Saturday, 16 January 2021

What we did the last 6 months of 2020

7-ON has a new publication in the pipeline: Sharp Darts: Chamber Plays by 7-ON. It’s a collection of fifteen short scripts reflecting our very different voices, but all of them love-notes to the theatre. Written for professional production, they also hold plenty of appeal for drama students, auditioning actors, community companies, reading groups—anyone who wants to experience myriad worlds between two covers.

Coming soon to an online or bricks and mortar bookshop near you.

Looking back through my 2020 diary, it’s a sea of crossings-out: performances that got cancelled, writers’ festivals that didn’t happen, rehearsal periods that never began. Yet as the year wore on (and ‘wore’ feels like the appropriate word), things picked up and I was busier than ever: mostly at the development end, but also with other human beings in theatres, no matter that we were masked and slathered in sanitiser.

The first of these was a week of dramaturgy for National Theatre of Parramatta, working with director Dino Dimitriadis on Monikka Eliah’s Nana and Berta. What a thrill to be off Zoom, and in a room! Later in the year, I had the pleasure of dramaturging Chris Bendall’s Black Sun, Blood Moon.

Next came a workshop of my new play Deviants, directed by Damian Ryan and commissioned by producer Michael Dengler. Our hope is to bring it to life this year or next. I’ve written about it in an earlier post, as I have about the musical Alphabetical Sydney: All Aboard! A collaboration with composer Greta Gertler Gold and designer Antonia Pesenti, Critical Stages will produce. We presented it to the world via Zoom, with songs sung by Justine Clarke and Luke Escombe, and are now charting its course toward production.

With composer Luke Styles, I’ve been writing songs for our Annette Kellerman Project. We received a grant from the Inner West Council to further develop it, with a free public performance slated for the coming winter.

In October, Ben Winspear directed the premier production of Perfect Stranger at the University of Tasmania. I couldn’t travel to see it, alas, but it was exciting to hear how the company made a virtue of the many constraints and created a beautiful site-specific work.

I’ve dipped a few toes into the world of film this past year. I spent much of the time working on a treatment—more to come as things unfold. I was engaged by the Sydney Opera House to write House Play, eight short episodes designed to inspire children to make theatre at home—write, direct, act, design, compose, light and produce. This was filmed in December, and should be online soon. And my play Splinter was optioned by Playground Films

A Christmas Carol, for the Ensemble Theatre, had its season cancelled. But there’ll be another Christmas and, with luck, another Carol this year. Let’s hope we’re in a better place by then.

So the first thing and the biggest thing is that I have been doing a PhD in scriptwriting. This second half of the year I was ‘confirmed’ which makes me a proper PhD student.

Actually ... I have been ‘confirmed’ before, not in an academic way, once a catholic etc etc, which means (among other things) one must choose a saint for one’s very own. More than that, one’s saint name can then be attached to one’s own as an extra middle name. Does this still happen? No idea. Having done my First Communion years earlier, in Penang, Malaysia, I was confirmed when we were living in regional NSW, along with my younger sisters (mum assumed we could be a job lot) and so, as one might do with one’s younger sisters, I found myself arguing over saints. Cut to the three of us dressed in best clothes, still arguing as we waited in line to meet the bishop. This is what happens in this kind of confirmation, one meets the bishop and one is introduced via one’s special saint name. 

Except, I didn’t have a special saint name. 

I was confident however and when the elderly priest asked me surreptitiously for my saint’s name so I could be introduced, I said … I don’t have one, I’ll just be Vanessa. 

The priest goggled at me, what about Mary, he suggested. No, I said, that’s my sister’s saint name. Fine, he muttered, Elizabeth? That’s my other sister’s saint name, I said. You can’t have Vanessa, he muttered as I came face to face with the Bishop. But, I stared hard at the priest, you said we could take our own name, I distinctly remember. Anne? The priest tried once more. No, I hissed back, Anne’s already my middle name. I would be Vanessa Anne Anne and that would sound stupid. Flustered, the priest gave in and thus, I was so confirmed and now I am indeed my own saint.

Anyhoo, my point is, I have been doing the other confirmation and researching scriptwriting and creativity and being brown. And I love this! I am doing a Practice Based Enquiry, so as part of my thesis I am also writing a television series about a half Filipino, half English girl growing up in Penang and regional NSW. It’s called HalfJar and it’s, well, funny and warm and sad. And I love this too!

In playwriting during Covid times, I am still writing The One with The Ensemble theatre (development in a couple of months!), and smaller pieces, some in response to pandemic life, like Mrs Shakespeare draws A Line for atyp and further pieces, for a group of playwrights who met regularly online in 2020 (Every Monday). 

Oh and once again I was a playwriting mentor for atyp’s National Studio with the utterly fabulous Mary Anne Butler, Chris Isaacs and Jane FitzGerald. But this time, it was all on Zoom eeek! the lecture, the playwriting group writing sessions, the one-on-ones and the actual readings of the works written by an extremely clever cohort of emerging playwrights.

I have started work on a new play, Valentine’s Day, and two narrative comedy television shows Troubled Youth and LoveLife with co-writer Ross Mueller.

And finally, I have moved house and that as everyone knows could try the patience of a saint.

It’s been a long six months. It’s been a long 2020. Although it did end on a high note when Trump was voted out.

On the writing front, after a fallow beginning, the year gathered momentum. I wrote a new monologue-cum-performance essay, The End of Winter. With Siren Theatre Company and support from Critical Stages we had a workshop and four work-in-progress excerpts were filmed for Critical Stages Screening Room #ActOnClimate. You can see ours here. I’ve written a new draft since we recorded those excerpts, but they give you an idea of the piece. It was such a joy to work with real people in real, physical spaces. With key collaborators, Kate Gaul (director), Jane Phegan (actor) and Nate Edmundson (sound designer/composer), the fantastic team who brought Good With Maps to theatrical life. 

