The first few months of 2018 were spent writing a workshop-able draft of my new play Flame Tree Street. I pretty much wrote full time until my writer-in-residency at the Booranga Writers’ Centre in March where I tested the early writing on the floor with acting students from Charles Sturt University. With each draft, my earlier play Jump For Jordan moved from tragedy to comedy, but these young actors showed me that Flame Tree Street was working in reverse, evolving from a type of Absurd comedy into something more formal and weighty. A month later, with the support of the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, the amazing director Cristabel Sved and I workshopped the play further and staged a reading in April with a professional cast. I’m so grateful to have had this play road tested early and put on the right track. I’m now having a break from that play, and am writing another called The Secret Warzone.
Interestingly - in terms of funding trends - there is always mentoring to be done, this time with emerging writers through Milk Crate Theatre, Playwriting Australia, and the Blacktown Arts Centre. In March, I worked as a dramaturge on the plays of three Western Sydney writers which were showcased at the National Play Festival, and in May, I spoke on two panels: Australian stories: the playwrights role in society at Merrigong Theatre Company, and Unheard voices at the National Theatre of Parramatta. As a proud board member, I saw faces light up during PYT/Fairfield’s site-specific event Little Baghdad, produced in association with the NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors and the Parents’ Cafe. I also recently raised a glass with some of the folks from “Writerstan”, our narrative writing unit at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, to celebrate the state and federal governments’ acceptance of the majority of the Final Report’s recommendations.
Other than that, I’ve been Skyping and writing grant applications with Emma Hall and Grace Pundyk in the hope that we three Australian delegates to the next International Women’s Playwrights Conference can obtain funding to fly to Santiago, Chile, in October to hear our plays presented in Spanish translation (It’s such a trip seeing your words in translation – see excerpt from Jump For Jordan below). I’ve also been asked to be the Oceania (Australian and New Zealand) representative at a number of conference roundtables.
SOPHIE: Azza habrá pasado la aduana, habrá visto a mamá en la puerta sólo con Loren, no yo, y se habrá pasado todo el viaje en automóvil pensando, ¿dónde está Sophia? Y mamá le habrá dicho: No te preocupes, hablaremos de eso más tarde. Intentando convencerla de que no piense: ¿Dónde está Sophia? con estúpidas preguntas como, ¿Estás bien? ¿El vuelo fue bueno? ¿Estaba bien el clima cuando te fuiste de Ammán?
This has been a busy and wonderful 6 months.
After the disappointment of The Magic Pudding falling by the wayside (no pudding for YOU!), I was thrilled to work further on two other plays for children.
The first, commissioned by Barking Gecko Theatre in Perth and directed by Matt Edgerton, is A Ghost In My Suitcase, an adaptation of Gabrielle Wang’s exciting novel for young readers. This has taken over two years of development work in Melbourne and in Perth (including a final one earlier this year) and I’m excited to say that it opens as part of the Melbourne international Arts Festival, at the Arts Centre in October! Hooray, but wait that’s not all! The production is also on at the Opera House (*squeals and hugs self*) in January 2019 as part of Sydney Festival and then goes on to be part of Perth Festival in February at the Heath Ledger theatre. This is such a fun and wonderfully staged work, with ghost-fighting, goldfish and spinning bits of set and lighting magic.
Captain Dalisay is also a big play for little people, set in a magical ocean with islands of witches, royal dancers and head-hunting kites. It draws on my childhood in Penang Malaysia and my Filipino cultural background. The play received Australia Council funding in the writing stage and Duologue funding from Playwriting Australia in the further development stage. Earlier this year Tantrum Theatre hosted a reading of the current draft at their theatre and it was such a joy to hear those words come off the page. Still a work in progress, redrafting and reshaping and hopefully a final draft for The Big Wide World to come soon.
Almost the whole time, from January to the end of July I have been thinking about one play and it is not one that I’m writing. At the end of last year, I was asked by Stooged Theatre here in Newcastle (they did a great production of my play, Checklist For An Armed Robber a few years back) to direct a play. Not just any play but Angela Betzien’s The Dark Room.
