interview, My own plays, Theatre, Welcome to Nowhere, writing

fleur kilpatrick: welcome to nowhere, aliens, influences, beginnings

The final Welcome to Nowhere Playwright interview: Emily O’Connor and Olivia Bishop interviewed me. Which feels terribly narcissist to post an interview with myself but I guess my usual entries are just me shouting at the internet without the guiding hand of outside interviewers so let’s just embrace it. I am one of five playwrights commissioned by Monash University to write this new work along with Angus Cerini, Zoey Dawson, Daniel Keene and Morgan Rose. As part of the process, I’ve had student actors interview the creatives. So enjoy!

Photo: Piper Huynh

Photo: Piper Huynh

What brought you to writing, and why specifically theatre? Did it start with other kinds of writing?

I came to theatre really young, so it was first form that I feel in love with. I arrived in theatre by being vindictive. I’d had just a really horrible traumatic experience changing schools, and so I was like “I know, I’ll write a play about it and make people feel really guilty”. That was my whole motive! So this play won the South Australian State Theatre’s Young Playwright’s competition, and the prize for that was that they spent a week workshopping my play with a group of professional actors, a dramaturge and a director, and then they did a staged reading of my play. It was truly terrible.

What was it about, what was it?

It was about me being an angsty teenager and having my life ruined by these teachers! It was just entirely to make them feel bad. I knew it was bad at the time. I have a really clear memory of being like “the instant this week finishes, I’ll never read this again, but I know what a good experience it is”.

I’d been a classical singer and that’s so internal. It’s so about what’s going on inside body. Workshopping for a week just made me aware of what an incredibly collaborative art form theatre was. That week was such a gift. I came to Melbourne to study singing and I was like “Why am I doing this? This is terrible, this is so much more boring than theatre!” And so I dropped out of that six months in, and have been doing theatre ever since.

You direct and occasionally perform in things as well, but is there something about writing that really draws you to it? I mean, which do you prefer?

Um, I don’t know if I should say which I prefer because then people will only hire me for that…

I love both writing and directing because they use really different parts of my brain. I direct from a place of uncertainty and I enjoy that. But you kind of more charismatic in your uncertainty. You’ve sort of got to come in and be like “look, I don’t quite know yet but I know how we’ll figure this out”. With writing, I kind of love that I get to just try and work my stuff out myself, and people around me support that. I don’t have to lead. I can just embrace that unknown. What was the other part of the question? Which do I prefer and…?

Yeah, what is it about writing that draws you to it?

I think I write theatre because I love both words and the visual. I love having the opportunity to create images through other people. I really enjoy stage directions. I don’t write them often, but when I do I try to create emotive, poetic, impossible ideas for people to play with. They are as much an offer as dialogue.

I love how collaborative theatre writing is. A lot of the time there’s this expectation that writers write in isolation in this cabin in a wood somewhere. And I mean there’s still a lot of writing that’s lonely and private and has to be but playwriting is like you tried to be an introvert and failed… Its the most collaborative form of writing there is. And I love that. I’m so needy as a writer. I have my group of friends that I’ll just be like “Hey, can you come over? I just – I just really need someone to read this to me, right now, and I have dogs and cups of tea on offer. That’s what I got for you”.

When you are writing, do you find yourself putting on that director’s hat and being like, “This is how I envision this piece” before its even workshopped?

I’m really proud of the fact that I don’t. I think being a director has taught me to have immense faith in directors. I love leaving things incomplete. I think a good script should feel unfinished on the page, because that’s not the form it’s meant to exist in. I’m really proud that I embrace that, and that I’m good at leaving that space, and leaving room for a director.

Moving on to Welcome to Nowhere can you tell us a bit about your process? What prompts you might have been given, or what first inspired you to start writing the play?

I could probably show you… Actually no I don’t have that book with me. I drew a map. I got into mind maps, I drew a map with lots of little pictures and arrows, like… to try and figure it out. And I drew a picture of an alien. I just… It seemed that the most liminal or Between Space you could be in was not knowing which planet you’d end up on. Mars One had been on my mind because of a really beautiful podcast that I’d listened to, which was this girl talking about waiting to find out if she was going to Mars. There was something so human, and casual about how she talked about it, but I’m also like “who the fuck wants to leave this planet?!” That is so weird to me. I think it’s really good to start with a question like that: “Who would this person be?” The other element of it is that it’s a one-night stand. I feel like those are kind of liminal spaces as well, particularly after the sex has happened: “… And now we just…”

The mind map I drew when I first started thinking about the concept of 'liminality'.

