Joanna Murray-Smith Winner, 2016 Mona Brand Award 

Headshot of Joanna Murray-Smith

Joanna Murray-Smith

Joanna Murray-Smith - Winner, Mona Brand Award 2016

Judges' Comments

Mona Brand, who also produced work under her married name Alexis Fox, was a formidable playwright, as well as an accomplished poet and social activist. She was better known overseas than in Australia; indeed her autobiography (published when she was 80) was cheekily entitled Enough Blue Sky: The Autobiography of Mona Brand, an Unknown, Well‐known Playwright.

It is fitting, therefore, that the inaugural Mona Brand Award should go to a writer who has principally devoted herself to writing for the stage and whose work is as well known internationally as it is in Australia. The inaugural recipient of the Mona Brand Award is Joanna Murray‐Smith.

Joanna Murray‐Smith is responsible for a broad array of work as a playwright, novelist, poet and screenwriter. Her stage work, including more than 15 published plays, has been widely performed in Australia and extensively overseas.

Joanna’s plays have been nominated for many awards, including the Olivier and the Susan Blackburn Award, and she has won Premier’s Literary Awards for drama three times (NSW and Victoria). Her plays have been performed or directed by leading actors and directors from all over the world, including Meryl Streep, Laura Linney, Sir Trevor Nunn and Dame Eileen Atkins. She was a Vice Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Melbourne in 2012 and 2013 and has been awarded the Commonwealth Medal for Services to Playwriting.

Her works are marked by a singular voice which imbues strength of character in all the personalities who populate her work in vivid, memorable, beautifully written pieces. Her works challenge, amuse, inspire and deliver unforgettable theatre which has drawn the attention of directors and theatre companies, critics and audiences, internationally.

Her most recent major theatre work, Switzerland (2014), is an evocative piece, imagined as if from the mind’s eye of the brilliant, dark, curmudgeonly crime writer Patricia Highsmith. It has been performed by the Sydney Theatre Company, Melbourne Theatre Company and Geffen Playhouse to huge audience and critical acclaim.

Joanna’s other creative writing demonstrates her assured technique and capacity to deliver works of value which reflect exceptional craft, creative versatility and imagination: as a novelist (TruceJudgement Rock and Sunnyside); in diverse screen works including the Ben Lewin–directed feature film Georgia, starring Judy Davis, and a wide variety of television dramas; and in her librettos for Opera Australia: Love in the Age of Therapy (2002) and the much celebrated television opera The Divorce (2015).

The judges were unanimous in selecting Joanna Murray‐Smith for the inaugural Mona Brand Award. Through the scope of her output, the beauty and range of her craft, the courage and adventure in her subject matter, the curiosity and insight in her characters, and imaginative storytelling, she has delivered an awesomely impressive body of work. We believe that Joanna’s selection is consistent with that sense of quest and difference which characterised the donor and honouree of the Mona Brand Award.

Joanna's acceptance speech

Firstly I would like to thank the Mona Brand and her executors, the State Library of NSW and the judges for bestowing this award. Kim Williams has been hugely supportive of me in the past, sponsoring Switzerland at the STC and without whom that play might not have happened. It’s a huge thrill to be here. I’d also like to thank my husband Raymond, who is here this evening and who has championed me throughout my writing life. Thank you Ray.  And congratulations to Jada and Billie for their prize and commendation.

It has taken me a very long time to realise that the rocket fuel for a writing life is the ego, which is prepared to go back into the boxing ring over and over and over again, stumbling punch-drunk towards the next idea, the next play, the next figment. The bruises help you learn. The blows are difficult to endure. But in the end, it’s not a choice. You do it reflexively because you have to do it. Whether or not you do it well or badly, optimism will go into battle every time with your vulnerability. And at the very last moment, when you are determined to abandon the creative life, the faith will deliver a knock-out blow to the doubt.  ‘God, this is the one! This is the one!...” You find yourself back in front of the page… until next time.

It’s not a chosen life. So there is a little part of every writer, I think, that wonders if they deserve an accolade, since they are only doing what they have to do. That brutal moment when you see the work on stage and watch it with an audience always comes as a surprise: in the writing process you deliberately forget this moment will come and that amnesia is your only weapon in being revelatory and honest. You would never be that honest if you held this moment in your mind.

As the great journalist Janet Malcolm observed: "Poets and novelists and playwrights make themselves, against terrible resistances, give over what the rest of us keep safely locked within our hearts."

The writer, more than the critic or the commentator or the audience member, understands that their talent is a subjective thing, ephemeral, unreliable. It shifts from play to play, from matinee to evening performance, from scene to scene. Watching your own play is a 90 minute collage of every compliment and every rejection you’ve ever had, personal and professional. It’s an intense tally of everything you like and loathe about yourself.  For every moment you thrill to the achievement, there is the whisper: There is always a better writer. And for playwrights in particular, there is always Chekhov, sitting on your shoulder saying in an attractive Russian accent: “Why are you bothering?”

Which is all to say that after decades of teaching yourself – which playwrights in this country have to do -- the affirmation of others is powerful and wonderful and transformative. It’s a mighty ignition to the next chapter of a writing life. It’s a safety deposit box of love and hope, to withdraw from in a life with very few other resources.

I’m hugely indebted to Mona Brand and her family. Reading about her life, I was astonished at the connections. Her father worked on the ship that serviced lighthouses – a ship I went on many times as a child who holidayed on an uninhabited island in Bass Strait. Mona’s left wing and journalistic past shared many aspects of my father and mothers’ own past.

(I’m so sad I can’t call my mother and say: “Did you know Mona Brand? Tell me about her!” She would have had all sorts of interesting insights, I’m sure and she would  have been so thrilled by the prize.)

But perhaps that is where the similarities between Mona and I end. Mona was born in the early 1900s, a female playwright at a time when, astonishingly, the cultural landscape was dominated by the idea of the “male wunderkind”, a time when women were discounted from a mystery and majesty of creative genius. In those days, a young ferociously intelligent woman would never get an Artistic Directorship of a major company, though young men were hailed as “discoveries”. In those days, astonishingly, politicians were almost never seen at the theatre. The Attorney General and Federal Arts Minister might meet one of the few consistently produced international female playwrights and not know who they are whereas nowadays… Well… how could I possibly relate?…

This is, perhaps, a political award from a woman who lived a political life, but in a writer’s life there is really no separation between the personal and the professional –every experience, thought, emotion is grist to the mill. Every play is an expression of its creator, a fundamentally personal exposure. So I accept it as a deeply personal encouragement – and I should say, on every level it makes an enormous difference to me -- but perhaps Mona Brand would have liked it if I made a couple of political points.

More than any other kind of artist, playwrights live absolutely inside the world they transfigure for their art. We reflect our society, our nation, our times by immersing ourselves in it, physically, intellectually, philosophically and emotionally.

When our leaders, our politicians and our media look for opinion, or for flourishes of the imagination, or for creative reflections of time and place, they should be looking to the stage and the people who put populations of observations, ideas and human beings upon it. We are a pool of independent, untapped cultural and political minds whose imaginations can chart the past, reflect the present and lead us into the future: note us, listen to us, fund us, follow us, value us. The imagination is not an adjunct to life, it is at its heart. It’s not a sidebar to national identity, it is the soul of it. This award is a notable and wonderful acknowledgement of this and a guiding light to women writers.

November 2016