audiences, criticism, Dramaturgical Analysis, My own plays, Responses, Theatre, writing

brutality, brittleness and some merciless gods

So I’ve been thinking a bit lately about what we can ask of our audiences. About hardness, culpability and the hurt that words can bring. A few weeks ago I saw Roslyn Oades’ Hello, Goodbye, Happy Birthday and I felt so grateful to see a piece of theatre that was new, innovative and at the forefront of its field just be gentle. New and innovative so often means jagged.

I’m aware that theatre happens both onstage and in my body – the body of the audience – and I am aware that the theatre that is me goes through phases: sometimes I can take whatever you have going and other days, for whatever reason, I am more brittle.

Last night, at Merciless Gods, I was brittle from muscular pain and painkillers. This brittleness (and my fun drug cocktail) in no way clouded my vision: I saw a stunning production. I saw actors perform with incredible control, intensity and generousity. I saw a lighting design that made me gasp and I heard words that cut. And I was shaken because it was hard and jagged and I was brittle and tired.

charles

Charles Purcell in Merciless Gods. Photo: Sarah Walker.

A few weeks ago, I wrote this scene (edited down here) for my new play, Whale. I doubt it will make it to the final or even third draft because dramaturges seldom have time for this sort of wanky self-doubt, but this scene was in my head last night.

WRITER:

I think I need a break

Does anyone else need a break?

MAN:

Are you okay?

WRITER:

How much is too much to ask of theatre?

MAN:

I’m not –

Sorry

Not following

WRITER:

Like

We want it to be relevant and have a message

We want it to say the big things but

Like

Right now relevant means fucked

It means

Give them a shitty night

I just

Think that maybe there needs to be a moratorium

Maybe we need to ask our audiences

Do you want us to be relevant and frightening

To put shitty decisions on your lap and force you to feel culpable

Or do you want to come here and forget about it?

MAN:

Okay I hear you

I just think

Now you’ve started

Maybe you need to finish this one

Okay?

You can write a comedy next year

Would that make you feel better?

Yeah, that’s definitely not going to make it to draft three.

Every time I ask people these questions, their answers blow me away. So – prompted by Merciless Gods but in no way entirely about that show – I wanted to give people a chance to answer the questions that I keep coming up against. Here, in an act of beautiful generosity, artists and critics answer my questions:

heroimage

Photo: Sarah Walker (again)

How much is too much?

Sarah Walker: You know, I think there really isn’t an answer to this question. Because I’ve seen shows that have depicted horror – true horror, but they’ve cared for the audience in that space. Given them a sense of power. Whether it be to politically empower people – say, this is happening but it can be stopped and you can do something to stop it, or to just fight horror with love, with hope – to say, just feeling is an act of rebellion. Loving is a weapon against hate. Those are the shows that have justified their brutality. I think the problem comes when a show brings you darkness but doesn’t give you a way out. That is the work that shuts people down. That makes them feel powerless.

Myron My: I don’t believe there can be such a thing in theatre because ultimately it is all make-believe. As long as it’s done with care and respect. I think it’s important that while we yearn for love and happiness it’s really important to explore and reflect on the darker elements of life, and what better way to do it than through theatre.

What purpose does brutality serve of our stages?

Eliza Quinn: I think sometimes its the escapism of theatre that can feel brutal – like “Oh, I just spent two hours in this nice warm theatre and I went into a totally different world that made me feel something that might have been vaguely euphoric or sublime, and now I’m outside and it’s cold and wet and I don’t know how to reconcile what I saw in there with what I know is happening out here.”
Sometimes it’s like a performance is asking too much of me by being so wonderful and joyful. Then I exit the theatre and go home and turn on the news and there is no joy.
Like I feel as though the performance or text or whatever didn’t give me any tools with which to navigate the world outside. And I ask myself if that’s the point of theatre? If it is there to give you the tools to deal with the real world or if I should just be grateful that a whole lot of people put in so much effort to entertain me. Sometimes it feels like I am asking too much of theatre.

Sarah Walker: I think of all artists, theatremakers particularly feel this responsibility for their work to interrogate, to challenge and to reveal. We’re okay with film being entertaining and silly and comforting, but I think theatremakers feel like that isn’t enough – feel like they have to ask the big, awful questions with their bodies and their text. Perhaps it’s something about the liveness of theatre – the reality of the human figure sweating and fretting and heart-beating in front of you. Something about that dynamic seems to force us to try to create work that makes people feel, and it feels wrong or cowardly to just make people laugh or feel delight. It’s not, of course. The ideal work is one, I think, that acknowledges that the world is terrifying and brutal and cruel, but reminds us that there is beauty, there is hope, and that we can cultivate those energies and emotions in a way that isn’t just ignoring the bad.

What did the brutality of Merciless Gods do to you?

Bridget Mackey: I think that we should see brutality on our stages. There’s a brutality that exists in our world and I think that we should be made to look at it. I think that Christos Tsiolkas is a writer who makes us look at things that we, as a society, don’t want to look at. And Little One’s production of Merciless Gods has skilfully dramatised the quality about Tsiolkas that I appreciate. To be honest, there’s a brutality to my own desires. I’m talking about both sexual desires and things I’d like to do or say when I’m angry or frustrated. Of course, I am sometimes ashamed of these things and don’t act on them. Sometimes I act them out in a safe way. I figure other people are the same. So, I think the stage is a good place to explore darkness and brutality. Sometimes when we look at things closely we see them for what they are, and realise we are not alone in our experiences.

