Thursday, 9 April 2020

Shock-absorption and dissociation: my first two weeks of COVID-19 isolation

I was a mentor at a residential program for young artists. I was missing-in-action on the first day, hadn’t thought to flag this, and didn’t know why I hadn’t had the wherewithal to turn up. Once there, I had no idea of the schedule, and turned up to workshops that were happening elsewhere. I failed to see the significance of anything, such as a performance in which a drummer on the edge of a cliff made music with the natural landscape; I arrived late, and was left out of the community-bonding experience that this had become. Try as I might, I kept letting people down. I was incompetent. I just couldn’t "get with the program" [Dream 8th April 2020].

Fourteen days ago, productions of two of my plays were cancelled as theatres across the country began to close - productions on track to be astute, nuanced and beautiful. Two days later, on top of these lost opportunities and royalties, I lost my day job and my regular income, registered an intention to apply for Centrelink payments, and burst into tears.

Knowing that this course of events was not caused by me or my collaborators, but by the COVID-19 pandemic that is impacting the lives and livelihoods of millions, softened these personal blows somewhat. But with the rug suddenly pulled out from under me, I prat-fell to the floor, and succumbed to a deep exhaustion that I thought I’d probably sleep off within a few days.

However, as this morning’s dream of the incompetent mentor filtered into my day, I understood why I’ve been so out of sync and useless and lost; why, in my first two weeks of COVID-19 induced isolation, I’ve been incapable of turning this sudden time-bonanza into a productive period of writing and reading and planning that is finely balanced with yoga and meditation, long baths and slow-cooking, and deep deep rest.

In a body that feels sore and ancient, I’ve been walking around as if underwater. None of my usual routines and rituals are working to support and structure my day. Despite unlimited and unencumbered time, I can’t get organised, I can’t set goals, I can’t activate my Isolation Action Plan (everything from writing projects to a wardrobe overall and stepped up activism). I’ve hardly set foot in my bird-attracting, clifftop office where, only two weeks ago, I was writing like the wind. My works-in-progress haven’t been touched. Why can’t I think or be effective? Where the hell is my brain and motivation?

My dream had the answer. Like the incompetent mentor, I’d become dissociated. Simply becoming aware of this involuntary reaction, just trying to describe its peculiar paralysis in this blog, is already reducing its power to run the show.

For two weeks, with all honesty, I was telling people that I was okay. After all, I have safe and secure housing, savings to draw on, and am likely to get the JobKeeper payment. I’ve had gifts of gin, and gourmet care packages, left on my doorstep, and multiple offers of financial assistance should I ever need it. I have friendship everywhere I turn, and connection on tap: phone and video calls, zoom book clubs and dinner parties, and online creative gatherings. I am blessed, and loved, and looked after. So what’s been going on? Why has my organism gone into lockdown?

Because the shocks didn’t stop with my cancelled shows, vanished income, and pride-bruising need to apply for benefits. Then came the devastation of my beloved arts community, firstly by venue closures and program cancellations, and secondly by Friday’s Australia Council four-year operational funding cull of the small-to-medium sector - structural inequity-in-action which continues to throw much of a generation’s cultural labour to the wolves, especially in the areas playwriting and youth arts. Then came Tuesday’s news of Cardinal Pell’s acquittal by the High Court and, as a former writer for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the visceral dread of knowing that this will be felt as body blow by survivors who are still fighting to be heard. I’ve experienced these tumultuous events while confined to a small space that is being bombarded by rolling broadcasts of grim-faced experts, daily death tolls, and predictions of temporary burials in public parks.

I live in a one-person household, but I am alone only in a literal sense. I’m super connected and cared for. Many people have my back. But the first two weeks of social isolation has made me aware of the fact that connection is not the same as having good processes and practices that allow us to integrate the shocks that are hurling at us thick and fast - shocks to income, status, security, purpose, identity, social fabric, career prospects, industries, rituals, rites of passage, health, well-being, cultures and economies. I doubt that I’m the only one who’s become dissociated during this time.

Dissociation is an old friend I don’t see much of these days. She has helped me through overwhelming times, and is only ever passing through. Had I had other people across my dining table, I might have noticed her earlier, or had her presence pointed out to me. Nevertheless, having met her again, and understood why I’d been rendered so frustratingly incompetent, means that I can accept and manage this natural response in a kind and friendly way, and top up my well-spring of resilience that she has contributed to over the years.

Gathering the inner coherence to write this blog took me all day, but the act of writing has brought me back to my right mind. I feel grounded and awake now. I feel energy tingling in my skin. I feel almost ready to step up and contribute to the re-organisation of our lives under lockdown. I’m also very aware that withdrawal and contraction are instinctive responses to fear and threat; forced as we are to socially withdraw and contract, I suspect that most of us will need strategies to manage the instinctive traumatic reactions we are likely to have.

Monday, 23 March 2020


Hello, community of playwrights. 7-On is feeling a bit behind the beat here given that we are posting just as a deadline hits but, given that we were amongst those calling for action early on we’d like to complete the act.