Following a number of theatrical outings since its 2008 debut, Trish, my very short (5-6 minutes) monologue was produced for ABC RN Fictions and broadcast in November. Download it here. Staying with audio, Experiment Street, which I researched, wrote and co-produced for ABC RN’s The History Listen, won the 2020 NSW Premier’s History Awards Digital History Prize. You can listen to or download Experiment Street here

I have an essay in the just released anthology from Brow Books, Dizzy Limits: Recent Experiments in Australian Nonfiction. My contribution, Lemon Pieces (Quelques Morceaux en Forme de Citron), was first published in 1998. It was an interesting experience looking at something I wrote over twenty years ago. I had to resist the temptation to rewrite it completely, and instead approach the revising process with a light touch, as if I were editing the work of someone else—which is what it felt like.

For Canberra’s That Poetry Thing I did a reading from my collection Scratchland (UWA Publishing Poetry Series)—yes, on Zoom. 

Finally, I was about to start work on a new project when out of the blue I got a gig writing a narration script for a short audio visual work which will go on overseas later this year. I can’t tell you any more because I’ve signed a non-disclosure agreement. First time I’ve ever had to do that. First time for everything.

On top of funding from Playwriting Australia’s Duologue program, Alex Galeazzi and I received funding from the Australia Council’s Resilience Fund to further develop our one woman verbatim play Ridsdale. However, with the border between Western Australia and the rest of the world being hard and fast for much of last year, we haven’t been able to finish the process of unfolding the story with Perth-based Ms Ridsdale. Given the play is about ‘secondary victims’ to institutional child sexual abuse, I think it’s important to be able to bear witness in person, rather than online, so this project is ongoing, and the end date is unknown. 

Skype however worked well for me and my co-writer Felix Cross as we worked to pin down the structure of our ATYP-commissioned play Hearing. With Felix stuck in London, the original production date has come and gone—we haven’t even passed the first development milestone of a workshop! On the upside, I think the project will benefit from this weird animated suspension simply because, for almost a year, our weekly online meetings have allowed us deeper consideration and engagement—and the work is looking more pertinent and outrageous than we had originally imagined. 

Likewise, the 2020 COVID-cancellation of my new play Stella Started It allowed me to stop the frenetic deadline-driven writing process, and dwell in its world more carefully to revise and intensify the aesthetic framework. This too, I think, will be a better play which, COVID-willing, will be workshopped with the support of Green Door Theatre Company in March. 

Teaching-wise, for Ilbijerri Theatre Company, I ran an online radio play writing workshop for participants in BlackWrights, their writer development program to bring new First Nations work to Australian stages. For the National Theatre of Parramatta (NToP), I ran—in person—a one day Short Play Intensive workshop, and revamped the Page to Stage new playwrights course I ran in 2017. It’s my most rigorous course yet, and we kick off later this month. I mentored students at Excelsia College, but for the University of Wollongong, a regular employer since 2015, I taught nothing because, like so many arts faculties across the country, programs and casual teaching gigs have been cut. Hmm. Sizeable chunk now missing from already COVID-clobbered income streams. Found this quite depressing, actually, after a five year commitment to the place. Anyhoo, my UoW doctoral thesis has been downloaded 1343 times, and PYT Fairfield declared my Creative Resilience Course one of the top ten things that happened for the company last year, so reasons to be cheerful …

What else happened in a year that felt both eternal and gone in the blink of an eye? An article called The Habit of Freedom in ASSITEJ 2020, a magazine published by the International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People. A podcast about my play Jump For Jordan recorded with Dino Dimitriadis for NToP’s Staging the Nation series. And an overdue renovation of my clifftop studio to make way for … some sort of shift in my teaching and practice that is still unclear … but feels energised and exciting. I’ll let you know when I know … 

When the deadline for our latest ‘what we did in the last six months blog’ came along my first thought was—where did the time go?

I feel very much like I’ve been in a dream and this is fitting as I’ve been lost writing The Insomnia Experiment. It is a work that lives between performance and installation. It is about a series of experiments to combat nightmares.

I won’t go into more detail. I’m quite superstitious around losing the energy of the work if I discuss it too much. 

Also I have finally uploaded a bunch of my paintings to Bluethumb. It’s an online gallery of Australian artists and I am a featured artist. Should you like to have a squiz this is the link.

And to wish you all well for this New Year here is Optimize My Eyes.

Well, that was the year that was, wasn’t it? To be frank, by the time the curtain finally fell on it, it seemed like 10 years crammed into one. I could barely remember what happened pre Covid (yes there was a time) let alone post Covid. But I’ll have a go.

Zoom teaching Drama, being trolled in same. Somehow tricked by a troller (is that a word?) into using the ‘N’ word when trying to decipher someone’s handle. Likewise saying “I like …” (word beginning with c and not the ‘c’ word). Shocking at the time and more shocking when I actually spoke about it and broke down in front of the whole staff at yet another Zoom meeting.

Discovering that some kids (I’m gonna use that word because I don’t think it’s in any way as distancing as calling them ‘students’), mainly girls, found their voice in Zoom and subsequently gained a lot of confidence. I wrote about this surprising discovery for the AEU. Actually, I did a lot of article writing. I wrote one for the Guardian about the challenges facing Year 12 in the Age of Covid. I’m IC (in charge) of Year 12 at the school I work in. Everything and anything was cancelled but they handled it with remarkable good grace.

To make up for the annual “farewell” events like White Water Rafting and the Zoo that were inevitably cancelled, I organised a day of activities including Hip Hop dancing, Basketball on the Roof, Indoor Board Games and old school sports like egg and spoon, three legged races and so on. It was only possible because I called on the teachers I knew would go above and beyond and not whine about it. I even managed to do without filling in any forms. 

