The Red Book Series, thoughts, Welcome to Nowhere

2015/a year in moments and numbers

1/ intro

The year starts scared. It starts in Adelaide. After months of applications and rejections in Melbourne, I flee back to my parent’s house. The year starts with me saying I won’t come back: Adelaide is a soft place to crumple. I wander their garden and eat snow peas off the bush. I wander down rivers with my dogs. I swim (flounder) in the ocean in borrowed bathers. I ride a borrowed bike through the streets. I feel very far away from everyone, including myself.

Then a phone call comes. It says “there’s a job if you want it. It is in Melbourne and you will have to be a brave, badass grown up lady.” And I say “yes”. And I go back to Melbourne. And the year is as full of bravery and badassery as I can make it.

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Photo by Sarah Walker

2/

Outside our dark wood room, a line is forming: 55 people, speaking Spanish. Someone has brought a Venezuelan flag. Others have dressed in the national colours. Behind the wooden doors in the hot, carpeted dark of our tiny theatre, the comedian is warming up as only a Venezuelan would: by teaching his theatre tech to salsa. Our nightly ritual of laughter, loud music, nerves and perhaps a touch of homesickness.

3/

A woman is shaking, screaming into a microphone. She wears a cape and trails red wool like menstrual blood from her underpants. She is tangled in her mic cable in such a way that I just want to run up on stage and explain to her proper cabling technique. (Has she never heard of Under Over?) On either side of her stand the silhouettes of soldiers with heads bowed. They are illuminated by a rainbow chase sequence and the words ‘Lest We Forget’ arch above the tiny stage.

An older woman comes around with a tray of vegetarian spring rolls. She wears earplugs and a glazed smile that seems to say, “I hate this but these people must be fed.”

The raffle is drawn. The prize is a basket containing spam, party poppers, medicinal tea, halal chicken stock and grass jelly. I don’t win. The woman screams on.

4/ some messages i received during my brief foray into the world of okcupid:

  • Hi there! You seem lovely and the robots apparently feel we won’t re-enact the thunderdome upon meeting, so I thought I’d say hello 😀
  • Hello fellow cool person on OkCupid. Nobody around me seems awake at this hour (understandably). I’ve watched a bunch of movies tonight that have me too depressed to sleep, so I’m stuck browsing this site – occasionally consulting with my cat on my matches whenever she wanders into my room. We both agree you seem all right and are mathematically probably not my enemy.
  • You rock! Let’s gets married 🙂
  • Hi, I’m looking for a relationship where the lady gets to see others and I remain faithful. If that appeals please let me know.
  • Fancy meeting you here. Inundating yourself in the lower end of the human evolutionary spectrum and the inevitable associated six-pack pics?
  • If you search against your black and white photo it slams you right there. I give a lot of energy to see how real a person is. If I want to talk to fictional and characters, I can look from within. So when I truly want connect, I confirm they are not a spook.
  • don’t judge I was really drunk and it was with a couple and the guy actually got pretty territorial about her pussy, so I tried ass… but I am not a small guy, maybe only the head went inside, she jumped up ran to the toilet and never came out, it was awkward, so I left…
  • do you think we’ll go on a date? Or just see each other at rehearsal?
  • … and here I was thinking we got along so well! Take care Fleur, all the best x

5/ a girl in a manic up swing talks faster than i can listen

She tells me about her ex boyfriend:

“He had ‘lost soul’ tattooed on his eyelids and stars on his dick.”

It is such a majestic sentence and she is so overwhelming that I decide the night can’t be topped and I leave.

6/ things i learnt this year include:

  • How to wash my hair with baking soda and vinegar.
  • What ‘Shark Week’ means. (I was disappointed that it wasn’t an elongated American holiday celebrating sharks and all the contributions they have made to society.)
  • The difference between an electronic musician and a DJ.
  • How to syringe cough medicine down my dog’s throat.
  • What my natural hair colour is now.
  • That I have a grey hair.
  • My nephew’s name.

7/

January 12th: This photo arrives in my inbox.

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I carry it with me all year. This was the year of Felix. Of waiting for Felix to be here and safe.

Boxing Day 2015: For the very first time, we watch Felix sit up all by himself. He sways back and forwards and then slowly, slowly he topples to the right, drooling all the way.

8/ my 2015 resolutions:

  • Direct a play of my choosing. (Exit Everything)
  • Don’t complain about theatre as much as in 2014. (Turns out it is much easier when you are getting paid.)
  • Don’t post any old modelling photos or use them as profiles. (Nailed it.)
  • Spend less money on my hair. (Which was easy.)
  • Wear less make up. (Which was terrifying.)

9/ my proudest moments: one of three

Opening night of Kindness, by Bridget Mackey. Having followed that play through from her very initial idea, seeing it fully realised on stage makes me I cry in the dark. I reach back behind me and squeeze her hand as the audience applauds.

10/ some numbers:

  • 74: the number of theatre productions I saw.
  • 12: the number of theatre productions I paid to see.
  • 454: the number of actors I saw in productions.
  • 252: the number of actors that were women.
  • 52: the number of actors of colour.
  • 13: how many play readings I saw.
  • 15: how many productions or readings I worked on.
  • 10: how many scripts I assessed.
  • 272: how many nights I slept without medication. (I beat last year’s record – 103 – by May 17th this year.)
  • 55: the most nights I managed in a row.
  • 79: how many yoga classes I’ve been to since I joined my studio in June.
  • 12: how many OkCupid dates I went on.
  • 5: how many people I kissed.
  • 1: how many people whose hand I held as we slept.