The last day for a response to an AWG survey asking for playwright input to the potential new Australian playwriting organisation was Friday 20th. We’re hoping, given the times we are all enduring that there may be a bit of leeway for late responders.

Can you click on this link to offer your ten pennorth worth amidst this chaos? We know it seems unreal right now but there will be a future and it would be good for as many of us who are directly concerned to be part of shaping it.

7-ON lends its support to the AWG statement about the REA  review,  A Consolidated Vision for Plays and Playwriting in Australiaand commends the hard work of all who have worked to bring the situation to the next stage.

Thursday, 30 January 2020

What we did June—December 2019

This past six months, every second was accounted for. There was a bit of everything, from productions and tours, to rehearsals and teaching, dramaturgy and even some actual writing.

Between July and November I opened four shows. The Red Tree musical adaptation with composer Greta Gertler Gold of Shaun Tan’s book, played at the Sydney Opera House and then the Melbourne Arts Centre.

In August I ran between rehearsal rooms for Take Two: A Comedy of Errors at the National Theatre of Parramatta, and Splinter at Griffin, which both happened to have the same opening night. Fortunately Splinter was a second production so needed few tweaks, but Take Two saw me set up office on the train, rewriting as I travelled the T2 Inner West line.

A few days after Splinter finished with a tour to Albury’s Hothouse Theatre, Starstruck  rehearsals began. For this musical adaptation of Gillian Armstrong’s 1982 film, I collaborated with Mitchell Butel on the book, and went from Splinter’s cast of two to 25 singing and dancing NIDA students.

Between all this, I taught master classes and workshops for Moogahlin, for Broome’s Goolarri Writers (twice!), and at Jamieson High School, and dramaturged Fred Copperwaite’s The Burning, Mari Lourey’s Dirt Cloud and James Elazzi’s play Lady Tabouli.

I launched Summer Timemy third picture book with illustrator Antonia Pesenti, which we followed with readings in Melbourne and at the AGNSW. I wrote a first draft of A Christmas Carolfor The Ensemble’s 2020 season. And thanks to a grant from the City of Sydney, with Greta and Antonia I started work on Alphabetical Sydney: All Aboard, an immersive musical theatre for children.

But this year? No idea.

The theatrical highlight of my last six months has been seeing Anthem. Not only is the piece a riveting wake up call, in the context of where we are as a country, it gives us a terrifying portrait of where we are going. The ramifications of a post-truth world impacting on the individual lives of everyone struggling to make ends meet.

The bush fires have only added to the dislocation and isolation felt by many. Stop-gap measures to prevent more fires, not even likely to achieve that goal, ignore the brutal reality of where we are as a society. We were warned by Ross Garnaut’s 2008 Climate Report that, unless we took action against Climate Change that this would happen. And it has. On cue in 2020.

We have to be cleverer and more tactical in our response to a world lurching towards self- destruction. We have to convince the deniers, especially those who have swallowed the Murdoch propaganda or been seduced by the likes of Clive Palmer’s hollow promises. Many of these people live on the edge, a place many of us have little experience of. Many are afraid. Waving placards at them as we drive through their depressed towns is not likely to win them over. Plays like Anthem might. Which is why I’m so excited about the next project 7-ON is cooking up. But more of that later.

On a personal front, my last six months have been typically roller coaster-ish in terms of writing. I’ve finished my book. Worked with a brilliant editor, Bernadette Foley, who guided me and gave me the best (and most detailed) dramaturgical advice I’ve ever had. Feeling very happy about it, especially after my family took me out to lunch to celebrate reaching the end. Now to finding a publisher. A brave new world for a nascent writer of fiction. It’s a very different one to the world of the playwright.

Talking of the world of the playwright, I had the great pleasure of directing Angela Betzien’s Children of the Black Skirt and the impossibly hilarious Popular Mechanicals by Keith Robinson, Tony Taylor and that Shakespeare fella. There is nothing quite like working with teenagers on a show. The first read is, more often than not, met with raised eyebrows and (barely concealed) dismissive comments. Rehearsals involve any number of permutations, all of which have to be negotiated with limitless understanding and patience. Then, as the thing evolves, the doubts about said play disappear to be replaced by a heady mixture of excitement and blind fear (barely concealed). Watching a cast of teenagers extend themselves and deal with a myriad of self doubts to produce a performance never loses its magic. Witnessing their unbridled joy on Opening Night and their (barely concealed) sadness on Closing Night makes you appreciate how important theatre is.

So does Anthem.

On the writing front: My play Yellow Yellow Sometimes Blue which was produced by Q Theatre at the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre in Penrith, won the 2019 AWGIE Award for Community and Youth Theatre. I finished Experiment Street and it went to air on ABC Radio National’s The History Listen in October. You can download the podcast here. Thanks to the determination of actor Inga Romantsova, Crossing the Quince, a script for a female actor and a male tap dancer that I wrote forever ago, had a December workshop. I  completed a new draft of a new play, and began work on a monologue-cum-performance essay: The End of Winter. Research for that has involved—amongst other things—a workshop on icebergs and a journey to the bottom of New Zealand’s South Island.