Teaching in Covid, not surprisingly occupied most of my time. The highlight was not, you’ll be surprised to know, endlessly re-writing reports to make them more anodyne or again, endlessly, re-writing programs ensuring correct jargon was used. Nothing more debilitating for a writer to have to write like an automaton (but that’s another story).

No, the highlight was helping create/make two pieces of theatre with my magical Year 9 classes. One was a very dark take on Christmas and the other a satire on peer pressure. The kids drove the pieces and I helped put them together. 25 kids in each class so a cast of 25 in each. I felt more alive than I had all year when we were working on them. It’s when teaching sings. When a bunch of kids create something, display both discipline and commitment in doing so and push their teacher to come up with some ideas! 

I can’t think of much else. 

Oh, except THE BOOK. What I’ve discovered about writing a novel is that the process of writing is, like writing plays, a joy, even if it’s an incredibly demanding one. On the other hand the process of finding a publisher is, frankly, torture. I may have said this before. The thing is, my failure to find a publisher has resulted in a complete redraft of the whole bloody thing. Here’s how it happened. After all sorts of knock backs I sent it to a publisher who replied with a “thanks but no thanks” but offered to chat if I wanted to. I was on the blower the second I read this. He explained to me what was wrong with my book. It lacked “interiority”. Now, I had no clue what that was. Many of you probably do. What I discovered was that I hadn’t included the inner life of the characters. That is, what they were feeling. Why was this? You may, or may not, ask. 

The answer is telling. My book, unsurprisingly, has a lot of dialogue. We playwrights let the characters tell us what they’re feeling through words and actions. We don’t add an authorial note to tell the audience. 

So, that’s what I’ve been doing. And guess what? It’s a mile better because of it. And deeper. That’s what I think anyway. Now to find a publisher and … a literary agent. I’ll explain the need for the latter another time. 

The last six months: What to write? This changed world is changing everything for everyone, but particularly for artists, particularly for artists in ‘the regions’ which translates in Australia to everyone not from Sydney or Melbourne. Nothing’s easy, but what a first world problem that is.

I have two of my plays planned for hard copy publication but as I have not yet signed the contracts for that, I’ll keep the details for our next report.

Another prose piece published in Signalhouse. This is part of a larger manuscript called Captivities. I am now working with an editor to prepare for its next incarnation. 

I’ve also been working on an article about practice-led research for an academic journal. That, too, is awaiting further action. It, too, may end up being the leader for a longer work. We’ll see.

Theatre? A short piece of mine was included in the State Theatre of SA/ActNow Theatre project Decameron 2.0. My piece was in the Segment Those Who Claim Faith—it’s the last one in the offering, starring Mitchell Butel and directed by Yasmin Gurreeboo.

I am planning a six-day Writing and Yoga retreat with Western Australian yoga practitioner and Vedic chant specialist Sally Riddell in South Australia’s Flinders Ranges from May 4-9, 2021, Covid permitting. 

As the copy says (!) ‘Take a walk on the wild side … This consummate retreat offers you time and space to immerse yourself in a remote and extraordinary landscape, to connect with the elements, to learn about country and to explore both nature and your own heart, skills, and talents and possibilities.’ We are almost booked out. In fact, there’s just one place left. Anyone want to come along? (Seriously, we are really excited. It should be great!)
And … whilst I am it … If anyone would like to take on their OWN Writer’s Retreat, can I suggest Cape Hart Wilderness Retreat

Seriously, if you can’t write here, then you can’t write anywhere!

Sunday, 20 September 2020


 Hilary says...

Never before has the opportunity to work in a room with actors, a director and a producer felt like such a rare gift. Not by phone, not on Zoom, but in a rehearsal room. I feel incredibly lucky to have had these two projects keeping me focused, happy and creatively afloat over the past six months – and even more so to now be taking them forward a step.

Tomorrow is the first day of the workshop for a new play, Deviants. Commissioned by Michael Dengler of Exit Game Productions, it’s an adaptation of Paula Paul’s novel ‘The Mind of a Deviant Woman’. If you’ve never heard of the US Supreme Court’s 1927 Buck Vs Bell decision, look it up. A near-forgotten fragment of history, and the centrepiece of America’s adventures in eugenics, it ruled that those judged ‘unfit’ could be forcibly sterilised. The criteria for ‘fitness’ of course were wildly biased, according to race, class, disability, and the prevailing morality of the day. 60,000 Americans were sterilised without their consent (or often, their knowledge); the Nazis cited the decision in their defence at Nuremberg. It is yet to be overturned.

The workshop will be directed by Damien Ryan, with a stellar cast including Lucy Bell, Andrea Demetriades, Stacey Duckworth, Rob Jago, Johnny Nasser and Ed Wightman.

The following week, I leave the misery of compulsory sterilisation for the joy of a children’s musical. Alphabetical Sydney: All Aboard! is an extension (rather than adaptation) of Antonia Pesenti’s and my picture book ‘Alphabetical Sydney’. We’re collaborating with composer Greta Gertler Gold on this unique combination of music theatre and creative play, in which the audience plays a crucial part.

With the support of Critical Stages and a grant from the City of Sydney, we were supposed to present a showing this past winter. But COVID had other plans, so we’re now going digital. However, that still involves the immense pleasure of first recording the songs, and to perform them we’ll be in a real theatre, on an actual stage, with living performers Justine Clarke and Luke Escombe. Watch this space for snippets, clips and eventually production details.

Friday, 11 September 2020

Experiment Street wins Digital History Prize

Last Friday evening, myself (Noëlle), producer Ros Bluett and sound designer Russell Stapleton won the 2020 NSW Premier’s History Award Digital History Prize for Experiment Street.


