Friday, 19 July 2019

What we did January—June 2019

Climate change, widening inequality, the residue of colonialism, questions of democracy, citizenship and human rights. Events here in Australia and on the world stage prompted us to return to 7 Social Sins (working title). We had a session with dramaturg Louise Gough which threw up a wealth of possibilities. We’ve been thinking about those and discussing where we go from here. And we’ve come up with the usual problem we encounter with our collective (and sometimes also our individual) projects: the lack of a producer and/or producing company. One option we are currently considering is paring the work back to its absolute simplest form. Stay tuned.

Female artist & big fish. Photo from the Australian Museum archives, circa 1925

I started mentoring Aanisa Vylet who premiered the first iteration of her show Savauge during the Batch Festival at Griffin in March. I was able to help leverage Aanisa’s creative process by contextualising her work for her within feminist theatre practice, a history and rich resource too often not taught or tapped into. I’ve also started working with the Q Theatre and Arts Out West to support four regional writers who will have plays workshopped and read later in the year.

On the publication front, Australian Plays published an essay I co-authored with Emma Mary Hall and Grace Pundyk called Keep going sister, I will translate for you: Reflections on the 2018 Women's Playwriting International Conference in Santiago, Chile and Currency Press published my adaptation Tales From the Arabian Nights. I wrote Arabian Nights during the Tampa crisis which saw Australia’s asylum seeker policies lurch towards a mean-heartedness beyond our then imagination. The play has a framing story about asylum seeking and, given the global escalation of the refugee crisis, is unexpectedly more relevant than ever.

I ran writing workshops for ATYP and PYT Fairfield, taught scriptwriting at the University of Wollongong and Excelsia College, spent days and days on applications and acquittals, and joined the team working to transform the Parramatta Female Factory Precinct into a Site of Conscience. Meanwhile, I keep believing in the two plays on my desk.

The first part of 2019 I spent completing a poetry manuscript that I’ve been working on for a while. It’s called Scratchland and it’s composed of two parts: Scenarios & solos from a mixed landscape and True crimers. (Yes, it does tilt at the crime genre.) Scratchland is being published and will be out the beginning of 2020. Very exiting.

In February Devil Girl From Mars—The Play had a reading as part of PLAYLIST, a partnership between the Seymour Centre, the Sydney Mardi Gras and Siren Theatre Company. The script was hot off the computer, very much a first draft, and somewhat underwritten. (Some people’s first drafts are overwritten, mine are invariably under.) Anyway. It’s always useful to hear a new work read by actors before an audience, and it was great to collaborate again with director Kate Gaul, albeit briefly. I have a sheaf of notes for the next draft and plan to return very soon to Devil Girl From Mars—The Play.

I completed an audio script, Experiment Street, in June. A commission for ABC Radio National’s The History Listen, it’s a nonfiction feature about Experiment Street, which is, yes, a real street in Pyrmont (an inner city Sydney suburb). It’s a small, unremarkable back lane, but its name has long intrigued me … so I set off to discover its history and explore the tensions between public narration and private truths.

What else? Seoul City Sue was short-listed for the 2019 NSW Premier’s Literary Award (Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting). And in May I was part of the 2019 NT Writers’ Festival in Alice Springs. It was a wonderfully diverse, wonderfully inclusive, enjoyable and thought-provoking few days. It was my first visit to central Australia—I’m pretty sure it won’t be my last.

I think there are now many playwrights/writers who have undertaken Creative Arts PhDs. So, if I say that for the last six months, what I’ve been doing has been bringing my doctorate to a conclusion, you/they will understand that I haven’t had much time to do anything else.

I’m not quite done yet. But can I say to others out there who are contemplating the same activity, do go for it. For me, it has been a glorious adventure, with capable, kind, consummately intelligent guides. Yes, hard work. But also the chance to take nigh on three years to research the theory, practice and subject material around writing a particular play in a particular way.

