Thursday, December 22, 2011

Janet Tyler on Duncan Sarkies

The 39th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the October 1996 issue.

The intro read:
Duncan Sarkies has come a long way from his early triumph on Spot On. Just don’t call him quirky. and don’t ever call him a playwright. “Theatre is a hideous word,” he tells Janet Tyler. 
“If you could call us the generation that hates being given a label, then we are that generation.” Duncan Sarkies’ elfin face cracks open into an ingenuous laugh. “Generation X – the generation that hates being given a label,” he says again. “Yes, we’re a paradoxical generation.”
Although Sarkies claims to barely being able to struggle his way through a book (an indelible mark of the TV generation), you couldn’t accuse him of lacking commitment. Highly cynical yes, apathetic no. At twenty-six, he has written five plays, or rather five he considers worth crediting to his name: Love Puke, Ceramic Camel, Snooze, Blue Vein and Saving Grace. In 1994 he won the Bruce Mason Playwright Award. He performed in this year’s Auckland Comedy Festival and Edinburgh Festival. In conjunction with three other playwrights, brought together by producer Pat Cox, he is writing a feature-film script which has already managed to break through the first round of film funding.
Oh, and when he was 14 he won the Spot On scriptwriting competition. “Yeah, hideous thing. I cringe now. There was one called April 1st – bit of tomfoolery at school on April Fools Day. And they did make it. It haunts me. I lock it away.”
Spot On competitions aside, there are few worries for Sarkies that he’ll be one of those never to rise beyond the mediocre – an issue which used to concern him in the past as he hammered away through Dunedin winters of discontent. He makes an analogy with his learning to play the guitar at school: learning with extraordinary speed, getting all the notes down with prodigious aptitude, and well, for want of a better phrase, everything looking bright and rosy. For a time. A regrettably brief time. To this day he can’t do bar chords.
“And I’d always had that with my writing. I had that potential and I was always worried that I couldn’t push that step further, that I’d just get stuck at that point, that I’d always be a bright starter with nothing coming through. But hopefully that’s not happening. I think I’m getting better and better at what I’m doing.”
From a “vaguely” middle-working-class background, Sarkies finds it absurd that he should be able to make a living simply out of selling his ideas. (Not of course that he is making a living out of doing it, but, yeah, sometime soon, very soon...) “I mean,” he says, “who wants to listen? I desperately want to say these ideas but, I don’t know, I find myself making excuses for doing what I do all the time. I used to say if I really wanted to go out and help the world I should be doing this and this and this, and working here and working there, but then I think, there are a lot of bank tellers out there and it’s not like they’re doing any more than I am. They’re not doing any less than I am either.” He pauses. “Or, that’s debatable, but you know.”
He also finds himself dodging the “What do you do?” question old school friends seem determined to ask. “I never say I’m a playwright, because that’s a hideous word. And I never say I’m into theatre, because theatre – that’s also a hideous word. You can’t help it whenever you say the word ‘theatre’, it reeks of pretension and you can’t get away from it. So I say I do plays and stuff, which sounds like, ‘oh yeah’.”
Sarkies’ plays have similar quirky (used with subversively sarcastic intent) narratives. Love Puke is about the trials and tribulations of eight young people in and out of romance, with “Is love a bodily function?” its premise and a lot of “toilet stuff’ in there to contrast directly against the high ideal of love; Snooze is about a man who falls in love with his alarm clock; Blue Vein (written with Ted Brophy) has a man who becomes addicted to cheese; and Saving Grace is about a man called Gerald, who meets a woman called Grace at Social Welfare, and over the course of time they discover in each other strength and power – and yes, things go haywire.
“The first time someone called me quirky,” says Sarkies, “I thought it was great – but then, now that it’s written all the time. I guess quirky just means off-centre, and I guess I am off-centre, so I suppose I shouldn’t resent the fact of being quirky.” His tone remains unconvinced.
As unconvinced as he is by the “comedy” label often attached to his work: “When you use the term comedy, it sounds like the primary function of comedy pieces is to make people laugh.” But Sarkies doesn’t write with the aim of being funny; he writes about things that interest him. It’s just that those things have an unnerving tendency to come out funny.
As with most artists, Sarkies would like his work to appeal to everyone - but not at the expense of writing something interesting, “to put it bluntly”. He believes he has the capability of creating a well-written play that cajoles people into laughing and crying in all the right places, a play that’s cleverly written and well-structured, and with all the loose ends tied up in the end... “But, I don’t know, I’ve seen it before, I’ve seen it too many times before, and I’d rather risk offending people. I’d rather come in uninvited and leave a mess.” On reflection, he reckons his work is pretty much universally liked, at least by the under-30 age group.
It’s from the under-30s that Sarkies’ influences come – especially local comedians Sugar and Spice, Radar and Jo Randerson. These comedians, like Sarkies, enjoy taking ideas to their extreme. And though Ionesco’s absurdist Rhinoceros holds influential sway, the television serial The Young Ones, which threw anarchy in the pot and subtlety out the window, can claim as much, if not more, credit.
“We all loved it, because it was gross and it was stupid. The Young Ones is probably more influential than a lot of us realise. I think sometimes it’s to do with being sick of calling art Art. Art can be such a highbrow/lowbrow thing.
“Maybe that’s a difference in our generation. We like the thought of declassifying, of meshing together differing styles. All we’re really doing is reflecting the world we live in. It’s an unfortunate thing, but there’s a gross Americanisation, the role of advertising has increased... All these things have changed us, so when we reflect the world we know back onto the stage, suddenly it looks different, because it is different, because we’re different – and that all fits back into the Generation X thing, I’m sure.
“God,” he hesitates with an edge of comic abhorrence, “I’m beginning to sound like a champion of the Generation X.” Yeah, but only if the label fits.

There is more recent information on Duncan Sarkies here, from the 1999 movie Scarfies to two episodes of Flight of the Conchords to the 2008 novel Two Little Boys.

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