Experiment Street, Pyrmont (Sydney) in 1979. Photo from the City of Sydney archives
& Experiment Street in 2019. Photo: Noëlle Janaczewska

I researched and wrote Experiment Street and the piece was broadcast on ABC RN’s The History Listen in October 2019. More info about the piece here.

You can watch the award ceremony online. Although I was sorry that, thanks to Covid-19, we couldn’t frock up, sip champagne in the glorious surrounds of the NSW State Library, and meet and talk with fellow nominees and judges, I’m thrilled and honoured to receive this award.


Interesting to note that this year the three productions shortlisted for the Digital History Prize are all audio works. Usually when audio and screen works compete in the same category, film and TV prevail. Not this time!


Read the judges comments.

Sunday, 19 July 2020

What we did January—December 2020


I don’t know what your last six months have been like but mine have been full-on with only a bit to show for them. Now. Why did I say that? Two significant pieces of work but in Christopher Brannan’s words ‘I am shut out of my own heart’ because neither is fundamentally creative writing. Still. Big pieces of work. Am proud of both. Stay with me.


Basically, I worked non-stop from (before) January 1st until early April preparing a report on the Creative Industries in the South Australian regions. A webinar on the report and research is available at this site. It was a big effort but a good thing to do and I learned a lot. The Report itself is available via the website of the Legatus Group, the over-body of 15 of the SA Regional Councils. I have to warn any prospective reader, it is quite large …


I published a poem in Signalhouse, a new web-zine coming out of the UK. 

In what feels like the world’s longest PHD journey ever, the ship is in the dock, the deckhands have thrown out the anchor, the anchor is descending to sea-bed level. But the tines of said anchor are still maybe one foot above the sandy floor.  That, too, has taken a ridiculous amount of time. But hey. This is 2020. We are in the middle of a pandemic. People are suffering. I can wait.


I’ve also been working on two prose projects. The moment those tines grip the ocean floor I will be able to go back to them. Until then, I’m kind of in stasis, like many of us. This is a curious, sad and opaque time. Maybe the point is to simply acknowledge that and wait it out as well.


Ah. Stop Press. Anchor has reached the ocean floor. Theoretically I am now Dr Laughton, though I can’t call myself that until formal graduation in September. Goodo.



Still traumatised from the devastating bushfires, we pulled up our socks and set out—into a reality that six months ago was inconceivable. Yet, life goes on. And in amongst the wreckage there have been some discoveries, resolutions and revelations both wonderful and terrible. But I digress …


I started the year by finally fulfilling my annual New Year’s Resolution and creating a website. Yay.


I’ve been putting the finishing touches on my adaptation of A Christmas Carol—slated for December at Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre—and having the enormous pleasure of working with my dad John Bell, who’ll both direct and play Scrooge. We have a cracking cast lined up, beautiful music composed by Phillip Johnston, and a gorgeous design unfolding (Michael Scott-Mitchell and Genevieve Graham). Let’s hope by December it will go ahead.


In February I was approached by producer Michael Dengler to adapt Paula Paul’s novel ‘The Mind of a Deviant Woman’, for a production in 2021. I’m currently working on the first draft of Deviants, a play about the eugenics movement and the forced sterilisation of the so-called feebleminded, an astonishing piece of social engineering that ultimately inspired Nazi Germany.

To counter the misery of that subject, I’ve been writing joyful songs with composer Greta Gertler Gold for the musical Alphabetical Sydney: All Aboard!, an extension (rather than adaptation) of my picture book collaboration with illustrator Antonia Pesenti. Thanks to a grant from the City of Sydney, we’ll be presenting the work-in-progress in August, featuring Justine Clarke and Luke Escombe.


As a board member of Australian Plays, I’ve been working with my colleagues on finding a way for the organisation to survive after the continued savage cuts to the arts that saw it lose its operational funding. And teaching-wise, I spent a weekend in Bathurst working with the excellent Live Words writers, and six happy weeks at Writing NSW, our last class being the socially distanced and hand-sanitised first day of lockdown. What a (half) year!




This is pretty hard. To reflect on the past six months and answer the question ‘what did I do?’ I feel like I have done so much and yet so little. This first six months is so long and yet so short. There have been nights racked with panic attacks and hot sweats and then I can go some nights and sleep like a log. Writing is miniscule; monologues and short plays and micro pieces. I’m playing with what I’m calling ‘segmented theatre’, new work, forged in the crucible of ‘needs must’, audio, screen and ... zoom. Theatres are dark spaces and my commission is on hold. And I’m working on kindness. And clarity. And mental health.


I’ve started research for my PhD and so this past six months has been terrifying and illuminating and ecstatic and then terrifying again. It’s been years and years since I was a student. My brain feels stretchy, forced to be bigger, my thoughts hurt, my head is packed with ontology and epistemology and methodology. And somehow, surprisingly, in time, the sludge begins to clear, the words begin to make sense.


Several years ago when I was a young playwright, a play I wrote, Darling Oscar was accepted for the Australian National Playwrights Conference. This was huge for me, an emerging writer, from Newcastle. And it was a great fortnight, challenging and inspiring, and I was young, so I was optimistic and excited and probably very naïve. But at the end of the conference I realised that I had met all these great people, names I had only ever read or heard about, actors and directors and brilliant writers. It was like, I thought to myself, I had been writing in a dark room and during that fortnight in Canberra, someone had switched on the light. Now I could see where I was and I could look up and see the ceiling and maybe I might not ever reach that far, but at least now I knew where it was.


That’s what it’s been like for me, this six months past. It’s a new room. I’m only at the door. But someone just switched on the light. And this time maybe, it was me.

Theatres are still dark. On top of Covid, our government seems to hate arts and arts researchers and art makers and so that means arts lovers too. In this new world, it seems so easy to feel alone. To have a panic attack, wake drenched in sweat. Theatres will open but things will be different and we, as artists, need to be alert and awake and ready. We need as one to step into the light. We need to flip that switch, together.



