Vale Aidan Fennessy

The playwright, director, dramaturg and much-loved member of the Australian theatre community died on Sunday, aged 53.
Vale Aidan Fennessy Aidan Fennessy in the MTC rehearsal room. Photo credit: Deryk McAlpin.
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Richard Watts

Wednesday 16 September, 2020

Australia’s tight-knit theatre community, as well as friends and colleagues overseas are in mourning following the death of playwright, director and dramaturg Aidan Fennessy.

Fennessy, 53, died on Sunday after a two-year battle with cancer. He is remembered as a generous collaborator, a gifted writer, a talented director and a rigorous and passionate artist.

He is also remembered as gentle, supportive, hilarious company; a great listener, passionate and kind.

In the days after his death, friends and colleagues took to social media to reflect on the many ways Fennessy had supported their careers. Others spoke about his wit, his vitality, his humour, his keen mind, his fondness for hats, and his warm heart.

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In August his partner, the writer Nova Weetman, spoke of their family’s collective experiences in lockdown as Fennessy’s health worsened.

‘The four of us found new ways to connect and new ways to irritate. We’d go for early night walks around the laneways near our house, stealing fruit from overhanging branches. Sometimes we took the cat with us in a bag, enjoying her wide eyes and manic sniffing. My partner would shuffle along beside us, his usual fast-walking ways slowed by cancer, and we’d have to cut our time short. But at least we were all together,’ she wrote.

HE FELT THEATRE 'COULD DO BETTER'

Actor and writer Peter Houghton, who directed Fennessy’s The Architect for Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) in 2018 (and was also directed by him in the Malthouse production A Commercial Farce) described his friend and colleague as ‘a working-class lad who never traded on the fact. He was a product of a large family in regional settings and always felt the theatre could do better to speak beyond its urban profile and its in-crowd instinct.’

Fennessy studied language, literature and drama at Rusden, where he cut his teeth as an actor in early works such as Olwen Wymark’s Find Me and Brecht’s The Measures Taken. He went on to perform at the Carlton Courthouse Theatre and La Mama while also co-founding the highly successful Chameleon Theatre.

‘His early work with Matt Cameron and Wayne Hope (Chameleon Theatre) involved many shows,’ Houghton said. ‘He was always the guy painting and drilling and nailing and often the last to leave – always with a ciggy hanging from his lip. He was a talented actor though didn’t love the role. He was happier in charge of the story or serving it from the driver’s seat.’

Aidan Fennessy: image via Griffin Theatre Company.

Playwright, screenwriter and broadcaster Chris Thompson also recalls the Chameleon Theatre days fondly.

'Aidan’s gift for theatre was knowing how to create it from the ground up, from the inside out, from playwright’s pen to front of house,' Thompson said.

‘I knew him best back in the day when I was Artistic Director at St Martins and he and Wayne Hope and Matt Cameron were just starting out, first with the rough comedy of Bogus Pygmies and later with Chameleon Theatre Company, where they all hit their straps ... Aidan was always a triple threat – great playwright, astute director, compelling actor – a quadruple threat when you throw in sensitive, incisive dramaturg.

‘But in place of the ego that might be pumped up by those talents, Aidan always exuded warmth, passion, sincerity and good humour. People liked working with Aidan, not just because he made great work, but because he was great to work with. He was an energy and a light that will be sorely missed,' Thompson said.

'Aidan’s gift for theatre was knowing how to create it from the ground up, from the inside out, from playwright’s pen to front of house.'

- Chris Thompson

In later years Fennessy was a member of the Artistic Directorate of Hothouse Theatre (Wodonga), Artistic Director of the Store Room Theatre Workshop (in inner-city Melbourne) and Associate Director at Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC).  

He co-programmed MTC’s 2012 season along with Robyn Nevin and Pamela Rabe, in the interim year between the end of Simon Phillips’ tenure as Artistic Director and Brett Sheehy’s commencement.