The whole process has reminded me that we so need time for the deep endeavours that have nothing to do with the politics of our art or making a buck. It’s been a privilege.

It’s been six months of hurry-up-and-wait.

While much of the writing life is under your control—you decide to sit down this many hours, this many days a week, and ignore or embrace this many distractions—there’s a big part that isn’t. And that consists, largely, of waiting. Waiting to hear if a project’s been funded, or if a theatre company is interested. Waiting for feedback from a director who’s busy working on something else. Waiting for your composer’s schedule to clear. All that waiting would seem like a good time to start something new, but with the possibility that any moment you’ll have to drop it and re-focus, that can be tricky.

So, in between waiting, I’ve spent the past six months shepherding along various projects. Take Two: A Comedy of Errors (formerly Ha Ha Woops, a title gifted by Vanessa that I love, but Marketing didn’t) goes into rehearsals next month at National Theatre of Parramatta. A January workshop with director Stefo Nantsou, designer Imogen Ross, and a band of fearless actors finished with a showing for kids who’d never seen a play before. They didn’t know what hit them as they sat on the rehearsal room floor, five adults singing and dancing in dress-ups just feet away from them.

For Bell Shakespeare, director Sarah Giles and I had a day with actors on Vicious Cupid, my adaptation of Susannah Centlivre’s 1705 comedy, The Basset Table.

My third picture book with illustrator Antonia Pesenti, Summer Time, is about to head to Singapore for printing, and will be in bookshops for Christmas.

After a year of intermittently writing the audio-script for Dead Central, the exhibition about the Devonshire St Cemetery opened at the State Library of NSW, and runs till November (free entry!).

And NTOP’s 2017 production of The Red Tree is currently showing at the Sydney Opera House, and tours to the Arts Centre Melbourne at the end of July. It was a fast and furious week of rehearsal pulling it all back together, but it’s better than ever, and a joy to see it on the Playhouse stage.

Otherwise—lots of teaching, which I love: for Live Words in Bathurst, Dubbo Youth Theatre, Writing NSW, and the Inner West Council.

And then there are the things I can’t talk about yet, while I wait to hear if the funding comes through …

The last 6 months have been devoted to writing a new play and I’ve arrived now at Third Draft. Most of the writing has been with ease but this last draft was the dreaded one. There is always a dreaded draft, the one that has to find a way to solve problems without the internal reverie of the play being upended by logic.

It was also hard to write as Playwriting Australia, the organisation which supported this script, collapsed. This play was supported through the Duologue Program, an initiative dedicated to the often unheralded creative collaborative process that gives birth to a play.

PWA described the opportunity as ‘funding the hours of discussion, draft reading, feedback and dialogue in the nascent stages of the creation of a new work. The program supports a year long creative partnership between a playwright and artistic collaborator of their choosing (dramaturg or fellow playwright).’

I was blessed to have the considerable dramaturgical eye of Alison Lyssa to work with. The play is now close to being finished and going off out into the world.

Sadly, it is unknown whether playwrights will have the same opportunity to develop their plays with a colleague of their choosing through the Duologue Program in the future.

At a time when I’ve been focussing on writing a book and full-time teaching it’s been heartening to discover that quite a few of my plays for young people are still doing the rounds. In no particular order, Alice Dreaming, Love’s Magic and my adaptation of Women of Troy have all had productions during the first half of the year. Alice has been performed by three schools, Love’s Magic by two and Women of Troy one. One school even inquired about the rights to that old chestnut, Us or Them.

Not only that, but John Senczuk in his comprehensive history of Griffin Theatre Company, has rightly credited Us or Them as being the first play where Griffin paid the cast and crew, and the breakthrough play in transforming Griffin from an amateur to a professional company. For the record, the original production of Us or Them (starring the late, great Penny Cook) was meant to play for 4 weeks but went on to play for 18. As Nick Enright told me at the time it was a “hit”, although I didn’t know it. Being a novice playwright who began writing plays in between acting jobs, I had no idea what a “hit” was. I discovered it was when a play kept on running and running.

