Sunday, 14 January 2018

What we did the second half of 2017

What on earth have I done in the months since we last updated our group activities? Well, mostly PhD stuff. I’ve been reading and reading, and I’ve written more (draft) chapters of my exegesis, with one completed more or less to my satisfaction. I’ve published a play at the Australian Script Centre (The Red Cross Letters); and I’ve interviewed Polish and Jewish World War II and in some cases extermination camp survivors for the play that will be the creative project part of the PhD. That was pretty humbling. I’ll be travelling to Poland next April to complete the research.

And a play of mine, The Zoo Keeper’s Daughter was a runner up (to a terrific piece by Katie Pollock) in the Griffin sponsored Martin Lysicrates Prize so there was a bit of a reading of that in October this year at the Riverside Theatre.

So. A holding pattern. Which is just fine.

The Arnotts Assorted nature of the first half of 2017 continued, and ramped up, in the second half. My brain changed gears many times (sometimes within the space of a week) between teaching, adapting, rewriting, TV, musicals, and making a cast recording.

The lead-up to October was all about The Red Tree, a musical inspired by Shaun Tan’s picture book for the National Theatre of Parramatta, composed by Greta Gertler Gold, starring Nicola Bowman and directed by Neil Gooding. Greta and I then set to work raising funds to make a recording, which will be out soon.

With first Andrea James and then Bjorn Stewart, I taught a group of exceptional actor/playwrights for PlayWriting Australia’s Muru Salon. I also ran courses for Griffin and the NSW Writers’ Centre.

Following on from the Maxi Shield/AIDS awareness video for ACON I wrote another, about gay men and STIs, voiced by my darling dad.

Thanks to an intro by fellow 7 Vanessa Bates, I wrote my first Play School ep. (piglets!). There were also two development workshops—with director Sarah Giles for Bell Shakespeare, and on a new play with PWA. And I got out my adaptation of Molière’s The Hypochondriac to whittle down cast size and generally make better for the upcoming Darlinghurst Theatre Co production.

In picture-book land, along with my collaborator Antonia Pesenti and the Museum of Sydney we developed and launched Alphabetical Sydney: Creative Lab, an exhibition based on our book that runs at the MoS until August 2018.

Wait, what, is it another new year? Gosh it’s hard to think about the last 6 months of 2017. I know stuff happened because I am totes knackered. But what? Hmmm Ok so all the plays I was working on this time last year are still being worked on …

Trailer is being published by Currency which means proofs and edits etc … Captain Dalisay has been written and worked on and has an ‘early draft reading’ with Tantrum Theatre … A Ghost in my Suitcase is becoming more magical and fabulous and opens in Melbourne later this year! Huzzah! And The Magic Pudding is being its own fabulous, grumpy, spindly legged self. It will open this year too, in Sydney.

There is the making of the web series (All My Eggs) and some theatre directing as well—more on that later.

My sister is still doing brilliantly and …

I have a writing studio! In my backyard! My excellent fellow Christopher built it and I am sitting at the desk as I type, looking out of the recycled leadlight window at the garden. A writing studio, as well as being an excellent place to write in, is also an excellent place to drink champagne in the evening.

That’s a pretty happy new year in anyone’s book.

Everything I did in the second half of 2017 was eclipsed by my work at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. I began working for the RC in 2016, and was part of the team which wrote just under 4000 narratives based on the voices and experiences of survivors who came forward to speak to the Commission. They are available on line here.

In the second half of 2017, I moved into the report co-ordination team which edited, referenced, cross-referenced, end-noted, fact-checked and proof-read the 17 volumes of the Final Report. The findings and recommendations are forensic and unequivocal, and were welcomed by the communities of survivors who had been heard and believed at last. The full report is available on line here.

Working at the Commission was a life-changing experience, one in which power was on the side of the vulnerable, humanity was not overlooked or lost, and our better selves stepped up to the plate. I’ve been reflecting on the fact that I have rarely had an equivalent experience working in the arts, and this fact makes me sad …

By the end of the year I had also taught or mentored about 75 scriptwriting students or emerging playwrights, so I was feeling pretty story-saturated. However, I did have some breakthroughs with my own plays. Jump for Jordan has been included in the 2019-2022 HSC Drama Syllabus, and a sparkly new edition has just been published by Currency Press. It was also selected as one of three Australian plays to be showcased at the 2018 International Women’s Playwrights’ Conference in Santiago, Chile, so I am now trying to get some Spanish under my belt. Also, my play Tales From The Arabian Nights, which was first produced in 2004, clocked up its fifteenth production. In this adaptation, the King is killing refugees rather than queens, and schools in particular produce the play because of its unforeseen enduring relevance.

