To mark International Women's Day 2023, 7ON donated a handsome stack of our plays and anthologies to the Women's Library at Newtown. A simple initiative to get plays by women onto more bookshelves turned into a Drama Party complete with readings, cake and conversation. Thank you to Margot Oliver and the Library team for hosting a warm and welcoming event, and for enthusiastically intending to use our books to kickstart the Library's collection of Australian plays.
Sunday, 12 March 2023
Saturday, 4 February 2023
The last half of 2022—what we did
|Edinburgh, November 2022|
A quiet second half of 2022, but we have plans afoot for a new project. Stay tuned.
Well, I worked away, as one does. The 2023 production of my adaptation of Pip Williams’ The Dictionary of Lost Words was finally announced by both the State Theatre Company of South Australia at The Playhouse and the Sydney Theatre Company at the Drama Theatre at Sydney Opera House. It’s being staged from September 2023 (SA) to October/November 2023 (STC) and will be directed by Jessica Arthur.
I’ve published several poems over the last six months. Six O’Clock, taken from the 7-ON playwrights’ project Long Shadows, was commended in the Thunderbolt Crime Writing (Poetry) Prize. In Which Miranda Returns to Her Island, taken from a suite of poems loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest was a finalist in the Neo-Perennial Press’s Heroine’s Festival and will be published in their anthology (out soon!); Hello and Farewell was published in the autumn edition of signalhouse edition 19; and Kangaroo Island 1819 was published in The Griffith Review #76.
Much of the past 6 months was taken up with travelling. I counted up 13 different beds I’ve slept in since July!
Painting the Light continues to take me on all sorts of adventures. I have been travelling to country towns giving talks and chatting to people. Being a country boy, I love getting out to the bush (I think the modern term is ‘regions’). I have been to Dubbo, Coonabarabran (my birthplace), Gunnedah (where I was first sent as a teacher in 1973—that’s right 50 years ago), Orange, Yass, and Canberra (it is the ‘bush capital’).
Most of my audiences have been women and men over 50. I have discovered that the book is resonating strongly with a lot of this age group as it reminds them of their parents’ (or grandparents’) experiences. A lot of men have told me that their fathers never spoke of the war and were closed off. Women have recounted stories of their mothers who, like Nell in Painting the Light, were married to men they hardly knew, found themselves pregnant before they knew it and became virtual single mothers to one or more children. Then they had to deal with men who hardly spoke and almost never showed any emotion, except anger.
It will be Alice's fortieth production and I’m very excited about directing it with a large cast in the school hall. Should be so much fun.
Last six months has been a tad hazy for me. A sort of steamy fog. Part Covid, part menopause, part MS, part general depression and probably part human aging, I suspect. Not great, no. But fingers crossed, I’m moving through all that.
That last six months of 2022 were a mix of prose, performance, travel and culinary research.
My essay Still Life With Cheese was published in HEAT (Series 3, Number 5). In our digital world there’s something quite special about seeing your words in real-life ink on real-life paper. But you can also read the piece online at Giramondo (HEAT) or here on Lit Hub.
More culinary themes with my Visiting Research Fellowship at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences. Research at the National Library of Scotland and the ANL in Canberra. And attending the 17th Australian and New Zealand Herb Conference in Melbourne.
I continued working on my new performance essay cum monologue. Did some research for it at the British Library and elsewhere. And, as often happens with me, during my days of archival truffling at the library I discovered materials—and an idea—for a new work …
Travelling internationally again was exhilarating. I hadn’t been in London for about three-and-a-half years. Lovely to catch up with friends IRL and interesting to note how much and how little had changed since my last visit.
Bit of an aside—or maybe not?—this question caught my attention: Since when did we begin to think we were all storytellers? From the beginning of time, or the 1980s? That took me to Literary Activism ‘dedicated to ways of thinking about literature and the arts that are different from both the market and academia’ and its recent ‘Against Storytelling’ symposium and some deliciously provocative and dangerous thinking.