Beyond John’s history, there has been no recognition of the role Us or Them played in our theatre history or (I can say it now) its astonishing success. Of course, we playwrights don’t write plays to be recognised. We write them to say something about the world we live in. That’s why I am always thrilled to have schools produce my work.

From the feedback I get from teachers (and sometimes parents) it seems that young people love doing my plays. That’s great because I love them doing them.

Oh hey. The marvellous life of the playwright continues with me wondering if I should get my boots reheeled again and collecting coupons from the supermarket to buy sports equipment for the child’s school.

This playwriting year has sort of gone like this for me ... yay! Tops! Brillo! Yeah really? OK. Not so cool. Blah. Blah. What the? Yeah OK. But alright. Actually, no. Get fucked. But hey! Indoor voice. Happy face. LOL. Meh.

OK so amidst all that ... my play A Ghost In My Suitcase went on at the Sydney Opera House and then in Perth at the Heath Ledger Theatre and this experience was up there with being told the IVF had worked. And there was something about creeping around backstage, hanging out with actors in the dressing room and then seeing the play over and over that reminded me why I love writing for theatre. Also that I love writing for women actors and also writing for brown women actors and if I can dig up that photo of me in the foyer of the Victorian Arts Centre, with the most incredible bunch of clever women I will. In extra jolly news, A Ghost In My Suitcase is being published by Currency Press and I HAVE SEEN THE COVER and it is AWEsome!

I have been commissioned! I KNOW! Cool! It is a play which I am currently calling The One it is a comedy and it is all thanks to Ensemble Theatre in Sydney which might have to be the most gorgeous theatre around. Now that the STC Wharf is closed for renos, maybe this is the only theatre left on the water currently. Is it? Dunno. But I have the big Playwright love for it. Now I just have to write the thing. Obvs I will say no more until it has eventuated but to be commissioned in this arts-shrinking climate is an awesome feat in itself.

Other plays ... Captain Dalisay, a big beautiful Eurasian kids play, needs a home stat before it joins my drawer of well written but sadly unperformed plays. Oh and a tiny little play I love, Awkward Dancing had its first showing at RADA in London. Hooplah!

Various day job type jobettes are continuing, especially the writing of the fabulous Play School. Special shout out to Big Ted, Little Ted, Jemima and Humpty who were sitting backs to the glass wall, minding their own business, when the AFP raided the ABC. Yes, there is a bear in there! It brought a little smile to my face when I saw them. Which was good because there was precious little else to smile about.

Gee I feel like there’s more, and it’s just gone ... hmm, what could it be? Writing an hilarious 6-part comedy drama TV series? Applying to do a PhD? Our country’s peak playwriting organisation folding unexpectedly and with more than a little drama? My son becoming a teenager ...? oh man, life hey? You couldn’t write about it.

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

PlayWriting Australia Board replies to 7-ON letter

2 July 2019
Dear Donna, Vanessa, Hilary, Noelle, Verity, Ned and Catherine,
Thanks for your letter, which we were very pleased to receive. We’d like to take up your invitation to make a few things clearer.

We took the decision to open up space for a new way of supporting the Australian playwriting culture not because we thought it was ‘mission accomplished’, but because complex operational challenges faced by PWA had become insurmountable. We mentioned issues of sustainability in our announcement, and they are real. We reached this conclusion after a great deal of thorough investigation and soul searching.

It remains true that over the last two or three years there have been very significant, positive shifts in Australian playwriting. Indisputably, there is a wider diversity and companies are generally better at play development than they have been. This gave rise to the idea that maybe there was different and better way to respond to this improved landscape.

We can’t see that it will ever be ‘mission accomplished’ – that’s an unhelpful phrase but we can see that it’s imperative to respond responsibly to what’s before us, both internally and externally.

We are glad that you agree that a wide-ranging review of play development in Australia is needed. This will happen, and in a methodical and open way. We trust that it will tell us all what needs to best be done.

