I am in the midst of re-writes for two scripts with two more on hold. In this moment where every document I open screams for completion, patience and courage, I’ve been thinking about the beginnings of plays: those moments when a character walks onto the page and moves in to your life.
I don’t write about my own work too often (although this blog is full of arts writing so personal that the whole exercise may be termed narcissism) but today I want to talk about the beginnings of some of my plays. I thought about asking other writers to contribute but, in the end, I decided to go full narcissist. There is a romance to beginnings and these memories I treasure. In this moment when four of my babies are paused, caught in indecision and fear, I want to return to these memories and recall the joy of falling in love.
Unicorn, begun December 9th, 2010
I was living on the second story of an apartment block where only trees could peer in my window. Because of this I often forgot to lower the blinds. One day I remembered midway through getting changed, but when I tried to close it, the venetian broke, as they seem designed to do. I managed to fix it and the blind slowly jerked down. I imagined what the trees were seeing: my naked body slowly disappearing in a series of jolting moments. Suddenly it wasn’t the trees that were my witness, it was a boy named Kit. The greenery became tropical, the atmosphere sweaty and then I was gone too. Instead of me it was a nameless woman, fifteen years his senior and he watched her with religious devotion. I wrote this:
“By night, she seemed to glow. In that city of sunburn, she was the whitest person I had ever seen and this was part of her mystique: how she managed to avoid the crumbling and peeling of skin which we all suffered six months of the year. She did not seem to tan or burn but she did grow a fine mist of freckles across her face in the time I watched. A token gesture of her initiation into the community; a traveler coming to rest. … Her blind was problematic, to say the least, so each night she disappeared in a series of sudden jolts. Bang: the top of her head disappeared, cutting off the left eye. Bang: with an irritated tug she would correct the slant and the right side would catch up, both eyes out of the picture. Bang: my television screen was limited to the neck down. Bang: navel. The last I would see was a slither of milky thighs before this too blinked out. The mass has ended. Peace be with you.”
Kit and his neighbour became a short story and then a novel but, having never written a novel, I eventually gave up on the idea but not on Kit. He became the boy in the midst of the Vietnam War who decided that men were all doomed and became a woman. The milky neighbour and his voyeurism were cut but it was in the writing of this scene and the jerks of that blind that I came to understand Kit: always outside the window looking in, seeing the poetry in everyone else’s body and feeling the chemistry in his own.
I spent years on Unicorn and it was never staged. But I never tried very hard. I owe a lot to this text. I learnt a lot and loved a lot. The text is steeped in death and the notebook it is written in also contains the writing I did at the bedside of my dying grandmother. The deaths, fictional and real, laced together. Something I initially wrote for my grandmother’s found its way into the play when I cut it from her eulogy.
ALBA: I was thinking how – When you die and when you love your family as much as our dads loved us – how dying must be like – like you were reading this really amazing book and – like – you were really into the story and you knew all the characters as well as you knew yourself and then someone came along and tore out the ending. Like, you know these characters – the people you love – are going to go on and on but you’ll never read it. And I was thinking if I were to die, that’d be the thing I’d be most sad about. Not knowing how they end.
KIT: If your dad could hear you now – what ending would you tell him?
ALBA: I don’t know. I haven’t got to the end yet, have I?
Yours The Face, begun January 1st, 2013
Emmy and I met on a train, passing through snow-covered English paddocks.
My grandmother had just died and I was in England staying with my sister and her family. I was finishing Unicorn when a photographer I greatly admire proposed I write a text that he project images over. I had to turn down the offer but the idea of writing about the creation of photos stuck with me.
Emmy came to me on the train and, since I could not write to my own grandmother, I wrote a postcard to hers.
To find Emmy’s voice and differentiate her from the other character, Peter, I initially tried to write her phonetically. It was a disaster and Raimondo Cortese told me she was sounding like Ali G but those embarrassing attempts did help me find her.
I found her a long time before Peter, who now almost dominates the play. He is charismatic and an over-talker but I find it very touching and poignant that she came first for, despite his bluster and her perceived passivity, she is powerful one. She survives everything thrown at her.
Blessed, begun January 28th, 2013
I was in Adelaide housesitting and two playwright friends, Cat and Sharon, had roadtripped over to hold an impromptu writing retreat in my parent’s house. Think of an Adelaide summer. Think of the dogs lying under the table, stretched as long as they can stretch so as to press their bodies against the tiles. Outside the grape leaves wilt. Inside I play a song by Elbow, Jesus is a Rochdale Girl, and then set a timer for fifteen minutes. That’s how long we have to write a response.
At the top of the page I write the lyrics: “I celebrate and mourn… Jesus is a Rochdale Girl… Got a house that you can smoke in.” Beneath it I write the first five pages of Blessed. The characters are labelled ‘A’ and ‘B’ but by the end of the day they have names and a completed first scene. Today, many drafts later, that scene is almost identical to the one I wrote that first day.
Other parts of Blessed I sweated over. The structure was so, so difficult. I remember telling Bridget Mackey that it was the hardest thing I’d ever written and she told me I said that every time. Sometimes it feels like a play grants you a win. This first day was that win. Blessed seemed to be telling me “I’ll give you this one. I’ll pour this one out like honey because you need a win now and you will need a win in the future. When you are utterly confused, re-read what I’ve given you and remember that we’ll get there.
I remember hearing once from a novelist who believed that if, on your first day of writing you don’t write fifteen pages then you probably aren’t inspired enough to write that novel. I don’t believe that. I’ve spoken here for three relatively pain-free beginnings. They were pain-free because they all began with a character whose clear voice made itself known to me. Those that begin with a concept are harder to start and usually I have to come at them sideways.
For WILDS, I carefully read the book it was inspired by and after each chapter I made myself write a scene or monologue as a response. I feel like I sort of tricked myself into writing these. I told myself they were just ‘moment’, just me processing what I’d read with no pressure to actually write something usable. By the end of the book I had 27 moments of theatre, many crap but some exciting. Some that revealed to me who and what I was dealing with.
I haven’t had one of those honey days in a while. It’s been sweat days for months and that’s okay. I’ll fight it out. Because there are things I want to say and I know I’ll find a way to tell them eventually. Some days it is nice to remember that not every page is a hard one. That plays want to be written and will sometimes help you along.