On the dreaming or ‘what if’ front: I’ve been thinking about my multi-part endeavour, Can Theatre Change the World? The first work, Dear Scott— my collected letters to the then Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, was presented at Melbourne’s fortyfivedownstairs in 2015. (I tried to get a Sydney outing for Dear Scott— without success. Make of that what you will.) I’ve since begun another piece about Scott Morrison, a short called I Contain Platitudes. There are a couple more scripts—still at the rough sketch/idea stage—under the Can Theatre Change the World? umbrella. A blend of agitprop, documentary theatre and poetic intervention, my Can Theatre Change the World? projects are in part about the role of writers and artists in society. About the responsibility we have not only to speak out about injustices, and hold elected governments to account for the things they do in our name, but also, and importantly, to speak out in imaginative and creatively ambitious ways.

What on earth have I done in the last six months? I finished the doctorate I’ve been working on for nearly four years and I started an Internship with an organisation that oversees fifteen South Australian Regional Councils to research a series of questions about the ‘creative industries’ in that vast area of startling landforms in my home state of South Australia. Have I done any writing other than academic investigation or research analytic? Nope. (Actually, not quite true—I re-wrote a kids’ fantasy novel, but nobody asked me to, so does it count? I think not. Fly well, angel, as they say.)

At some point during that six months, I fell into a landscape rabbit-hole after a few nights of no-tent camping under the stars in the extraordinarily spooky lands of the Southern Flinders Ranges, plus a series of visits to an isolated part of Kangaroo Island. I think I have been bewitched. I am really quite old now. How come I never understood quite how beautiful my region is?

Then there were the fires at Christmas/New Year, especially on Kangaroo Island. And now we are all inside a national paradigm shift—so very uncomfortable—as we struggle to absorb the fact that we’ve been pitched or have pitched ourselves into an irrevocable and perhaps impossible future. Do I have any answers, personal or communal? Nope.

It is strange to think of what I did last year when the ecological devastation of this summer has changed the sense of everything—order, continuity and time itself. The greatest creativity, the life-giving creativity of the natural world engulfed in destruction—murder by human hand.

So I won’t talk of what I’ve done except to offer these sculptures I’ve created. They are part of a series called Relics of the Anthropocene Age:

Walking away from writing plays was the best thing I did last year. Teaching, dramaturging and mentoring emerging writers continued apace with Hot House Theatre, PWA, University of Wollongong, Q Theatre and Arts Out West, but … script development does not a writing career make. Neither does working hard on labour-of-love projects, going around in circles, then working harder to either crash or crash through. Nor does my default—if vigilance slips—that can insidiously shift hospitable solitude into internalised self-abuse. The day dawned. I gave up. For good. Did my gigs and day jobs, and read novels for a month. In July, when I delivered a speech at the Parramatta Female Factory Precinct about recovering freedom through art, I was not speaking about me. In September, on a panel at the Rose Scott Women Writer’s Festival, despite the enthusiastic exchange, I felt like a closeted has-been.

I told my big-hearted arts-business coach about my decision. When she said, “Donna, this sounds like burnout”, every bone in my body sighed. God damn. I knew it wasn’t depression or writer’s block. It was bad practice born of fatigue and fanatical devotion. It was concussion from another year of bashing my head against walls. In 2019, I wrote twenty odd grant and fellowship applications, expressions of interest, play competition entries, submissions to development programs, and approaches to new agents, but this effort had yielded almost nothing, and had poured too much of my precious time and precious energy down the shitter … I could have been earning a buck. I could have been having a life.

My coach said, “Donna, the patriarchy doesn’t want you to succeed”. Shorthand for acknowledging my place among the cultural exclusions and culls and backlashes going on here and globally under neo-liberalism et al (e.g. federal Arts Department erasure, Australia Council operational funding EOI spill, strengthening of the Major Performing Arts Framework; worth reading Some solutions to the world of the disappearing arts by David Pledger. 

In September, when Noëlle, Hilary and I met with the adviser to the Minister for Arts to discuss the loss of operational funding for the bleedingly obviously crucial Australian Script Centre, I realised in a way I hadn’t before that power, real power, sits with too few men who have no interest in undoing inequity and privilege. That’s a fact. That’s the structural drill for the foreseeable future.

Then … the play I had abandoned starts waking me up at three o’clock in the morning with a whisper so insistent I have to get up and make notes. She doesn’t want me to return to my desk. She just wants me to listen. In those wee hours, night after night, I hear her clarity and conviction. She knows exactly what she needs to be, and how I need to be when I’m with her. The day dawns. I take the pile of notes from my night table, and return to writing plays.

Sorry Amanda Palmer, but last year, the Art of Asking didn’t work for me. What did work was letting go, creating kind and unencumbered space, deep listening, replenishing, and being receptive to unforeseen invitations. With no effort from me, the year ended with a second production of my play Jump For Jordan included in the 2020 Darlinghurst Theatre Season, and a co-commission with the Australian Theatre for Young People. Also, my one successful submission—which led to a staged reading of my short play Stella Started It in the Storyteller’s Festival—has landed me among a formidable creative team who will produce an extended version of the play with Green Door Theatre Company and the Griffin Theatre Company in the Batch Festival in April.