Saturday, 25 January 2014

The last half of 2013—what we did

The last half of 2013 was swallowed up for me by personal events. But in between that … I had a performance at the State Library of SA of a staged reading of a verbatim piece called The Red Cross Letters. This was a selection of the correspondence between the Red Cross Information Bureau of the time and bereaved relatives of soldiers killed or wounded during the First World War. It was a lovely gig that came out of the blue and seems likely to go on to have a fuller, and properly staged life.

I had another reading, through The Reading Sessions,  a very proactive and talented indie group here in Adelaide, of my 2009 play, The Ice Season. This play has been in development for so long that a sensible person would have tossed it. But I’m glad I haven’t because whatever happens with regard to a production, I think I have finally solved the writing task concerned. So I was really grateful for the chance to test that.

Another of the rather lively groups around Adelaide, Play-See-Bo, had a reading of a 2010 play of mine, The Sweetest Thing. Again, it was so great to have a chance to get to know more Adelaide actors and theatre makers. There’s a lively theatre culture here, probably the result of sustained training by the two tertiary institutions, Flinders University and the Adelaide College for the Arts. It’s interesting that although there is still a drain of theatre makers to the East, many really talented people are choosing to stay. This might be because there’s also a modest funding stream for new work through the SA Ministry for the Arts (unlike NSW where I lived until recently) so although Adelaide sometimes feels out of the Eastern States mainstream, in fact people can both have a life (it’s cheaper here!) and practice their craft.

The last development of mine looks to the future. I received some funding from the said Ministry for the Arts to interview veterans of the 1966 Battle of Long Tan for a proposed verbatim theatre piece on that battle. It’s a huge project and one that I hope I can do justice to. First step is a period of fairly constant travel, for which I’m gearing up now.

The Patrick White Fellowship means I’ve been spending a lot of time in the building of the Sydney Theatre Company. Treating it as a kind of residency, it’s given me a way to get out of the house, with the added pleasure of good conversations every time I’m there—there’s always someone interesting wandering around. I’m working on a new play for the commission part of the fellowship.

July saw a two-day workshop of Piss Elegant, at NIDA, with a stellar cast and an unbeatable director. August was Platonic, at Albury-Wodonga (see 7-ON’s round-up). September—Merrigong workshopped the musical I’m writing with composer Phillip Johnston, about E. W. Cole of the Funny Picture Book and Book Arcade, called Do Good And You Will Be Happy. If it’s October, it must be Perfect Stranger. A play that’s been kicking around for a while and is only a draft or two away from being production-ready. Director Sarah Giles has been championing it for some time, and she pulled together an extraordinary cast for a reading in STC’s Loft Space. November I took part in the Penguin Play’s Rough project, Details Unknown, reading my own piece at the Sydney Justice and Police Museum. December took me to Adelaide for Cutaway: A Ceremony, a show I worked on with the folks at Vitalstatistix; and I sent off the final draft of The Seagull, which I’ve adapted for the State Theatre Company of SA.

And Alphabetical Sydney, a picture-book created with illustrator Antonia Pesenti, hit the bookshops in October and is now enjoying a third reprint.

It’s fun this 6 monthly wrap up. Fun because I can’t remember what I’d said last time. And revelatory. I’ve been doing a lot of writing. Hey, I’m a writer so that make sense. The three projects I talked about in the last wrap up have continued to surprise me with their comings and goings. They’re like tennis players in that they seem to be going up and down in the rankings.

The film, a screenplay based on the first section of Playground Duty, has fallen in the rankings and is now ranked third. I’ve been told it’s a long haul. I believe it! I’ve written a treatment and nutted out the beats. I might even say I’ve been given the treatment. But that, as they say in the classics, is another story.

The book is being re-imagined and I’m very excited about it. Can’t wait to get back at it, in fact. It’s no longer a biography but now a work of fiction based on fact. All I need is the time to write the bloody thing. It’s ranked second as we speak.

The play has surged in the rankings in part because of the coaching it has received from 7-ON at our retreat in Albury. It’s looking good. As long as it can hold its serve and the writer can hold his nerve. 

