Tanya Hendy on Westerly, café culture and playwriting

2 years ago
Til Knowles

Anything and everything can happen in café. Heartbreak, epiphanies, quarter-life crises, brunches. It’s also the perfect setting for a Melbourne-based play like Westerly. Written by director, actor and playwright Tanya Hendy, Westerly is about five people in a sleepy Western suburbs café and the conversations they have there one morning. We spoke to Hendy about the production, how it came about and just what Friends has to do with all this.

What led you to write this play?

The play is an extension of a 20-minute film that we made last year called All About Toby. I thought that the script could have a life beyond the film and be taken up by other actors. I admired Lansy Feng’s work so I asked her if she wanted to make a theatre show out of it. She asked me if I wanted to perform it with her and of course I was honoured. From there we brainstormed and I decided to give the extras characters from the film a life and a personality.

I am very glad that this came about because it has enabled me to explore the film and its themes more deeply.

The original concept for the film started over a dinner conversation with my friend. She was passionately telling me a story about how she wanted to get rid of “Toby” (not his real name) and I found it amusing. It started from that seed and I started applying my own life to the story. She is coming to see the show!

What sparked your interest in playwriting more broadly?

I fell into it a little. I worked with Jay Bird on a film called Kitchen Light and I admired his writing style and his confidence. We became friends and he definitely has been an inspiration.

Anzjuli Venter, who plays Sarah, and I are also friends in real life. We were talking on the phone about how difficult the acting world is. I said, “That’s it, I’m going to write a script for the both of us.”

At acting school we were always told to create our own work. So that is what I have done!

What’s it like directing, producing and acting in your own work? How do you balance that with the other actors?

I have been wearing many hats and it has been hard work, but when you have this team, it makes all the difference. With Lansy Feng co-producing and co-directing, Belinda Campbell also co-directing, and a cast of hard working professionals, “many hands have made light work.” It is a strength not a failure to let yourself be supported by others.

Previously, this play was a short film. How did you find the process of expanding the story and translating the narrative from screen to stage?

It was very easy to translate All About Toby to the stage because it is a unique short film in that it is more suited to the stage. The short film Thunder Road was an inspiration for the film as it is essentially a monologue.

The press release mentions Friends. Do you like Friends? What impact have sitcoms had on your life and your writing style?

Yes I love Friends but most of all I love the character “Pheobe”. I have sometimes been described as being “quirky” or having a “quirky sense of humour” so the character Pheobe inspires me to bring that out and hopefully get a laugh out of it.

What atmosphere are you hoping to create for audiences with Westerly?

I hope the audience will feel that they are looking into a coffee shop one early morning. Unusual and interesting things are going to happen and I hope that they start getting a kick out of that.

What’s it like staging this play at the Butterfly Club?

 I love the Butterfly Club. It is a cosy little space with a kooky and fascinating entrance hall. I thought it was a perfect venue to replicate the cosy café atmosphere of Westerly.

Aside from the magical cast you have, if you were casting the Hollywood/Broadway version of Westerly, who would star?

I absolutely love our cast but if I were to answer that question I would say: Cate Blanchett, Ryan Gosling, Lisa Kudrow, Brittany Murphy, Adam Sandler (although we would somehow have to make him Spanish) and Lucy Liu.

What’s your favourite Melbourne café?

Westerly in Kingsville of course!

Westerly is on at 8:30pm from the 24th – 27th of April at the Butterfly Club. Tickets are available at the box office, or from the Butterfly Club website.

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