Andrew Upton at the VCA: 'The blank page is humiliating, shaming, disgraceful, terrifying'

Andrew Upton. Photo by James Green. Supplied.
Andrew Upton. Photo by James Green. Supplied.

Last week, VCA Master of Theatre (Writing) Coordinator Raimondo Cortese spoke with Australian playwright, screenwriter and director Andrew Upton about his career, training, personal perspectives and insights into the arts industry, followed by a Q&A session. Upton was the Co-Artistic Director and Co-CEO of the Sydney Theatre Company from 2008 to 2012 and Artistic Director from 2013 to 2015. Watch the interview, or read an edited excerpt on Upton's preferred five act structure below.

The Five Act Structure

"Quite early on in my life, in my mid twenties, I came across this mug in France at the Comedy Francaise, which is a stuffy old place. The mug had the five act structure on it. Now, I didn't know that at the time, which is possibly a terrible thing to say about myself. Probably a terrible thing to say about my directing course and my writing course. The mug had on it the five act structure as understood by Racine, which is very, very, very rigid and meticulous.

"The structure is exposition, complication, big scene, catastrophe, d̩nouement, which in French is the untangling of complication. This is a lovely shape. It obviously has a beginning, middle, end РI'm not so interested in that. What I'm saying is, I got obsessed with that five act structure, which is what landed me well inside theatre for a long time as a thinking writer.

"I go to that structure because I have none. I don't go to that structure saying that it has got the answers, I go to that structure saying it's got a temporary solution for this mess on my paper and in my head.

"It comes down to the very simple syntactical notion of beginning, middle and end. It comes down to the fact that as we all line up as an audience, particularly a live audience in a live show, we ... I hate the word the magic of theatre or those ideas, but there's the power that is found and harnessed is the power of a group coming together in a space that's unknown, that's not understood.

"You get an audience together and if you get them right on the edge of their seat and your actors are right on the edge of their readiness and everything's unformed, then you have a genuine beginning. And if you have a genuine beginning and people come to the party and there's a contact made, then I think it's very, very satisfying to complete that.

"That is not what life is like. We know that.

"If you have a beginning, syntactically, it's great. You can fragment it and leave it open-ended, but it's nice to take people through an intelligible syntax. There is an intelligible syntax that allows an audience to hold on to things as they pass through time when there's no rewinding of the video and there's no going back over the pages.

"You are inside the time that is the passing of life, if you like."