One of the highlights of the past six months has been sharing Donna’s wonderful journey and seeing Hilary’s book go off. Not to mention the rest of the 7’s achievements. Like VB’s impending directorial debut, Cath’s beautiful paintings, Noëlle’s capacity to astound, and Verity’s beautiful words.

The Finding Your Voice project with Bendigo and Karen kids that I wrote about in the last wrap up was a winner and blew everyone away. Nothing like seeing kids tell their own stories in their own voices. I seem to have become a serial blogger now that my new website is up and running. It’s amazing how many people check it out and even more amazing how many weird and wunnerful comments are posted. The thing is I’m writing and that can’t be a bad thing. Can it? I’ve also graduated from nice country dad to chairman of the board in David Parker’s new film The Menkoff Method, so let's hope 2014 offers up some more acting work.

2013 was an interesting and challenging year. Adapting to the highs and lows of freelancing after years of working as a teacher (picking and choosing writing and acting work) has been a challenge. The publishing of the collection, Shakespeare for Australian Schools has definitely been a highlight of the last six months and Playground Duty seems to be tootling along. I’m doing a project with Arts Centre in Melbourne working with three primary schools recording a re-telling a Hans Christian Anderson story. The 12 odd stories will be played at the Arts Centre in a series of audio installations towards the end of the year. So, it’s up and at ’em and lets see how the cookie crumbles.

The end of June my mother went into hospital. I had to drop everything and fly to England for what I knew was the end of her life. July was spent in a whirl of public officials and solicitors and house-clearing. I expected sorting out my parent’s house to be incredibly sad—and it was, but it also turned into a quiet celebration of my mother’s and father’s life, as my brother and I uncovered all sorts of surprising and intriguing bits of their (and our) histories. Not to mention drawers full of keys to locks long gone and God knows what.

When I got back home to Sydney I expected to dive straight back into writing. But life doesn’t always play out as you intend, and it took me a while to get back up to speed.

September I had the last part of my University of Queensland/Arts Queensland Creative Fellowship. I’d completed a draft of Scratchland#, the commission that was part of the Fellowship, and it had a short workshop and presentation in Brisbane. It’s a very ‘out there’ piece so I’m delighted it not only went really well, but also that I’ve found a sympatico director/dramaturg, and we’re very keen to continue our collaboration.

As well as a short poem in a November Poetica, I had 2 radio works broadcast on ABC Radio National in August: a feature, My Life in Cookbooks, and a drama, Cloud Cover. Also broadcast, was Home Cooking, a short drama, part of 89.7 Eastside FM’s Sonic Tales.

What else? Third Person had its second production. This one at the University of Queensland’s Geoffrey Rush Studio. October I spent in the US, in New Haven, New York and New Jersey. And you can read my performance essay Hardheads & Woolly Thinking in Text Special Issue 18: NonfictionNow.

Ah this 6 month thing. Gah! What is 6 months in the life of a writer anyway? It’s either: ALL HAIL THE YAY!! Or else it’s: Life is a Sucky bowl of Suckiness. Thinking about 2013 and its nasty Year Of The Snake vibe, well the end half felt like a lot of frantically pedalling feet to keep from sinking into the suckiness bowl. Some of that was health, some was family and friends, a whole lot was boring financials. Because, here’s a newsflash for all aspiring playwrights … um … it doesn’t pay a whole lot. It seems strange that a fully grown person like myself can come to that conclusion and be a mid career playwright but there ‘tis.

Still, as we all know, it’s not about the money, it’s about the shiny, glittering GLAMOUR. That glamour was foremost in my mind as I de-nitted myself and my family yesterday. That and … dear God the school holidays are not over yet how can we possibly all have nits now. But enough of the impossibly glamorous lifestyle of moi, here’s what the arse end of 2013 had for me: In August, a great big sleepover/residency with 7-ONers at the Hothouse Month In The Country. So this was fantastic and, as evidenced by the guestbook, much appreciated by many many playwrights and theatre-makers around the country. You would be amazed at how many of your fave shows had their beginnings in this humble house. One day I expect Hothouse will publish a very cool coffee-table type book with guestbook entries, pics and glam post-residency show shots akimbo. Hopefully 7-ON’s Platonic will be among them.