The mind map I drew when I first started thinking about the concept of ‘liminality’.

“Are you staying over, are you leaving, are you…?”

“Oh I’ve got… I’ve got… a thing tomorrow morning. I mean I could… No, it’s a bit later, it’s like 10, that’s fine I can… Do you mind if I… stay…?” There’s that weird kind of uncertainty as you wait for morning that I think is really interesting. I liked smooshing those two uncertainties together like that.

Then whatever I write is often influenced by what I’ve been reading, or seeing. I feel like the beginning is quite influenced by The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas. That chorus was really intriguing me: how you tell a story communally. There’s other influences which you guys have noticed, some of which I wasn’t necessarily aware of but don’t surprise me: Slaughterhouse Five is my favourite book. I’ve read that so many times. I wasn’t necessarily thinking of it at the time but I kind of loved that Emma saw Slaughterhouse in it.

I know that you said that you like to keep the directing and the writing separate, but when you’re writing the characters do you envision them? Like with this did you visualise, um, mannerisms, or maybe what the alien looks like, or… was there kind of that sort of process? Were they based on real people at all, or are they sort of just…

Well, at the beginning I really didn’t even know what gender they’d be. I wrote them as A and B. When I showed the first draft to Emma I went “I feel like I really want A to be a girl, just because I don’t see female characters like that very often.” Then I’d written about ‘dick’ so B had to be a guy. The alien took me a little while longer. I think you guys saw a draft where it was called ‘alien/scientist’. I wasn’t quite sure where that was sitting for a little while; was it going to be an alien or a scientist? Then in rehearsal Leticia (the set designer) said it was about curiosity. Hearing that really influenced the final drafts. The idea of the alien’s curiosity about them as well as Henry’s curiosity about Maisy and Maisy’s total lack of curiosity about anything Earth-bound. That really help me shape it.

Apart from curiosity, what are the other key themes that are dealt with in ‘Inertia’?

Space… Inertia: momentum or a lack of momentum was really interesting to me. That opening scene is all about Maisy knowing things and doing all this stuff and what an amazing, driven, young person she is. And then you see her and she’s just stopped and stuck. Being in stasis like that really interested me… Um… Yeah.

I think that’s also just me totally embracing nerdiness! It’s the nerdiness thing I’ve written. The big romantic speech? The most romantic thing in my head was making out under whalebones at a museum! But how hot is that?! …So yeah that’s kind of, I think it’s sort of embracing the beauty of trying for something bigger than you. And that’s maths, that’s science, that’s space, that’s all that stuff. And I think there’s a lot of parallels in science and art. They are both about trying to understand the world around you.

Obviously because I’m playing the alien I’m quite fascinated with that character. I guess I’m still in the process of figuring out what the alien is. I was wanting to ask you, as a device what does the alien serve as?

I think that from the beginning, a lot of the writing has been about being watched. Of Mars being watched, then Maisy being watched, and being willing to put herself on what’s basically a life-long reality TV show. I wanted a sense of someone watching them constantly. But also this alien is from a planet that has been watch for as long as we’ve been able to look up. An earlier draft said something like “we’ve explore Mars with our minds for so long and now we’re actually going to put our feet there”. Maisy’s going to be the invader. Maisy’s part of an invading force.

In a way, Maisy’s going to take on the role as the alien.

Yeah, Maisy will become the alien. I think it’s interesting to think of someone from a civilisation on the brink of being invaded just watching and not actually taking any steps to stop it. Just observing this moment of transition… this moment… this liminal moment before the next stage of our relationship with their planet.

And then to think that we on earth will be able to look out into space and think that there are people out there looking back at us!

Totally!

It’s terrifying!

Going back to the actual writing of ‘Inertia’, did you come across any challenges that you hadn’t come across writing other plays?

