Saturday, 31 January 2015

What we did July—December 2014

Some random, ravey type words about the last half of 2014: In July a short play I wrote, The Source, (directed by Scarlett McGlynn) was produced by Rock Surfers Theatre for Bondi Feast (A Place To Call Home). In July also, I caught up with The Magic Hour tour in Canberra at The Street Theatre before it went on its merry way eventually finishing in Darwin. Meanwhile, Every Second, beautifully directed by Shannon Murphy, was playing at the spanking new Eternity Playhouse.

In October, Stooged Theatre did a fantastic production of Checklist For An Armed Robber at the Playhouse in Newcastle. I think this was the 5th professional production of this play but there have been a huge number of student productions too. My agent calls it The Little Play That Could. (Toot!)

Towards the end of the year I worked with Tantrum Youth Arts in Wyong with director Anna Kerrigan and a great group of young people. We made a play called Central Coast Ghosts and it was top fun. So far so good but sadly also my email account turned up its toes towards the end of the year and I lost contact with, well, everyone. I am so hopeless with emaily computerish things that I fell into a bit of an emotional heap despite all the help from all the people around me and via phone and Facebook. Being computer illiterate sucks. I like to think I have other skills. Still, in 2015 Tantrum has commissioned me (via smoke signals) to write a full length play which is excellent. Yay the commission. And yay for 2015. Despite technological woes and nation despair (slipped that in, eh) I am hoping that this will be a Year Of Jolliness. Not to mention Kindness. Fingers crossed.

I’ve continued on with the new ‘Play’ as it forms and then becomes formless once again. I’ve just embraced it and certain central aspects of my art I’ve simply had to let go of. For instance—extremely specific stage directions and character outlines and numbers and so on. The ground shifts under the play, it is making do to make believe but even that is up for contention—why on earth should the audience be demanded to believe anything at all? Nothing new in that, however the text is now a found object, an artefact with images embedded as clues. Use them as stage directions or on publicity flyers! Do what you will—just pay me.

In September, my adaptation of Monkey, Journey to the West opened at the Brisbane Festival then transferred to Parramatta Riverside Theatres. Happily, given the 6 year lead-time, this production will have a few more outings this year, in April and October, playing five cities all up. I've had a lovely time being part of the AWG's NSW Events Committee, helping to organise events in which writers reflect on this curious pursuit called dramatic writing.

As a board member of Powerhouse Youth Theatre, I participated in a fundamental revamp of the company's structure, and watched our next generation of emerging artists take to the stage with much passion and confidence.

With Dom Sweeney and the Sydney Theatre School, I've laid the groundwork for a series of writer-led script development workshops to be trialled in the first half of this year. I taught scriptwriting at Wesley Institute to some vivacious and receptive students. And I have again arrived at that place called ‘between projects’, wondering what my next gig will be …

Having attempted to make a living as a freelancer for the last few years I came to the realisation in July 2014 that it was time to get a job. A year’s Long Service Leave enabled me to write my book, Playground Duty, but also allowed me to imagine I could re-define myself as a freelance artist at the age of 60. I somehow imagined moving to Melbourne would result in lots of writing (and acting) work that paid me enough to focus exclusively on my twin passions. It’s not that I haven’t been working. I have. I’ve written a new book, a new play, a screenplay and heaps of articles. I’ve loved that. I’ve loved the writing. I’ve also done a few acting gigs.

I’ve applied for everything under the sun and done some very rewarding work teaching playwriting to refugees and primary school students in rural areas. But, the truth is I wasn’t making a living. So, when I received yet another rejection letter, I came to the conclusion that I had to get a job. I’m lucky in that regard. I’m a teacher and I love teaching and I was lucky enough to score a great part time teaching job. 

Some people can make a living from writing but I’m not one of them. I’ve come to the realisation that I need a job to support my writing. I’m not the only writer to make that discovery.