In October I was … Singled Out. Multi-talented Augusta Supple directed this multi-playwright show about single living, at the Seymour Centre. I wrote two pieces for this and had an absolute ball.

At some stage in this second half I did get some v. good news … three of my plays are in production in 2014: Every Second, directed by Shannon Murphy (who did an ace job with Porn.Cake at the Griffin in 2012) and produced by Michael Sieders and the Darlinghurst Theatre Company at the spruce new Eternity Theatre in June. The Magic Hour, directed by Chris Bendall (who previously directed Checklist For An Armed Robber for Deckchair Theatre and theatre@risk) is touring a bunch of venues around the country, starting at the Queensland Theatre Company in May. And Checklist For An Armed Robber is being directed in Newcastle, in October by Chloe Perrett for Stooged Theatre. Excellent!

There are a few exciting things on the horizon but they don’t really count as 2013 so I’m going to keep quiet for the minute. New stuff? Well there’s The Source Of Joy, all shivery new and far too babyish to send into the big wide world just now. And The River etc and Chipper … out there, lookin’ for love, but nothing to report back yet. Hmm, that 6 months thing? I guess it’s not really that bad when you look back over it. There were bad days during the year but they all sort of smooth out in the end. Hey, I kept writing even when I felt really down and that’s a good thing right? So, yeah. And that nit thing … that’s more of a 2014 thing anyway, so pretend you never read it. And come see my plays!

Well, the last six months have been mythically tough. The obstacles in the way have been considerable and unforeseen—a common snakey experience it seems. However, with that came breakthroughs, shedding some old skin, definite triumphs against stubborn forces, and room for new things.

The big thing on my plate was Jump For Jordan, which is in rehearsal as I write. Picked up by the Griffin Theatre Company after it won their playwriting award, the play has been in re-write mode since August, a rewrite which has been arduous and perennial. The play had a workshop in August, sponsored by PWA and USyd, and another table read at Griffin in November, each event flipping the rewriting on its head. There is a mighty team behind the production, so while it still feels overwhelming, I am quietly confident that the play will be very well served.

Otherwise, in July I went to the ADSA conference in Adelaide, caught up with lovely Verity, and had a Christine Evans binge, listening to her inspiring presentations and seeing her glorious piece Trojan Barbie produced by Flinders Uni students under the direction of Rosalba Clemente. Cath, Noëlle and I dined with Christine when she afterwards came to Sydney, and my hope is that down the track 7-ON and Christine may collaborate. In August, I stepped back into the position of chair of the board of Powerhouse Youth Theatre, and was dramaturg on their beautiful verbatim piece The Violence Project which opened at the Fairfield School of Arts in November. I enjoyed assessing 26 scripts for Sydney Girls High School, and supervising a playwriting student at Wesley Institute. I amused myself by writing a play a day for a month, and think that work may provide a prototype for a new play. My play The Sound Of Plants Thinking was recorded at Eastside radio, who have stepped into the chasm left behind by the ABC's shameful abandoning of the radio drama format, and do a really good job, I might add.

Lastly, and happily, I acquired a new office. It is an old storage room at the back of my block, on a cliff overlooking the Cooks River. Glaziers, locksmiths, electricians and asbestos-removers have been and gone. The next step—as soon as Jump For Jordan sets me free—is to paint it Panama Rose, get the floor sanded and polished, and a doggy door installed. Then I can move my desk out of my bedroom … and get to work finishing my thesis.

Although we’re scattered over 3 states and 4 cities, and face-to-face get-togethers are infrequent, we have some great discussions via email. In August 7-ON had a Hothouse ‘Month in the Country’ residency (see earlier post here). Noëlle and Verity weren’t able to go to Albury, but 5 out of 7 isn’t bad, and as a result, we’ve been able to make good progress with Platonic. Specifically, how do we mesh 7 voices and 7 sensibilities into a coherent piece of theatre that adds up to more than the sum of its parts? Stay tuned for future developments … not only with Platonic, but who knows, perhaps with some of our other projects?

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