Sarah Walker: When Stephen and Dan were interviewed on Smart Arts, they both used a word to describe the stories that made up the show, and that word was ‘tender.’ And I feel like that was what I took away from that production – this sense of profound tenderness. I will admit that I watched it partly through a camera lens, which always distorts my experience of a production. But what I felt during those vignettes wasn’t the stark, clinical slap of brutality. It was the ache of love, of longing, of people desperately trying to figure out what it was to be human. What it meant to be alive in a cruel world that took things away that you cared for. So many of those characters were just aching – aching, but in the space that absence or pain carved in them, that ache became something of substance. Became love that filled the hole and defined it. My overwhelming takeaway was that humans can be hideous, but they can also be so, so tender. So human. And that that love and tenderness wasn’t just a response to pain. It was a force just as strong as the horror. There was something I found comforting in it, because I’ve felt that pain, that loss. Not in the circumstances of the characters in the show, but I recognised those feelings. And knowing that we all feel those things – it helps to make us feel a little less alone. And the more complex pieces – Petals, for example, still had moments of profound beauty. Pete Paltos singing, his voice filling that huge space, brought beauty to a monologue that is otherwise horrifying. That a character who could be so brutal could also be so beautiful was meaningful, and complex, in the way that the world is complex.

Have you seen a show that has asked too much of you?

Jessica Bellamy: I have seen shows that asked too much of me, but for me, that “too much” was along the lines of: pretend you can empathise with the couple trying to buy a house, give a shit about that wedding, laugh at those jokes that to you are not funny, not relatable, not coming from a world that empowers you. The last show that asked too much of me was The Odd Couple. I sat in the middle of the theatre, surrounded by a room of half-tittering and half-snoring white hairs and I felt tears run down my face because I knew this sort of theatre and this sort of “comedy” is what so many people want, and what I should be reaching for if I want to make the sweet big money out there one day, but does it have to be within a tapestry of middle class sexist bullshit? When I see plays like this, where the wise and witty and weird are mocked and ignored, I think: theatre can be a bully sometimes. Theatre should be a refuge and a solace, but plays like this just remind me I am not welcome. There is no place for me in a canon like this. I did not find Merciless Gods brutal. I found it refreshing, honest, sad, ugly and beautiful. I heard voices that we do not often hear, do not listen to, that get lost under the weight of those who are amplified too often.

Merciless Gods is by Dan Giovannoni from the book by Christos Tsiolkas​ and directed by Stephen Nicolazzo. It is playing at Northcote Townhall until August 5th.

bridget

Brigid Gallacher, Photo: Sarah Walker (as always)

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creativity, My own plays, personal, Sex

a year in moments (and a few numbers)

2014treelegs

At Abbotsford Convent, photo by my sister.

1.

“I think we should have sex,” he says. “I’ve seen your photos. You’re beautiful.”

“Okay. So you know those are – like – five years and five kilos ago, right?”

An acrobat balances on the handles of a bike. Round and round she goes. The crowd growls its delight.

“Should we kiss or something?” I ask.

“Nah, better not. I’ve slept with a heap of girls here. But sometime. If you’re keen.”

Ten months later we stand in the dark in an empty room staring out at a garden strewn with paper lanterns

“Are we in one of your stories?” He asks. “The awkward silence. It feels like this is going to end up in one of your stories.”

2.

“There’s this guy I’ve been seeing who I can’t stand. He talks about feeling energy through his fingertips and shit. You’d be perfect for each other. You’re so fucking whimsical.”

Out the window of our car, the landscape shudders with heat.

3.

There is a burn-off by the side of the road. We slow down to pass and I feel the heat through the glass, slow-roasting the left sides of my face. Above us, dozens of hawks dive through the air. They look drunk. Or high. Ecstatic with the giddy pleasure of the heat columns the fire produces and the thousands of insects it sends to slaughter.

4.

We drive through mist. He tells me about his wedding day:

“Everyone was so full of hope. And expectations. Not only were we expected to have this perfect marriage but we were meant to set an example to the world of what marriage should be. Jesus to His church. We’d borrowed your grandpa’s Volvo for the honeymoon. As we drove off, the car felt so big and she, so far away.”

The marriage has lasted twenty-five years longer than their religious conviction.

At work.

At work.

5.

I have been archiving for days. Weeks. Hour after hour, balanced on a small white stool. But that’s okay because I’ve discovered time travel.

Time travel is much simpler than we thought it would be:

I pick up a file and I’m transported to a time when someone born in 1975 was ten-years-old; when a 1981 baby was referred to as ‘Master’; when someone born in 1895 was a “spritely 90-year-old” rather than a walking miracle; when September 10th, 2001 was just another day and not the last day before the world changed.

Time travel is also more boring than we thought it would be:

On these days, made miraculous by my sudden transportation to their re-animated present, all that happened was that patients got their ear canals cleaned.

6.

In between patients I run to the toilet and spit bile into the bowl. My boss gives me knowing sideways looks. She clearly suspects pregnancy, a common plight amongst my demographic. I nurse my empty stomach and fantasise about sick leave.

7.

I dream of whales the size of skyscrapers leaping into the eye-blue sky in perfect unison. From my vantage point clinging to sandstone cliffs, they are like cities, rising and falling in moment, rather than millennia.

“They look like a screensaver,” I think.

Even unconscious I’m still an expert mood-killer.

8.

There is champagne. Bottles of it on ice and our full glasses on the bench. Next to fifty bajillion bobby pins. Next to flowers. Next to our awards.

Suddenly I’m sobbing in Danny’s arms, which is fucking dumb because, you know… award. Perhaps it has something to do with becoming unemployed (again) the same hour I win something. Perhaps is about with the way I spent my day reminding myself of all the times I had been a runner-up just to make sure that I wouldn’t be disappointed if it happened again. It probably has a lot to do with exhaustion.