Fennessy’s plays, which include the Wal Cherry Award-winning Chilling and Killing My Annabel Lee (1998), The Trade (2001), Brutopia (winner of the 2010 Griffin Award), National Interest (2012), The House on the Lake (2014), The Way Things Work (2014), What Rhymes with Cars and Girls (2015) and The Architect (2018) have been produced by Melbourne Theatre Company, Queensland Theatre, Griffin Theatre, HotHouse, Playbox, Black Swan State Theatre Company, the Tasmanian Theatre Company and many more.

His most recent play, The Heartbreak Choir, was to have premiered with the MTC this year but its season was cancelled due to COVID. ArtsHub understands that at least five of MTC’s 2020’s productions will be reprogrammed next year; it is to be hoped The Heartbreak Choir is one of them.

As well as a talented writer, Fennessy was also a skilled dramaturg and director. His directing credits included Peter Houghton’s A Commercial Farce for Malthouse Theatre; Alan Ayckbourne’s Things We Do For Love, David Mamet’s Boston Marriage, Lally Katz’s Return To Earth, Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation, John Guare’s His Girl Friday plus many more for the Melbourne Theatre Company; Ross Mueller’s The Glory for HotHouse Theatre, Matt Cameron’s Ruby Moon for Playbox/Neonheart, David Mamet’s Oleanna for HotHouse Theatre, and his own play Chilling and Killing My Annabel Lee for Playbox/Chameleon.

PEERS PAY TRIBUTE

Tributes to Fennessy have flooded in from across the country and from overseas.

Many, like Bernadette Haldane, former General Manager of HotHouse Theatre and now Deputy Director at Auckland Live, recalled Fennessy’s versatility as well as his total commitment to all aspects of theatre.

‘At HotHouse we got to experience every theatrical skill Aidan had. From writing, artistic direction, dramaturgy and directing, he had an attention to detail, a nimble approach and an infectious energy to deliver a gem with whatever was at his disposal. He earned respect for his authenticity, care for the creative process and the people within it,’ Haldane said.

‘He had a critical eye for plot triggers for an audience, whether that be dark humour, raw emotion or filmic tension of characters and story arc.

‘His impact traversed the sector, from independent practice to companies of scale. Aidan gifted us with his remarkable storytelling, his visual aesthetic and his notable style,’ she said.

‘From writing, artistic direction, dramaturgy and directing, he had an attention to detail, a nimble approach and an infectious energy to deliver a gem with whatever was at his disposal.’

- Bernadette Haldane

Others, such as director, writer and dramaturg Anne-Louise Sarks, recalled the way Fennessy went out of his way to support younger artists as well as his commitment to the theatre sector as a whole.

‘Aidan Fennessey gave so much to our community,’ Sarks told ArtsHub. ‘He had vision, and he had humility. He was an artist who cared deeply about the work he made and was just as passionate about the work of others. He believed in the importance of the artistic community as a whole, and for that reason leaves behind him, for us, a tremendous and important legacy. He was an incredible champion for many emerging and independent artists and has shaped much of the ecology of Australian theatre today.

‘Aidan gave me my first mainstage directing job in 2012, at the Melbourne Theatre Company, with Kate Mulvany’s The Seed; I am and will always be exceptionally grateful for his faith and guidance and support. I owe him so much,’ she added.

Director, actor and dramaturg Petra Kalive, MTC's Associate Director, shared a similar story. 

‘Like many of my peers, Aidan Fennessy gave me a leg up – he was a champion, advocate and guide at just the right time. He wasn’t afraid to have robust conversations about work, nor challenge the status quo or ask uncomfortable questions,’ said Kalive.

‘I remember, participating in a program that he was running with a group of writers and directors when Co-Artistic Director of MTC. A writer/director team were discussing their vision for a work and he said, “The thing to ask is, will it translate beyond the 10km radius of the city?” It changed the way I thought about work and its potential impact. And you can see it in his work. He would always find the universal in the personal.

‘I owe him so much and will forever be grateful for his insight, artistry and candour. We have been so lucky to have his voice on our stages and his advocacy behind the scenes,’ Kalive said.

