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 …