VIL­LAGE PEO­PLE

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile - Min­nie & Li­raz

Lally Katz was young and sin­gle when her US-based Jewish grand­par­ents turned their hand to match­mak­ing. It had seemed to work with another grand­child — they had suc­cess­fully paired him with the grand­daugh­ter of a cou­ple liv­ing in the same re­tire­ment vil­lage — and Katz was next.

Un­for­tu­nately, the suitor se­lected was from Sin­ga­pore and it didn’t work out; years later, how­ever, as the play­wright was brain­storm­ing for new ma­te­rial, the ex­pe­ri­ence floated to her mind.

“It was al­ways a re­ally fun fam­ily story,” Katz tells Re­view dur­ing the fi­nal re­hearsals of her new pro­duc­tion, Min­nie & Li­raz, a play that fol­lows sev­eral ec­cen­tric res­i­dents liv­ing to­gether in a Mel­bourne re­tire­ment home.

“My grand­mother match-made my cousin with another lady’s grand­daugh­ter who was in the home, so then later I was like: ‘ Why don’t you match-make me?’ They tried with this guy, this re­ally sweet guy, but he was in Sin­ga­pore so it was a little far away.

“I would stay with my own grand­par­ents in their re­tire­ment vil­lage a lot. I was very, very close to them, and when I was there I was also think­ing, ‘Oh my gosh, there are so many great char­ac­ters here. This is such a great story’ … and when my grand­mother passed away I thought: ‘Oh, I should write this play.’ ”

The pro­duc­tion, a Mel­bourne Theatre Com­pany play com­mis­sioned by the Aus­tralian Writ­ers Guild, re­volves around the events lead­ing up to a na­tional se­niors bridge tour­na­ment at a Caulfield re­tire­ment vil­lage in Mel­bourne’s south­east.

At a “life cel­e­bra­tion” for her for­mer bridge part­ner at the Au­tumn Road Re­tire­ment Vil­lage, re­fined, old-fash­ioned Min­nie is lament­ing her lack of grand­chil­dren, only to be in­ter­rupted by a mo­torised scooter driven by the flam­boy­ant Li­raz.

Min­nie has con­sis­tently re­fused to play bridge with Li­raz — the pair are po­lar opposites — un­til Min­nie is in­tro­duced to Li­raz’s sweet, sightly awk­ward physi­cist grand­son, the per­fect match for her prin­ci­pal grand­daugh­ter.

Though ro­mance is at the play’s heart, Katz says the card game favoured by Aus­tralia’s el­derly also be­came an un­likely breeding ground for dra­matic ma­te­rial.

“(Bridge is) ac­tu­ally so in­tense and the part­ner­ships are so in­tense. If some­one makes a mis­take, the fury af­ter­wards: it’s so full of drama and sub­text,” says the 37-year-old.

“We went to the Kew bridge club while I was writ­ing it, and they were just amaz­ing. They had us play against two ladies and it was fas­ci­nat­ing. When we walked in it was as if we’d walked into a very, very dra­matic play.”

It’s not en­tirely new ground for Katz. The US-born play­wright, who moved from New Jer­sey to Can­berra when she was eight, rose to at­ten­tion on the Aus­tralian arts scene in 2011 with ac­claimed play Neigh­bour­hood Watch, which starred theatre vet­eran Robyn Nevin as el­derly Hun­gar­ian im­mi­grant Ana, who strikes up an un­likely friend­ship with her neigh­bour, a young wo­man called Cather­ine.

In Katz’s new play, she re­turns to sim­i­lar themes, em­pha­sis­ing how in­spi­ra­tional and un­der­used the sto­ries of older peo­ple can be in mod­ern drama.

“I’ve al­ways loved el­derly char­ac­ters, and I think that in our so­ci­ety we don’t spend all that much time with the el­derly, and they have such an in­ter­est­ing story to tell. They’ve been them­selves now for so many years, so they make such strong char­ac­ters,” says Katz.

“I think it’s so im­por­tant to tell women sto­ries and not just like the 20-some­thing girls … I just loved writ­ing about the el­derly. To me, I thought: re­tire­ment vil­lage. That’s a re­ally fun set­ting. There’s so much drama there and peo­ple just say the fun­ni­est stuff.”

The play was com­mis­sioned by one of Katz’s big­gest fans, me­dia ex­ec­u­tive Kim Wil­liams.

The for­mer News Corp Aus­tralia chief ex­ec­u­tive, who has been a keen pro­moter of the arts for many years, awarded Katz the com­mis­sion through the guild, giv­ing her the free­dom to de­velop it with a theatre com­pany of her choice. Katz says she sat on the com­mis­sion for two years, as she tried to de­cide what would be the best thing to write about.

“I couldn’t make up my mind,” Katz writes in the pro­gram notes. “And fi­nally it was get­ting too em­bar­rass­ing see­ing Kim Wil­liams at events when I still owed him a play so I had to write it. And then my grand­par­ents passed away and I re­alised it had to be this play.”

In the ti­tle roles, MTC has cast Nan­cye Hayes, who has dom­i­nated Aus­tralian mu­si­cal theatre for more than five decades, Bri­tishAus­tralian ac­tress Sue Jones, most re­cently known for her role in the ABC com­edy Up­per Mid­dle Bo­gan and Win­ners & Losers’ Vir­ginia Gay.

The pre­miere of Min­nie & Li­raz will be the first of two pre­mieres by Katz to hit the Aus­tralian stage this year. At­lantis, a semi-au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal play fea­tur­ing five women act­ing dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters through­out Lally’s life — her grand­par­ents in­cluded — will pre­miere at the Belvoir theatre in Syd­ney in Oc­to­ber, round­ing off an in­cred­i­bly busy few years for the play­wright as she has ex­tended into tele­vi­sion and film.

Her one-wo­man show Sto­ries I Want to Tell You in Per­son (di­rected orig­i­nally by An­neLouise Sarks, the no­table dra­maturge who is also di­rect­ing Min­nie & Li­raz) was adapted for tele­vi­sion and aired on the ABC last year.

She is also head­ing to Los An­ge­les soon to sit in the writ­ers room and con­trib­ute to a new com­edy pi­lot.

It’s a pro­fes­sional whirl­wind, which Katz is happy to be at the cen­tre of. “I hope this year to do a com­bi­na­tion, TV and film and theatre.” she says. “This is my dream.”

opens at Mel­bourne Theatre Com­pany on May 18. Re­view’s Bridge col­umn ap­pears on Page 35.

THE EL­DERLY MAKE SUCH STRONG CHAR­AC­TERS LALLY KATZ

Play­wright Lally Katz hopes to jug­gle stage, film and TV this year

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