11/ a question mark

“What are you thinking?”

I have a moment to decide how to answer. I decide to be brave, foolish, drunk and love-struck.

“I’m thinking we probably should stop going on these dates.

Or we could just make out.”

He says “hmm, interesting – ” or something similarly terrifying but in that moment, the playwright of the night, Declan Greene, appears. (Of course he does, for Declan must interrupt the hetero-normative, both on stage and off.) For five minutes we say words about theatre, his process, the immense complexity of his play and I am so proud and excited for him but all the while a question mark hang in the air over my head. The hyphen that sliced that response in two has lodged itself somewhere in my oesophagus.

Then Declan is gone, and the two of us make sounds like “hmm” and “so” and “yeah”. We walk. We walk away from the opening night dizziness and into the dark and yes, it is raining a little, just enough to make my hair ridiculous and my jumper smell of wet dog. We stop on Grant Street.

We say some words with our mouths. We smile with our mouths. It is the smile of two brave people who are about to kiss in the rain.

12/ an actual conversation i had:

“It is perfect but… I don’t think – “

“How much do you have?”

“He’s done the maths. It turns out, essentially nothing.”

“Well, how about this: I’ll give you the space for a cut of ticket sales. We’ll take 30, you take 70, plus whatever you get from the bar.”

“That is… amazing! But we still need a set… We don’t even have money for that.”

“What do you need?”

“The first act doesn’t need much but the second act is in a post-apocalyptic cave or something.”

“We’ll I’ve got a post-apocalyptic bunker in the basement. Some students built it for a film shoot. If you promise to get rid of it at the end, you can use that. Would that do?”

That was John Paul, giving The City They Burned a second Melbourne season.

13/ my proudest moments: two of three.

Sarah Walker reading at Women of Letters, blowing everyone away, making a room laugh and cry in turns. And there’s me not being even a tiny bit surprised by her amazingness (we’ve known each other a long time) but feeling so, so achingly proud to know and love that woman.

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Yoga by the Murray.

14/

In an effort to escape the fluorescent bulbs of our hotel room, he has filled the place with tea candles. The balcony doors are open. The tiny flames wriggle in the breeze. Mosquitoes vibrate against the fly screen. Out there in the darkening world, the river flows past us, giant and oblivious.

18/ driving down the freeway at night:

“We thought we could stay close with our Christian friends and just not be Christian with them. But in the end, we lost practically all of them.”

Behind us, the dogs are snoring.

I say “thank you”. I thank my father and my absent mother for the choice they made. I tell him I’m so glad to have grown up the way that I did.

“I think about it a lot; the choice you made. I think you were both so brave.”

And they were. We travel on, down a golden river of tungsten light.

15/ motion sickness

Facebook’s ‘On This Day’ feature leaves me with Tralfamadorian motion sickness: a sense of swinging between many different presents, haphazardly.

Up pops an alert and I am transported to a day on which my grandmother is still a part of my life. A day when I cut her nails and tease her for sleeping with a bag of old corks in her bed because she’s heard they help cramps. I take photos of flowers I’ve cut from her garden and I watch the news beside her and roll my eyes every time she calls Gillard ‘That Woman’.

Like someone in a dream, I cannot yell “The train is coming!”, “It’s behind you!” or “Time’s almost up!” The days tick by for Past Fleur and Past Flo. Days spent trying to stop her from eating so much chocolate and trying to stop her from waiting at her front gate for the taxi when she could just as easily wait inside. And then the days run out. Then miraculously begin again because time is no longer linear. Flo and Fleur, a year younger, begin their last year once more, moving obliviously towards oblivion.

16/ my resolutions for 2016:

  • To find what it is that I need in each project or job to do it joyously. Follow my joy. Work with joy. Articulate that joy.
  • Glorify balance rather than overwork.
  • Love courageously.
  • Go to yoga 180 times.

17/ yesterday

Sitting in the car outside of the pharmacy, I take my painkillers and cry.

18/ my proudest moments: number three

When I see what Emma Valente and co. did with my stage direction: ‘Maisy falls back on the bed. Stars come out on the covers and glitter across the stage. The two bodies seem to float in space. Galaxies collapse and are built in the creases of their arms and the softness of their bellies.’

 

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Photo by David Sheehy.

19/

On the other side of the world, a little girl is telling us about Space. She works her way through the planets with a useful fact about each one (“it has rings”, “it is very small”, “it has a volcano but the volcano is sleeping”). Once we pass Pluto we learn that comets are “sparkly” and that then there is the Milky Way.

“What’s the Milky Way?”

“It’s our galaxy.”

“What’s a galaxy?”

“It’s all sparkly and all together.”

“Do you tell your baby brother about space?”

“No. He’s too little to understand space.”

So am I, I think. Perhaps you have to be the right amount of little and big to be sure you know what a galaxy is. Perhaps Almost Four is the perfect age for understanding space.

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Photo by David Kilpatrick

20/ a word

It has been years since I used the word ‘boyfriend’. I am more comfortable with unfinished sentences and vague hand gestures.

Once, back in 2013, I said, “the guy I’m dating” in front of The Guy I Was Dating and he hissed, “we’re not dating”. We stopped doing whatever it was we were doing not long after that.

