Sunday, 10 June 2012

Tribute to Jill Shearer (1936-2012)

Jill Shearer, who passed away on 6 May, was an important Australian playwright, living in Brisbane. 

Jill's plays were produced all over the world, and on Broadway (Shimada, 1992, directed by Simon Phillips and starring Ben Gazzara, Estelle Parsons, Ellen Burstyn and Mako). She was, I think, the first Australian woman to have a play on Broadway.  

She had a long relationship with La Boite Theatre Company - over the years the company has produced, I think, four or five of her plays. La Boite hosted a fond memorial tribute to Jill last Sunday. 

There was no one like Jill Shearer. I didn’t know her well, but I do know how important she was to the community of artists in Brisbane, and well beyond. She was a genuine inspiration.

I first met her when I was working for Queensland Theatre Company in the early 1990s. The company had just produced Shimada, and we were then developing her new play The Family. She was already something of a legend by then, of course. I was a young director at the time, and learned much from wrestling with Jill’s fierce mind and absolute sense of integrity. Jill had guts.

Jill was a pioneer, in a quite complex way. She wrote around 25 plays from about 1972 onwards. She began writing when the professional theatre barely existed – her early theatres were amateur theatres such as the Villanova Players, Brisbane Arts Theatre, Sunnybank Rep, and the then pro-am La Boite. 

Here was an artist who was deeply curious about the world, and who deeply cared. Look at her subjects. Her 1975 play The Foreman depicts attitudes to a successful Aboriginal worker in white society. Shimada deals with the complex cultural and economic relationship between Japan and Australia. Both deal with how we think of labour in society. The Family deals with how the Queensland Fitzgerald Inquiry and police corruption impacts on family. Her more recent Candi Bentar is about an Australian couple on a second honeymoon in Bali, the week before the Bali bombings. It was probably the first Australian play framed by that terrorist attack. One of her more personal plays, I suspect, was Georgia, about the later years of American painter Georgia O’Keeffe, who lived to the age of ninety-eight, and who goes blind and battles with her ability to make art. Jill similarly battled with illness during the last two decades of her life.

She dealt with these subjects in brave and inventive ways: the use of Kabuki in Shimada and of the patterns of Greek tragedy in The Family; the dreamscapes of Georgia and the Balinese dance forms and mysticism of Candi Bentar.

It’s a legacy of work quite unlike anyone else’s.

I last saw her at a Glugs lunch a little while back here in Brisbane. I hadn’t seen her for ages, but we immediately got into a lively discussion on theatre and the world in the mid-February heat of Paddington's Kookaburra CafĂ©. Our conversation turned briefly to her Broadway experience. It was, we all know, both exciting and horrifying. Shimada was crucified in the New York media, for all sorts of complex reasons. And I mean crucified. She struck up a particular friendship with one of her very starry cast, Estelle Parsons. After a farewell lunch at Parsons’ rambling house, with plates of spaghetti, pasta and salad scattered, Jill placed a small gift and a piece of paper in Parsons’ hand. It was a poem she’d written:
After the blow fell,
No matter how or why.
Slid upon us
Descended. Black. Engulfing.
The walking wounded
Gathered flowers and cards,
tottered off to scratch
and worry open wounds.
Two… the actress,
the playwright
propped up each other
in the days that ran,
heavy with mutterings,
Talked up the empty times.
In friendship
Helped rebuild the castle
That lies within –
At once… strong
At once… delicate.
Women can do this.
And…we do. We did.
Jill did this all her life. She was constantly building and rebuilding the castle that lay within her formidable self. She was, at once, both strong and delicate. She did these things for herself, and for all those who came after.  

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