Sunday, 13 January 2019

What we did the last six months of 2018

The last six months started with an end: July 1 was closing night of The Hypochondriac at the Eternity Playhouse. I bid a sad farewell to that joyful production and promptly submitted it to Australian Plays, where it’s published and available here

Having loved the experience of adapting Moliere for the modern age, I have taken the practice a step further, with a 1705 English play by Susannah Centlivre. With director Sarah Giles and a cast of four energetic, intelligent and hilarious actors, last November we read a number of plays by eighteenth-century female playwrights, and lit on this particular one as being the most subversive, original and downright weird. With support from Bell Shakespeare I have been working on a draft that honours the original while making it fresh and streamlined for a contemporary audience.

National Theatre of Parramatta commissioned me to adapt The Comedy of Errors for young children with no experience of Shakespeare. Thank God for hats, beards, glasses and funny accents, I thought as I wrangled a 13-character play into a version for 5 actors. However, I discovered in our workshop that even these are unnecessary when you have phenomenally talented actors (though they do help). With director Stefo Nantsou, designer Imogen Ross and composer Maria Alfonsine, we had a week of merriment capped with a discerning and appreciative test audience from a local primary school. What to call a show that isn’t the original, but wouldn’t exist without it? Having struggled for a while for a title, I put out a distress call to 7-ON, and thanks to Our Vanessa it’s called Ha Ha Woops.

Not plays, but calling on playwriting skills: I did a couple of wonderfully rewarding projects for the State Library of NSW, writing audio-scripts for two upcoming exhibitions (details to follow on this blog soon). Each required a lot of historical research, and one in particular centred on old Sydney, which is an ongoing obsession of mine. I also wrote an audio guide for the Museum of Contemporary Art and their current exhibition on photographer David Goldblatt. A pleasure to do, opening up a South African history of which I’d previously known nothing. 

I continued serving on the board for the Australian Script Centre, and had two happy stints dramaturging—a musical for a promising Excelsia student, and an exciting new play by Fred Copperwaite, through Moogahlin and PlayWriting Australia.

September saw the CD launch of The Red Tree the musical I wrote with composer Greta Gertler Gold, returning in July to the Sydney Opera House. 

I have continued working with my picture book collaborator Antonia Pesenti on Summer Time, the third in our trilogy about place, published by NewSouth: look out for it next Christmas.

The thing I’m still assimilating is my attendance at the 11th International Women Playwrights’ Conference in Santiago de Chile in October. Emma Mary Hall and Grace Pundyk, both from Melbourne, were also selected as Australian delegates. Skype and email enabled us to get together before we’d met in person to obtain funding from the Australia Council to cover our conference expenses. This meant that we had the support we needed to see our various plays read in Spanish, participate in workshops, see performances, immerse ourselves in discussions with women playwrights from around the world, and then retire to our Airbnb apartment each night to debrief over a bottle of local red. It was wonderful to share the experience with Emma and Grace—and our New Zealand counterpart Desiree Gezentsvey—and to reflect on the conference proceedings from their points of view. We’re writing an essay due for publication on the website at the end of January, so check it out if you’d like to hear more.

After my residency in March with the Booranga Writers’ Centre in Wagga Wagga, I was asked to contribute a piece to the Centre’s annual new writing anthology called fourW. My short play Olympia and Phoung is included in the latest volume which was published in November. Originally staged during The 428 Project in 2010, it’s a personal favourite among my short plays, and I’m really happy to see it in print.

Also on the publishing front, Currency Press will publish my 2004 play Tales From The Arabian Nights in May 2019. Written at the height of the Tampa refugee crisis, I decided to use a framing story about about refugees, rather than beheaded women, not knowing that the ensuing refugee and offshore detention crises would keep this play in the spotlight. I’m really delighted that Currency can help this play reach a wider audience, especially schools who who are seeking ways to engage with these issues.

Two long term mentorships came to an end with writers from Milk Crate Theatre and Blacktown Arts Centre. Both women—Pauline Trenerry and Gabby Florek—made the most of the experience, and got to see their hard work up on the floor in readings with a professional cast.

Teaching-wise, there were my usual scriptwriting gigs at the University of Wollongong and Excelsia College. A big shout out to Alison Lyssa who expertly took my Excelsia class while I was overseas. My students loved you!