I often struggle to write short plays because I try to cram in too many things. That’s concepts and forms or devices. I had to really be careful of that. For a little while there the space of six scenes I had four totally different rules for how the universe of the play worked. So there was the chorus narrating; there was Maisy and Henry interacting; there was this speech by this scientist and there was also projections of video games and all sorts. And then there was also this like weird sex scene that I’d written as the scientist narrating it as a rocket launch, calling out what hormones were being release when and stuff like that! It was really nerdy. It was horrible.

Oh God! I’m a bit glad you cut that out!

(Laughter)

In our pyjamas.

In our pyjamas. One of us is drunk.

Yeah. It’s only going to be about 20 minutes, and that’s very disjointed to have four totally different stylistic things in such a short play. That’s a thing I confront each time I have to write something short… because I’m just not good at… at being that clear.

Being concise and…

Yeah being concise both in terms of thoughts and themes and also in styles and how I want to tell a story because I love changing styles.

Last question: a bit of a silly one, a bit cheesy but…if you were stranded on a desert island and you only had one thing you could take with you, what would it be?

Probably lip balm cause I’d just feel like I’d get really annoyed at having dry lips!

I was expecting like, ” Pencil and paper to write down a memoir!”

Nah, I’m sticking with lip balm.

Welcome to Nowhere runs September 24th-October 3rd at the Coopers Malthouse. Bookings are at the Coopers Malthouse website and at The Melbourne Fringe website.

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conversation, creativity, history, interview, My own plays, Theatre, Welcome to Nowhere, writing

daniel keene: welcome to nowhere, voices you don’t hear, furniture, instinct and voluntary amnesia

This is part three of the Welcome to Nowhere Playwright interviews: Chris Edwards and Sophia Riozzi interviewing Daniel Keene. I am one of five playwrights commissioned by Monash University to write this new work along with Angus Cerini, Zoey Dawson, Daniel Keene and Morgan Rose. As part of the process, I’ve had student actors interview the creatives. Editing this down to a consumable-length nearly killed me. This is such an immensely generous interview from Daniel. So enjoy this beautiful contribution from Daniel, Chris and Sophia.

Daniel Keene, photo: Piper Huynh

Daniel Keene, photo: Piper Huynh

What brought you to writing?

I was supposed to be being a teacher, but I just started working in the theatre, at La Mama and places like that in Melbourne. I started off as an actor but I was a very, very poor actor, and I knew that I just wasn’t very good at it. So I thought well perhaps I can try directing, and that was my second mistake because I wasn’t very good at that either. I did a bit of lighting design, and that wasn’t particularly good, but I still wanted to work in the theatre. I started working on texts that weren’t mine. I would edit, like dramaturg them and other people would perform them, and that just led me to writing.

I came into the theatre because I wanted to work in the theatre but I didn’t know in what capacity. And then it took a few years to understand that what I could do was write. Having worked as an actor and doing a little bit of directing and designing and that sort of stuff, I found it really useful when I started to write because I knew what it was like behind the stage, so that became really handy.

Do you have any central themes or ideas that you always go back to writing about?

I suppose I do but in a way it’s kind of up to somebody else to identify them.

When I first started going to see the theatre, I got very tired because I never saw any working class people on stage. All I saw were middle class people, and I come from a working class family so I didn’t see anybody on stage that I recognised. I couldn’t understand why those sort of characters didn’t have the space and time on stage, so I started writing about those kinds of people because they were the people I knew, that I grew up with, that I related to. And then, as I continued to write and became a more established artist, I was no longer in that milieu, I was now living as an artist, but I’m still drawn to those sorts of people. People who I feel don’t have a voice, and so I try to write plays that articulate things that aren’t normally articulated.

It’s also the fact that people seem to think that the only interesting stories are about people who are themselves kind of interesting somehow, like I’m a nuclear physicist or I’m a university lecturer or I’m a whatever you are. But a guy who works in a factory or, a woman who works in a kitchen, they can have just as interesting lives and their stories can be just as profound. That’s an old cliché really, but I really believe that. I want to write about those sorts of people.

Is that something that led you into the Keene-Taylor theatre project?

