July 28 2017
As a student at an all-girls school in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, Louris van de Geer failed to fit in.
Her parents and teachers recommended that she seek professional help. “I wasn’t a typical private schoolgirl so they thought there was something wrong with me,” van de Geer says. “I went to a therapist for years, but I hated it because someone else had told me to go, so I would refuse to speak.”
Now, aged 27, thanks to a “great” new therapist, the playwright – named as one of the Melbourne Writers Festival’s “30 under 30” best writers – has fallen in love with psychoanalysis. “I don’t know how I’m affording it, but it feels necessary to give up other things to do it,” says van de Geer, perched on a stool at Collingwood’s Schoolhouse Studios, where she shares a writing space.
“It’s endlessly fascinating because it’s about the unconscious – the things we don’t know about ourselves and the way patterns repeat.”
Her personal experiences – of feeling “different and disconnected” as a child, of constantly exploring ideas about identity and authenticity – have been forged into her latest play, Looking Glass, starring Lion‘s Daniela Farinacci and Green Room award winner Peter Houghton.
“I’m interested in these behaviours which can sometimes be seen as normal but at other times be totally pathologised as a symptom of something,” van de Geer says. “There’s a need more and more these days to diagnose them.”
Houghton, a father of two, agrees. One of his sons has been diagnosed with Asperger’s, but “he doesn’t seem that much different to me when I was a kid”, he says. “He’s a bit of a thinker, and now that’s seen as some sort of problem because his social integration is viewed as more important than his intellectual ability.”
Looking Glass, says Houghton, struck a chord with him “about the collective anxiety we have about parenting, and the way it can leave you quite inarticulate and more confused than you were in the beginning”.
The play is informed by the looking glass self-concept created by American sociologist Charles Horton Cooley in 1902 to explore how a person’s identity is formed. “The theory is that in every interaction you have with someone, they reflect a version of yourself back to you, and you become that version,” van de Geer says. Does that mean she doesn’t feel authentic? “Is anyone authentic?” she asks. “I definitely change around different people. It’s all about the question of how to be.”
For Dee, the “pertinent” concept of Looking Glass “sounds really convoluted and cerebral, but it’s really interesting to unpack that dramatically”. She and van de Geer “work well together because we’re both clean-lined and detailed and have the same rigour”, Dee says.
“I love exploring what’s not said. Louris uses very simple, potent language. She thinks about every word.” In rehearsal, says Dee, the playwright “doesn’t speak up much, and she makes her way just as gently in the world”.
Dee “worries” about the younger woman – whether she’s eaten lunch, or why she’s not wearing socks three days running in a Melbourne winter: “She’ll say she couldn’t find the right ones.”
It’s not just the perfect socks she’s searching for. Van de Geer’s life is an endless quest of wondering who she is that day. It started when she was growing up in Albert Park and later Kew, the only child of photographer turned web designer Bernard and school teacher Diana.
“All my life, I’ve had a feeling like I’m not in my body a lot of the time,” she says. Instead, she’s “floating” above, looking down at herself. “It can get scary, if I feel like I want to be back in my body and I can’t get there,” van de Geer says. “I think I just live in my imagination a lot, and so therefore I leave.”
That imagination was first uncovered in a structured setting when van de Geer joined St Martin’s as a 14-year-old who relished the “freedom and space to ask questions” that acting, then writing, gave her. After school she ignored university offers and worked in a string of council libraries while writing works including The Son, Triumph and Hello There, We’ve Been Waiting for You, and completing a masters of writing for performance at the Victorian College of the Arts.
In 2014, with the help of grants from the Ian Potter Foundation and the Australia Council, she landed internships with writer and director Richard Maxwell from New York City Players, Marius von Mayenburg at Berlin’s Schaubuhne Theatre and Ivo van Hove from Toneelgroep, Amsterdam. “I just sent emails to all the people I really admired, and they just said, ‘Sure, come’,” says van de Geer.
During her seven months overseas, “I learned about the importance of the images and the present-moment-ness of theatre,” she says. “The thing that interests me most is learning about the performance of it, because you can learn to write texts that work to be performed.”
Her Schaubuhne experience stood out, because “while I understood the least because it was all in German, they had the set from the first day of rehearsal”. “Marius cut heaps of the play two days before opening, which is the opposite of what I would do, but it worked – he left it so long so he could really see how it was all working together.”
These days, van de Geer still works part-time at the suburban libraries. On her bedside table she has Sarah Wilson’s book about anxiety and another on psychoanalysis.
She’s single, but would like to be in love “lots more times, not just once”. An astrologist told her once her birth chart means she’s going to be alone for a lot of her life, “but when I’m an old lady, I’ll have really good stories”. “I think I felt sad, but then decided it was a good thing,” van de Geer says. “I like the idea of having lived. I’m into gathering experiences.”