Prayers to Broken Stone – An Interview with Matthew Sini

Boutique Theatremelbourne, prayers, season 2017

Prayers to Broken Stone is Boutique Theatre’s newest work, being produced for Melbourne Fringe Festival 2017.  A family saga told in a darkly comedic way, the story opens in the moments before the world ends, and spins backwards through a series of bizarre family gatherings that lead up to it, filled with all of the tensions, secrets and scrabble games you might expect.  Eleanor Boydell, Associate Producer, chats with Playwright and Co-Director Matthew Sini about inspirations, methods, apocalyptic ideations and more.

What was your inspiration for Prayers to Broken Stone? How long have you been working on this story?

This idea has been ticking around in my head for a while. It started life as a short story, but then as I developed it, I knew it had to be on stage. I’ve always wanted to do a family drama with a dark, comedic edge. And I have always been fascinated by the end of the world. Not necessarily the various ways the world can end so much as the various ways we would respond to it.

From what I’ve seen in rehearsals, the story definitely works well when brought to life by the actors!

You’re currently Head of Writing with Boutique Theatre, and your debut full-length work Madame Bast was produced by the company last year.  Tell us a little more about your writing practice.

It’s unromantic, to be honest. My process is just one word after the other, one sentence after the other, one scene after the other. I don’t believe in waiting for inspiration to start something or complete it, I believe in plodding through. I usually begin with something that just pops into my head (a scene, a phrase, an image), but beyond that the process isn’t mysterious. Writing is work. Writing well is laborious, often tedious. And sometimes after all that tedium you mightn’t even get something viable. I’m very much about doing the work rather than thinking about doing the work. The beauty of writing for theatre is you’re never really done writing…if you really lean into the process, that is. It’s great to have the opportunity to continue to shape and hone your work with others by your side.

Speaking of method and style: Prayers is a story told in reverse – the opening scene is the last in the sequence of the story, and the audience always know just a little more than the characters. But how did the story develop for you? Was it sequentially written and then chopped and changed, or was this structure part of it from the beginning?

It was always a non-sequential structure, with the chronology a bit jumbled up initially. Then I made the decision to tell the story backwards. I had a rather stubborn desire to try to do something different with the “pre-apocalyptic” genre. These kinds of narratives often have the same ending…THE ending of literally everything, so choosing reverse chronology as a storytelling technique was a way to bypass the genre’s impositions. The second reason was because I didn’t really want to make the show “about” the apocalypse. It’s really about something else (I’m not going to spoil what specifically, you’ll have to see the show to find out), and the end of the world is there to contextualise that and sharpen what the show is trying to say.

Talk to us about the experience of seeing your writing come to life at the hands of the actors and your co-Director.

It’s exciting to see actors and other creatives interpret your words in their own way, or find depths or motivations in characters that you may not have consciously been aware of. I’m not too precious when it comes to this stuff: I expect and encourage actors to take ownership of their characters. Writing for performance is unique in that the playwright begins the work, and the actors, directors, and other creatives complete it. Having said that, all writing is collaborative to some extent. Writing isn’t as solitary an endeavour as we’re led to believe. Other people always help you make these things. Even if you write something that has no official collaborators, like a novel or a short story, the piece is “completed” by readers. And even if it has no readers, someone out there has helped you, through inspiration or support, whether you (or they) know it or not.

You’ve got a lot of ideas about the context and backdrop for this story, many of which haven’t made it into the final script.  What are some of the things you think might happen if all of humanity knew the end of the world was imminent?

Kenny, the youngest son character in the play, says the words “no tomorrow, no consequences” a couple of times, suggesting that you could probably do anything you wanted and get away with it. While I think a lot of people would do this because rule of law would be meaningless, most people would probably either not believe it was going to happen, or they would spend their last days and hours with their family. A plethora of responses would be likely, from the irrational to the resigned and I’ve tried to mine some of these for dramatic potential.

What can audiences expect from Prayers to Broken Stone?

Despite it being about the end of the world, it leans more towards comedy than drama. As I said earlier, there would probably be a whole host of responses to the imminent end of everything we know and love, but it’s also likely that many of these responses would be ridiculous and farcical. Prayers to Broken Stone explores that through the family dynamic, and our cast has worked so incredibly well to cohere as a family unit. Some of the things audiences can expect: great acting, lots of music from Queen, suicidal apocalyptic cult member comedy, twerking, incest gags, intergenerational and interracial lesbian relationships, a bit of blood, and of course, comets coming to kill us all.

Prayers to Broken Stone is showing at Gasworks Arts Park from 12-23 September.  Head to the show page for full detail and tickets.