It’s not true to say that we will be without a national play development organisation for the first time since 1972. That role will continue to be played albeit through a different way of delivery, probably with the operational support of Griffin (but not drawing on their resources) up until after the findings of the national review, at which time a new, and we trust better, shape will be implemented. We expect to be able to announce details of the review within a week.

In fact, we have worked very hard to ensure that government and other funders will continue to be supportive, so that a play development agency will continue to exist in Australia, even in a new form.

There is no need for you to insist that playwrights are central to the review process. It’s entirely up to you to what extent you wish to participate in the review. We really do hope that you do so fully and constructively. As you say, you should be central in the process of developing what happens next.

We have been heartened by many messages of support, and only ask that everyone is respectful of all parties and careful not to spread misinformation. Our focus is firmly on the future, and we believe that, together, we will find the best future if all are similarly focused. 
Yours sincerely,
The PWA Board

Monday, 1 July 2019

7-ON responds to announcement that PWA is closing its doors

Dear PlayWriting Australia Board,

We were shocked by the PWA announcement last week that the board has decided that it is time to “pass the microphone and leave space for something different”. Your news that staff have been made redundant, and that playwrights are about to be without their only peak body, came without warning, and at a time when we thought that PWA was on the brink of a new phase of a deeper engagement with writers and the industry. This news is monumental. The fact that PWA can keep its current programs ticking over is cold comfort in the face of this inexplicable and sudden loss.

We realise PWA does not have a membership to answer to, but it exists to serve Australian playwrights - does it not? This lack of transparency with the playwriting community is troubling, if not paternalistic, and comes on the back of the unexplained departure of PWA’s previous Artistic Director. We feel frustrated to have been kept in the dark, and shut out of a drastic decision which has a direct impact upon us.

We do not accept the Board's assessment that it is ‘mission accomplished’ for PWA. If this was the case, why did PWA appoint a new AD/CEO within the last year, advertise its Artistic Associate position only months ago, and announce a new batch of programmes?

We were thrilled when PWA appointed the first playwright to ever head up the organisation. With his extensive knowledge of play development both here and overseas, playwrights felt confident that Lachlan Philpott would lead a renewal process - indeed, his initiatives and consultative Playwrights’ Forums suggested he was doing exactly that. We agree that a wide-ranging review of play development in Australia is needed, but was this not what Lachlan Philpott was trying to do?

As far as we know, neither playwrights nor the theatre sector called for PWA to fold. We therefore find it difficult to accept the Board’s reasons for dissolving the only organisation for Australian playwrights. The decision leaves us without a national play development organisation for the first time since 1972. It leaves the bulk of playwrights - notably rural, regional, emerging, mid career, unrepresented, everyone not working for a “major” - without any avenue of advocacy or support.

We are asking the Board to directly address PWA’s playwright constituency to explain your decision. We insist that playwrights are central to the review process, and not marginal to the process of developing what comes next.

Yours sincerely,
Donna Abela, Vanessa Bates, Hilary Bell, Noëlle Janaczewska, Verity Laughton, Ned Manning, Catherine Zimdahl

Sunday, 30 June 2019

Playwriting Australia is passing the microphone to ... who? what?

Playwriting Australia has announced that it has made its remaining staff redundant, and has put its reserves into trust so that a review can be conducted and something else can rise from these ashes. "Playwriting Australia is pleased to ... pass the microphone and leave space for something different". You can read their announcement on their website here.

We are reeling. "Redundant" Artistic Director and CEO Lachlan Philpott assumed that position less than a year ago. Lachlan has extensive experience of national and international play development, and was the first playwright ever to lead a national Australian play development organisation. We were thrilled. We were excited by his writer-centred vision. We send him all our love and support.

We are also raising questions.

