Looking to a “Beautiful Future” with Rita Kalnejais

Photo by Emilio Madrid

Rita Kalnejais sits with a black and white cat on her lap, in a self-described “massive covid fog,” and proceeds to spout the wisest truisms about life, love, politics, humanity, and theatre I’ve heard in a long time. This came as no surprise to me: Rita is a prolific, exciting, boundary-pushing playwright out of Australia who has taken international stages and screens by storm, most notably for her 2019 feature film, Baby Teeth, starring Eliza Scanlan. I was especially pleased, however, to be able to chat with her about the U.S. premier of her play, This Beautiful Future, which had previously rocked UK audiences, and the script for which I had just devoured in a single sitting. The story of Otto and Elodie, a teenaged Nazi soldier and a young French woman, at the very end of WWII, it made me laugh, cry, and in parts made me extremely uncomfortable.

Below are edited excerpts from our conversation, which meandered from political extremism, to the pandemic, to the violence of love, to Pret A Manger. I came away from the conversation not just excited about the U.S. premier of the play, running now through January 30th, but also about the state of theatre generally, and the “beautiful future” we have ahead of us.

I loved the play and I can’t wait to see it in person in this brilliant production. I read in a previous interview that when you were writing in 2017 you were very inspired by the Brexit vote and Trump’s election. How do you think the play resonates today, or do you think it will resonate differently today, now that several years (and a global pandemic) have passed?

I wrote it thinking, “let’s give the audience a present; things are so hard right now.” We just wanted to do something really delicious with my favorite things in it, and I love love stories and I love something that happens at the end, and I love first kisses, so I wanted all of that. Now I think it resonates because, after a long time of being by ourselves and being afraid, we’re “othering” more than ever. We’re becoming more extreme than we ever were in our attitudes and in our sense of identity, our sense of “this is who I am.” I feel that watching two people connecting against all the odds, with a huge outside world in turmoil in the foreground that’s changing in kind of unknowable ways…[that] feels much closer than it did before. The context actually feels much closer.

I know this is the United States premier of the play.  Do you imagine there will be more, or different, resonances for US audiences than necessarily for UK audiences?

I don’t know, because I think we’ve all gone mad in our own little rooms. In a kind of international way.

I hadn’t really thought about that when I was reading the play but you’re so right that during the pandemic there are so few opportunities for everyone in the world to be in a room with other people and truly connect. You’re imagining that will be the power of the premier of the play at this particular moment, as Omicron rages? 

Yeah I think so. I think when you’ve been afraid for a long time you make things good or bad. I mean, you know we’ve got cancel culture and everything, and I always think: how are we ever going to understand each other if we can’t sit with each other’s humanity? And so, I feel like you’ve got people who definitely did not come out well in history and whose attitudes are indisputably “off,” but the fact that you can still see the human experience in spite of that…I think that’s a nice thing to have; I think we need more of that. Particularly at the moment what with all of this scary political extremism.

You’re right that in this current political moment – in the United States and Britain, and in all these other places like Poland and Hungary – the time period of the play doesn’t feel all that foreign to me, in terms of the politics and in terms of the fear. I want to go back to what you were saying about humanizing and the human desire to paint people as either good or bad rather than something in between. I loved that aspect of the play, but it was definitely in parts hard to read, especially as a Jewish woman, with members of her family who were exterminated in the Holocaust. Otto’s speech in particular was hard to read.  Was that audience discomfort something you sought when you were writing?

I’m interested in setting myself as big a challenge as I can when I’m writing, saying to myself, “How can I love you?” (the “you” being any one of the characters). Once I get past a certain point, I’m not judging my characters at all. And it is difficult to watch because I don’t come down on a side of morality that feels comfortable. For Otto’s speech, I just wanted to get his youth, I wanted to get the authenticity of his voice, rather than judging anything that he was going through or choosing the most uncomfortable thing. I just wanted to get this incredible kind of ardor. He needs that kind of ardor in order to justify what he’s capable of doing. If he’s not enamored and overwhelmed and having this total rock star immersive experience then it’s harder to understand how he can pick up a gun and do what he does and stand on that side; the things he’s being asked to do would destroy his innocence if he wasn’t so in love with the cause, and I wanted him to be innocent.

That’s really interesting.  I read that you largely lifted the text of that speech from what a fourteen-year-old boy said about Ed Sheeran, and that blew my mind of course.  Can you tell me a little more about how that came to be?

It doesn’t matter when you set something, it won’t feel period if you’re engaging with the level of life that your characters are experiencing. So, I tried to meet with people who were young, so I could at least get the rhythm and the heartbeat and the pulse and the attention span. There is something very signature for each age, and once you have the rhythm it’s much easier to shape the character. I was set up with one of the producer’s cousin’s boyfriends, some connection or other, at a Pret. I asked him about who he admired, and he talked about Ed Sheeran, and I took notes. I asked him in the interest of trying to capture the hero worship kind of thing. He was so kind of shy about it; I mean, he held it so shyly, his dream of playing guitar and all of this stuff.  You don’t get tenderness like that often. And so, I think I was just extremely lucky in finding this very shy boy of the right age. He saw the play and didn’t recognize that it was his! People never recognize themselves, even if you, as the writer, are totally mortified and expectant that they will. Except my husband who thinks all of my characters are him!

In other interviews, and even in this one, you’ve said you “love love.”  And because I knew a bit about the play before reading it, I was expecting it to be a love story, and of course it is, but I was also struck by how tense and meandering and in some ways violent the central relationship between Otto and Elodie is, in a way that feels very true to the reality of romantic entanglements.  Was that part of your effort to make it as realistic as possible?

I’m always sort of disappointed to see that all the love stories I write, even though I say I love love, they never really end well. I mean, they all end. I think that love and romance is bloody and messy and ugly, and so little of it is the actual “I’ve just been skinned and I’m so happy I’m dissolving.”

That brings to my mind the roles of these two older people, who are watching and singing and even doing karaoke throughout.  What do you view as their function in the play?

I guess they’re the present. I always think, “where are the grownups?” Whenever I read the news, or whenever I read about politics, more and more, I kind of go, “why didn’t any grownups get involved with this? Where are they?” Having people who aren’t speaking politically, who are speaking completely personally, from their life experience, and who are just present holding the whole thing, that feels like a love story in itself. The idea of having an older generation that takes care of the younger generation – in my mind, that would be a beautiful future.

And the title of the play is of course This Beautiful Future.  If the older characters are the present, and the younger characters are sort of stuck in the past, what IS “this beautiful future” for you?  In other words, what do you want the audience to come away from the play feeling or hoping for?

It’s about connection, so if you can have a moment of connection in the theatre and be with these characters falling in love and having all their firsts, then I hope you can come out into the world feeling new. What I love about theatre is you can say “I want this to happen,” and it can happen for a night. Why don’t we do more of that in our lives? Why don’t we take those kind of leaps that don’t make sense in the rest of our lives? So, it’s a future of possibility and connection.

Well, I think people are really going to enjoy this production, and it was such a pleasure reading it for me and getting the opportunity to chat with you.  Clearly I could chat for hours more.

This Beautiful Future runs through January 30, 2022, at Theaterlab, located at 357 W 36th Street, 3rd Floor in Manhattan. The performance schedule is Thursday through Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm with an additional 3pm performance on January 15, no performance on January 29, and a 2pm curtain time on January 30. General admission tickets are $25 and can be purchased online at www.theaterlabnyc.com or by calling (212) 929.2545.

Please visit https://www.theaterlabnyc.com/this-beautiful-future/ for more information.

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