Recently I have been researching theories of dreams and I am sad to say some of these ideas are so without wonder and magic they have the distinct taint of Silicon Valley. There’s one particular hypothesis that got my goat—'dreams are simply “noise” as the events of the day are filed away and old memories are jettisoned.’ Sure, it could be absolutely correct but just please don’t call my mythic wonderland little more than the sound of a leaf blower on a Sunday morning.
Of course, why should there be only one theory catchall? There could well be many answers to why we dream. But I just love, like most people, the sensation of a very significant dream. Those dreams, of such intensity, they stay all of our lives in the liminal space of sleep and wakefulness calling when they need to be heard.
I’ve been thinking a lot about dreams as recently I was a visiting artist with Theatre Kantanka on the experiment Dream Shutter.
Dream Shutter began at the height of the Covid pandemic a cadre of artists (Carlos Gomes, Katia Molino, Nitin Vengurlekar, Samuel James, My Le Thi, Nick Wishart, Yong Zhi) came together to reflect upon on our dreams. We kept dream diaries consisting of writing, drawing and image-making. Our aim was to grasp the quicksilver elusiveness of our dreams to gather insight into our penumbral realms. As we immersed ourselves into the imagery and symbols of each personal dream this collaborative act begged the question—are these manifestations still dreams or have they become something else?
For me it was a captivating collaboration as we gave our dreams and ideas to each other and to watch this work build without simply being the writer/architect with the locked in floor plan. I called the process the Dream Machine as Carlos and the actors, sound and image creators dived in. They delved into unnerving, hilarious, visually astonishing worlds and it made me think what a world we live in with this shadow life within all of us? I do hope Dream Shutter gets another iteration. It deserves it.
Finally, I’m very busy with two other projects. One a play commission which of course I can’t talk about. I also have a children’s book I’ve picked up again after a long time. This all means I haven’t had time to work on my art projects but I do seem to be able to grab a photographic moment or two of where I am when in the midst of writing…
Sunday, 2 October 2022
Golden Joinery - Donna's essay for the Sydney Review of Books
It's no secret that I am a big fan of the creative courage and confidence I witness across Western Sydney, and my latest collaboration with Western Sydney University only further excites me about the calibre of critical thinking, and the quality of engagement with diverse people and perspectives. Last month, I was pleased to contribute to a series of essays and an online panel called Writing Gender # 2 which explored how writing plays a significant role in making visible acts of cultural, physical and gendered violence against women and trans and gender diverse people. My essay titled Golden Joinery is available to read in the Sydney Review of Books
Friday, 29 July 2022
What we did the first six months of 2022
My theatre year kicked off with a joyful little production at the Australian Design Centre, as part of Sydney Festival and co-produced with Griffin Theatre. This was Window, Cricket Bat, performed by Lucia Mastrantone and directed by Jen Rani.
Next came a musical for young audiences, Alphabetical Sydney: All Aboard!, created by myself, Antonia Pesenti and Greta Gertler Gold. Produced by Critical Stages Touring, it opened at Riverside Theatres in April. Like shows all over, it had its Covid casualties (see earlier post) but despite setbacks, the dedication of all involved meant we had a musical for the hundreds of appreciative kindy kids who arrived with lunchboxes and legionnaires’ caps.
As I write this, Greta and I are in the studio, recording a CELEBRITY VARIETY ALBUM of the songs from the show. So far we’ve recorded Sydney legends Paul Capsis, Justine Clarke and Sheridan Harbridge, with a line-up of fabulous artistes to come.
Greta and I have also been busy with our Picnic at Hanging Rock musical. We have a couple of crackerjack songs and are charting a course for the show’s development over the coming year.
I’ve been hard at work on the Pavarotti musical (see earlier update), writing a new draft. And I’m gearing up for The Marrickville Mermaid, a song cycle written with composer Luke Styles, which has a showing as part of the Inner West’s Edge Festival in August at—and in!—the Annette Kellerman Pool. A few days later, I head to the UK where we’ll further develop the show as part of the UK/Australia Season, at Stapleford Granary.
Looking forward to teaching a weekend course at Writing NSW, that got bumped by Covid from one date to the next over the past year. I used to teach a lot and have missed it.
