By Clare Megahey and Kirsta Cheung
Pete Malicki doesn’t dress the way you’d expect one of Australia’s most successful theatre directors and playwrights to, but his 90-hour work week leaves him little time to shop. The Short + Sweet festival’s International Literary Manager attended Sydney’s Sunday night session in ripped denim jeans and slightly-worn velcro sneakers, also squeezing in an interview just before the show
Malicki arrived two minutes early, and managed to answer a few emails and give theatre staff direction while the recording equipment was set up. On the train to Tom Mann Theatre for the interview, he drew up some storyboard sketches for a cartoon he’s hoping to release this year. He credits his commitment to work with this ethos: “If you want to be successful in an industry that has a less than 0.1% success rate, you need to work incredibly hard and incredibly smart.”
Since his debut onto the theatre scene eighteen years ago, at age 21, Malicki has produced 750 plays, with some of his award-winning monologues earning international acclaim. They’ve been performed in twenty countries, including showings at Brighton’s West End and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. His short play The Goon was adapted into a TV mini-series that aired in the US in 2013. He broke a world record in 2012 as Artistic Director for Short+Sweet Sydney, which ran for 87 days as the longest running short play festival in history.
Despite his international success, Malicki remains in Sydney, where he coordinates Short + Sweet Sydney. It is part of his aim to grow a local theatre industry that he believes is lacking in culture and interest.
When he’s not managing, producing, writing, editing, teaching, or playing with his pet ferret Malcolm, Malicki works as a full-time environmentalist and a part-time massage therapist. He claims to not know where he finds energy to be involved in these numerous and varied projects, ranging from producing at The Monologue Project acting school and coordinating the monthly theatre show ‘Crash Test Drama.’ Perhaps it’s driven by the rewards he’s reaped in the almost impenetrable entertainment and literary industries from which very few earn a living.
Literary interest and creativity are dominant in the Malicki family. He was raised in northern Sydney by English teacher parents, so it’s no surprise his passion for writing has existed since his childhood. “I’ve always been interested in writing, I was doing it as a kid so I guess it was just something that I had an inherent appreciation of,” he said.
Malicki, like his work, can be described as quirky. “I’d write little short stories when I was a kid, when I was like eight a wrote a story about Joel the Onion of Death and then I turned that into a novel somehow,” Malicki said of his first novel Joel the Onion of Death. He shared this story with a friend, who encouraged him to enter a playwriting competition. He won, and built a career.
“The more I wrote, the more opportunities came up, and then the more I just started getting involved in the whole creative industries,” Malicki said.
Four novels followed Joel the Onion of Death, including Eyes and Knives and The Traveller’s Guide to the Afterlives. Eyes and Knives was Berkelouw Books’ ‘Book of the Week’ when it was published in 2009 by Malicki’s independent company Helm Publishing, which also edited for fiction writers and playwrights. Founding this enterprise was an opportunity Malicki created for himself by taking more control over what he produced. “Rather than just I write a book, and then I want somebody else to publish it, and then I forget about it and I feel like my involvement is over, now I realise ‘well, I can actually produce the work more fully myself,” Malicki said.
Malicki’s confidence with and dedication to his work compensates for its niche status, as his business and industry knowledge allow him to make it profitable. “It’s important to create materials that have a broader appeal than those who are already into the theatre,” he said. Despite having anti-business and anti-capitalist views in the past, Malicki has come to understand the value of marketing as a tool to promote creative work.
“I can just do more than just that one role of writing something and sitting there and hoping that other people would do the hard work of bringing it to life,” Malicki said. “There’s been that evolution of not just interests but also my approach to the creative industries and what I can do to help, it is basically helping enable me to do things in a much higher scale than just writing and leaving it for others.”
Malicki draws inspiration from the TV shows he manages to spend at least one hour watching a night: South Park and Family Guy. For him, they are proof that “stupid fun stuff” like his own work has a market. “These people entertain millions of people every week by creating frivolous, stupid shit basically,” he said.
In his online biography, Malicki says his writing has evolved from being “a bit of frivolous fun” to “a serious career.” He now views his work through more of a business lens, but asserts that subject matter doesn’t need to be serious for the work itself to be considered serious.
“I don’t think that you have to write about serious subject matter for writing to be valid, I think it’s perfectly acceptable to write stupid fun stuff,” Malicki said. His eccentric style has been praised by Ellen Hirds from The Weekend Notes as “funny story-tale banter.” The Buzz from Sydney writer Joy Minter attributes his fame and success to “absurd, hilarious snapshots.”
Malicki’s currently working on a cartoon adaptation of his monologue, The Flowers, in which the main character experiences tragedy after tragedy in his life. This animation is a culmination of his skills in the business and content production sectors of the entertainment industry. He shared the storyboards and his voiceovers of them with pride, as he has produced them completely unassisted. He records his narrations while he’s walking from place to place, which can be heard in the background noises of wind, birds and Sydney traffic.
The sounds of symbols and piano notes signalled an abrupt end to the interview, and the start of another night at work for Pete Malicki.