Which makes it seem like I was uncomfortable without definitions. Like I’ve spent four years longing for clarity. And I haven’t. I’ve spent four years longing to feel ready for clarity. And now I am.

‘Boyfriend’ still feels foreign. It feels italicised. Like an invitation for questions. Like it isn’t mine to use. Like I might be accused of mispronunciation, or cultural appropriation. It is so outside of me.

And yet, as anxious and unsure as I am every time the word leaves my mouth, I am so proud to be saying it. So proud to declare with those syllables that I care for someone and they care for me. That we can make out pretty much any time and hold hands in the dark of theatres. I say those two syllables with terror in my eyes and an increased heart rate. I say them ready to be corrected, rejected and neglected and yet I am not. I am smiled at, hugged, kissed, affirmed, celebrated. This is the year of complete sentences.

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fiction, mental health, Sex, thoughts, writing

some small and unfinished things from my 2015 journals

Flicking through the pages of my 2015 journals, I found these tiny bits of somethings that never went anywhere. Now they are going here because they seemed to want a home. They are completely and utterly unconnected from each other.

1/ (a short thought on blindness) (connected to nothing)

And sometimes she wondered how the world would be if all who moved through it were blind
If we groped our way along walls, hands seeking doorways

She thought how perfume might take the place of visual vanities
How subtly a man might scent each fingertip, showing off his skills at blending and complementing by running them under the nose of his mate

And sometimes she wondered if we would care more or less for our planet if we couldn’t see it
Is its visual beauty its saving grace or do our eyes, ranging far ahead of our feet, make us want?
Would we be more gentle if everything we experienced had to be touched, to be pressed against, licked, sniffed, listened to?

Sometimes she wondered these things
Sometimes she shut her eyes on quiet streets and walked in a straight line for as long as she dared
But it didn’t make her feel more connected to anything but herself and her fear and the sound of her feet

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Photo by Sarah Walker, of course.

2/ (unfinished) (a character sketch)

She’s called ‘Stephanie’ but hates it.

She’s short but not short enough to be mistaken for a younger child, which bores her as she hates being ten, being the eldest, being told to ‘grow up’.

Stephanie thinks of frogs that bury themselves in mud for six years. She wishes she could do that and emerge at the end of her adolescence fully formed. A grown up.

3/ (an old memory) (about no one you know)

“What do you find most attractive about me? Physically. You’re not allowed to say ‘my brain’.”

We’re in his bed. Possibly naked. I don’t remember. More likely he is in his onesie and I’m in some gigantic t-shirt and tracksuit pants he has lent me.

“You know who you’re talking to, right? You realise I have – like – zero facial recognition skills. I mean, I think your eyes are probably quite nice but if I looked away right now and then looked back and you had completely different eyes, I probably wouldn’t notice.”

“There has to be something.”

“There is. I just – I feel like there is something really specific and tangible you want me to say. Like ‘your arms’ or ‘your smile’ and I just don’t have an answer like that. Your arms make me feel safe. And not in some girlie, needing-to-be-physically-protected way. I just feel good when I’m in them. Like we’re doing okay. I like your hands because they make me stop feel self-conscious for as long as they are on me. And yes, I’m sorry, but I do fucking love your brain. It is an hilarious place to hang out in and it fires mine up. It turns mine on. You think so differently to me. Just as fast, just as bizarre but bizarre in a totally different way. I love how you think. How you make me think. And feel. And be. It is fucking sexy.”

But he wasn’t satisfied. And I get that. I do. He was having one of those days. One of those days when you don’t need to hear that. You just need to objectified. You want the answer to be ‘your body’ or ‘your arse’ or ‘your cheekbones, man I love your cheekbones!’ and I am shit at that.

But also, my answers were less about him and more about how he made me feel. And he made me feel good but that day I stopped being able to return the favour. And I got out of his clothes and his bed and his life and he went in search of someone better and I went back to paper and pen.

 

 

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creativity, Theatre, thoughts, writing

on taste, art, directors and why

Well it is application season which means it is also rejection season.

This morning I received an email from the Royal Court in London saying that due to the number of applications they received they have decided not to consider the applications of people without work permits for the UK. However, because I really enjoyed writing parts of this application and because re-reading it reminded me of why I love this difficult industry, I’m going to share some extracts here. These were my answers to three of their questions in 250 words or less. Enjoy.

PLUS SIGN ATTACHED at VCA. Photo by Sarah Walker

PLUS SIGN ATTACHED at VCA. Photo by Sarah Walker

George Devine felt the Royal court should make work that was ‘in advance of normal public taste’. Please respond to this with reference to current tastes and how you would like to see theatre develop in the future.

I find it difficult to talk about the concept of ‘taste’. I think perhaps it is my Australian-ness that makes me shy away from the word. Here it is bad taste to talk of taste. But what I do know is that theatre should wait for no one. Theatre should lead rather than follow and should move its public forwards. Stasis is the death of art; shock and surprise our allies. Make them see something they have never seen before from an angle they did not think to look for. Make them feel wrong and right at the same time.

Theatre that has made me gasp is usually the stuff that has changed me. This is not always the case: to aim for gasp alone is to make shallow theatre that will not hold up to deeper evaluation or the passing of time.