I’ve been locked in a research task for much of the last six months—useless to talk about it as there’s an even money chance it will go nowhere. But fascinating! And all in my own South Australian backyard, which becomes more and more important as you age. From having rejected my own background as a younger woman I am finding I am bewitched by the landscape and stories of my home. When that landscape is as breathtaking as the South Australian regions, and the small city on its coast an idiosyncratic encapsulation of Australia’s troubled colonial history, that can be addictive. And perhaps I am looking backwards in part because trying to look forwards is so terrifying. (And because one should not write such a word without offering an antidote, can I quickly mention the work of Australian Buddhist nun, Jayasara for anyone who shares my fears).
Apart from that, I have had one workshop/reading of my adaptation of a contemporary Australian novel that is now scheduled for performance with the STCSA in the latter half of 2023. I have no doubt that the title may be the worst kept secret in Adelaide but I’m keeping mum until the company officially announces its season in September of this year. We have another three-day workshop coming up next week, about which I’m excited and nervous, as one inevitably is.
I’ve continued to work on the poetry collection scheduled for publication in the UK at some point when all stars align. Also published a poem in the Griffith Review #76: Acts of Reckoning, which is so worth a read quite apart from my offering.
And, together with yoga and chant teacher Sally Riddell I held a (most successful!) yoga / meditation / storytelling and writing retreat near Blinman in the mid-Flinders Ranges. We have another one planned in September. See Sally’s website for details. We are keeping numbers tight so if you’re interested sign up soon!
So I’m currently in rehearsal for my new play The One. What does this mean for a playwright? Well it’s a new play, a ‘world premiere’ as the leaflet for the play explains, and so, for starters, that means a lot of questions.
Because of course the developments have been a 2D process, everyone bent over my script, but now actors are UP and deep in the 3D process. There is walking and running and jumping and quite a lot of dancing and a LOT of questions. And cuts. And changes. And new lines born and old lines killed off no matter how funny we found them in the development. There is a classic quote in playwriting teaching where newbie playwrights are advised to ‘kill your babies’. This seems harsh and actually reflecting upon this term I think maybe it was a line I was made to shout when I played King Herod in a Christmas play I was involved in aged about 7 (it was the times) so maybe I wouldn’t use this particular advice in any playwriting workshop I teach now.
But I would say … expect the questions, and in fact welcome the questions. Everyone involved in production brings a unique take to the process, whether via their character, the overall flow of the piece, the costuming and design, the music, the choreography (I told you about the dancing) … everyone is suddenly viewing this world through their own lens and naturally questions arise. So … yes to the paper swan napkins, no to the Air Supply reference and can the tofu be served in a bowl?
And because I live in Newcastle and the play is being produced in Sydney (the Ensemble Theatre) when I can’t be in the room, I’m on the Zoom. (You can say that to yourself like a sort of jolly rhyme). And we sort through the questions and move through the script and the wheel turns. And where the wheel ends is anyone’s guess. But this part, the question part, the 2D into 3D part, is brilliant. It’s completely dance-worthy. And as our old friend Nietzsche is meant to have said: ‘We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once.’
The One by Vanessa Bates, directed by Darren Yap. Ensemble Theatre 22 July to 27 August 2022
The year began with Siren Theatre Company’s premier season of The End of Winter at the Griffin. It was a joy to be collaborating again with the Good With Maps team—director Kate Gaul, performer Jane Phegan and composer / sound designer Nate Edmundson. Despite the ever-present coronavirus we got good audiences, great responses, and our single actor did not catch Covid.
In that classic freelancer’s feast or famine, the week after The End of Winter opened, an audio work, Mrs C Private Detective, went to air on ABC RN’s The History Listen.
I’m continuing to explore the performance essay form—a hybrid which draws not only on the essay and the monologue, but also on field reports, memoir, spoken word, cultural criticism, reportage and the tradition of the illustrated lecture. Poetic at heart, performative in nature, often funny, often personal, they combine big picture thinking with the immediacy and intimacy of the theatrical monologue. I have a new one in development, The Past is a Wild Party, and in May I made a research trip to the National Library in Canberra to do some research for it.