In the months since leaving the Commission, I have struggled to get back to the land of irony and black comedy, my natural playwriting habitat. However, persistence paid off, and the first draft of my new play Flame Tree Street is alive and well and leading the way.

Still feel totally depressed about Trump, Brexit, the rise of anti-immigrant nationalism in parts of Europe, the plight of the Rohingya, Erdogan’s crackdown on the media in Turkey, not to mention Australia’s ongoing punishment of asylum-seekers and Duffer vilifying Africans to score political points.

On a cheerier note however, marriage equality is now legal and …

The Book of Thistles was released in October. With a play or radio script you rehearse or record and there’s a season or broadcast date, but a book has no opening night or fixed run; you just hope that people somewhere are reading it … Anyway, I’m delighted to have the book in the world. More info about The Book of Thistles—including reviews—on the publisher’s website here.

October also saw me back in Penrith at The Q/Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre working on a new commission, Yellow Yellow Sometimes Blue. The creative development workshop with director Nick Atkins and actors Wadih Dona and Harriet Gordon-Anderson culminated in an open work-in-progress reading at the Penrith Regional Gallery. Yellow Yellow Sometimes Blue will be produced in November as part of The Joan’s 2018 season. Very happy to be collaborating with Nick and the team at The Q/Joan again.

My radio feature Seoul City Sue is now recorded and will go to air early 2018.

What else? Teacup in a Storm, won a 2017 AWGIE Award for Community and Youth Theatre. I did some research in New Zealand for a couple of embryonic projects. Good With Maps had an Edinburgh season, gathered great reviews and co-incidentally reconnected me with two old friends from my London days.

I have been intensely involved this last six months completing my studies in youth work. It has been both a responsibility and a privilege to train and gather experience in the sector. It has also been grounding, stimulating and meaningful because the focus is on strategies for supporting young people and also in engaging in social justice activism.

I have only had small pockets of time to focus on my visual art projects. In the main they have been in response to the occasionally confronting nature of the community sector. I seem to work in cycles from the need to do portraits of colleagues to strange mythological imaginings to the latest series of nature bursting into bloom. A selection of these can be seen on my Instagram feed.

But there has been one writing project that has stayed with me—it's a difficult play that is struggling to be reborn. Luckily the writer and dramaturge Alison Lyssa has, with such generosity of spirit, urged the project on. When I couldn't hold the play in my head anymore she has been able to reflect back what the work is and draw me back into its world. She has supported me to make the unseen connections and troubleshoot how best to push internal logic to the limit visually and psychically. It is a rare gift to be so in tune.

I’ve discovered that writing a novel and having a full time job don’t leave much time for anything else. Every ‘writing’ moment has been consumed by the book I am trying to write. I am now on the home stretch. I can see the finishing post but have no idea when I’ll get there.

This book has been with me for my whole life. It’s fiction based on fact. I’ve found that fictionalising the story has given me a lot of freedom and taken me places I had no idea I’d go. I know the story backwards but I’m only just discovering how it unfolds. This is exciting and scary at the same time. When I sit down to write I often have no idea where I’m going. For instance, yesterday morning I wrote a scene (I can’t help calling them ‘scenes’) set at a christening. I had never thought about a christening, even less that there would be a character called ‘William’ who was getting christened. But, now there are both. That’s the weird and wonderful world I have entered.

There are times when I sit down to write that I doubt whether I can actually write this thing. I’ve never felt this before. Never with any play, or article or story. Certainly not with Playground Duty. I don’t have any idea what this means. I’ve never felt like this about a piece of writing. I’ve never been intimidated by writing something in the way that I am intimidated by this. It’s weird. There are days when I have to force myself write it. That’s never happened before.

Some days are good. Some bad. Like most things really.

I’m writing this from the airport. I’m flying to Katherine to participate in a Creative Development with Lee Lewis, Fraser Corfield, Tommy Lewis and Errol Lawson. I haven’t worked in the theatre for so long I can barely remember what it’s like! Who knows what will come of it?

Who knows when I’ll finish my book? All I do know is I’ll be back teaching full time at the end of January so I better get cracking.

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