I love the current trend of anti-drama that I am seeing on stages – works that climax almost imperceptibly or not at all. In Melbourne we are also currently in the midst of a boom of Queer Theatre, which illuminates assumptions, cultural stereotypes and gender expectations by casting colour- and gender-blind. What is so crucial and exciting about both of these styles is that they pray on our learnt assumptions about theatre. We know the shape of drama and watching it not happen creates the drama in our own bodies rather than on stage. There is safety and, therefore, complacency, in these traditions but power in their sabotage.

Why do writers need directors?

As a writer, I know how vital directors are to my own work, which is why I do not direct my writing. I believe in collaboration and what another pair of eyes can bring but more importantly, I believe that a script is always unfinished until it is performed. Scripts that feel too polished and perfected on the page often feel irrelevant on stage; disconnected from their theatricality, as if they do not need the audience to be there and could exist comfortably on paper. A director guides a writer’s work towards live-ness, coaxing it away from the realms of literary passivity and into the urgent world of live, lived in, responsive, awake theatre. A director is that connection between the literary and the live. They are a hinge between the words and the audience. Sitting outside of the work, they must attempt to examine the work as a spectator, interrogate as a critic and, most importantly, dream its possibilities.

As a director, I seek to serve the writing without holding it above all the other elements of theatre. I believe the greatest disservice a director can do to a writer is to deify their work and create a production that seems only to bow to the words, rather than elevate them.

Why do you think theatre is necessary in our world? And why do you want to work in theatre?

Viktor Shklovski said that art exists “that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony”. I think of this a lot. I think about the power of art to re-awaken our innate wonder and to revitalise our understanding of the world around us. I believe this to be particularly true of theatre, which is built on a live exchange between artists and audience, making it perhaps the most human and immediate of art forms. People enter a space and give us permission to try and transform them. This never ceases to amaze and humble me. With the rise of technological connectivity, I believe that theatre has only become more sacred: it is one of the few places left where people disconnect from the virtual world and instead experience something immediate as a living, breathing community. I love also that theatre is an art form that comes with so much history and learnt expectations, which can be either met or manipulated to serve a message.

I began my artistic life as a classical singer. My art was entirely preoccupied with what was going on in my own body. It was solitary, precise and internalised. When I discovered theatre, I discovered collaboration and an art form so malleable that it can truly transform the world around us. It looks outwards. It makes the stone stony. Theatre has never stopped surprising me. It has never stopped feeling urgent, immediate and intensely personal.

Rehearsal photography for INSOMNIA CAT CAME TO STAY. Photo by Shauna Phoon

Rehearsal photography for INSOMNIA CAT CAME TO STAY. Photo by Shauna Phoon

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personal, Politics, Responses, Theatre, thoughts

on bureaucracy, subtlety, hyprtxt and a naked body

I was booked in to see three shows last night but only managed two because they utterly devastated me.

I still don’t really have words to express why The Defence at MKA’s HYPRTXT Festival upset me as much as it did. It was intentional: the playwright wanted us to be uncomfortable to highlight some very pertinent issues in our industry. But there was something about watching the events unfold as an audience laughed hysterically that left me utterly shattered. And I want to apologise to the actors, all of whom did excellent work: I was sitting in the front row and I’ve no doubt my face was radiating an aura of ‘don’t you say another fucking word’. Sorry.

In the light of my (rather extreme) emotional reaction, I’m going to respond in a slightly unusual and immensely personal way.

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Image by Sarah Walker and graphic design by George Rose

Three thoughts inspired from a night at HYPRTEXT:

Thought One. On The Grace of Officials.

One day, when I was fifteen, I attended an event ran by an organisation which provided legal aid to asylum seekers. At the end of the talk, I walked up to them and asked if there was anything I could do to help. It turns out there was. A week later my dad took me to their office where we picked up a dictation machine and three cassette tapes. As the lawyer handed them over she paused and looked at my dad. “I hope your daughter is open-minded,” she said. “She is going to hear some very extreme stuff.” And I did.

These were the tapes of asylum seeker hearings and every hearing I transcribed ended with asylum being denied, which was why this group now had the tapes, so as to assemble a defence for a re-hearing. (They could not be called ‘re-trials’ because, apparently, the refugee was not on ‘trial’ despite all evidence to the contrary.)

Look, the horror of the individual cases does blur together. The voices were coming from a compound in the middle of a desert via webcam, through a translator sitting in a room in Adelaide with a thick Middle Eastern accent, through a tape recorder and into my ears. I know there were rapes, death threats, dead families, torture and humiliation. What I remember more clearly than the terror was the bureaucracy. We were swimming in it.

“Please place your hand on the Quran and swear – ”

“I can’t.”

“Why?”

“He says to me, ‘you know! You are a Muslim. You tell them!’”

“I’m sorry?”

“He has not washed. He cannot touch the Quran when he has not washed.”

They tried for quite a while, these men in Adelaide, to wash the hands of a man in Woomera but in the end the request proved too complicated for the system and they had to proceed without an oath. He was handcuffed, you see. For the whole five hour hearing. This was not usual practice but he was ‘a trouble maker’.

This exchange has stuck with me for twelve years. The irony of expecting a man to be devout enough to swear an oath on his holy book without taking into account the needs of a devout man. A devout, hand-cuffed man in the middle of a desert. And yes, there were moments of humanity. Moments when men pleaded for their freedom and safety but it was the bureaucratic inhumanity that I most clearly retain.

