A young playwright from Western Sydney, James Elazzi is committed to telling stories in Sydney’s theatres that have otherwise been left backstage. Next month, James’s latest work, Lady Tabouli will premiere as part of Griffin Theatre’s Batch Festival. We spoke to James on what it took to get this script to stage and how he hopes it will start a conversation.
BYO: What was the process of getting this script to the stage, and how did you develop the team that you have around you?
James: My director Dino Dimitriadis, he's been championing my writing and supporting me — as has Leila Enright — and I gave this script to Dino and he loved it immediately, and a good friend of mine Paul Capsis also read the script and said that he'd love to be in it. So I already had these three amazing individuals supporting me.
BYO: You've worked with Dino in the past on Omar and Dawn, right?
James: So he directed Omar and Dawn for bAKEHOUSE’s [Storyteller’s Festival], and Omar and Dawn will actually be having a season at Kings Cross Theatre in July, which is really exciting, and that's also directed by Dino.
BYO: How has that creative relationship developed between the two of you?
James: I feel like his vision is exactly the same as my vision and what I write on the paper and in the script, he's able to bring that to life because we're on the same page so to speak, and so he understands what I'm trying to say and he takes that from the words that I write. I have a passion to tell stories I've never seen on stage before [and] he also has that passion as well.
BYO: Drag is being used as an element in the production and the story, what's drawn you to that particular kind of performance for this script?
James: I see [drag] as an armour, as strength, and the character in my play sees the power of lipstick as incredibly powerful for him and it challenges the idea of what a man or masculinity should be in 2019.
I write from my point of view and what it means to be a Lebanese/Australian man as well, and I think that a dress or drag, that cover or mask is power, but only for a certain amount of time and once that mask is taken off, what are we left with? We're left with our face. We have to face our own idea of healing, and once that mask's removed what do we see and what do people see about ourselves?
BYO: In writing from your perspective or experience, how do you draw on that to put together a script?
James: I take a lot of inspiration from the people around me, especially the women that have been around me and my family. They're quite powerful, strong women [and] I rarely [strong] see Lebanese Australian women on stage, if ever.
BYO: You've mentioned you want your plays to start a conversation, what would be the conversation you want to have around Lady Tabouli?
James: When I used to go to the theatre, I'd sit in the theatre and I'd watch performances that I loved and plays that stuck in my mind but I've never felt like that is my family on the stage, that's me. I can't look up and say I felt a connection with that. And I feel like I want to write characters and stories that people can look up to, my stories are very specific but also very universal.
BYO: How do you navigate that dialogue between the specificities and universality of the stories?
James: It's difficult, but I'm an observer and I'm a listener and I know that the idea of wanting to belong, that's universal and it doesn't need to be specific to any one community. We all crave to belong to a certain group, or family or community but the specifics of that for me is I was born in Australia but my parents are from Lebanon, [so] how do I find a balance between being Australian and being Lebanese and what do I mentally go through to find that balance and that identity? It's a very murky and a grey area and I'm sure that a lot of people need to find that balance and belonging in order to have a full identity. I don't think that searching ever ends to be honest.
BYO: You've worked with the National Theatre of Parramatta in the past and they've been a force in putting these stories on stage. How do you see that reverberation happening out of Parramatta and across all of Sydney theatre?
James: The National Theatre of Parramatta is incredibly supportive of everything that I've done so far, and they've championed my work from the beginning. I think, to be honest, there was a very long time when there were only certain stories being told on stage but it's not reflective of the society that we live in in Australia. In saying that you've got to be quite brave in your writing and stick your neck out to do plays about different communities [but] the more we have that the better it is because I think that the theatre and storytelling should be inclusive. When I write I'm writing for it to be accessed to every single person that comes and sits and watches my show.
BYO: And now being part of something like Batch festival, a celebration of new work, how does that energise you in terms of seeing these stories get out there?
James: Being part of Batch is huge for me because it allows my story not just to be shown and exposed in Western Sydney, it allows it to be in Sydney as a whole and it invites different audiences to come and see what it's like first hand from a different point of view or a different community. For me it's incredibly important that my work as a writer can reach as many people as possible. For me to be a successful writer is being able to reach as many people as I can and saying, ‘This is my story, how does it make you feel?’
BYO: How did you come to playwriting as a form of expression?
James: I've been writing for about 12 years but I've only [recently] had the real confidence to say it's time to share this work with other people. It's a really personal thing to share your writing with others and then have a director dissect it and actors play it. You need to be able at a certain point in your writing to say, ‘I'm ready now to share this with the world, this is what I want to say and I'm confident enough that if you want to criticise that I can accept it.’
Lady Tabouli runs from May 1 to 4. Further information and tickets are available here: https://griffintheatre.com.au/whats-on/lady-tabouli/