I’ve directed short pieces here and there, but this is my first full length piece and the experience has been incredible. Not just because Angela’s writing is breathtaking and virtuosic, not just because of the heartbreaking content nor the challenging directing task of navigating twists and turns for the fabulous cast who play several narratives and timelines over the top of each other.
My identity as a Playwright has been strangely confronted. I have of course spent time in many rehearsal rooms and worked with some fabulous directors over the years – but as The Playwright, which means I sit usually somewhere towards the back of the room behind the director and watch and timidly answer questions every now and then. But in this rehearsal room, I am the Director (with an essential assistant director) and I have to field the questions and I have to answer or find the answer or say I don’t know but let’s work out this together. It is such a new and exciting experience (as well as tricky and fearful and much bloody hard work). English director Katie Mitchell says, “It is a feeling akin to falling in love” and I think this is true. I am also writing about this experience for myself and exploring the synergy between Playwrighting and Directing. I am falling in love with directing. I realise I was never ready to Direct in this way before now, I really hope I get to do it again.
For most of the last six months, my focus has been on The Hypochondriac, which finished last night to a packed house (a dream come true, seeing the box office line snaking out the door). We started rehearsals in May, but the months preceding were taken up with revisions, auditions and then the reading/workshop which led to more rewrites. It was wonderful to be so intimately involved in this production, and somewhat unusual. As playwrights we don’t always have the opportunity to be part of the conversation around such elements as casting and design, but in this case, I was invited to be, and I very much wanted to be. I spent just about every day in the rehearsal room and saw the show as many times as I could, essentially because it was so much fun. But as of this morning, as I write this, it joins the ranks of Productions Past, and it’s onto the next.
I wrote another episode for Play School, and this month am eagerly anticipating my first ep going to air – look out for Alex and Karen playing with piglets! With composer Greta Gertler Gold, I put the final touches to the recording of our musical The Red Tree: what a thrill to receive the pressed CD, and pop copies in the mail for our loyal backers. I continued working as dramaturg with composer Andrée Greenwell on her ambitious, beautiful and powerful podcast Listen To Me (for which Our Donna was a contributing lyricist), about gendered violence in Australia, and which is now completed and ready to hit the airwaves. And I spent some very happy days in a room with director Kate Champion, cooking up a project that is still under wraps.
As for teaching, I have been working with some sparky minds over at Writing NSW (formerly NSW Writers’ Centre) running a 6-week course called Starting From Scratch, and have just started a From Page To Stage course for Griffin on a fantastic new work called The Almighty Sometimes by Kendall Feaver – Sydneysiders, don’t miss it.
The last six months I’ve travelled to the Perth Writers’ Festival with The Book of Thistles, to England to research a new book and, on a different research trail, to Gibraltar, where amongst other things, I experienced my scariest airport landing ever! Mentally, I’ve been in the Korean War, Ancient Rome and the Australian art world circa 1954.
Evelyn had its origins in 7-ON’s ‘Long Shadows’ and ‘We are the Ghosts of the Future’ projects. A ten-minute monologue, it was produced in Sydney in February as part of Short + Sweet.
How did a Methodist missionary from Middle America end up broadcasting propaganda for North Korea? My ABC Radio National feature Seoul City Sue is my quest to answer that question. The program was broadcast in April and you can download the podcast here.
Staying with sound, this time with producer Sonar Sound, I wrote Rome: City and Empire Children’s Audio Tour for the forthcoming National Museum of Australia/British Museum exhibition. And co-wrote the Adult Audio Tour as well. Apart from Hadrian’s Wall, various foodstuffs and vaguely remembered school Latin, I knew very little about Ancient Rome. But this project got me researching and reading—Martial, Juvenal, the wonderful Mary Beard and others. It’s sparked my interest in things Roman. We see a lot of Greek drama on our stages, but rarely Roman—yet the Romans pretty much invented satire. There are a couple of Roman plays I’d love to adapt for a twenty-first century audience.
I wrote a new draft of Yellow Yellow Sometimes Blue. Food meets art in this play commissioned by The Q/Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre. Inspired by the history of Penrith Regional Gallery and Lewers Bequest, Yellow Yellow Sometimes Blue takes place over the course of an evening of art and argument, intrigue and spectacular canapés. It’s part of The Joan’s 2018 season and opens in November.