Tuesday, 11 June 2019


Dead Central is an exhibition currently showing at the State Library of NSW

I had the pleasure of working on this project for over a year, with the Library's curator and creative producer, writing what would become an audio-script for the exhibition. More than an accompaniment, it serves as a guide, illuminating the extraordinary story of the plot of land beneath what is now Sydney's Central Station. 

Before the bush was cleared and levelled, Surry Hills was picturesque and peaceful, its rivulets emptying into Tumbalong, or Darling Harbour, its sandy ridges home to angophora and spotted gum. The nearby brickfields, with its clay soil (where World Square shopping mall now stands), supplied the colony's pottery. In 1820 however, the cemetery on  George St (current location of Sydney Town Hall) was not only bursting but decrepit, home to stray goats and ne'er-do-wells, so a new site was consecrated here, far away from the centre of things.

Graves were laid out in accordance with the order established in the Mother Land, and the Devonshire Street cemetery became the resting place for nation-builders and stillborn babies alike. Its residents included Mary Reiby, James Squire, Cora Gooseberry ('Queen of the Tribe of Sydney Aborigines', wife of Bungaree and daughter of Moorooboora), and Simeon Lord.

By 1860 it too became overcrowded, and its gates were locked. At the same time, the need for a central railway station was being hotly debated, as Sydney's suburbs spread and travel by horse-drawn omnibus and tram was proving impractical. Thankfully, the initial suggestion of Hyde Park (which would have led to the destruction of St James Church as well as the Park) was quashed. Sydneysiders saw their loved ones exhumed and packed off to Rookwood and La Perouse. 

The building of Central Station, starting in 1901, uncovered its own poignant stories, with strange finds discovered by labourers and recorded by journalists. There were blow-out costs, the defiant minister promising the result would ensure Sydney rivalled Paris in its beauty. The iconic clock tower was delayed by WW1, appearing finally in 1921.  

The material I had to work with came entirely from the archives of the State Library of NSW. It included letters, articles, maps, paintings, portraits, photographs, plenty of irate letters-to-the-editor, and artefacts such as a small yellow cardboard stub: the first train ticket out of Central.

Read by a wonderful cast including Matt Backer, Caroline Brazier, Rupert Degas, Annie Finsterer and Brandon Burke, and with an evocative soundscape, you can listen while you take in the visuals, especially the beautiful photographs of the abandoned cemetery, recorded presciently by Arthur and Josephine Foster, a couple who lived in Surry Hills. 

Get along if you're in Sydney, it's on till November 17, and it's FREE!
You'll never again feel the same as you walk through Devonshire St Tunnel. 

See you there,

Monday, 20 May 2019

The 2019 Federal Election

How do we respond to this?
In the face of a decision by more than half of the country that the wealthy deserve more, that immigrants are dangerous, that the environment is there for trashing, that the next generation can clean up our messes, it's hard to sit down and write.

In fact, the project we've been working on, 'The Sky is being Emptied of Birds', just keeps becoming more and more urgent. Initially called 'The Social Sins', it's a work that takes on the seven social sins as identified by a certain Reverend Donaldson in 1928, and adopted by Gandhi. These are:

Wealth without work
Pleasure without conscience
Knowledge without character
Commerce without morality
Science without humanity
Religion without sacrifice
Politics without principle

7-ON has been working on this project for over a year. In discussions, we were always referencing Trump, but clearly these sins are lapping on our own shores.

That's what we can do: write about this slow creep, wake people up to what they're increasingly accepting as 'normal', and continue to protest, loudly and clearly, through theatre.

Monday, 8 April 2019

We forgot to take a photo, but fortunately the moment was captured retrospectively by a sure artistic hand.

Last Saturday we engaged the sterling talents of dramaturge Louise Gough, to work with us on a project that has been fermenting for some time, but needed an outside eye to help us out of the quagmire (mixed metaphors, anyone?). And what an eye - Louise is insightful, articulate, kind but firm, and incredibly knowledgable: every playwright's dream.

Watch this space for further developments of the Seven Social Sins project, tentatively called 'The Sky Is Being Emptied of Birds'.