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!

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