Christine Evans: I was amazed by the life of young people here
Perhaps surprisingly, the worlds of creativity and academia are inextricably linked.
Demonstrating this is Christine Evans, an internationally produced playwright whose work has been called “hauntingly poetic”; she is also an Associate Professor at Georgetown University in the Department of Performing Arts.
Holding an MFA (Playwriting) and a PhD (Theatre and Performance Studies) from Brown University, Christine’s award-winning plays have been produced in the US, Australia, Canada, England and Wales.
Born in London, raised in Perth, Christine moved to the US in 2000 settling in Washington DC in 2012 to begin her tenure at Georgetown University.
Initially, Christine intended to stay in the US for just two years to complete her Master’s degree in Fine Arts. Yet, 17 years later, she finds herself more enamoured than ever with everything that Washington DC has to offer.
Interview by Molly O'Brien
What originally brought you to the US after growing up in Perth?
I have the Fulbright Foundation to thank for the fact that I'm still in the United States 17 years after I arrived.
How did being a recipient of the Fulbright Scholarship affect your career trajectory?
It’s one of the biggest things that's ever happened to me. I was very fortunate to receive the inaugural Visual and Performing Arts Fulbright fellowship. This enabled me to go to Brown University in Rhode Island to study playwriting and undertake a two-year MFA. I had looked at a few Universities, but I felt that the experimental aesthetic of the Brown program and the supremely talented faculty were the best fit for me. Getting that scholarship absolutely changed the whole direction of my life.
Did you have intentions to stay in the US when you first moved over?
My intention was to just to do my MFA when I moved over in 2000, but after two years I felt as though I was barely scratching the surface. I started looking for ways to stay, as the Fulbright has fairly strict return rules. You're supposed to return to your country to give back for two years before you can apply for anything else.
Ultimately, I was offered a full scholarship to undertake the PhD program in Theatre and Performance Studies at Brown. It killed two birds with one stone - it allowed me, and paid for me, to stay in the US.
What was your experience ike undertaking a PhD?
It wasn't always easy because I identified more as an artist than as an academic. I still do. However, I found that the theoretical work fit into my art making, and vice versa. A year into that program I met my husband, which cemented my staying in the US.
Right as I was finishing my PhD I got an offer to work at Harvard in a five-year lectureship teaching playwriting, this was too good of an opportunity to pass up.
Had you always been interested in moving to Washington DC or was it work that took you there?
The Harvard job was a fixed contract five-year position, so I knew that I needed to be looking for something else after that finished up. If I hadn't met my husband at that stage, I might very well have considered coming back to Australia. A job at Washington’s Georgetown University came up, and it just was a really good fit.
Georgetown is a very international university, very outward looking with a focus on politics and the wider world. The theatre department there also has a big commitment to social justice and an interest in the connection between creative and academic life. It was also a place that supported my own creative work as part of my research. You don't always get that with academic jobs, it's not always the case that your own creative work is seen as a core part of what you do.
What is the crossover between the academic and the creative worlds? Where do they collide?
I think having the theoretical background from the PhD means that I can give lectures or write theoretical essays that reflect on bodies of work. I am a playwright who is very engaged in political and social questions and I think that when you're dealing with stories that have resonance in social reality, it's really good to have that informed by some of the intellectual conversations surrounding those things. Both academic and creative work have different aims but can feed into each other.
Where do you find the inspiration for your work? Do you think that your upbringing in Australia plays a part?
It really does. For instance, I wrote a novel in verse a couple of years ago, set in a hot Perth summer where disparate lives collide one day around a public swimming pool (Cloudless, UWA Publishing, 2015). There's something about being far away that lets me see the country in very sharp, bright colours.
My play Slow Falling Bird is set in Woomera, in the dead heart of Australia; it was shortlisted for the Patrick White Award. My most recent play, Galilee, a finalist for the 2018 Lysicrates Award, is a comedy about heartbreaking things, a coming-of-age in the era of climate change tale, set in a small Queensland town near the Great Barrier Reef. I return many times to the Australian landscape and its characters in my work.
I think living between countries gives you a feeling of not really quite belonging anywhere. It has a productive side, which is that you're always exercising yourself to translate between where you are and where you come from. I think there's a lot of creative power in that. It's not always fun, but I think you are always looking at things through a slightly skewed angle. That's a really good thing for an artist, I think.
Do you get any of your inspiration from living in DC?
If I was that kind of writer, it would very much be that kind of city. If I was like a Moliere, or a satirist or Tom Wolfe or someone who did close grain political observation, it would be an amazing place for that. But my brain doesn't really work that way. I'm more into the poetic side of real things.
What are you currently working on?
I have two projects at the moment. One is a new play called Torgus and Snow, which is really new, I've only written one act and I just workshopped it with the Royal Shakespeare Company in London. Then I have my novel, Nadia, about a Bosnian refugee living in London in the 1990s, whose life is disrupted by the arrival at her temp office job by a man she thinks is a sniper. I'm working through a second draft. The novel is closer to completion than the play.
Do you find that it's hard to disassociate from everything that's happening in the US politically?
I think it's the same as everywhere, except that you might walk past people on the street who are closely involved with politics. The reality is that Trump is in Florida and New York as much as he's in DC. I think this is a peculiar city in that regard too because it doesn't really feel closer to politics except that streets get blocked off and big black cars drive past every now and then— unless you live in that world, and of course a lot of people do. And Federal Government workers form a lot of the workforce. But the actual city is hardcore Democrat.
Were you surprised by anything when you moved to DC?
I was really surprised by how much greenery there is here, and how much the parks weave through the city. I was also amazed by the life of young people here. There are lots of ambitious 20-somethings in suits, and when they’re not in suits, they’re jogging or at Happy Hour drinks!
DC has a really rich black history, too. There are ongoing tensions and struggles over gentrification. You're very aware that it's a city with a very proud African-American presence.
What else influences your work?
The timing of my American journey is hugely influential in my work. I arrived in 2000, right in time for the election of George W. Bush. I thought I was coming to a country where Bill Clinton was President and things were going fairly smoothly. Then a year later there was 9/11 when the country just completely changed. I was watching that with absolute horror. I was also watching what was going on back in Australia with the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. To me, the things really joined up. The new wars in the Middle East with the influx of refugees to all kinds of places, and Australia was cracking down on them in this very harsh way. It was kind of a crash course on the internationalism of war.
How would you describe your relationship with Australia now?
I do really miss Australia. I would love to see my plays staged in my home country, especially my latest, Galilee— it’s set in Queensland—but that’s hard to achieve unless you’re there to build relationships with theatre companies. Really, my dream would be to be one of those writers who “divides her time,” as they say on the book jackets