Musician Tim Rogers, whose music and songs were interwoven through Fennessy's play What Rhymes with Cars and Girls, also acknowledged his passing.

‘He had the hands of a plumber and the mind of a poet. He is the kind of man I want to be, and am quietly devastated that he’d not opposite the table. Listening, observing, laughing. Fuck he was handsome. We made a piece of theatre together and never actually talked of it. We trusted each other. He was gorgeous,’ Rogers said.

HUGELY RESPECTED

MTC Artistic Director & CEO Brett Sheehy AO described Fennessy as hugely respected, a wonderful colleague and friend to many.

‘Above all he was a great man,’ Sheehy said in a statement on Monday. ‘He was a master storyteller, writing plays so beautifully insightful, moving and funny that to see his work performed was to be enlightened and entertained by theatre at its best. His humanity inspired all who came into his orbit, and all of us at MTC are deeply saddened by his death.

‘The impact of Aidan’s contribution both to Victoria’s state theatre company and the broader theatre landscape cannot be overstated. His legacy lives on through his plays, through those whose lives he touched, and in the hearts and minds of all who were lucky enough to work with him or to see his work on stage,’ said Sheehy, adding that the hearts and thoughts of everyone at MTC are with Fennessy’s family and friends at this sad time.

‘His humanity inspired all who came into his orbit.’

- Brett Sheehy

Peter Houghton said Fennessy believed audiences came to see actors, and he wanted a theatre that employed plenty of them.

‘He was interested in the primacy of artists and their relationships with audiences and was always suspicious of the middle-man model which in his view over-curated that conversation,’ Houghton said.

‘As Associate Director at MTC he was tortured by having to say no to so many artists and used his time there to read every play he could and have every conversation possible, obsessed with his advocacy role. I have read literally hundreds of messages from artists this week, of all ages sharing stories of his generosity, and the time he took to help.

‘During that time I had several conversations with him, encouraging him to look after himself. I thought at times he was sacrificing himself for others’ work and I could see it tiring him. I reminded him that the Associate position was also an opportunity to demonstrate a capacity for handling larger international works and cementing a career at the commercial end of the industry. He ignored me completely, though passed this advice on to others. He often felt our theatres were not serious enough about new local content and he fought for that all his life,’ Houghton added.

FIERCELY INTELLIGENT

Ina statement, the Tasmanian Theatre Company said it was 'deeply saddened' by Aidan's death, describing him as 'a fiercely intelligent, insightful and wonderful human. We had the privilege of working with him as a writer and director on works such as The Trade, What Rhymes With Cars and Girls, Born From Animals and An Inconvenient Woman. Our thoughts are with his family, and all those who had the good fortune to know him.'

Griffin Theatre Company described Fennessy as ‘a writer of national and international renown’, with Griffin’s Artistic Director, Declan Greene, saying: ‘The loss of Aidan will be deeply felt by artists and audiences across Australia. He was a master craftsman of words and images. But he was also a truly kind person, which you can feel when you watch his plays. His keen political mind was always paired with a compassion for people in all their frailty and magnificence. Our thoughts are with Aidan's family, and to all of those in theatre who have been blessed with his friendship over the course of an exceptional career.’

Black Swan State Theatre Company, which commissioned his works National Interest and House on the Lake, said in a statement: ‘A man of huge talent and passion, Aidan will be missed here in the West.’

The opening night of Fennessy's House on the Lake at State Theatre Centre WA (L-R): actor Kenneth Ransom, Aidan Fennessy, actor Marthe Rovik and director Stuart Halusz. Photo credit: Rebecca Mansell Photography.

Todd MacDonald, Artistic Director and CEO of La Boite Theatre Company and co-founder of the influential independent theatre The Store Room (2000-2009) described Fennessy as ‘a great leader in the arts’.

‘He was generous, humble, thoughtful and very funny,’ MacDonald said. ‘The Trade was one of my favourite works that we presented at The Store Room over the years, and we were very lucky to have Aidan work with us and lead The Store Room Theatre Workshop for a time.