The Keene-Taylor project started off as a really pragmatic thing. I’d seen Harriet Taylor’s work around Melbourne, and she’d seen my work, but we’d never met. She wrote to me and asked if I have anything that needed directing, and I’d written about four very short plays that I didn’t know what to do with. I wrote them because formally I was really tired of writing large dramas that had three acts or five acts, because the machinery of a large drama is quite demanding, you’ve got to get it to work in a certain way. And I thought, why can’t I write a play that’s only five pages long, and not be afraid of its length? Why can’t it be ten minutes long, more like a theatrical poem more than a drama? But then who’s going to do a play that’s five minutes long? I mean, nobody.

Robert Menzies and Dan Spielman in Keene-Taylor Project's A FOUNDLING, 2001 Photo: Jeff Busby

Robert Menzies and Dan Spielman in Keene-Taylor Project’s A FOUNDLING, 2001 Photo: Jeff Busby

But she had a desire to do my work so I showed her these short things. We mounted the first season at the Brotherhood of Saint Laurence Warehouse, because we had no money, no funding, no support or anything, so that was the only place we could get for free. But we ended up with really fabulous actors like Helen Morse, and Paul English, and Malcolm Robertson, and all these amazing actors who wanted to work with me and with Harriet. We had a great cast but no money, so no set, no lighting, no anything, so we developed this aesthetic.

When we went into the warehouse at the Brotherhood, the warehouse was full of old furniture and once a week anybody who needed a bed or a desk or a chair or something could come and take it for free. So when we went into the warehouse, we weren’t allowed to move anything, or to get rid of anything, it had to stay in there. So we decided not to bring anything in, no set, we’d just use whatever was there. If there were twelve wardrobes and sixteen beds that’s what we’d use, but of course every week it changed, because they would go and new things would come in. We developed an aesthetic where we’d just use whatever was to hand, and we’d use no theatrical lighting we’d just use whatever was in the warehouse, just light bulbs and things like that. That became our kind of trademark, and it was great fun working like that, having nothing except what was there. You couldn’t choose to have things; it was just all we’ve got is this so we’ll just use that.

It gave me enormous freedom because I could set a play on a street corner, or in a boarding house, or in a bar or something, it didn’t matter because all it was going to be was a couple of kitchen chairs and a table, so we could make up anything we liked. And because of the location and because of what that place was and the people it serviced, the people it helped, that kind of determined a lot of the stuff I was then writing about. I’d already been writing about that anyway, it just kind of focused it really strongly.

Having been a director, is it hard for you to take a step back in the rehearsal room?

No, I really like that, because once the play is finished, it has so many drafts, and by the time it’s finished I know it, I could probably recite it backwards. I think that if I’ve done a really good job I can just let it go completely. It’s not my job to direct it or perform it or design it. I like the moment that I hand it over and say, ‘well okay that’s your responsibility now. You make something out of that.’ I often enjoy coming to see work of mine and I don’t recognise it. The best thing ever is when I sit in an audience and I forget that I wrote it. I’m just watching something else. That doesn’t happen that often but when it does it’s incredible, because it’s become another thing.

I try to move on as quickly as possible to something else and forget about what I’ve just done. There’s a thing that actors talk about – ‘voluntary amnesia’. If you’re an actor and you’re playing Hamlet, you’ve learnt it and you’ve performed it, then you’ve got to do another play. You don’t want to still be remembering, you have to forget that role and then launch into the next one. So I tend to do that as much as possible: once I’ve finished a play, I’m finished with it. I try not to revisit it, it’s finished, and then I do something else.

With Welcome to Nowhere, how did you respond to the prompts you were given?

And then the idea was interesting, this ‘welcome to nowhere’. That for me translated into a moment of transition between one place and the next, hence the play I wrote. I came up with the idea of this transition fairly quickly. I thought that was a nice place to start because it’s got a little bit of tension in the situation. But then it took me a very long time to know who were these characters and how many were there and what were they waiting for. Then I tried to come at it at a kind of oblique angle, so it’s not like they’re waiting to get into military school or something: it’s something had already happened but hadn’t quite finished. They’re all waiting for that process to be over, which is the collecting of the ashes and the reunion between the three of them, and like most plays I write there’s no resolution at the end. There’s probably a possibility of resolution, but the audience has to kind of imagine.

WELCOME TO NOWHERE in rehearsal. Photo: Piper Huynh

WELCOME TO NOWHERE in rehearsal. Photo: Piper Huynh

Another trend between a lot of your plays is there’s always an excerpt of a poem at the beginning, could you give us some insight into how that began?

