haven’t quite figured out with their manic work schedules. It’s not that I’m breaking stereotypes—
Rail: There are crocs.
Collier: Yeah, so to an extent I’m feeding it. I mean there’s a character that is an Australian creature, yes. That’s all I’ll say. But the way the play is getting away from those archaic conceptions is form. I am writing in a way that is experimental and strange, mythic, magic realist, and that echoes the voices and terrain, and I want people to experience that and just really enjoy the bloody hell out of it.
Rail: But you’re from Melbourne. What about your relationship to the outback, to the geography of the play?
Collier: Australians, urban Australians, have long been fascinated with that vast, terrifying, HOT interior. You can’t get across it, not on foot. These two explorers, Burke and Wills, tried to get across it and they literally died a few days before the rescuers got there.
The urban areas, the outback, these are two different worlds all together. So I guess it is a bit like the U.S. in that respect. North and South. Or big cities and then little towns in the middle of nowhere. To have someone from the city come out there brings up a lot of issues, such as people from the city supposedly knowing better, “taking” from the natives.
It’s not even a class thing. It’s more: if you don’t know us, you don’t understand us, you think you’re better than us. Tall Poppy Syndrome.
Rail: An Australianism?
Collier: For when you grow too big for your boots.
Rail: But still there is this desirous curiosity for the foreign. I feel a commingling of fear and want that is always present in your plays. Intimacy can happen very quickly. I’m thinking of the moment in Take Me Home where Ana says goodbye to Ace in the front seat, with us—the passengers, the audience—in the back, as awkward witnesses.
I gotta go. (In Spanish) Goodbye. I love you. She slams the door. Ace swears in Spanish.
(To passengers) What would you say is your biggest weakness?
(Pause) C’mon. Tell me. What’s your biggest flaw.
(Maybe they answer)
All three of us did. And this moment of intimacy, this tell-me-your-fears moment—where Ace, a little heart-broken but with a fare in the back, turns and asks us to share—this feels like something you are after always. Here, it’s so explicit. But in Underland you seem to be urging us to allow our emotional awkwardness, our inadequacies and unknowing, to breathe and escape a little. Is there a therapeutic intent? Am I imagining this?
Collier: I think I feel like we’re all kind of broken and full of longing and embarrassment and desire and insecurities, and if I could reach out to the audience and kiss them on both cheeks to acknowledge that, I would do that with my plays. That doesn’t mean I am a person who writes necessarily with some wholesome motive—I wish!—but I want to be honest and show my failures and for others to see their own fear and fuck-ups and longing in the writing.
IN DIALOGUE was created by Emily DeVoti in October 2001 as a monthly forum for playwrights to engage with other playwrights in print. Since then, over 120 playwrights have been featured. If you are a playwright and would like to write a column, please contact Emily at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Underland, written by Alexandra Collier, directed by Mia Rovegno, runs April 3 – April 25 at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street, Manhattan). It’s produced by terraNOVA Collective. For tickets ($25), call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or go to www.59e59.org.
BEN GASSMAN is a playwright from Queens.
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