Which is fucking dumb.

Two days later I’ll remember to be happy and I’ll be thrilled. I’ll remember the three years of work that went into it – how the structure and the characters’ motivations were the hardest of any I’ve had to grapple with – and I’ll be happy. And grateful. And relieved.

But that night my brain melts from my ears. I sag. My usually terrible memory is replaced by an even worse one and almost every face that congratulates me, that leans in and kisses my cheek, is a stranger.

Which is fucking dumb.

In Dalby, Queensland photograph by Gabriel Comerford

In Dalby, Queensland, photograph by Gabriel Comerford

9.

I ask Siri why we make art. She thinks I’m asking her to make out and suggests an article called ‘why nerds are unpopular’. She gets me.

10.

This year I worked on twenty different productions.

I saw eighty-seven shows in which six hundred and eleven actors performed.

I kissed five people and slept with two.

I ate ice cream five times.

I saw a doctor five times.

I slept without medication one hundred and one times.

I flew seven times.

11.

A fifteen-year-old boy physically picks me up and spins me around. He is tall and my feet swing like a rag doll. It is a beautiful moment. In the air, I stop being his mentor and director. We are just collaborators, celebrating the play we’ve made together. He sets me back down. We are laughing as his classmates swarm in for a teary group hug.

12.

We walk along the creek, mugs of mulled wine warming our hands. We lie on a bench and he reads bit of his poetry to the sky and I, stopping from time to time to say “what a wanker” or “pretentious bullshit”. The view above us is dizzying. Stars hang like an infestation. Birds watch us from under their wings. On the way home, we find wet concrete. I write, “Tony Abbott is a bit of a cock”. He writes, “make art.”

A parting message for Dalby.

A parting message for Dalby.

13.

Of the six-hundred and eleven actors I saw perform, eighty-four of these were people of colour. This sounds like a fair percentage but you have to look at where the numbers lie. Curated festivals that actively encourage diversity in their programming (Next Wave and the Melbourne Festival) are where the bulk of these numbers come from, both in terms of their cast sizes and their representation. Sometimes, during open access festivals such as MICF and Fringe, I seem to be wading through a sea of white faces. That’s not to say that these festivals are devoid of people of colour but where I am working, in the hubs, the stages are undeniably pale. Only the whitest make it to the centre of the island.

I didn’t see any one-man shows where a person of colour was that one ‘man’. I wonder about this. What is it about a single black man or a solitary asian woman that seems unrelatable? Or unentertaining?

It is the big casts that make me most uncomfortable. I saw a MacBeth performed by eighteen, glowing white faces. Worse still, I saw a musical with a cast of nineteen. The solitary Asian-Australian played the maid.

Most of the non-white performers can be found in shows about race. Colour-blind casting is apparently still a distant dream in Australia.

14.

I really should have warned the actors. I’m a terrible audience member when it comes to viewing my own work for the first time. I cower throughout act one and gnaw on my hand in act two. I feel shaken. Brittle. And totally thrilled. They accept my apologies and I learn to school my face and body for the comfort of actors and audience alike.

15.

I’ve cried nine times this year. I don’t just mean a couple tears. I’m only counting those unstoppable moments, when your insides feel hollowed out. Yeah, these are the kinds of thing I keep a record of.

17.

Through wood, her laughter sounds like sobs. I often peer around the kitchen door, anticipating tears only to see her wreathed in steam, laughing at Jane Austen as she cooks.

18.

We lie on the concrete in a sort of puddle of limbs, plastic cups of red wine close at hand. We are trying to harmonise but it is one of those nights when we seem to have forgotten every song we’ve ever heard. Which is fine. Because the acoustics are so good that the few notes we can string together sound angelic. And we have each other so fuck the world.

Some days I worry that I don’t have the words to express how much these two mean to me. But the way our voices blend despite their differences and casually find golden moments under the dark roof says it for me.

And if that fails, I give good hugs.

19.

At the airport. My mother says goodbye.

“I love you, my Fleur. I’m really glad that there’s you and me.”

20.

“Where are we flying to?”

“We’re just flying home to get something.”

“That’s a good idea.”

“Up, up the plane goes!”

“What can you see out the windows?”

“Nana filling the birdbath.”

“What colour is your plane?”

“It’s a red and yellow plane.”

“What colour is the sky?”

“I don’t know.”

“I think you do.”

“Lots of colours.”

“They’ve brought around the food. What have you got on your tray?”

“A little drink.”

“Shall we land now?”

“Yes.”

“Aaaaaaaand BUMP!”

“Again.”

With my niece.

With my niece.

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conversation, creativity, Dramaturgical Analysis, interview, Theatre, writing

in conversation: mark wilson on narrative, surprise, shakespeare and whatever this song is called

Two weeks ago I sat down with theatre maker Mark Wilson for a chat. He is the creator of Unsex Me which I discussed on the blog with audience members  last month. He is an actor, director, writer and dramaturge and is currently undertaking Playwriting Australia’s dramaturgy internship with me at MTC. Mark’s passion for theatre is contagious and his delight in rigorous intellectual interrogation of art left me elated. He is a joy to talk to and, while it can be hard to convey tone in a transcript, know that there was a whole lot of laughter, consumption of brownies and self-decricapting grimaces. So picture this: a cold, rainy day. We are upstairs at the Malthouse, two pots of tea between us. We begin. 

 

SFB: Tell me what you’ve been thinking about this week, Mark Wilson. What’s been on your mind?

Mark: I’ve been thinking about narrative or plot.

SFB: What about narrative or plot?

Mark: They’re not very interesting to me but sometimes you need it to be the vehicle. The theme.