When I look through my Moleskine diary for the last six months, an aesthetic jolt happens from the 19th of March onwards—workshops, gigs, appointments, day job shifts and production dates are struck through in black pen and replaced with the word ‘cancelled’. Before that date, the diary entries sit freely on the page: creative development workshops with Zoe Carides and Deb Gallanos on my new play Stella Started It; story development meetings with co-writer Felix Cross on our ATYP commissioned play Hearing; scriptwriting classes at Excelsia College. In the weeks after the 19th of March, when every theatre across the country went dark, the production dates for Stella Started It (Batch Festival Griffin Theatre Company 22-25 April) and Jump For Jordan (Darlinghurst Theatre Company 1-17 May) were but a weird memory of what might have been. The Stella team is on solid stand-by, and the Jump For Jordan team did a digital first read on what would have been our opening night. Both shows had big-hearted and talented people all working for the right reason, and I do think our productions would have been (will be) glorious.


After some time out to absorb the shocks, a different frenzy started, professionally and socially, often involving Zoom. I had to move my scriptwriting classes online and learn on the hop how best to connect with students in a digital space that slows time, and stalls spontaneity, and zaps energy, suits some personality types and alienates others, and afflicts some people with terrible migraines. In April and May, I threw out my plans to run a course in production dramaturgy for the PYT Fairfield Ensemble and instead ran a course on Developing Your Creative Practice so I could support young artists thrust into lockdown to quickly build up some creative resilience. I taught in ugg boots, they sometimes learned in pyjamas, and we were all differently enriched by the experience of radically adapting to isolation together.


I made small contributions to projects swiftly designed to open the digital arena up to the performing arts. I wrote a monologue called Hawk for Playwriting Australia’s Dear Australia project, and despite being camera shy, sat on stage in the empty Joan Sutherland Theatre of the Sydney Opera House to pre-record a conversation about this project with Nakkiah Lui and Aanisa Vylet which was streamed on the 27th of June. I’m currently developing an SMS-based performance (a story in ten text messages) for the other Joan—the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre at Penrith.


Meanwhile, with some funding received via Playwriting Australia’s Duologue program, I’m able to work with director Alex Galeazzi on the concept of a new project called Ridsdale. Work on Hearing continues online with Felix Cross who is currently in isolation in England. And the script development of Stella Started It, derailed by the pandemic, has slowed down and taken on some much more interesting directions.




Hard to know where to start. It’s been such an anxious, roller-coaster six months. Like so many fellow arts workers, the delete button on my calendar got a workout. Theatre seasons, workshops, poetry readings—all cancelled. Overseas travel indefinitely postponed. When the lockdown came in, my initial thoughts were that as a writer who works from home and works mostly alone, the changed conditions wouldn’t affect me too much. How wrong I was! I completely underestimated the importance of those ordinary freedoms and interactions. I knew I’d miss going to the theatre and to readings, which I still do. But it was the bookshop browsing, trips to the State Library, catching up with friends and colleagues over coffee or a glass of wine, impromptu excursions and wanderings whose loss really hit me. These activities are a vital counterpoint to the subjective isolation of writing. Zoom and the online world are fine, and thank goodness we’ve got them, but they’re a poor substitute for the real thing.


Scholarship, the arts, the life of the mind are things dear to my heart. They’ve been knocked for six by the Covid-19 pandemic. And by our federal government—with cuts to the ABC (again), upping the cost of humanities’ degrees, and an arts rescue package which offers nothing to smaller outfits, the indie sector and freelance artists. And don’t get me started on Australia’s $400 million gift to Hollywood!


But it’s not all a tale of loss and dismay. In January I made a research trip to the glorious far south of New Zealand’s South Island for The End of Winter. My play The Devil Girls From Planet M was short-listed for the Sydney Theatre Company’s 2019 Patrick White Playwrights Award.


And most exciting of all, my first collection, Scratchland, is out. It’s published by UWA Publishing Poetry Series.  Scratchland is poetry with a performative tilt. A topography of voices, of casual and perhaps not so casual encounters. A car park attendant, a neglected child, a crow with a mordant sense of humour … a possible crime or series of crimes. Creatures and plants scratching an existence (and occasionally flourishing) in the urban margins. People struggling to make their lives into stories and make those stories known to others. A collection in two parts, Scratchland is about wild frontiers—the wild frontiers of our cities (Scenarios & solos from a mixed landscape) and the wild frontiers of our TV viewing (True crimers).




It’s been a year fraught with untold suffering for millions of people and it is almost impossible to absorb the sense of loss resounding around the world.


On a microscopic scale my best laid plans were overturned. I couldn’t write, words seemed too difficult to contain the intolerable and respond to it. So I held clay in my restless hands tossing and turning making my small Horsepower sculptures. I had begun them a while ago but I needed to keep with them. Perhaps in the repetition I had been trying to find an ancient talisman to render terror powerlessa transformative wish for what all art does. I wish.


Once I ran out of clay I began a set of drawings on black card. These too took over. I emptied my critical mind to just follow the impulses to find the lines, colours and forms. Once I had filled the A3 pad I lined the drawings up as is usual for an exhibition.


But they didn’t work on their own, they were either awkward, shapeless or just plain crap. So I threw them randomly onto the floor and they floated down to their place. It was only together and interlaced did they make meaning for me. I believe now the drawings are microscopic beings and I was mapping their territory.


There it was—the invisible terror haunting the world.


I just couldn’t find the words.





When I sat down to write this, I honestly had no idea what I was going to write. What have I done, apart from same old, same old?