What I love best about making a life in the arts is that no day is ever the same. No day is even vaguely predictable. Within the same week last July, I went from working up a Sydney presentation of my musical starring the astonishing Mitchell Butel, to sitting in a Perth rehearsal room watching Greta Scacchi inhale the spirit of Arkadina, to teaching a class of gifted writers at Griffin. Another brief period found me at Blaxland High School working with young playwrights, watching the New Theatre’s production of my play Wolf Lullaby, and admiring close-up and in real life the lovely skin of our former prime minister. (More on that.) While there are certainly periods of multiple rejections, writer’s block, professional conflicts and industrial dismay, there is never anything resembling boredom. The upside of not knowing what’s going to happen next is … not knowing what’s going to happen next.

Some highlights: Rehearsing Do Good And You Will Be Happy in Sydney Theatre’s Richard Wherrett Studio with a brilliant cast, MD and director Terence O’Connell. Opening night of The Seagull, directed by Kate Cherry for Black Swan. And After Julia: Composer Andrée Greenwell asked me to provide lyrics for a song cycle responding to Gillard’s time in office. This was performed by Decibel, a new music ensemble, live on ABC Radio—for an audience including Julia Gillard herself.

Meanwhile, work continues apace with an adaptation of The Red Balloon for Black Swan, my Patrick White Fellowship commission for STC, and two new books for children, both in verse. And I’ve had a satisfying year on the AWG’s Playwrights’ Committee, working with my colleagues towards improving conditions for Australian dramatists.

The second half of 2014 was a mix of introspection and public events. In September/October I was in the US. Initially for the Windham Campbell Festival, and then to do some research in Oklahoma for a new project. The Windham Campbell Festival was an exhilarating, thought-provoking, full-on week of discussion, live readings—and a workshop and presentation by Yale Drama of Scratchland# directed by Margot Bordelon.

Research takes you to places you never imagined you’d go—like Oklahoma. I was based in Tulsa, whose CBD boasts some truly fabulous art deco architecture, the modernist vision of the city par excellence. The sad part is that it’s like a lot of US cities: inside out. An almost empty downtown, because almost everybody and almost everything has moved to the outer suburbs.

After the Windham Campbell came a reality crash. Could say more about this … but I think I’ll leave it at that. The prize, meeting my fellow winners, and starting several conversations with colleagues at Yale has given me a lot of food for thought. Forget practicalities and ‘industry’ constraints, what do I really want to write? And (to paraphrase Hilary's excellent question) what makes a work count?

I spoke at a couple of writers’ events in Sydney. Presented a new performance essay: Blasted Island—Nauru’s backstory as part of the Sydney Opera House’s 2014 Festival of Dangerous Ideas. And worked on a short play, Saul & Dazzle, for Offshore, a Brisbane-based project with 6 playwrights—from Queensland, the Northern Territory, Singapore, and NSW.

I’ve done nothing public bar some dramaturgy and a workshop for a play by the lovely Sheila Duncan. (It’s called Bird—keep an eye out for it when it flies your way). I’ve been to Vietnam to further research the play I’m writing about the Battle of Long Tan. (Currently three scenes past the—rather unexpected—interval on the first draft, but first drafts, hmm, sticky persons, aren’t they?)

I have also resurrected a play that I thought was a shocker when I finished writing it … dreadful rush, deadlines looming, looming, loomed … but on second thoughts … sometimes you don’t know what you’re writing when you’re writing it … the plea for time to let things evolve instead of having to pressure cooker them, because the business model ain’t really a business model, is it?

For the battle play, I’ve been interviewing veterans all around the country. (My phone bill! Lawks!) I’ve finished another project, too, but it needs sitting time, so sitting it is. And I’m working on a long-form prose piece, too, but same-same—it, and I, need more time. A poem of mine, In Which The Monster Talks to His Island, was runner-up in the Bruce Dawe Poetry Prize. I continue somewhat bemusedly to write more poetry, though I feel like a fraud as, besotted as I am by the tricks and charms of the ultimate word-game, it’s not my main schtick. I don’t know, chaps (non-gender specific ones, naturellement—and, yes, France is on the list for 2015 …). I’m really not sure about this writing thing at the moment. Ask me again in six months time …

In the latter part of 2014 we started moving our site-specific work, 13.11.35, closer to production. Hopefully. We looked at our existing script with fresh eyes and the benefit of dramaturgical distance. We’ve cut and added and re-thought and re-written. We’ve got a director on board, and a producer … so fingers crossed 2015 will see this work get up. We’ll keep you posted.

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