Last but not least, Currency Press are publishing Good With Maps and Teacup in a Storm in a two-play edition (due out September) and my poem Newton’s Windfall will be published in the final issue of the Edinburgh-based journal Far Off Places.
This has been a fruitful though more or less publicly invisible six months. I’ve been working away, as you do, on this doctorate. I wouldn’t want to call it ‘fun’ exactly but…it sort of is. I like research, I quite like the occasional moments of fabulous synthesis, I don’t much like the hard slog of trying to get to those moments, but I’m old enough and experienced enough to pace myself through that side of things these days. And it’s been an adventure to take on the once-was-arcanery of academic conferences. (Also fun in its own way, who knew?)
In order to write the play that is part of the doctorate, late last year I undertook a series of interviews with members of the Polish diaspora in Australia. Tis was both sobering and strangely joyous in the view it gave of human resilience. Then I was lucky enough to be awarded a travel grant that got me to Poland to follow up further research. It’s a beautiful country, but my tasks were mostly fairly grim, and I am still cogitating the fallout of that period. The play, however, is at last taking shape with a workshop at Flinders University planned for this coming August.
And I have been interviewing various Australian playwrights, also for the doctorate, and that’s been something of a privilege to get to know people and their work on a more detailed basis.
There was a re-mount of an old play of mine, an adaptation of Paul Jennings’ The Gizmo at the Adelaide Fringe this year. It goes on in Brisbane in this August as well.
And ... Currency Press will be publishing my last play (2017), Long Tan, in the coming months. So I’ve been getting that document ready, too.
July 19, 2018 is the date I finished the first draft of my novel Damascus (working title). When I say first draft I really mean complete draft because I’ve been writing it on and off for at least five years. I have rewritten as I have gone along. A practice that I (and most people who give advice about writing) don’t usually recommend. Damascus began life as a work of non-fiction and, mainly because the publisher I was talking to said no one would read a book about someone they hadn’t heard of, it then became a work of fiction. For whatever reason, the decision was a good one because it gave me the licence to extrapolate on the years of research I had done, a lifetime really, and create characters whose story is based on truth.
Writing this book has been a deeply personal exercise because it is based on the lives of my parents focussing on immediately before World War 2, when they met, the War and the immediate post war period. It covers the years of 1938 to 1951. It begins in Paris and ends on a dusty road in Central Western NSW. There have been times when writing the book I have so exhilarated by it that I thought I could fly. There have been others when I have been so daunted by it that I have barely been able to put pen to paper. Or, more accurately, been able to start typing. I have been taken to places I had no idea I was going when the characters have somehow infiltrated my brain and driven the story themselves. I might have known the arc of the story, but I have only just discovered how I was going to get there.
Now that I have finished I have gone through the usual writer’s anxieties that, to be perfectly honest, I have never really experienced before. I don’t know why this is. Not experiencing the anxieties, I mean. I suppose I had so much fun writing all my plays that I never really felt anxious about them. I was always amazed that anyone would want to do them. Everything about my plays was always a bonus until I reached the point where I am now, and no one wants to read them, let alone do them. None of them is autobiographical although each draws on my life experiences and observations. They aren’t personal like Damascus is.
My work of nonfiction, Playground Duty, was so much fun to write I kept pinching myself that I had been commissioned to write it. It was a gift. Everything else I’ve written has been my opinion or observation, occasionally biographical but never really personally confronting. I’ve been more anxious about these things getting published or read than the pieces themselves. All that changed with Damascus. I am now faced with all the challenges we have to make when we finish work. The edit, finding a publisher, getting it out there. All along I was prepared to completely re-examine it once I finished. To be guided by an editor or publisher or anyone else. I was prepared to “kill my babies” as Nick Enright once told me about cutting stuff. After re-reading it I have come to a rather startling conclusion. I’m not going to alter the shape of the story at all. Even if it is boring to others. Or repetitive. Or too old fashioned. This is the story I have always want to tell and I’m going to tell it.
That’s not to say I’m not going to edit because that would be hubristic lunacy. I know it needs a good edit. But the edit is going to happen on my terms. I am not going to compromise the way I have compromised in all my other work. This is too important and too personal not to tell it the way I have imagined it. What I need to do now is find an editor who will travel this journey with me. Wish me luck.