And in the end, appropriately enough, my job vanished in a cloud of bureaucracy: the group lost access to tapes. New rules dictated that, instead of being given to the defence team, they would be sent to Sweden (I think Sweden, somewhere a very, very long way away) where an accent analyser would determine that perhaps the man came from a town two towns over from the town he said he came from. That he was a liar because his accent told a slightly different story than his words did.

The morning after Howard was re-elected for his third term I went for a walk. I wandered through the suburbs and asked, “Who are the people voting for this system? Do they know? I hope they don’t because what does that say of my countrymen and women if they know and still say ‘do it.’”

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Photo source, The Age. The photographer is Peter Mathew.

Thought two. The Defence.

We had exchanged about six emails and the word ‘nudity’ had never been mentioned. When he first asked me to take my clothes off I agreed because he said I could have my back to the camera. It was implied nudity. When he asked me to turn around, I hesitated but did it because it seemed easier.

After a few minutes, he paused to bring in some new props (a mirror, I think) and I told him I was surprised by the nudity and would be more comfortable with clothes.

He told me he was disappointed.

I told him my profile said I didn’t do nudity anymore.

He told me that he had seen photos of me naked so just assumed it would be fine.

It wasn’t.

Look, it’s not a big deal. In the end. Worse things happen every day. But it was one of the last shoots I ever did. And I didn’t share the photos. And my throat felt tight for days. And scanning over my old portfolio I had a lot of memories of not feeling in control of my own body. And assuming it will be fine is not how we make art. I’m sorry but it’s not.

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Image by Syboro, not the photographer in this story

Thought three. Issue-based theatre.

Listen. We demand of artists that we address issues head-on. It is central to our idea of ourselves as an artistic community: that we are brave and urgent. In his speech at the National Play Festival last week, Andrew Bovell’s said “the question for us, as writers, is what story will we tell each other”. He said “the fight for the soul of our nation continues” and that we as writers, thinkers and artists must be “up for the fight.”

And yet, say the words ‘issue-based theatre’ and people will screw up their faces. It is too unsubtle for us. Conversations can be blatant and loud and we wear our politics on the tip of our tongues and on the front of our shirts but we expect of our art not to ‘hit us over the head with a message’. We demand a subtlety that is, perhaps, impossible when faced with issues of this magnitude.

These plays were not subtle but fuck it. Bring it on, guys. Shout it loud. Just maybe give me a cup on tea and a hug at the end because you crushed me.

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audiences, criticism, Responses, Theatre, thoughts

on expectations, secrets, democratising of opinion and grounded

Last year Jane Howard told me about a theatrical experiment: Lyric Hammersmith’s Secret Theatre. The theatre isn’t secret – it is a very well known venue used in slightly non-traditional ways – and the events aren’t secret – anyone is welcome. The secrets are the plays themselves. Audience are invited to book blind for a season of mystery performances. They could be seeing a classic, an adaptation or a brand new work. What they’re subscribing to is their own willingness to give themselves over to a night of theatre without preconceived notions of what they will experience.

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Sometimes I wish I could walk into a theatre completely blind. I wish I could walk in and sit down without having heard my friends’ opinions. I seldom read reviews before I see something and never read program notes until afterwards (unless instructed to by the artist) but despite this I am almost always entering the space with a lot of prior knowledge due to the tightness of our community. I love the idea of booking, collecting a ticket and sitting down without ever knowing if I’m going to see Shakespeare, Churchill or Sisters Grimm. Can you imagine being in a theatre and having no idea of what you are about to see? An actor walks onstage and perhaps he says this:

  • “she turned eighteen that summer       she was a skinny gal sittin on the crumbling cement stoop of her apartment building sippin lime soda outta a sweatin glass bottle       wrappin her lips round the neck like she wanted it real bad[1]

Perhaps she says this:

  • “Every morning I wake up in my red bedroom that seemed like genius when I painted it, but looks more and more like carnage these days.[2]

Perhaps he says nothing. Perhaps he screams and perhaps a fish falls from the sky and lands at his feet[3].

Or perhaps he says:

  • “Now is the winter of our discontent Made glorious summer by this sun of York[4]

And even though you know these words, you had no idea he was going to say them and this creates an illusion of newness in your ears.

As a playwright I love the idea. I hate that I have to reveal a twist in order to market a play. “This is a play about” can be such damning words, reductive to both the script and the imaginative possibilities of its audience.

As both makers and watchers we are so immersed in our own community that it is difficult to be truly surprised. Often I find this works to the detriment of the good shows: productions that get a lot of hype early in the season tend to be unable to live up to unrealisable expectations. Conversely, I try so gosh darn hard to find something amazing in every show, something that I personally could not have done, that hearing only bad reports of a show sends me into a state of manic optimism. I tell myself “I’m going to be the one that GETS this.” I give it the benefit of everyone’s doubts.

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Secret Theatre’s ‘Show 4’

Now a quick search online will prove that Secret Theatre is not the perfect solution. Already critics have pointed out that the ‘secret’ is detracting from the play itself. In other words, if this was their solution for managing our expectations, they only created more hype for themselves to live up to.

Hype isn’t a new thing but the prevalence of social media and having the fast-tracked, fast-formed opinions of our entire community only a click away is a very modern phenomenon. Where once the critic was the voice of verdict, now they are a part of a chorus. Which is good, don’t mistake me. We are democratising opinion and, hopefully, this will lead to a far more nuanced documentation of a work. As Alison Croggon said in a recent interview with Jana Perkovic and I, we are “letting go of the fiction that critics are the objective judges of whatever art happens around their feet and entering much more into the flux of the moment.” However, this does mean that we, as intelligent, hard-thinking audiences, must question ourselves as to how our expectations shape our perception of a work. It also means that theatre has to be fucking good to still surprise, excite and move us in its second week.