Other than that, I kept working on my two new plays The Secret Warzone and Flame Tree Street. They are the writing equivalent of slow-cooking, and I hope they will end up just as tasty and satisfying.

Another six months. Crikey is all I can say to that. Because, gentle reader, it has been six months of awesome.

Mid 2018 I directed my first play, Angela Betzien’s extraordinary The Dark Room. It was challenging, exciting and more than that it was fabulous. It was an independent theatre play so weekend after weekend of rehearsal, and doing other things I had never done before, sitting with sound designers and lighting designers and … designers and plotting and planning and more weekends and the directing and the actors and the incredible rush you get when you sit at opening night and go … wow.

I said yes because I thought it would help me be a better playwright but it also very quickly became the realisation that I want to direct more. So after The Dark Room I also directed a short play for a short play festival in Newcastle and I’ll do another next year. Unexpected and yet completely not. Playwrights direct. Several of the Sevens have already directed. My next challenge is to direct one of my own works.

The other part of this past six month has been the production of my play A Ghost In My Suitcase by Barking Gecko Theatre. The play is adapted from Gabrielle Wang’s beautiful children’s novel of the same name. It has been developed over three years under the guidance of directors Matt Edgerton and Ching Ching Ho and it opened at the 2018 Melbourne International Arts Festival in October. It goes on to have a season at the Sydney Opera House for the Sydney Festival in January 2019 and it is then on in Perth in February/March 2019 and it is the biggest show I have ever had on people and it is utterly GORGEOUS and I am UTTERLY THRILLED.

And apart from that, this side of 2018 has heralded a sort of new, more positive, more pro-activey playwright sort of me.

I have written a new play Awkward Dancing which I’m showing companies, along with Captain Dalisay, The River and Chipper. I’m collaborating with another playwright (Ross Mueller) on a new play called Something About The End Of The World. I’m meeting people. I’m being brave. I’m not giving up. I’m laughing a lot. And I’m writing. Always.

My year ended in Japan’s Kansai region, in Kyoto, Kobe and Osaka. Part holiday, part research and enjoying cool winter weather in all three cities (I’m not a fan of Australian summers). Earlier in the year, in September, I went to Canberra for the opening of the National Museum of Australia/British Museum exhibition Rome: City and Empire for which I wrote the Children’s Audio Tour and co-wrote the Adult Audio Tour. And while in Canberra I did some archival research for one of those possible, way-in-the-future projects.

Also in September I was part of the Rose Scott Women Writers’ Festival in Sydney with The Book of Thistles. On a fantastic panel with fellow writers Vanessa Berry, Kim Mahood and Ashley Hay. And around that same time, my ABC Radio National feature Seoul City Sue won the 2018 AWGIE Award for Radio. If you’re interested you can download the program here

In November Yellow Yellow Sometimes Blue opened at the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre in Penrith. The commission was inspired by the history of the Penrith Regional Gallery and Lewers Bequest at Emu Plains. It was a really good process with a couple of workshops along the way before the play was brought to vibrant life by director Nick Atkins, actors Adam Booth and Kate Worsley and cellist/composer Me-Lee Hay. More info here.

Currency Press published Good With Maps and Teacup in a Storm in a two-play edition with an intro by Dr Laura Ginters from Sydney Uni. And in October/November Critical Stages toured Good With Maps through NSW where it was enthusiastically received by regional audiences.

What else? I wrote a draft of a new play and I did a 9-week Latin language class. So: felix sit annus novus 2019, which if I’ve got it right means Happy New Year!

The last six months have been business-as-usual for me, which is to say continuing to work on my doctorate at Flinders University. I’m at the business-end of it now, with (hopefully) something less than one year to go.

I presented at the ADSA conference in Melbourne in June, talking about the interview process in its various incarnations in verbatim-related work.  And I have undertaken a number of other such presentations here at home in Adelaide.

A great pleasure was the publication in August of my script for Long Tan, by Currency, with a typically incisive and generous introduction by Julian Meyrick.