I’ve continued searching for a publisher for my novel. Received some good feedback and lots of ‘unfortunately it’s not for us … ’ as well as ‘the standard of submissions has been … ’ After receiving hundreds of these kinds of rejection letters I can tell it’s a knockback after the first few words. And I’ve sucked it up and moved on. As my brilliant editor Bernadette Foley advised, take a day to feel sorry for yourself and move on. So, I’m moving on. But, between us, getting a book published takes the patience of a saint and I ain’t no saint.


I’ve had a bit of a whinge about that now what?


Mmm. I’ve been teaching. Teaching? Same old … hang on! What about Remote Teaching? Zooming? It’s been such an extraordinary six months that somehow I forgot about teaching Drama by Zoom. I forgot about the lockdown. The pros and cons of the whole family being under the same roof for six weeks. Or was it longer? I was quite intimidated by Zoom teaching. It wasn’t so much the teaching but the mastering the technology. As it turned out, I mastered the latter. Or, more accurately, worked out how to do it. The former was a real eye opener. I’ve just written an article for AEU News about it but, suffice to say, it was very illuminating. Very freeing for some kids, especially some of the girls. And we bonded very closely on Zoom. You’d think it would be the opposite, but it wasn’t.


I liked teaching remotely. Some would say I’ve been teaching remotely for years. But I did enjoy the one-on-one contact it afforded. I enjoyed the intimacy, all of us sharing more of ourselves than we might normally. I loved the way my kids took up the challenge of performing on Zoom. Costumes and all.


Back at school I was quickly reminded about what I hadn’t missed. The reams of paperwork that awaited me. In lockdown I could teach. Back at work I could do paperwork. Writing reports in the contemporary teaching world is the most challenging writing I have ever been faced with. Makes rejection letters for plays and books look like love letters. How to suck all the energy out of a phrase using nonsensical weasel words that match ‘outcomes’ and say absolutely nothing about the student. Doesn’t matter whether its public or private the same demands apply.


 My other bit of news is that I have a new website. A family affair with Tech Advice by Moss Johnston and Web Design by Lily Manning. In my next six-monthly update I’m sure to have some very exciting news. One way or another.


Thursday, 9 April 2020

Shock-absorption and dissociation: my first two weeks of COVID-19 isolation

I was a mentor at a residential program for young artists. I was missing-in-action on the first day, hadn’t thought to flag this, and didn’t know why I hadn’t had the wherewithal to turn up. Once there, I had no idea of the schedule, and turned up to workshops that were happening elsewhere. I failed to see the significance of anything, such as a performance in which a drummer on the edge of a cliff made music with the natural landscape; I arrived late, and was left out of the community-bonding experience that this had become. Try as I might, I kept letting people down. I was incompetent. I just couldn’t "get with the program" [Dream 8th April 2020].

Fourteen days ago, productions of two of my plays were cancelled as theatres across the country began to close - productions on track to be astute, nuanced and beautiful. Two days later, on top of these lost opportunities and royalties, I lost my day job and my regular income, registered an intention to apply for Centrelink payments, and burst into tears.

Knowing that this course of events was not caused by me or my collaborators, but by the COVID-19 pandemic that is impacting the lives and livelihoods of millions, softened these personal blows somewhat. But with the rug suddenly pulled out from under me, I prat-fell to the floor, and succumbed to a deep exhaustion that I thought I’d probably sleep off within a few days.

However, as this morning’s dream of the incompetent mentor filtered into my day, I understood why I’ve been so out of sync and useless and lost; why, in my first two weeks of COVID-19 induced isolation, I’ve been incapable of turning this sudden time-bonanza into a productive period of writing and reading and planning that is finely balanced with yoga and meditation, long baths and slow-cooking, and deep deep rest.

In a body that feels sore and ancient, I’ve been walking around as if underwater. None of my usual routines and rituals are working to support and structure my day. Despite unlimited and unencumbered time, I can’t get organised, I can’t set goals, I can’t activate my Isolation Action Plan (everything from writing projects to a wardrobe overall and stepped up activism). I’ve hardly set foot in my bird-attracting, clifftop office where, only two weeks ago, I was writing like the wind. My works-in-progress haven’t been touched. Why can’t I think or be effective? Where the hell is my brain and motivation?

My dream had the answer. Like the incompetent mentor, I’d become dissociated. Simply becoming aware of this involuntary reaction, just trying to describe its peculiar paralysis in this blog, is already reducing its power to run the show.

For two weeks, with all honesty, I was telling people that I was okay. After all, I have safe and secure housing, savings to draw on, and am likely to get the JobKeeper payment. I’ve had gifts of gin, and gourmet care packages, left on my doorstep, and multiple offers of financial assistance should I ever need it. I have friendship everywhere I turn, and connection on tap: phone and video calls, zoom book clubs and dinner parties, and online creative gatherings. I am blessed, and loved, and looked after. So what’s been going on? Why has my organism gone into lockdown?

Because the shocks didn’t stop with my cancelled shows, vanished income, and pride-bruising need to apply for benefits. Then came the devastation of my beloved arts community, firstly by venue closures and program cancellations, and secondly by Friday’s Australia Council four-year operational funding cull of the small-to-medium sector - structural inequity-in-action which continues to throw much of a generation’s cultural labour to the wolves, especially in the areas playwriting and youth arts. Then came Tuesday’s news of Cardinal Pell’s acquittal by the High Court and, as a former writer for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the visceral dread of knowing that this will be felt as body blow by survivors who are still fighting to be heard. I’ve experienced these tumultuous events while confined to a small space that is being bombarded by rolling broadcasts of grim-faced experts, daily death tolls, and predictions of temporary burials in public parks.