What else? Went to Melbourne to take part in an ARC-funded research initiative; went to Adelaide to celebrate my partner’s mother’s ninetieth birthday; read a lot of late Victorian poetry by (queer) female writers; listened to Laura Nyro and Patti LaBelle; continued struggling with ancient Greek. And rejoiced in May when we had a change of government and Scotty from Marketing was finally booted out. Yay!
The first Act of Painting the Light’s life was the writing. It was variously intimidating, challenging and confronting. There were times when I asked myself: “Can I do this?” I’d never asked that question about anything else I’ve ever written. Maybe I should have. The thing is, I didn’t allow the question to hover. I dismissed it and got on with it.
It turned out to be the best writing experience of my life. I loved writing Painting the Light. I never had to force myself to sit down and write it. It was truly a labour of love. I love the characters and the way they took on a life of their own. There were “scenes” (I’m a playwright, I can’t help it … ) that would take off in directions I had never imagined. I knew the basic plot, spent years working it out, but I was constantly surprised by things that just seemed to pop onto the page by themselves. All I was doing was the typing.
Act 2 has been quite another matter. Getting the book out there is also intimidating, challenging and confronting. It also requires enormous patience and persistence. I won’t pretend that I love every minute of it. In the world of books, I’m a nobody. My publisher (Broadcast Books) is a small, indie outfit. They have been incredibly supportive. But, I have discovered just what a competitive world this is. There are literally hundreds of books published in any given week. So, getting traction is very difficult. I’ve had to call on long suffering friends to ask for it in bookshops, to post reviews, to tell their friends. I’m sure some of them get heartily sick of me. But … what can a poor boy do? One thing I do know is, if I take the foot off the pedal, nothing will happen.
For a playwright, writing his first novel, it has been an incredible learning curve. If you’re lucky enough to have a play produced, you go to rehearsals and opening night. You pray you get good reviews, you enjoy the season and then it’s over. Six weeks. It may get another guernsey, it may get published, it may become a hit. But it’s all over relatively quickly.
Put it this way. When (or if) someone buys your novel, it might sit on their bedside table for six weeks. It might get forgotten amongst the prize winners and famous authors’ releases. It might never see the light of day in many bookshops. What I’ve learnt is, you have to be relentless. You have to keep going, trying to get people to (at least) buy it. You become, in fact, your own bookseller. Some aspects of it I quite like. Taking copies out to the Booktopia Warehouse, for instance. I love that. When bookshops take it on, it’s a buzz. When they look down their noses at you, it’s a bit dispiriting. But, as I’m learning, it’s all part of the gig. It’s a long, long haul. You get the odd break, someone interviews you and there’s a spike of interest. Maybe. Maybe not.
Fortunately, I love Painting the Light and I’ll never tire talking about it and sharing it with readers. I hope you enjoy it too.
Tuesday, 29 March 2022
Theatre in the Time of Covid: ALPHABETICAL SYDNEY: ALL ABOARD!
HILARY SAYS: It's been all thrills and spills rehearsing 'Alphabetical Sydney: All Aboard!', a musical that opens tomorrow (March 30) at Parramatta Riverside.
'Angels in America'? No. Nat Jobe as Ibis in a shopping trolley full of rubbish.
First, the show. Inspired by the picture book 'Alphabetical Sydney', which I created with illustrator Antonia Pesenti in 2013, the stage show is an extension rather than an adaptation. The book is non-narrative, a form which doesn't lend itself easily to children's theatre. So we took two of the characters who appear once in the book, and made them the protagonists. The 'swimming Nanna' from the Ocean Pool page worships neatness and organisation (think mown verges and spare cardigans) and the Ibis stands for all that is unpredictable, filthy and fabulous. Order vs Chaos: the quintessential conflict between parents and children everywhere.
Garbage bin puppets, Ibis' back-up vocalists.
In brainstorming ways of how the book might make the leap to the stage, Antonia and I worked closely with Greta Gertler Gold, the composer with whom I wrote 'The Red Tree' and am now collaborating with on a musical adaptation of 'Picnic at Hanging Rock'. Working with Critical Stages Touring as co-producers over the past year, through a creative development (with Justine Clarke, Luke Escombe, Salina Myat and Zara Stanton) and generous grants from the City of Sydney and RISE, all was coming together nicely.