Which brings me to the show that started this line of thought. I’ve got to admit that I was wary going into Grounded because I had heard nothing but glowing responses. I tried not to build up my expectations or read any details of the show. I wanted to go in as blank as possible. But I need not have worried.

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Kate Cole in ‘Grounded’

Grounded is everything I want in a one-woman show: outstanding storytelling that immerses us so deeply in one person’s world view that it changes our own. Just a little. Kate Cole’s performance met George Brant’s exquisite script with the intellectual vigour, empathy and toughness it deserved. Any moment that could potentially descend into poetic fluffiness was clamped down on. The effect was heart-breaking. It made me think of Joanne Sutton’s performance in Insomnia Cat Came To Stay: when I played the role, the insomniac’s mental deterioration felt like less of a journey because, let’s face it, I already look like a sleep-deprived, neurotic nut. Joanne on the other hand, began as such a strong, capable figure, and her crash was far more tragic as a result. It was like this with Kate Cole only that she never truly crashed into vulnerability. Despite her extreme PTSD[5], the character’s sense of herself as a powerful woman of war is what holds the fibres of her tattered being together.

The story is a familiar one but, again, our expectations are exceeded at every sentence by beautifully crafted words that never behave in quite the way we are expecting them to. The writing is a joy. The performance equally so. And then there is the design.

While it makes me feel like a reviewer (as opposed to just some kid that writes about things that interest her) to go through and mention each element separately, I do want to talk about Matt Adey’s design because again, it is about exceeding our expectations. The difficulty facing any designer working in Red Stitch’s icon barn-sized theatre is that the audience has seen that space for years. We know its exact size (tiny) and exact shape (peculiar) but Adey made it feel like a new space; a bigger space and yet, one oppressive to its inhabitant. Its supposed immensity magnified her isolation rather than diluted it and elegant lighting changes transformed her world from a freeing expanse to a nightmare of unrelenting intensity. Fucking rad.

Grounded runs until July 12th and you should get on it because it deserves to sell out and I have no doubt it will.

I have one more thing to say about it. As someone whose Middle Eastern heritage is not worn in her face or her skin colour, stories like this break my heart. Sitting there and hearing of the brown people made grey by the drone’s cameras, made body-parts by their blasts, and I was acutely aware – although no one would know it to look at me – that these people looked just like my beloved grandmother. Looked just like my great-grandmother who was three when the family came out here and became one of a tiny population of Middle Easterns in rural Australia. They were my great-great-grandmother who was raised by Lutheran nuns in Beirut after her mother, my great-great-great-grandmother, froze to death somewhere in a vineyard in Syria. I knew this and it tore me to pieces. In showing how America dehumanises both its own and my grandmother’s people, Grounded found humanity for both.

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My great-grandmother, left, and her sister, May.

[1] but I cd only whisper by Kristiana Colòn

[2] My Name Is Rachel Corrie by Rachel Corrie edited by Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner

[3] When the rain stops falling by Andrew Bovell

[4] Richard III by some important dead dude

[5] Or is to CTSD? Concurrent Traumatic Stress Disorder. As we enter a new era of warfare, we enter a new era of psychological trauma.

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Theatre, thoughts, writing

a voice from beyond the page

As a playwright, I don’t have absolute control over my works. Any act of writing is a collaboration between the writer and the imagination of the reader but the playwright is certainly the most vulnerable when it comes to relinquishing ownership. It defines us. We write the words for someone else to play with.

I’m asked about this all the time. I’m asked about it with incredulity at opening nights when my passivity is most apparent. How can I let go of my words? With joy. And yet, as much as I relish the relinquishing of control that my role entails, I also spend a lot of time thinking about how best to communicate my intentions to the cast and creative through the written word. My hope is to inspire imagination rather than limit it. I love scripts that convey what the playwright is emotively and intellectually on about without having to state ‘this is how you do my play right.’ It is something I’m geekishly obsessed with and this post has been percolating in my mind for years. So, at last, here are some thoughts on communication from beyond the page. Be warned, this is the nerdiest thing I have ever written and I enjoyed every minute of it.

Stage directions

Stage directions are the most obvious way to convey your intentions and, while they have their use in terms of clarifying intention, they have a tendency to be the most bland and prescriptive form of communication.

This is not always the case. There is an art to the good stage direction and when done well they are the things in the script that have the director and designer salivating.

Topping my list of ‘stage directions I have loved’ is one from Carol Churchill’s Mouthful of Birds.

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The beauty of this is that it is emotive rather than prescriptive. It makes you smirk. It makes you go ‘can’t wait to get to that bit’. It opens your skull and prods your brain. In fifty different productions of this play, you would see fifty different fruit ballets.