I live in a one-person household, but I am alone only in a literal sense. I’m super connected and cared for. Many people have my back. But the first two weeks of social isolation has made me aware of the fact that connection is not the same as having good processes and practices that allow us to integrate the shocks that are hurling at us thick and fast - shocks to income, status, security, purpose, identity, social fabric, career prospects, industries, rituals, rites of passage, health, well-being, cultures and economies. I doubt that I’m the only one who’s become dissociated during this time.

Dissociation is an old friend I don’t see much of these days. She has helped me through overwhelming times, and is only ever passing through. Had I had other people across my dining table, I might have noticed her earlier, or had her presence pointed out to me. Nevertheless, having met her again, and understood why I’d been rendered so frustratingly incompetent, means that I can accept and manage this natural response in a kind and friendly way, and top up my well-spring of resilience that she has contributed to over the years.

Gathering the inner coherence to write this blog took me all day, but the act of writing has brought me back to my right mind. I feel grounded and awake now. I feel energy tingling in my skin. I feel almost ready to step up and contribute to the re-organisation of our lives under lockdown. I’m also very aware that withdrawal and contraction are instinctive responses to fear and threat; forced as we are to socially withdraw and contract, I suspect that most of us will need strategies to manage the instinctive traumatic reactions we are likely to have.

Monday, 23 March 2020


Hello, community of playwrights. 7-On is feeling a bit behind the beat here given that we are posting just as a deadline hits but, given that we were amongst those calling for action early on we’d like to complete the act.

The last day for a response to an AWG survey asking for playwright input to the potential new Australian playwriting organisation was Friday 20th. We’re hoping, given the times we are all enduring that there may be a bit of leeway for late responders.

Can you click on this link to offer your ten pennorth worth amidst this chaos? We know it seems unreal right now but there will be a future and it would be good for as many of us who are directly concerned to be part of shaping it.

7-ON lends its support to the AWG statement about the REA  review,  A Consolidated Vision for Plays and Playwriting in Australiaand commends the hard work of all who have worked to bring the situation to the next stage.

Thursday, 30 January 2020

What we did June—December 2019

This past six months, every second was accounted for. There was a bit of everything, from productions and tours, to rehearsals and teaching, dramaturgy and even some actual writing.

Between July and November I opened four shows. The Red Tree musical adaptation with composer Greta Gertler Gold of Shaun Tan’s book, played at the Sydney Opera House and then the Melbourne Arts Centre.

In August I ran between rehearsal rooms for Take Two: A Comedy of Errors at the National Theatre of Parramatta, and Splinter at Griffin, which both happened to have the same opening night. Fortunately Splinter was a second production so needed few tweaks, but Take Two saw me set up office on the train, rewriting as I travelled the T2 Inner West line.

A few days after Splinter finished with a tour to Albury’s Hothouse Theatre, Starstruck  rehearsals began. For this musical adaptation of Gillian Armstrong’s 1982 film, I collaborated with Mitchell Butel on the book, and went from Splinter’s cast of two to 25 singing and dancing NIDA students.

Between all this, I taught master classes and workshops for Moogahlin, for Broome’s Goolarri Writers (twice!), and at Jamieson High School, and dramaturged Fred Copperwaite’s The Burning, Mari Lourey’s Dirt Cloud and James Elazzi’s play Lady Tabouli.

I launched Summer Timemy third picture book with illustrator Antonia Pesenti, which we followed with readings in Melbourne and at the AGNSW. I wrote a first draft of A Christmas Carolfor The Ensemble’s 2020 season. And thanks to a grant from the City of Sydney, with Greta and Antonia I started work on Alphabetical Sydney: All Aboard, an immersive musical theatre for children.

But this year? No idea.

The theatrical highlight of my last six months has been seeing Anthem. Not only is the piece a riveting wake up call, in the context of where we are as a country, it gives us a terrifying portrait of where we are going. The ramifications of a post-truth world impacting on the individual lives of everyone struggling to make ends meet.

The bush fires have only added to the dislocation and isolation felt by many. Stop-gap measures to prevent more fires, not even likely to achieve that goal, ignore the brutal reality of where we are as a society. We were warned by Ross Garnaut’s 2008 Climate Report that, unless we took action against Climate Change that this would happen. And it has. On cue in 2020.

We have to be cleverer and more tactical in our response to a world lurching towards self- destruction. We have to convince the deniers, especially those who have swallowed the Murdoch propaganda or been seduced by the likes of Clive Palmer’s hollow promises. Many of these people live on the edge, a place many of us have little experience of. Many are afraid. Waving placards at them as we drive through their depressed towns is not likely to win them over. Plays like Anthem might. Which is why I’m so excited about the next project 7-ON is cooking up. But more of that later.

On a personal front, my last six months have been typically roller coaster-ish in terms of writing. I’ve finished my book. Worked with a brilliant editor, Bernadette Foley, who guided me and gave me the best (and most detailed) dramaturgical advice I’ve ever had. Feeling very happy about it, especially after my family took me out to lunch to celebrate reaching the end. Now to finding a publisher. A brave new world for a nascent writer of fiction. It’s a very different one to the world of the playwright.

Talking of the world of the playwright, I had the great pleasure of directing Angela Betzien’s Children of the Black Skirt and the impossibly hilarious Popular Mechanicals by Keith Robinson, Tony Taylor and that Shakespeare fella. There is nothing quite like working with teenagers on a show. The first read is, more often than not, met with raised eyebrows and (barely concealed) dismissive comments. Rehearsals involve any number of permutations, all of which have to be negotiated with limitless understanding and patience. Then, as the thing evolves, the doubts about said play disappear to be replaced by a heady mixture of excitement and blind fear (barely concealed). Watching a cast of teenagers extend themselves and deal with a myriad of self doubts to produce a performance never loses its magic. Witnessing their unbridled joy on Opening Night and their (barely concealed) sadness on Closing Night makes you appreciate how important theatre is.

So does Anthem.