We assembled a crack team of artists: director Liesel Badorrek, musical director Maria Alfonsine, designer Isla Shaw working together with Antonia, Alice Osborne as puppetry director, Mic Gruchy on projections, Ben Brockman on lights, Ross Johnston on sound design. Jaw-dropping puppets by Erth. And the cast! Nat Jobe, Deborah Galanos and Rebecca Rolle, with Maria doing a lot more than playing the piano. Greta's music sparkles. Book and lyrics I can feel proud of.
Alice Osborne demonstrates a flock of seagulls diving for chips.
Three weeks seemed like plenty of time to rehearse - until on Day 2 our director came down with Covid. Which meant she would be directing via Zoom for the first week. Fine. Then on Day 3, our Nanna tested positive, so she was out of the room. The week ended with Ibis feeling fluey and waiting on his PCR results - and at home. In 37 years of putting on plays, I never imagined being in a near-empty rehearsal room with the director and both actors on a screen. Singing was impossible due to the time-lag. We tried some choreography, with Liesel dancing in her kitchen, spinning past the fridge with her dog barking at her heels.
In the final week, we made sure we had an understudy for Nat (Gabriel Fancourt) and worked at a fever pitch to make up for lost time. Tomorrow we have our first audience. It will also be the first time the cast performs on the Riverside stage. The excitement of live theatre! And while we visit Hornsby Heights (H) , Taronga Zoo (Z) and stop for yum cha on Parramatta Road (Y, P), we don't need Luna Park (L) - it's been enough of a rollercoaster ride.
For more info, and to book tickets, click here.
Alphabetical Sydney: All Aboard! was developed with the support of the City of Sydney, the NSW government through Create NSW, Parramatta City and Riverside Theatres. This production is supported by the Australian Government through the RISE (Restart Investment to Sustain and Expand) fund, and the Australia Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body.
Friday, 21 January 2022
July – December 2021—what we did
With time on our hands, thanks to the lulls and lockdowns of the pandemic, we’ve starting to talk about our next 7-ON project. Maybe we’ll revisit Platonic? Maybe we’ll dream up something else … Stay tuned.
What on earth have I been doing for this last six months? I feel as if I have never worked so relentlessly in my life–not true in fact–there have been some doozies in the past– but that’s how it feels.
Much of my time was spent writing the adaptation of a recent Australian novel for which I’ve been commissioned by the State Theatre Company here in South Australia. I can’t tell you the name yet, as the theatre company wants to keep that under wraps, but it’s a terrific book, with a killer concept and a clever and utterly charming author so I’ve been in Happy Street. I have finished my first draft and lodged it with the similarly charming and intelligent Mitchell Butel at STCSA and am looking forward to a workshop of that draft at some point early next year. Like most playwrights, I really need to hear my words in the mouths of actors to know what works, and what doesn’t and what to do next. Production would be in 2023.
I’ve been writing poetry, too. I have a chapbook coming out with a small UK-based indie publisher next year, and that has stimulated me to write More. And I’ve been pursuing a film possibility based on one of my past plays with some interesting people here in SA and elsewhere. Film is such a contingent thing, especially when it’s not your main schtick, so I have no great expectations, but it’s been fun developing our ideas. Ditto some picture book texts with Adelaide-based illustrator Yvonne Ashby. And I’ve been researching a long prose piece, probably a novel, based on some South Australians during World War I that arose out of a previous play of the The Red Cross Letters (STCSA, 2016).
Lastly, I’ve been dipping my toe into the world of storytelling. Sally Riddell, the yoga and Vedic Chant teacher with whom I’ll be running two workshop retreats in the Flinders Ranges next year has been geeing me up to Do My Share of that side of things for the retreat and I am finding it intriguing and fascinating as a spoken word practice. I made a long study of myth and symbol fifteen years ago and have accumulated a degree of expertise since then, so it’s been highly enjoyable. Our Retreat for May 2022 is now sold out, but there are still two vacancies left for the September retreat so if it’s the kind of thing that would rock your boat, contact Sally through the link and mention the September possibility.