I saw a film last night and it is a lot about how fucked Ireland is and I thought it was an appallingly made film. After, my aunty said to me “well wasn’t that the most profound film you’ve ever seen?”. I had to say “I can appreciate that the themes were there but I didn’t think it was well made.” I closed my eyes with boredom a few times. It was so achingly sentimental.

SFB: Good for the soul, isn’t it? Achingly sentimental? Don’t we all just want a story, Mark? Don’t we all just want a nice beginning, middle and end?

Mark: Maybe that’s what we want but it’s not what we all need.

SFB: What do we need?

Mark: We need to think about the world.

SFB: So when you read a play that excites you, what is it that’s working for you?

Mark: Well if it is an old play, it’s when characters start reflecting. If it is a new play it is about surprise

SFB: Do you get surprised in old plays?

Mark: Very rarely. I get surprised by the ideas characters express but the plots, almost invariably, are not surprising.

SFB: What surprises you in new plays?

Mark: Form. And… the surprising attacks of angles. Yeah. Often it is a formal shift. Suddenly we are all dancing.

SFB: Yes, seldom is my surprise the actual plot. If people are trying to surprise me with a plot – if that is their big reveal, that some guy has been dead the whole time – well then narrative is the least surprising surprise you can have.

Mark: Narrative: Uuuuughh!

SFB: I don’t know how to transcribe that sound. Just a lot of ‘u’s I think. And some ‘gh’s.

Mark: I think a ‘gh’. I’m a big fan of the ‘gh’.

When a playwright thinks that narrative is their whole job, you’re in trouble. If it’s not working often my first impulse is to get on the floor with it. I want to get on the floor with some good actors. I think my problem is that I look at scripts not as the final thing but as the start.

SFB: I think that’s how people should look at a script. I think a lot of the time a script that is polished and perfect doesn’t leave space for theatre. Sometimes they are beautiful to read on the page and you don’t need to stage it.

Mark: Somebody said that about F. Scott Fitzgerald. He couldn’t write a screenplay because he finished them. The directors he worked with (who eventually kicked him off) they had a movie in their head and their needed something more exciting from the screenwriter but Fitzgerald would deliver a magnum opus in screenplay form, which is useless.

Photography by Sarah Walker as part of her fabulous series, Clutch

Photography by Sarah Walker as part of her fabulous series, Clutch

The best Shakespeare I’ve ever seen hasn’t been Shakespeare.

SFB: What was that?

Mark: The Ostermeier Hamlet. It started with this slapstick burying of the king. They kept on dropping the coffin and it was raining and slippery and the guy who was burying it was doing that kind of dance when you’re like (demonstrates making robot sounds).

SFB: Popping. I’m addicted to So You Think You Can Dance. I’m sorry. Very embarrassing.

Mark: Yes. So they just threw any form, any theatrical technique that they needed at that moment. The most extraordinary moment was Laertes has returned and Hamlet is doing a soliloquy and then he stops and he says, “Laertes thinks I have wronged him. Have I wronged Laertes?” He waits then he asks it again: “Have I wronged Laertes?” Nothing. He asked it a third time and then somebody in the audience yelled out “Ya!” And Hamlet dove into the audience, climbed over the seats and was screaming at this guy in German. Then somebody on the other side yelled out in English “No! No, you haven’t wronged Laertes!” And instantly Hamlet was climbing over that way, screaming in English. So everybody was talking about it and Hamlet was reflecting on what was being said and then slipped back into the Shakespeare. It was extraordinary.

SFB: Holy shit.

Mark: Holy shit! Yeah.

A friend of mine said “nothing that is five-hundred years old can mean the same thing now as it did when it was written.” And Artaud said “if Oedipus Rex (or whatever play) isn’t working for your audience, it’s not the fault of your audience. It is the fault of Oedipus Rex.” That was big. For me. That the text, which I love, which has fed me, does not work on its own. Peter Brook said that at the beginning of his career he wanted the text to speak for itself but now he realizes the text can’t speak.

Mark laughs.

But a friend was saying that it is fucked in Melbourne because nobody can just do a show. They have to be having all these formal enquiries and that can totally isolate the audience.

SFB: I get that. And I still do love narrative. More than you, I’m sure. I still just like to tell a good story. But I am a very happy theatre-goer. It takes a lot to make me not like a show. I go in excited. You have to fucking pummel me to make me unhappy. Shows that everyone else hated I just go “they told me a story! They sung me some songs! Things were pretty! I’m happy!”

I guess I’m trying really hard to be the dramaturge slash arts writer who doesn’t bring their personal tastes with them. Which is hard because I’m also trying to be an artist who has to be full of personal taste. But I’m trying to ride that balance. I try hard to go into every show saying, “In every production there will be something that I could not have done.” That’s tricky. Sometimes. Sometimes you come out saying “well I couldn’t have done any of that because I wouldn’t have done any of that, would I!” So it is hard.

Sarah Walker, from Clutch again

Sarah Walker, from Clutch again

So you’ve been thinking about narrative and plot.

Mark: I’ve been thinking about narrative and plot. I’ve been thinking lot about this. And about race and how we deal with this stuff onstage.

SFB: Was there a conclusion? Did you find out how we deal with it onstage?

Mark: No. Badly. Nakkiah Lui’s article in The Guardian was interesting. She said we need two types of revolution. The first is allowing and actively casting people who are not white as characters that where race and ethnicity doesn’t matter and the other is an increased amount of material on stages that actively represents the lives of those who are not all white and middle class.