On the writing front: My play Yellow Yellow Sometimes Blue which was produced by Q Theatre at the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre in Penrith, won the 2019 AWGIE Award for Community and Youth Theatre. I finished Experiment Street and it went to air on ABC Radio National’s The History Listen in October. You can download the podcast here. Thanks to the determination of actor Inga Romantsova, Crossing the Quince, a script for a female actor and a male tap dancer that I wrote forever ago, had a December workshop. I  completed a new draft of a new play, and began work on a monologue-cum-performance essay: The End of Winter. Research for that has involved—amongst other things—a workshop on icebergs and a journey to the bottom of New Zealand’s South Island.

On the dreaming or ‘what if’ front: I’ve been thinking about my multi-part endeavour, Can Theatre Change the World? The first work, Dear Scott— my collected letters to the then Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, was presented at Melbourne’s fortyfivedownstairs in 2015. (I tried to get a Sydney outing for Dear Scott— without success. Make of that what you will.) I’ve since begun another piece about Scott Morrison, a short called I Contain Platitudes. There are a couple more scripts—still at the rough sketch/idea stage—under the Can Theatre Change the World? umbrella. A blend of agitprop, documentary theatre and poetic intervention, my Can Theatre Change the World? projects are in part about the role of writers and artists in society. About the responsibility we have not only to speak out about injustices, and hold elected governments to account for the things they do in our name, but also, and importantly, to speak out in imaginative and creatively ambitious ways.

What on earth have I done in the last six months? I finished the doctorate I’ve been working on for nearly four years and I started an Internship with an organisation that oversees fifteen South Australian Regional Councils to research a series of questions about the ‘creative industries’ in that vast area of startling landforms in my home state of South Australia. Have I done any writing other than academic investigation or research analytic? Nope. (Actually, not quite true—I re-wrote a kids’ fantasy novel, but nobody asked me to, so does it count? I think not. Fly well, angel, as they say.)

At some point during that six months, I fell into a landscape rabbit-hole after a few nights of no-tent camping under the stars in the extraordinarily spooky lands of the Southern Flinders Ranges, plus a series of visits to an isolated part of Kangaroo Island. I think I have been bewitched. I am really quite old now. How come I never understood quite how beautiful my region is?

Then there were the fires at Christmas/New Year, especially on Kangaroo Island. And now we are all inside a national paradigm shift—so very uncomfortable—as we struggle to absorb the fact that we’ve been pitched or have pitched ourselves into an irrevocable and perhaps impossible future. Do I have any answers, personal or communal? Nope.

It is strange to think of what I did last year when the ecological devastation of this summer has changed the sense of everything—order, continuity and time itself. The greatest creativity, the life-giving creativity of the natural world engulfed in destruction—murder by human hand.

So I won’t talk of what I’ve done except to offer these sculptures I’ve created. They are part of a series called Relics of the Anthropocene Age:

Walking away from writing plays was the best thing I did last year. Teaching, dramaturging and mentoring emerging writers continued apace with Hot House Theatre, PWA, University of Wollongong, Q Theatre and Arts Out West, but … script development does not a writing career make. Neither does working hard on labour-of-love projects, going around in circles, then working harder to either crash or crash through. Nor does my default—if vigilance slips—that can insidiously shift hospitable solitude into internalised self-abuse. The day dawned. I gave up. For good. Did my gigs and day jobs, and read novels for a month. In July, when I delivered a speech at the Parramatta Female Factory Precinct about recovering freedom through art, I was not speaking about me. In September, on a panel at the Rose Scott Women Writer’s Festival, despite the enthusiastic exchange, I felt like a closeted has-been.

I told my big-hearted arts-business coach about my decision. When she said, “Donna, this sounds like burnout”, every bone in my body sighed. God damn. I knew it wasn’t depression or writer’s block. It was bad practice born of fatigue and fanatical devotion. It was concussion from another year of bashing my head against walls. In 2019, I wrote twenty odd grant and fellowship applications, expressions of interest, play competition entries, submissions to development programs, and approaches to new agents, but this effort had yielded almost nothing, and had poured too much of my precious time and precious energy down the shitter … I could have been earning a buck. I could have been having a life.

My coach said, “Donna, the patriarchy doesn’t want you to succeed”. Shorthand for acknowledging my place among the cultural exclusions and culls and backlashes going on here and globally under neo-liberalism et al (e.g. federal Arts Department erasure, Australia Council operational funding EOI spill, strengthening of the Major Performing Arts Framework; worth reading Some solutions to the world of the disappearing arts by David Pledger. 

In September, when Noëlle, Hilary and I met with the adviser to the Minister for Arts to discuss the loss of operational funding for the bleedingly obviously crucial Australian Script Centre, I realised in a way I hadn’t before that power, real power, sits with too few men who have no interest in undoing inequity and privilege. That’s a fact. That’s the structural drill for the foreseeable future.

Then … the play I had abandoned starts waking me up at three o’clock in the morning with a whisper so insistent I have to get up and make notes. She doesn’t want me to return to my desk. She just wants me to listen. In those wee hours, night after night, I hear her clarity and conviction. She knows exactly what she needs to be, and how I need to be when I’m with her. The day dawns. I take the pile of notes from my night table, and return to writing plays.

Sorry Amanda Palmer, but last year, the Art of Asking didn’t work for me. What did work was letting go, creating kind and unencumbered space, deep listening, replenishing, and being receptive to unforeseen invitations. With no effort from me, the year ended with a second production of my play Jump For Jordan included in the 2020 Darlinghurst Theatre Season, and a co-commission with the Australian Theatre for Young People. Also, my one successful submission—which led to a staged reading of my short play Stella Started It in the Storyteller’s Festival—has landed me among a formidable creative team who will produce an extended version of the play with Green Door Theatre Company and the Griffin Theatre Company in the Batch Festival in April.