I continued working on the musical that I mentioned last update. It’s a unique project, I’m very excited about it. Produced by Scenario Two, directed by Michael Gracey and with Jacob Collier overseeing the music, it is about Pavarotti. It’s not a biopic, but has a surprising and original premise.
Composer Greta Gertler Gold and I received two grants towards our musical of Picnic at Hanging Rock: a big one from Create NSW will support the writing of the script and score, with dramaturgy by Christie Evangelisto; and seed funding from the Hayes Theatre which we’ve put towards research. This included a December trip to Victoria, to look at Joan Lindsay’s archives and home (a strange feeling, to stand in the room where she wrote the book), and to visit Hanging Rock itself.
And more grant success, with The Marrickville Mermaid gaining support from the UK/Australia Season. A song cycle I’m writing with composer Luke Styles about champion swimmer /vaudevillian /silent film star Annette Kellerman, it was slated as part of the Inner West’s Edge Festival, but its Marrickville Pool performances have been Covid-delayed from last August to next.
Collaborating with Darren Yap and Raghav Handa, I progressed dance theatre work The Colour Gold for National Theatre of Parramatta. Big fun with Anthony Taufa, Nick Hope, Victor Zarallo Muñoz, Nick Ng, James Brown and rising young star Thom Blake.
Greta and I met the next generation of musical theatre writers/composers through Making A Musical, hosted by the Hayes and CAAP, for which we ran a workshop on craft, and I was a judge for Bell Shakespeare’s Shorts Festival, a national film festival for school students. (So much jaw-dropping talent out there!)
I write this as the plague continues to keep us jumpy, but ideally Window, Cricket Bat will open on 11 January at the Australian Design Centre (a co-pro with Griffin), as part of the Sydney Festival. Featuring Lucia Mastrantone and directed by Jen Rani, it was written as a post-Covid play involving much manhandling of the audience … fingers crossed.
Finally, good news for Summer Time, my third picture book with illustrator Antonia Pesenti, which has been shortlisted for the 2022 Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature.
The last half of 2021 was a very mixed bag for me. Unlike the 2020 lockdown, the Delta lockdown was a struggle, and I spent a fair portion of it wrestling with mental health issues and a loss of motivation that was at times overwhelming. By October however, the dark cloud was lifting, I finished my audio script, Mrs C Private Detective, and it was fast-tracked into production. Restrictions made the recording process something of a challenge, but we finished the mix, the whole thing, the day before Christmas Eve. Mrs C Private Detective will be broadcast (and available as a podcast) in February via ABC Radio National’s ‘The History Listen’ program.
I wrote the rehearsal draft of The End of Winter. Produced by the ever-dynamic and wonderful Siren Theatre Company, with director Kate Gaul, performer Jane Phegan, composer Nate Edmundson and a bunch of new collaborators, it opens the beginning of February at the Stables Theatre. Details and tickets here.
A trip to Adelaide early December provided not only a welcome change of scene, but also the opportunity to carry out some research for one of those projects / ideas that may develop into something … or may not.
Thanks to a Small Project Grant (Quick Response) from Create NSW I started work on Flying Saucers Over Fairfield. And continuing the happier end to 2021, I learnt just before Christmas that I’ve been awarded a Visiting Research Fellowship at the Powerhouse Museum to work on Lessons in Eating for Migrants in the latter part of 2022.
It’s coming!! My book. Yes folks it’s finally under way. Full steam ahead.
It’s now called Painting the Light. We have a cover design. Totally beautiful. I have completed a final (actually that word doesn’t always mean what it appears to) edit. We have an endorsement. And, without wanting to Jonah the whole project, another thing (like an endorsement) that I’ll tell ya’s about later. Booktopia is going to sell it. As are bookshops. I’m gonna do as many Book Clubs/Library talks as possible. Or as will have me!
My publisher is Broadcast Books. Since my last update they have come on board as publisher, no longer partner. It’s been a long journey but worth every step. We sent it off for a ‘blind edit’. Amazing what the editor came back with. Incredible eye for detail. Very thorough. Then another read through/edit from my publisher and another ‘eye’.