SFB: It is difficult. I said to Danny (Delahunty) before we cast The City They Burned that if we end up with an all white cast I’ll punch us. I’m keeping a tally of all the shows I see this year and I’m keeping a tally of how many actors are in each show and how many are not white. I can’t write a play for nine actors and have them all represented as white. But who do we get at the audition? We see over a hundred people and I think we had two or three non-anglo actors audition for us. But then the company, Attic Erratic, started casting Norm and Ahmed and suddenly these diverse actors all come out of the woodwork. Does that mean that these actors are out there and not coming to these auditions because they presume that they won’t –

Mark: You bet. They presume, understandably, that they won’t be cast as the universal. And it is ridiculous. The word ‘ethnic’ we don’t apply to white people. White people are not ‘ethnic’. What? What? Yeah. Yeah man. What the fuck! We’re neutral. White man is neutral.

The new Star Wars' cast

The new Star Wars’ cast

SFB: I listen to a podcast called Popculture Happy Hour. I’d avoided it for a long time because I know nothing about pop culture but it is fantastic and I’m totally addicted, despite not knowing any of the movies they are talking about. It is just such good discussion. They did one when the photo of the new Star Wars came out and it was a table full of white men, basically. Then people started getting defensive and saying “we didn’t give you the photo to audit” and these guys on the podcast said “that implies that they are two separate things: looking at the photo and seeing that they are all white men.” It’s not an audit if that is the first thing you notice. That is just us looking and seeing the obvious.

Mark: Yes, that stuff is alive politically. And yet we chose not to engage with it.

SFB: There was another story I heard on a different podcast (I can’t remember which, maybe Snap Judgement) about a boy at a segregated school. One day the nun walked in, took down the crucifix and put up a new one with a black Jesus on it. All the kids were staring at her in shock and she says “Jesus would have probably looked more like you then me” and walks out. All these kids are just… minds blown and this guy, who is now an adult, says “still, whenever I think of Jesus, he is black, like me.” And that was such an empowering moment for him as a man, when Black Jesus came to stay.

Mark: Wonderful.

What’s this song called?

SFB: No idea.

Mark: I love this song.

We both listen in silence.

Mark: I think it’s those people who dressed like hippies on the front of their first album.

SFB: Remember me saying a few minutes ago that I know nothing about pop culture? Yeah, still true.

We listen.

So Mark, why theatre?

Mark: Why theatre? Oh no! Well real time, real space is shared. That’s fundamental. I think what fourth wall naturalism doesn’t understand is that we are all sharing the same place at the same time. Stop pretending we’re somewhere else. For me, a piece of theatre that doesn’t acknowledge its theatricality has failed already. Even texts that fundamentally do, like Shakespeare, I’ve seen appalling productions that try to pretend that we’re not here. Are you serious? Are you serious? Come on. Yeah. Real time, real place, same space, we’re sharing something. It’s an event. People come together. It’s that old phrase: we are a socially constructive form. I like that a lot. But then I also like “no, fuck that, I’m an individual in that room!” I guess I want it both ways.

SFB: I’m just firing short things at you now. So what does the term ‘responsibility’ mean for you within your art?

Mark: Yeah, yeah, okay. Responsibility. I think we have a social responsibility. I think we need to acknowledge our advantages in life. Our social and economic advantages. I think that theatre needs to do that in the way that we tell stories. You know, everyone shits on some of these playwrights but they write an unproblematic middle class world, that’s fucked. Like Marcel said in the paper today “we always say that theatre can do anything but we do an awful lot of plays set in middle class living rooms.” I think the responsibility is about how we present the world. Because all the world’s a stage and a stage is all the world. That’s why I find well plotted, complete-unto-themselves plays so boring: they’re assuming that they can present everything; that they are a complete world. Well no, actually. I’m drinking peppermint tea. Somebody picked that peppermint tea. I’m enjoying the fruits of their underpaid labour. And yeah I might be a filthy socialist of the old sort –

SFB: Look at that beard, of course you are.

Mark: Look at this beard! But then look at my pink pants. Yeah. I think it is irresponsible to answer questions and not ask them. The theatre is the place to ask.

SFB: Okay so you’ve said a lot about what we are doing wrong in theatre, how do we fix it? I’m sorry! I’m sorry! What a bitch. Who asks this stuff?

Mark: I think we need to stop producing mediocrity and things with small ambition. I don’t care that it was a hit on the West End two years ago and someone wants to be in it and it will sell tickets, why is this happening? A real interrogation of the social need. I’m not talking about being didactic, I’m talking about asking interesting questions. Why are we doing yet another play that can sit nicely and not offend? It is fucked. It is fucked. But on the other hand, I’m talking about the majors here, and there is a big audience who doesn’t share my taste and that’s fine. That’s totally fine. But my God, when they see an Arthur Miller that should be the best God damn Arthur Miller that anyone in Australia can produce. If not, then there is something wrong.

But really dramaturgy is the thing. And I don’t mean ‘dramaturgy’ as script development. I think that reducing dramaturgy to fit that definition is one of the most appalling things in the world. Why are we doing the piece? Who is it speaking to? What does this choice that we’ve made mean in relation to the text and the audience? That is the thing that needs to fix theatre. Why, beyond economics, is this the play we’re doing? But I also understand that there are enormous pressures in programming but let’s just say that if I was running one of these big houses that question would be asked a lot. And then it would be a question to marketing – “how would you sell this?” – as opposed to a question to the literary department – “how would we sell this?” What!?

I don’t know if anything I’ve said today represents my thinking at all. I don’t know if it’s true. I don’t know if I believe it.

SFB: You’re my fave. And on that note.

Mark: On that note.

 

Sarah Walker’s beautiful work can be found here. But then you all knew that, I hope. 