A lot of writers do that. You find it at the start of a lot of books. I’ve always looked to poetry as a stimulation and inspiration and to find clues, to find ideas. When I came up with the notion of the play, I revisited a whole lot of favourite things of mine that I thought were somehow connected with that feeling that I was having. Because when I imagine a play, the first thing that happens is I feel an emotional landscape. It’s just a general feeling of what emotional and intellectual ground it will cover, like imagining a piece of music. Then I have a look around, at people I’ve read a lot, and see if there’s something that will stimulate or that somehow connects to that feeling, that may help me then think further or develop further that idea. And also for people working on the play: it’s kind of a little invitation.

So with your playlet Ash for Welcome to Nowhere, there are these preoccupations with family and loss and grief, so how did you arrive at those themes?

They’re not necessarily conscious. Once I understood that the play was about some kind of transition, then the situation was – ‘Okay it’s a room and there are people waiting in it. Who are the people? I don’t know, a man and a woman. Who are they? I’ve got no idea. What are they saying? They’re waiting for the third person’ – I try not to decide anything beforehand. I don’t say before I start writing ‘This will be about a brother and a sister and another brother, and they’ve been separated’ – I don’t do that.

I have a blank sheet of paper, and then I wait until I can hear somebody. I sit there and I wait until I hear somebody say: “Do you think he’ll come?”, so I write that down. I just know this is what’s being said and it’s making sense to me. This feels like it has a rhythm and it’s leading somewhere and its actually progressing. Then after a page or ten pages or something at some point, I have a sense of ‘Oh okay it’s a brother and a sister and they’re waiting for the other brother’, that’s what it’ll be. So I go back to the start, now knowing this. But I’ve got there by writing.

Once I’ve done that, then I know who they are, and then I’ll start the real work, which is to construct the play. Instinct is the first thing, but intellect is the second thing to use, to then shape that into something that works, that has the right cadence, that makes sense, that has an emotional logic, that contains ideas. That’s the second part of the work.

Then if I end up writing about families? – Well 90% of the world’s drama is about family one way or the other. They make great plays. Families are full of departures and homecomings, which are great dramatic things, so I’m lead to it instinctively.

Playwrights Angus Cerini, Daniel Keene and Morgan Rose, photo: Piper Huynh

Playwrights Angus Cerini, Daniel Keene and Morgan Rose, photo: Piper Huynh

What kind of advice would you give to students like us making this transition in to the world of theatre?

I’m not anyone to ask advice about that.

I think that what everybody needs to do if they want to work in the theatre is learn how to be theatre makers. Learn everything you can learn about the theatre – how do you do lights? How do you build sets? What does design mean? How does sound work in the theatre? – All of that, even if you just want to be an actor. It’s really important to understand how all those things work, and how they cohere.

Find your cohort. Find the people you’re going to work with. Begin to find them now, when you’re a student, because no piece of theatre is made by one person. It’s always made by a group of people. I think the most important thing you can do is find your allies, find your cohort, find the people you want to work with. It’s a matter of elective affinities; find the people you’re drawn to and that you want to help create theatre with. If you can do that, then you’ll have somewhere, once you leave this place you’ll have a context you’ve made for yourself. To finish a course that’s to do with theatre and then to go out into the world just as a single person, I think is really difficult. It’s not possible. I think it’s better to begin now to imagine the sort of work you want to make and whom you want to make it with, because that’s how theatre is made.

Welcome to Nowhere runs Sept 24-Oct 3rd at the Coopers Malthouse.

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creativity, My own plays, Theatre, writing

on beginnings, honey, sweat, venetian blinds and ali g

I am in the midst of re-writes for two scripts with two more on hold. In this moment where every document I open screams for completion, patience and courage, I’ve been thinking about the beginnings of plays: those moments when a character walks onto the page and moves in to your life.

I don’t write about my own work too often (although this blog is full of arts writing so personal that the whole exercise may be termed narcissism) but today I want to talk about the beginnings of some of my plays. I thought about asking other writers to contribute but, in the end, I decided to go full narcissist. There is a romance to beginnings and these memories I treasure. In this moment when four of my babies are paused, caught in indecision and fear, I want to return to these memories and recall the joy of falling in love.