I can safely say the book that I first sent to Bernadette Foley (Broadcast Books) that was over 200,000 words and that she suggested might need a ‘trim’ before she read it, is now a readable size. Just under 100,000. I discovered that I have a tendency to repeat myself and carry on. But, anyone reading this who knows me won’t be surprised by that.
So. We’re off to the printers soon. I’ll release the cover along with my new website (designed by Lily Manning) as soon as I get the green light.
One last thing (I told you I go on). I was listening to someone talking about their book on ABC RN who said that every writer ends up hating their book when they’ve finally sent it to the printers. That’s because they have sweated over every sentence and every word and end up … well … hating it. I have to say my experience of writing Painting the Light has been the most wonderful, joyful, challenging, experience of my writing career. Far from hating it, I love it to death. I was trying to work out why this was so. I came to the conclusion that this is because I am a playwright and I love the process of absorbing feedback and re-writing. If any of my plays had received a tenth of the dramaturgy Painting the Light has received, I have no doubt whatsoever that they would be heaps better plays.
A great, big thank you to all the people who have provided feedback and editing advice. You have made the journey a thoroughly rewarding one. I hope the Reader ( a new term I’ve learnt) gets as much pleasure out of reading it, as I got out of writing and re-writing it.
So I’m trying to talk about the good stuff but … Really, it seems like six more months of shit. Trudging away, boots heavy, seems so hard.
Mid 2022, I have a play scheduled for production in July at the Ensemble Theatre, Sydney. And … it’s s been so exciting, attending the launch late 2021 (catching up with divine Ms Bell as I did as she has a play on too) ... but now, looking forward to July, I wonder ... will it actually happen? And then I start to think why am I even doing this, any writing for performance, who the hell will be well enough to perform anyway? Or watch? What is the fucking point of it all? I can’t look into the eyes of creatives around me, plays being scheduled and cancelled and postponed ...
Argh! Screams into cushion. OK, re-calibrating. Where then is this ‘good stuff?’
Writing this play The One is good stuff. A play with amazing actors and a brilliant director and an incredible system of support and enabling. I love the Ensemble Theatre, the way it crouches over a tiny twirl of the harbour, the bar over the water, the ‘we’re all in it together’ stage, the people, the two enormous sad-eyed dogs. I wrote a short play for them a few years back (theatre, not dogs) and now I get to write a big play and it is awesome.
I’ve also started writing a libretto. That’s good stuff. At the end of 2021, I zipped to Melbourne to meet co-creatives and begin work on The Celestials. Again, awesome. Opera. A genre I am learning and discovering, a kind of performance writing that I am exploring and having fun within.
Mentoring for atyp’s fabulous National Studio late in ’21 was more good stuff although doing the whole thing via Zoom was, well, as one might expect. Raise your hand if you have in some way been involved in Zoom education—teacher, student, parent of student … we are as one my friends! Despite dry eyes and brain drain after hours online, once again the emerging writers’ output was fabulous; exciting, innovative and theatrical. I have been a National Studio mentor over several years, usually face to face and, for the last two years, via Zoom. Always I am inspired and exhilarated by the energy and imagination of young playwrights.
But perhaps my best ‘good stuff’ in the last six months has been the thinking and connecting I am doing in the midst of my research. I see every project as feeding into the next. I’m watching ‘La Boheme’ as I write this because I see it connecting to The Celestials which thematically connects to The One which also connects to my PhD creative project Halfjar which is connected to my television project Troubled Youth and so on and so on it goes.
And around me, my creative tribe, find their ways to move through their own circles and spark off their own creations and connections. And knowing this, knowing them, helps me keep going, through the shit, trudging on and stepping out and searching, always, for the ‘good stuff’.
During these last six months with the lockdown, isolation and especially for the fears for those I love, I’ve thought a lot about the art of conversation. It seemed very much that people stopped just texting each other but talked, really talked—at least my friends did. We talked, listened and tried to sustain one another. As a way of containing my worries and capturing this connection I filled an A4 hard-bound hundred page visual diary of what I call Conversation Maps. There’s a small selection attached.