I also held a reading at Flinders thanks to the glorious help of Rosalba Clemente and Tom Healey and year 4 graduating students of the play I’m writing for the doctorate, Bloodlines: a Polish Memory. It was enormously helpful to hear my monster of a piece out loud. I’m two drafts down now and who knows how many to come.

I have been thinking about the art and craft of playwriting itself a great deal, in part due to the pleasure and necessity to interview what the academic world calls Australian ‘creative practitioners’ and the rest of the world calls ‘playwrights’. I have been so impressed by the clever, insightful, thoughtful comrades who have made themselves available to talk to me in depth, not to mention the pleasure of reading so many good plays in preparation.

 And I’ve been engaging in a little dramaturgy on the side, one of those times when the job is a pleasure.

When I write it down it looks like a fallow period. In fact, it’s been anything but. One of the things I’ve also been researching is the process of creativity itself with its highs and lows, and comings and goings and iterations of active and passive. That’s where I’m at now—some sort of liminal space. It’s okay, but it’ll be quite nice quite soon to come up for some air.

My God! It’s that time of year already. The end of year wrap. And what a year it’s been.

I’ve become a grandfather. Nothing can top that.

I shepherded 100 Year 12 students through the HSC and, together with my life partner, enjoyed the highs and lows of my daughter’s assault on the HSC. Shepherding Year 12 made me question whether the amount of anxiety the whole thing causes is worth it in the end. Fortunately for us, our daughter handled the whole thing magnificently. Others were not so lucky.

I can’t separate my personal from my writing life. They are inextricably linked. The only way I can write is to find time between life’s demands. Working full time as teacher doesn’t leave a lot of spare time. Especially with 100 Year 12s to care for. What it does do, however, is make you very organised. I’m not the first writer to have a full time job. What I have (finally) learnt to do is to compartmentalise whatever I am doing. Back when I was writing for Bell Shakespeare I used to disappear to Lou Jack’s whenever I had a few periods off and work on the pieces I was commissioned to write. There is no way I can do that now. This teaching gig is too intense and I can’t dip in and out of my novel the way I could dip in and out of Actors at Work scripts. So, it’s been weekends in the Balmain Library putting in long sessions and school holidays. While the rest of the family went away I stayed home and worked on my book.

At about the time of the last wrap I finished a draft of Damascus. I spoke to a literary agent about it. When she asked me how many words, I said: ‘200,000.’
There was a long silence: ‘200,000?’
‘Yessss … ’
‘You’ve written two books.’
There was a pause: ‘You’re not Richard Franklin.’
‘No. I’m not. How many words should it be?’
‘I don’t know—80, 90,000.’

She gave me the name of an editor. We had a very similar conversation. I’ve never written a novel before. I didn’t have a clue. There was one positive, however. They both thought it was a good story. You can probs guess the rest. I’ve spent the last six months editing 200,000 words down to 90,000. The surprising bit is I’ve really enjoyed it. I discovered (surprise, surprise) that a lot of it was repetitive and, frankly, pretty boring. Lots of detail that might have been fascinating for me but would have bored the pants off anyone else. The REALLY good bit is, just before Xmas I finished. Yep. I whittled 200,000 down to 90,000. When I told my editor she said: ‘Wow! That’s an achievement.’ That was one of the nicest things anyone’s ever said to me about my writing.

I packed my bags and headed off to New York to visit my granddaughter. My daughter smashed the HSC and my 100 Year 12s got what they deserved.

Now for 2019.

I’ll be brief. I’ll try. I am writing but I don’t want to go on about it at the moment.

Yes, it has finally happened, I’ve become uncharacteristically superstitious about where I am up to with my new play. This is the play I have received support from Playwriting Australia’s Duologue Program and I am working with the playwright Alison Lyssa as dramaturg. I’ve blogged about this program late last year so scroll down to know more …

Here’s a pic of my lucky busted writing lamp—at least I hope it is.

I’m also building on another project which is resolving itself literally in my dreams. I’d tell you more but again for superstitious reasons I don’t want it let out into the world quite yet.

Finally, here’s a painting of mine called Bloom (oil on linen) shortlisted recently for the Green Way Art Prize. As Picasso pronounced, ‘I don’t paint nature, I am nature’. Well he would say that wouldn’t he?? Oblivious to the fact that we are all nature.

And that’s me for the moment.

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