‘An extraordinary all-round man of the theatre and beautiful human, Aidan had a massive heart and mind to match, no bullshit, no games just clear and honest. An insightful, vulnerable and courageous writer, a wonderfully intelligent director, generous and straight up dramaturg and a pretty lovely actor to boot. What a huge loss for us all.

‘Your plays will live on, but your investment in others has changed theatre for the better in this country. You will be deeply missed,’ said MacDonald.

‘An extraordinary all-round man of the theatre and beautiful human, Aidan had a massive heart and mind to match, no bullshit, no games just clear and honest.’

- Todd MacDonald

Despite his successes in the theatre, Fennessy continued to work outside of the arts throughout his later life, Houghton noted.

‘To the end of his life he worked in hospitality, house painting and cleaning people’s houses and many of his best friends come from those worlds. Jim Russell generously volunteered an anecdote just today when he caught up with “Fenno” after he’d just cleaned two houses and then volunteered to mow a sick friend’s lawn. “Aren’t you sick of it?” asked Jim. “Why would you say that?” Aidan replied. Intimating that it was as much a part of him as writing or acting or directing. He was feeding his family, full stop. And there was dignity in that no matter how it was done.’

Playwright, theatre historian and co-founder of Witness Performance, Dr Robert Reid, first met Fennessy at The Store Room when Fennessy was directing an adaptation of Reid’s play, A Mile in Her Shadow.

‘I knew of him already because I’d seen his play Chilling and Killing My Annabelle Lee at Playbox in 1999 and the noir creepiness of it had stayed with me. It still does,’ said Reid.

‘He made a terrific, introspective interpretation of Mile, and when he took over as the Artistic Director at The Store Room not long after, I was lucky to be one of the associate playwrights that he worked with developing script ideas that went nowhere but for me grew into a deep respect and affection for him.

‘When Aidan was appointed Artistic Associate at the MTC he inherited the production of my play The Joy of Text and worked with me on it all the way ‘til it reached the stage. I’ll never forget when he called me to tell me that it’d been programmed; he spent like half an hour talking to me about a bunch of other stuff and then casually dropped it on me like a bomb at the end of the conversation. He was like that. Cheeky, deadpan, funny.

‘He was a terrific actor too. He could drop into a great range of characters at a moment’s notice. As a young theatre maker he was part of that first real wave of 90s independent theatre companies in Melbourne that defined the sector for every indie to come. His influence on theatre in this country is undeniable. He was endlessly patient with me, forever encouraging and a rock amidst the nonsense. I’m really going to miss him,’ Reid said.

LOVE AND LEGACY

Houghton told ArtsHub that he caught up with Fennessy only last week. ‘He could barely speak. I told him I loved him. He took that silently. I said I’d miss going on adventures with him, and that I wished I could go on this next one with him but couldn’t this time. We both cried like babies.

‘Like a true friend, he called us all on our self-delusions. Praised us when we were good, but not too much. I was crying for Aidan and selfishly, for myself. He made me feel like a superhero. Like I could do things as an artist I couldn’t do alone. I fear his passing like a child fears the dark. So – I’ll need to remember that strength, try and find it in myself. As I walked to the door, he said he loved me too. And that’s a blessing I’ll carry for life,’ Houghton said.

Aidan Fennessy is survived by his partner, Nova Weetman, and their two children, Evie and Arlo.  

A celebration of his life will be delayed ‘until we can all be together’, Weetman said, in a comment shared by the Rusden Drama and Media Facebook group this week.

‘Maybe December or January depending on COVID restrictions. Then we will drink and feast and remember him in all his beautiful humour and style.’

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R FM, a program he has hosted since 2004.

Richard currently serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management, and is also a former Chair of Melbourne Fringe. The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, he has also served as President of the Green Room Awards Association and as a member of the Green Room's Independent Theatre panel. 

Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend in 2017. Most recently he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize for 2019.

Twitter: @richardthewatts