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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, conversation, criticism, dance, Theatre

in conversation: on criticism, tangible feedback and a secret language of exclusion

Third and final installment of my conversation with Sayraphim Lothian and Robert Reid. I love this one such a lot. It taps into all my thoughts about criticism and trusting your audience. Thank you once again to these two for their generosity. Thank you also to Sarah Walker who proof read all three episodes. I’d look like an idiot without her. 

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SFB: You are both making work that almost feels like it circumvents the critics or the ‘expert’ commenting on the work.

Sayra: Well the problem for me as a public artist is that public art never gets reviewed. My stuff is tiny, temporary works. It is more towards the street art side than the public art. Nobody every wanders over to Vault to have a chat in The Age about the extraordinary angles or the specific colour of yellow. Nobody reviews that stuff, which is sort of a burden and a freedom. Occasionally internet people talk about my work, not as reviewers but as people who like craft or craftivism or joy or random acts of kindness. I know that critics are problematic at best and it is just an individual’s opinion but I won’t mind being reviewed by someone.

Rob: With Pop Up Playground, there is no language for what we do.

Sayra: Well Anne-Marie came to the first This Is A Door at Theatre Works and loved it and reviewed it. She’s not trying to understand it as theatre. She understands it as ‘this is the awesome thing I did and you should go!’

Rob: Which is just about an ability to read the framework that the experiences is being presented to you in, as opposed to coming with a notion of ‘I am a theatre reviewer. I must review it on these grounds.’ The same people have the language to review a circus performance or a dance work or a cabaret work and all of these things are different and distinct and they have the language. It is because the notion of play as performance is relatively new and under-served here, that they haven’t been forced to make the effort to understand ‘how do I understand this as performance’ that they haven’t developed the language. This is a reflection of how slowly the intellectual process behind analysing of performance happens, not only here in Australia but everywhere.

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Robert Reid working on a magical kangaroo for Nylon Zoo’s ‘i see magical creatures’

Sayra: We’re still having that argument with people. When we present the ideas behind Pop Up Playground and they ask ‘yes, but how is that art?’ or ‘How is that theatre?’

Rob: Less and less. Partially because we’re moving away from trying to establish ourselves within the arts community. Not that we want to move out of the arts community but the question is starting to become ‘why are you doing this?’ which is fundamentally the same conversation just with a different value set.

Though the games and play as performance can absolutely be reviewed and critiqued by critics, the best feedback is through the play-testing process or getting Emilie Collier (our writer in residence) to respond. She writes fictional responses to the games, which is wonderful. I think the reason that we have, to an extent, circumvented the critical process with Pop Up Playground is because the critical process here in Australia and probably around the world is broken.

We as artists get so focused on what Cameron and Anne-Marie and Alison and those guys think because it is the only tangible feedback we actually get. I would guess that a lot of the artists who are really focused on that stuff would often have difficulty sitting in a room where their work is being performed and being able to pick up the cues from an audience to be get feedback. Or maybe they won’t even sit there. Or they do it on opening night – which is again a skewed kind of feedback anyway – and then maybe go back on closing night and miss all the feedback from an audience as to whether or not a thing is funny, whether it is working, what the impact is.

Sayra: I think people feel the critics are super educated in their own art form so if the critics get it you get some kind of certificate saying ‘I am actually a Theatre Maker. I am actually an Artist.’ For me in public art and Pop Up Playground, it is really important that the general public can instantly get it.

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Sayraphim Lothian creating a creature for Nylon Zoo’s ‘i see magical creatures’

I don’t come from a theatre background and so when I first met Rob and started going to theatre, a lot of it confused the hell out of me because it is a learned language. It took me years to understand what it was I that I was seeing. For public it was really important that we circumvent that. People can instantly get it. It’s a fake cupcake and it is here purely to make your day or make you smile.

When I was studying art in Year 11 or Year 12, my art teacher presented us with a blank canvas and explained the whole story and all the meaning behind it. Once you understand the huge amount of literature behind it you can go ‘oh my God, that’s awesome’ but still, when you stand in front of it, it is just a blank canvas.

I don’t read the program before I go into a theatre work because if it has to be explained to me before, I feel that it is a failed piece of theatre because I want to sit there and understand it from purely the piece of art that is being presented. So I think it is more important that the general public can get the stuff I’m doing than the well-educated art critic.

SFB: Makes me think about one of the essays you gave us (in the Masters of Writing course at VCA), Rob, which said that in art-like art, your experience is deepened by having this whole backlog of knowledge. You walk into an art gallery and you know what happens in art galleries, whereas in life-like art, you don’t need to know art, you just need to know life. Just live some life and you’ll get it.

Sayra: I went to the ballet once when I was all young and Gothic. It was Dracula and I knew the story but I remember two specific things: One is that they were very bendy – they were boneless – which worked really well for vampires. The other thing was that there were all these certain move that I knew were really meaningful but because I’d never been to the ballet before I had no idea what they were. I had three friends there and we all came out going ‘nope. No idea.’ And we could sort of see the story in it because we knew the story but it was very difficult to find because of all the Meaningfulness that was happening and we weren’t a part of it.

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Tulsa Ballet’s ‘Dracula’, photographed by Sharen Bradford

Rob: We forget that. Not only do we forget that but we don’t like it being pointed out to us that not everybody has had the conversations about Chekhov and Ibsen and Strindberg. Not everybody has had the conversations about post-dramatic theatre and adaptations and, for the most part, they don’t give a fuck either.

Sayra: Although everybody might not understand theatre or ballet or something, everybody knows how to play.

Rob: And everybody can be told a story. Everybody can tell a story. These are the basics of the art form that we all share, that we have spent a lot of time as artists rarefying and saying ‘no, no, no, you can’t do that the way we can do that. That makes us special.’ That tells 80% of the country that they are not involved and that they shouldn’t come because this is only for Special People who understand. It takes a basic human need away from humanity in the service of our ego.

