“Take your work seriously and invest in yourself.” Suzie Miller on her unconventional journey to becoming a playwright and “The Mathematics of Longing”

Hot Chicks with Big Brains: Please can you tell us a bit about how your career began?

Suzie Miller: I’m probably the most unusual playwright because I began in law and science. I finished my degrees in these areas in Melbourne and Sydney, then moved to London and did some theatre work. After that I returned to Sydney where I worked as a human rights lawyer in children’s rights and indigenous rights and in public interest law. I studied theatre at university, went to NIDA to do the Playwrights’ studio, and thenBANG! I was into making work.

My first play transferred to the Sydney Opera House, so it all felt very easy—it’s the slog of being an established playwright in Australia that’s hard. I juggled part-time law and writing for a few years. When I had to make the choice, the National Theatre in London offered me a residency. So the choice was made, and I have never looked back.

I note that my first ever play had a dedication to the Teletubbies—as a woman writer with children, the only way I was able to complete that play was to have some time with the children before the television.

HCwBB: Outside of work, what are some of your favourite things to do?

SM: I love walking my dog Billie and spending time by the sea or in the bush. I read all the time. I often have a range of books on the go at the same timea few novels, a couple of plays, a science book, a book of essays, and one of poetry. I also love spending time painting and visiting galleries. But, mostly, just hanging out with friends and having those wonderful, philosophical conversations about life and relationships.

HCwBB: How do you manage your time?

SM: I think the discipline of law really pushed me into shape for being a writer and juggling time.

I also had two small kids when I became a playwrightactually, I had a newborn while I was at NIDAand so I quickly learned to use odd hours, and to write despite everything going on around me.

I have these ideas that I’m desperate to write, and I let them brew in my head for some time until the moment arrives. It’s kind of like alchemy. I have to just give over to it and write like crazy, ignoring all else. I can stay up for days on end and finish a first draft because I just need to. It makes for an erratic mother, but I have been blessed with hyper concentration and when I’m in the zone I just cannot write fast enough. I have the most supportive family, and my kids have been brought up in dressing rooms, at tech runs, and as theatre rats.

I do very strongly believe in time to replenish and being firmly in the physical realm as a way of grounding myself. I also love to paint, which is about being creative and contemplative. A good swim and a walk also actually makes me more productive, and settles my ideas into something that has form.

HCwBB: Can you tell us about The Mathematics of Longing and how it came to be?

SM: I always dreamt of finding a way in the metaphorical world of theatre, a place drenched in subtext, fluent in movement, with character as story, and offering an emotionally charged space, a state of suspended disbelief, to forge a connection between theatre and mathematics.

My passion is to translate, if you will, the beauty of maths and physics into something visceral, narrative, human, and ‘emotional’, if I dare.

The Mathematics of Longing is an expression of that desire to merge two of my worldstwo of my ways of seeingand to invite everyone to share the wonder of mathematics in a completely different and experiential environment. It’s also very much about uncertainty, not just the physics theory of the Uncertainty principle, but uncertainty as it comes up close and personal, opening up possibilities, emotional journeys, tears, laughter, sadness, and joy in human lives.

HCwBB: While working on The Mathematics of Longing, what did a typical day look like for you?

SM: Reading mathematics and philosophy to start with, then reading poetry for a long time. It was a bit of a brain explosion. I would talk to whoever would listen to me about what I was discovering.

Ultimately, I had to sit down for weeks on end and just write.

I would start in the morning and then have the afternoons off but then in the nights, after everyone had gone to bed, I would find some great hours to write. I did eat a lot of chocolate. My dad was alive when I began the project, and it was a joy to talk to him about it all. He was my maths person, and my soul mate in all things sciencey. He was an engineer, so he was all about maths. Not so much theatre though! I lost my dad last year and those conversations, while not in person, are still in my head. I still talk to him about it all.

HCwBB: Can you give us a highlight and a lowlight (if there was one) from your time spent working on The Mathematics of Longing? How did you work through the tough period?

SM: My dad passed away in the middle of writing the play. That was the hardest point. I wasn’t sure how a play that was so connected to him could go forward. But it did, and I did. The highlight was during the developments at La Boîtethe HWY program. I was in a room with artists who needed me to explain the maths and the physics, and it allowed me to ‘translate’ the brain drain into something about narrative, character, and story. From there, the theatricality was plugged in and I could feel the play—feel the theatricality emerging in the work.

HCwBB: What’s something you wish more people knew about being a playwright?

SM: That it’s really hard work. It’s lonely and self-doubting at times, and there are times where you’re feeling your way through the dark and unknown. Also, that you give up so much to be a playwright and a play takes a lot of time, energy, and life to come about.

That you give up time with your children and partner, you sacrifice holidays and incomeit’s not well paidand you do it for the passion and the love of wanting to tell a story, to share ideas, and to be part of something greater than just oneself.

The desire to connect to an audience, the love of actors and what they do, the delight when the set, lights, and sound come to it—that makes it a truly magical job.

HCwBB: What advice would you give to a young person who wishes to pursue a career as a playwright?

SM: Do not take no for an answer. Learn your craft. When you finish a draft, find a dramaturg and pay if you have to so that you can move your draft forward. Take your work seriously and invest in yourself. Work your day job to make this investment. Work fast and always. Support other writers. Find directors who you love to work with and establish long term relationships with them. Always value your actors. Give back. Know that the theatre industry is one of the most beautiful communities in the universe. Enjoy it, and be part of it.

HCwBB: Who are some of the women you admire most and why?

SM: I admire strong and passionate women, and women who can combine their political and human rights advocacy with art. Eve Ensler is a fighter, a woman of great intelligence and capacity. Her commitment to women and the fight for women’s power is inspiriting. She has set up a city in the Congo for women who are recovering from sexual assault experienced in war time—a city of hope. I’m also a huge admirer of Caryl Churchill, because she writes about the politics of the world in a unique way.

Outside of theatre, I find women who are prepared to fight for what they believe in, to argue strongly in spite of the criticism they have thrown at them, to be real role models.

So, too, do I admire women who are aware that it is about turning around in moments of power and helping the women coming up behind them to the fore—that the worst thing women can do is to compete with and deride each other.

Destroying the self-esteem or the power of other women is not the way forward. It is the patriarchy which turns us against each other and makes us scramble against each other, ultimately taking our power away from us.

I also admire my mother who is 83, almost blind and deaf, yet filled with so much passion and love of life. She reads every day by listening to audiobooks, and she values her friends and her people. My young, 15-year-old daughter is also a woman I admire. She is so fiercely her own person and, although she is modest and quiet, she offers such pure kindness to those who need it. There is a strength and power in that kindness, and I am always moved by how easily she offers it.

HCwBB: What’s next for you?

SM: I have some new works in development: one with Red Stitch Theatre Company in Melbourne, one with the Melbourne Theatre Company, and another that I am working on in London. There’s a play of mine on tour in Scotland at the moment, another gearing up for an Australian national tour in 2019, and I’m heading to LA this year to take up on some film work. I’m very excited about this periodI feel that this generation of women are experiencing a revolution in terms of women’s voices being heard and their stories being valued. I’m so glad that I am able to be part of it all.

Don’t miss out on tickets to La Boîte’s The Mathematics of Longing, running from 2nd to 23rd June!


Images provided by La Boîte Theatre Company

Compiled and Edited by Emma Kate Lewis

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