Writing needs conducive contexts—good solitude, a room of one’s own, and the modern day equivalent of £500 a year. During the last six months, two of these contexts were upended once again due to the long Sydney lockdown (which, on the cusp of opening night, had closed the production of my play Prevail on 30 June). Sometimes, when I woke up, it felt like the sky was pressing down on my chest. Before I could go about my day, I had to ground myself with yoga and other rituals in order to push the sky back up where it belonged; ; one such ritual was to write a poem every morning during the month of July, an exercise which gathered very nourishing momentum as everything else was grinding to a halt… Like many, I was back in survival mode, having to sort out baseline matters like how to earn my keep, and stay emotionally afloat, in isolation.
Fortunately, I landed a job as an editor with SBS preparing programs for translation into languages other than English. In an unplanned and challenging pivot, my three months of training had to happen on line. However, I now have “remote work” - a day job done entirely from home. So, if other lockdowns bounce - mandated, or self-imposed because the government has dropped the ball, which it has, as I write - I won’t be working for an English language school that leaves its casual workers out in the pandemic cold.
My latest play Prevail had been scheduled to open on 30 June as part of subtlenuance theatre’s Morning Star Project. The performer, Susie Lindeman, had been astonishing in rehearsal, and from our respective corners of a locked down city, we kept the conversation going. Her character, Nella, was still alive for her, so she kindly offered to perform the play for just me via Zoom. It was a very precious private performance, the culmination we could manage in the given circumstances. I hope to write a companion piece for this 30 minute play, and create a full length work for Susie to perform wherever she will.
Collaborative performance projects either stalled, or had to pivot online, which is always a mixed blessing … My play Ridsdale remains up in the air because my key collaborator has not been able to leave Western Australia for twenty months … However, the script development of Hearing with my London-stuck co-writer Felix Cross could continue via Skype. Even though we managed to finalise the first draft, being alone with reams of material about child sexual abuse was not healthy. Luckily I had my Royal Commission training in vicarious trauma to draw on … My mentoring and dramaturgy contribution to the development of a choral play by the Curlew Collective (an offshoot a Western Sydney multicultural choir called Phoenix Voices of Youth) also went online. Very hampered and protracted by the limitations of online collaboration, people pushed through, only to reach the workshop room and be shut down by a COVID outbreak among the team.
Teaching gave me a good dose of social engagement; but delivered online, it required teachers and learners alike to dig deeper to make it work. The year-long intensive Page to Stage playwrighting course I was running for the National Theatre for Parramatta had to jump online mid-stream, and adjust to that format. Fortunately, the participants were kind and highly-motivated, and by the end of the year, we were able to gather in person for a reading of their work, and a celebratory nosh up in a Church Street restaurant (which very weirdly had robots assisting the wait-staff). I was also delighted to be a mentor for ATYP’s National Studio, and to work alongside our Vanessa. Normally a week-long residency at wombat-clad Bundanon, this year’s Studio was held online with impressive care and joy and generosity. The playreadings occurred online, but it really was a focused and full-hearted experience. It was in contrast with my experience of teaching scriptwriting to a class of high school drama students, where I saw first hand the mighty struggle, fatigue and dissonance of full-time screen-bound school teachers and students.
It was not period of big public achievements … However, I am proud that I stepped into the role of co-Chair at PYT Fairfield and stayed the course through a series of crises (including a militarised response to the lockdown in Western Sydney) to see the appointment of the brilliant Jacqueline Hornjik as our new Director … I was unexpectedly validated when I addressed young writers from Western Sydney University’s initiative The Writing Zone; speaking publicly for the first time about the impact of intergenerational trauma and traumatic adaptations on creative expression, I realised that this was burning topic for many … And in December, in a room full of writing peers, I finally got to deliver a postponed keynote address to the Society of Women Writers, titled Performing Redress. After a tough six months, there I was, at a lectern in the State Library of NSW, decked out in the silk blouse I never got to wear to the opening night of my play Prevail … I’m still standing, yeah, yeah, yeah …