Sayra: Alright, last story! Last story I promise! In our first public performance for Pop Up Playground was at the NGV studio and it was on Grand Final weekend. As artists we were going ‘we’re going to get beaten up! All of the football fans are coming in to the CBD and we’re going to get beaten up!’ Which we didn’t. But not only that –

Rob: These things are exaggerations for colour.

Sayra: Shhh! We had a family in football jerseys come in and play games. And we’ve never had anybody in football paraphernalia come to any of the theatre shows we’ve ever been to, let alone anything we’ve ever done.

Now we promise we’ll stop.

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audiences, conversation

in conversation: cupcakes, motor bikes, knitting nanas and reclaiming the streets

Part 2 of my conversation with Sayraphim Lothian and Robert Reid of Pop Up Playground (and many other things). This one is all Sayraphim and all about craftivism. What is craftivism? Short answer? Awesome. Long answer:  

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Knit Your Revolt Tricycle Gang

SFB: Last week someone asked me what a craftivist was and I tried to explain. I said ‘it is Sayraphim!’

Sayra: Well, nice and succinct, craftivism is using craft for activist purposes. That is the short and non-fluffy answer. It is about using craft to change the world, either change people’s perceptions of an issue or change someone’s world on a personal level; making someone’s day with a piece of craft or beautifying the world around you; reclaiming public space for the actual public rather than corporations or the government.

SFB: What is it about craft?

Sayra:  I can do it. One of my super powers is that I can make anything out of anything else. Craft is a way that I can create in the world. I’ve never been any good at drawing or painting but I’m awesome at knitting and sewing and crocheting and I drift towards the things that I’m good at, which sort of makes it sound like ‘well if I can’t paint then at least I can knit’ but it’s not really about that. It is more interesting and it’s more tactile and it’s 3D. I’m more interested in 3D than 2D stuff.

Sarah Corbett, who runs the Craftivist Collective in the UK, talks about just sitting in a public space and sewing. People come up and ask ‘oh what are you sewing?’ and then you can gently introduce them to the idea rather than standing there and shouting about things. It is a very domestic, approachable, gentle form of protest.

There is also a group called The Knitting Nanas Against Gas. They are a legion of older and younger women in New South Wales near Grafton who are protesting against the coal/gas seam and they go and knit, which completely disarms police and other protestors. They don’t really know what to do with these gentle old ladies who are sharing cake and knitting.

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Knit Your Revolt Tricycle Gang

And there’s an awesome one called The Knit Your Revolt Tricycle Gang. They are in Queensland where there are these incredible draconian laws that are referred to as ‘the Bikie Laws’. The government are trying to stamp down on motorcycle gangs so anyone who rides a motorcycle can be stopped. Anyone who has tattoos can be stopped. Anyone who associates with these people can also be stopped. So by you sitting here talking to me, you could be stopped by the cops because I have tattoos. So there are a couple of women who have decided that they are going to protest. They get tricycles and they yarn bomb them – cover them in crochet and stuff – and they have banners that say ‘I associate’ and they go and tricycle along next to these bikie gangs which I think is awesome and they’ve gotten a lot of press recently. They are bringing attention to these ridiculous bikie laws in a really fun, tongue-in-cheek way. These grown women riding around on children’s tricycles with all these bikies! I love it! I’m a proud member too. I got my Knit Your Revolt gang patch and I’m just deciding what to sew it to.

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For You Strange, Sayraphim Lothian

I do craftivism on a much more personal level. When I leave stuff out on the street, like the For You Stranger cupcakes, it changes the day of the person. The niceness behind it ripples out through the photos. People see it online and they get heart warmed and the photos get shared. I’m making the world a nicer place one hand-crafted item at a time.

I didn’t actually think it was craftivism at first because it is such a new thing. It is still evolving and still trying to understand what it is. Betsy Greer coined the term in 2003. I was a big fan of her work but I’d never really thought of my work as craftivism until she contacted me September, 2012. I was walking down a London street and an email came in from Betsy Greer – and you’re like ‘Fuck! Betsy Greer!’ – saying that she’s putting together the first book on Craftivism and she wants me to write a chapter for it and I went ‘I will do that!’ And since then there’s been a lot of talk about what craftivism means and the ideas have expanded out.

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Yarn Bombing as anti-war protest. The squares are contributed by crafters in Denmark, the US and England as a protest about their countries involvement in the Iraqi war. It’s called M.24 Chaffee by Danish artist Marianna Jorgenson.

The other one is beautifying public space. Reclaiming it. Mainly yarn bombing. Yarn bombing is knitting thing and crocheting around trees and stuff and a lot of people don’t like it because they see it as street art for chicks. Although I’m a bit bored of it because it has been around for a while and it is a very safe form of street art (and councils are using it, which pretty much mainstreams it right there), I think it is a really low barrier for entry for street art; for changing your environment and re-claiming public space as your own space. So I think it is great. It is such an easy way for people to go out and add something to their environment so I’m all for it.