There are the poetic stage directions, written to conjure up an empathic response:

  • Enter Ophelia, her heart is a clock. (Hamlet Machine, Heiner Muller)

or

  • He vomits into himself.(Dublin by Lamplight, Michael West)

There are the impossible stage directions that seem to be a throwdown; a delicious sort of ‘deal with that, fucker’ challenge for the director:

  • The carpet smoulders and the curtains are on fire. The fire waltzes softly through the theatre, greeting the audience and shaking each of their hands. The actors are all on fire. The audience is all on fire. And the theatre burns down. The end.(THRILLING DRAWING ROOM MURDER MYSTERY AT HIGH SPEEDS, Adam Hadley)

I will come back to ‘demanding the impossible’ a bit later so hold that thought. For now, just turn over in your mind’s eye how deliciously unrealisable this is. I promise to expand on it in the punctuation section. Oh yes: there will be an entire section on punctuation and I am bloody excited about it.

There are also times, when the prescriptive can be beautifully eloquent in a way that says more than “do it like this.” The most famous example being from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot:

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Looking at this, you don’t simply get a sense of who is wearing whose hat. Before you even get into the details of it, you have a feeling of excessive activity. Activity that feels meaningful, almost ritualised to the characters but to the audience will contain a pitiable absurdity and an existential hollowness. Which pretty much sums up the play right there. In a stage direction about hats. What a gift such a piece of writing is to anyone reading for clues.

Character descriptions

Character descriptions similarly provide a beautiful chance for the playwright to express what matters to them most. “An attractive, blonde woman in her late-twenties” feels like a wasted opportunity when compared to some of the exquisite descriptions out there.

Patricia Cornelius’ Love specifies “the three characters are tough. Life has been hard and unkind and it shows in their eyes and mouth and jaws.” Instantly, I know those people. I know their eyes and mouthes and jaws because I have seen them before. I know these characters more intimately than I know the attractive, blonde woman in her late-twenties before I read a single line of dialogue.

Steven Berkoff’s The Fall of the House of Usher, contains a casting note recommending that the actors who play Roderick and Madeleine Usher ideally should have fucked in real life. This is ridiculous but also helpful because we go “oh that’s the kind of chemistry/familiarity you want. On it.”

David Harrower’s Knives in Hens, is less prescriptive but still speaks volumes:

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It is so simple and yet the Young Woman’s lack of name screams at you louder than a polite note from the playwright could. Whilst all three characters are repeatedly referred to by their roles in the world – miller, ploughman and woman/wife – hers is an inescapable identity. She is never named for the audience, although her name is a deeply valued possession. It’s revelation to the miller and the tenderness with which he responds make it the most important word in the play although it is not in it.

You won’t know all this simply by looking at the description but it places a question in your mind before you’ve read a single line of dialogue: why is it only she who is nameless? That question provides an excellent framework for a first read.

My all time favourite character descriptions come from Edward Bond’s Saved, a play that smashed the censorship laws in Britain when it was first staged in 1965. If you haven’t read it, get on that. If you have my copy, I want it back.

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Yes, you could look at this as a description of the original actors. You could say “it is ridiculous for Bond to specify the size of the actor’s eye-sockets” and you would be right: it would be ridiculous if an actor were turned down at an audition for being as short as she looked. I take these descriptions as an eloquent explanation of the world, direct from a playwright too skilled to have to write such words: “These people are a bit on the off.” He is saying. “They are a bit wrong. A bit hard to look at and love. These are not your gym-fit, camera-ready actors. These people should reflect the ugliness and sharpness of my play. Find me those people and populate my world with them.”

Formatting as a value judgement (what a nerd)

I love picking up a script and instantly getting a sense of what the playwright values.

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It is a beautiful act of faith that debbie tucker green does not explain the empty lines in her forward to Stoning Mary. Perhaps because they are so eloquent they need no interpretation. The instant I look at the script, I know she values silence. Silence that is active and loud. That means as much or more than the lines. It also shows the trust she has in her collaborators (collaborators she will probably never meet, if you are staging the play in Australia). It gives the actor a moment and trusts them to know what that moment is.

debbie tucker green is an expert at this sort of communication. Here in random, she tells us another set of values:

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In laying out the words like poetry, she tells us to treat them as such. To value them as music: a percussive score made up of consonants and vowels. Also, at a glance, we know the voice she is writing for and cannot move past a single stanza without confronting the geographic and socio-political placement of the world.

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This passage in Martin Crimp’s In the Republic of Happiness, isn’t there to fuck with you. This play is in three acts. Acts One and Three have named characters with lines assigned to them and a plot to follow but as soon as we reach Act Two, we know it is different. Crimp’s formatting tells us that we are stepping out of Plotland and leaving behind Characterville. Now it is about the interplay of voices, constantly agreeing with and supporting each other in an increasingly preposterous series of statements.

I saw the original production in London back in 2013. The director had decided that to allocate lines at any point in the process would go against the playwright’s intention and so the cast of eight had learnt every single line of dialogue in Act Two. They drew lots each night for who would sit in which chair and anyone could say any line. The effect was incredible to watch. I have never seen a cast so in tune with each other. All eight had to focus so hard to ensure that they weren’t just speaking over each other. The performance was perfectly in keeping with what I get from the page: unified, unanimous voices, stripped of character and autonomy.

There are so many more formatting choices I could talk about. I have limited it to the most simple of examples. Particularly worth a mention are plays like Holloway’s Red Sky Morning and Murphet’s Slow Love that use columns. At a glance, we know the playwright is demanding a rhythmic interplay between voices and plots or between voice and action. The examples are endless so I’ll end it here and just say ‘go hunting’.

