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.


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