Thanks once again to Sayraphim, Rob and Sarah for her proof reading. Also a look at this gorgeous video of Sayra talking about her art:

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Yarn Bombing, uncredited

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conversation, My own plays, Politics, Theatre

in conversation: on where we are going, the inarticulate and what artists can bring to debate

Programming note: This conversation with David Finnigan is different enough in mood that I feel I need to set the scene a little. Everyone I’ve spoken to for this series so far has been someone I know very well. I have assistant directed for John Kachoyan and Suzanne Chaundy and next up will be Sayraphim Lothian and Rob Reid who is directing one of my plays in the new year. The Monash students I had only known for a few days but we were all very drunk and this accelerates things. This was only the second conversation I had ever had with David but I’d been admiring his brain from afar for some time and knew I had to get in a conversation before he disappeared overseas for some months. So imagine us sitting in a tiny, very noisy cafe, preparing to get to know each other with an audio recorder on the table between us. We talked for more than an hour and it was beautiful and personal and revealing and almost entirely too intimate to share. This is from the only twenty minutes of it that I actually recorded. Usually I try to edit myself out of the conversation as much as possible but it felt wrong to let David reveal this alone so there’s a whole lot of me rambling at the end of this. Enjoy. And David, thank you once again, for a beautiful conversation.

Ingredients: Window seats in a cafe over-looking Brunswick street, two cups of peppermint tea and two shy, nervous and excited humans, David Finnigan, writer, producer and pharmacy assistant and myself.

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Promo shot for MKA by Sarah Walker

SFB: So why theatre?

David: It helped with social phobias and imposes deadlines. I don’t know how I would have gone writing anything if I hadn’t had theatres booked and casts waiting for scripts. That gives focus. There is something really lovely about sitting in a room and writing for people who are talking back to you. Writing for a group of other people to do stuff with is really liberating. Then there is the selfish factor: when it works, other people take your words and take them further than you ever could. That is great. Then you can slap your name on it again and get the credit.

SFB: Part of the conversation with John and Lou that I didn’t use was John saying (something along the lines of) ‘I find playwrights so fascinating because it is like they’ve decided to be a recluse and then chickened out.’ We’ve chosen the most social form of writing. We aren’t novelists who can lock themselves away in a cabin in a mountain and emerge with a masterpiece. It is about talking to and working with people.

David: Yes. For what I do, perhaps more so than for what you do. I don’t know how you wrote yours the face but I’m guessing that was primarily in isolation. What I usually do is stuff that has some sort of interactivity component and also a science bent. For the last eight or nine years I’ve been working with research scientists, usually from CSIRO – climate scientists, system theorists, game theorists, resilience theorists – building shows that are interactive plays or live games around science concepts. That’s closer to the heart of my practice.

SFB: And what do the arts have to add to that conversation?

David: I feel like I’m doing it because of that lock-in. I presented a table at the Independent Theatre Forum back in ’09 I think. The topic was ‘Why the fuck do you keep going?’ We invited people up to talk about why they persisted in the industry with so little pay and very little respect and no long-term career options in a lot of cases. People had lots of different answers. Some said that it was their responsibility to be the shamans of the tribe or to keep up story-telling practices or variations and some people said that they do it for that moment of transcendence or flow; that beautiful moment that happen every few month or years. But the majority of people said that they did it because they had over-trained in that area and under-trained anywhere else. People have post-grad qualifications in theatre and have spent ten years working in it and they feel they can’t start from scratch. That was by far the most common reason people had for doing theatre. That is a factor for me. I do performance around these topics because that’s what I’m best at.

Image by Adam Thomas

In the early 90s there was this general consensus on the idea of changing climate. There were the beginnings of an understanding of what might be done. Then the science community got hit sideways by this incredibly sophisticated propaganda assault from the carbon lobby that none of them were prepared for. They were meteorologists who, up until that point, had had no reason to be in the spotlight, being assaulted by these incredibly clever, incredibly well-paid hacks and propagandarists. Twenty-years later they are just beginning to push back against that. As far as I’m concerned, artists have the requisite skills to be able to slide in the gap there; to be able to talk about the future in a way that is meaningful and resonant. So everything I do – the majority of what I do and what I’m interested in – is stuff around the future and what is going to happen to us in the next fifty – a hundred years. I feel like that is a thing worth talking about but I’m still trying to figure out the best way to communicate it. If there is a single theme in everything I’ve done, that’s probably as close as I can come to describing it.

What about you? Do you have an area of interest that you find yourself returning to?

SFB: I don’t know. It has changed. Most recently… I love good words but I sort of struggle to make myself inarticulate. I am very articulate, obviously, but I’m also dyslexic and I get really frustrated when people dismiss others for spelling something wrong and it is particularly lefties on the internet who do it. It drives me nuts to see them – my people, the people I identify with – saying ‘you used the wrong form of ‘your’ and therefore you are a terrible person and the contents of your brain is worthless!’ I love creating characters that an audience will dismiss as dumb or obnoxious. I want people to jump to decisions about them; to form conclusions and then, maybe, come around to see the value of them. Or, like the photographer in yours the face, people will judge him by page two, then get drawn into his mind but by the end they are saying ‘oh no, he is actually a cunt’.

I’m still working on all this. When I started writing that play I wrote the character of Emmy phonetically or – how someone might spell if they were quite illiterate and just sounding out their words. But I didn’t know the accent well enough. It was meant to be Detroit but I started writing her in England and Raimondo (Cortese) said it was like reading Ali G: a Londoner trying to be gangster. That wasn’t what I was going for so I went back to writing her with correct spelling and left it to the actor and director to create the voice. But I am fascinated by playwrights who can do that; who can write beautifully in that colloquial voice in a really unashamed way. In Australia, we get very anxious about appropriating someone else’s voice – the white privilege fear. The danger is that we are all so scared of telling someone else’s story wrong that we only write white, middle class stories.

Please go and have a read of David’s blog. I would particularly suggest you have a look at his entry on the responses to Kids Killing KidsIt is a fascinating look at just how disparate reviewer’s opinions can be. And here he is doing some outstanding poetry. 

Thanks to my proof-reader for today, Cat Commander.

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David with Jordan Prosser in ‘Kids Killing Kids’, image by Sarah Walker

 

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