Punctuation

Now who doesn’t love punctuation? I’m pretty indifferent to it when it comes to the Grammar Nazis (actually I’m indifferent to anyone who declares themselves a Grammar Nazi because language is a used, lived in thing and not a museum piece) but I love it as a malleable tool in theatre. As a writer, I say ‘make it work for you’. As a director, I say ‘bring it’.

I remember working on a monologue from Don Nigro’s Scarecrow and realising that the first two sentences were 97 and 98 words respectively. After that the monologue unravelled into a series of short, choppy bursts, full stops peppering the page like shotgun pellets. Right there in ink was the character’s psychosis. You could feel the breathless drive throughout and the crumbling of her mind. These unstoppable, uncontrollable sentences reeked of urgency and the rhythmic shift into the monologue’s staccato second half bespoke of her resolve. Looking at the text not as words but as a picture told me so much and, when delivered faithfully, it affected your breath and got into your metabolism.

A few years later I directed some extracts of Daniel Keene’s work at Monash University with my First Year students. We loved working on it and a few weeks after we finished I bumped into Daniel at the Malthouse. I told him how the students had initially asked me if he was just too lazy to use punctuation and how, by the end, they were telling me that it was like the words were running straight from the character’s minds into world. It felt intimate to them. Special. Like they were being entrusted with a part of the brain they wouldn’t usually get access to.

Daniel responded that a big part of his decision not to use punctuation in these scripts was that it forces actors (and directors) to make a choice. It is an impossible task. (See, I said I’d come back to it.) You cannot get through a first read without confronting the lack of punctuation, deciding how to tackle it and thus, gaining a sense of ownership over the words. In creating a problem, he gave us a gift.

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I love this stuff because, as a writer, it is about being in control whilst being out of control. It is relishing your vulnerability and trusting your collaborators whilst conveying to them what is most important to you. Our collaborators have the potential to be both our superpower and nightmare. As a playwright, take the time to think about how best to communicate in a way that empowers, rather than dictates. Enjoy the challenge.

 

A massive thank you to Roderick Cairns who was my proof reader and to the many people who contributed favourite stage directions on Facebook. Thanks in particular to Amy Jones for the photo of Godot, David Finnigan for suggesting Adam Hadley’s play and Adam Hadley for letting me quote it. Much appreciated. 

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audiences, personal, thoughts

on imagination, obsession and a planet full of aliens

Programming week: This is a response to Adelaide Writers’ Week, which is an absolute treasure of a festival and part of the larger Adelaide International Arts Festival. I’m so delighted to have had Katherine Coppock and Lucy Welsh illustrate this one. 

Every now and then you have that moment: the moment when you realise just how foreign the workings of your brain are to the majority of the population. Yes, it turns out that it is you who is the alien.

Don’t be alarmed. Our minds are so complex and individual that every one of us is an alien in our own right. Our isolation is our most unifying factor.

This week I am spending my days under trees, at the Adelaide Writers’ Week. The generosity and wisdom of the writers is making me feel immensely fortunate and rich but it is the audience questions that I am finding just fascinating. They remind me how foreign creativity is to so many minds.

“You named your character this. Why was that?”

“Did you write a story about a man with a strong grandfather figure because you long for a grandfather?”

These questions seem bizarre and jarring to me. Under the politeness and generosity the writers answer with, I hear a more abrupt answer lurking:

“Because imagination.”

“I imagined it into being and therefore it was that way.”

“I named him that because it sounded good on the tongue tip of my brain.”

This is not the answer that Richard Flanagan or D W Wilson gave. They expanded it because they are polite, generous people and because they understood why they were being asked these questions. Those questions came from people fascinated by that incomprehensible medium within which the authors work: the imagination.

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‘The Great Debate’, Katherine Coppock, 2014

To those of us that work within the realm of imagination, these questions don’t need answering. It is blatantly obvious to us why a character is called this: there was an empty page and we filled it because we had to. Why? Because it is my work, my mission, my compulsion, my autism to get inside another brain; to manipulate a jaw that did not exist until I wrote it into existence and make it form sentences that have never been formed before.

And yes, as Richard Flanagan said on Sunday in the gardens, if you must interrogate and prise apart the folds of the writer’s brain, eventually they will shout “Madame Bovary c’est moi!” Elizabeth Gilbert also admitted that there is an element of this in her craft when she suggested that perhaps we are writers because it is illegal to kidnap people and have them play out our stories for us. It is personal because writing is personal but, on the other hand, sometime it is as simple as because imagination.

It goes both ways. The people who can make numbers sing or those who light up when talking about investments are completely foreign to me. My questions to them would sound idiotically simple. I would use the words ‘why’ and ‘you’ too much and some scruffy kid in the audience would shake their head at the reductionist nature of my thoughts.

“Why do you think like this? Why does your brain twist around this particular kind of logic?”

The expert would answer with all the politeness and generosity of our novelist. They would try to make me understand but beneath their answer would be lurking another, entirely alien to me:

“Because maths.”

“Because finance.”

“Because that’s the way the world works.”

“Because I have stared at those numbers again and again and that’s the way numbers fall into place.”

“Yes. He is named this because I had an empty page and I needed to fill it.”

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Lucy Welsh, 2014

By the way, my favourite audience question of the festival was asked of Alexander McCall Smith: “You seem to have a great sense of humour. Are you a Gemini?”

Thank you once again to my beautiful illustrators and to Sarah Walker for proof-reading. Katherine’s work can be found here

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