Unicorn, begun December 9th, 2010

I was living on the second story of an apartment block where only trees could peer in my window. Because of this I often forgot to lower the blinds. One day I remembered midway through getting changed, but when I tried to close it, the venetian broke, as they seem designed to do. I managed to fix it and the blind slowly jerked down. I imagined what the trees were seeing: my naked body slowly disappearing in a series of jolting moments. Suddenly it wasn’t the trees that were my witness, it was a boy named Kit. The greenery became tropical, the atmosphere sweaty and then I was gone too. Instead of me it was a nameless woman, fifteen years his senior and he watched her with religious devotion. I wrote this:

“By night, she seemed to glow. In that city of sunburn, she was the whitest person I had ever seen and this was part of her mystique: how she managed to avoid the crumbling and peeling of skin which we all suffered six months of the year. She did not seem to tan or burn but she did grow a fine mist of freckles across her face in the time I watched. A token gesture of her initiation into the community; a traveler coming to rest. … Her blind was problematic, to say the least, so each night she disappeared in a series of sudden jolts.  Bang: the top of her head disappeared, cutting off the left eye. Bang: with an irritated tug she would correct the slant and the right side would catch up, both eyes out of the picture. Bang: my television screen was limited to the neck down. Bang: navel. The last I would see was a slither of milky thighs before this too blinked out. The mass has ended. Peace be with you.”

Kit and his neighbour became a short story and then a novel but, having never written a novel, I eventually gave up on the idea but not on Kit. He became the boy in the midst of the Vietnam War who decided that men were all doomed and became a woman. The milky neighbour and his voyeurism were cut but it was in the writing of this scene and the jerks of that blind that I came to understand Kit: always outside the window looking in, seeing the poetry in everyone else’s body and feeling the chemistry in his own.

A self-portrait in that room.

A self-portrait in that room.

I spent years on Unicorn and it was never staged. But I never tried very hard. I owe a lot to this text. I learnt a lot and loved a lot. The text is steeped in death and the notebook it is written in also contains the writing I did at the bedside of my dying grandmother. The deaths, fictional and real, laced together. Something I initially wrote for my grandmother’s found its way into the play when I cut it from her eulogy.

ALBA: I was thinking how – When you die and when you love your family as much as our dads loved us – how dying must be like – like you were reading this really amazing book and – like – you were really into the story and you knew all the characters as well as you knew yourself and then someone came along and tore out the ending. Like, you know these characters – the people you love – are going to go on and on but you’ll never read it. And I was thinking if I were to die, that’d be the thing I’d be most sad about. Not knowing how they end.

Silence.

KIT: If your dad could hear you now – what ending would you tell him?

ALBA: I don’t know. I haven’t got to the end yet, have I?

Yours The Face, begun January 1st, 2013

Emmy and I met on a train, passing through snow-covered English paddocks.

My grandmother had just died and I was in England staying with my sister and her family. I was finishing Unicorn when a photographer I greatly admire proposed I write a text that he project images over. I had to turn down the offer but the idea of writing about the creation of photos stuck with me.

“I work hard to make my letters all fancy and shit. I write ‘Nan I am England.’ And I have to go back and put a little arrow and add ‘in’ and that pisses me off. ‘I am in England and I’m working hard and every other person speaks a different language but they all seem to get each other like as if they’re all speak the same.’”

“I work hard to make my letters all fancy and shit. I write ‘Nan I am England.’ And I have to go back and put a little arrow and add ‘in’ and that pisses me off. ‘I am in England and I’m working hard and every other person speaks a different language but they all seem to get each other like as if they’re all speak the same.’”

Emmy came to me on the train and, since I could not write to my own grandmother, I wrote a postcard to hers.

To find Emmy’s voice and differentiate her from the other character, Peter, I initially tried to write her phonetically. It was a disaster and Raimondo Cortese told me she was sounding like Ali G but those embarrassing attempts did help me find her.

I found her a long time before Peter, who now almost dominates the play. He is charismatic and an over-talker but I find it very touching and poignant that she came first for, despite his bluster and her perceived passivity, she is powerful one. She survives everything thrown at her.

Blessed, begun January 28th, 2013

I was in Adelaide housesitting and two playwright friends, Cat and Sharon, had roadtripped over to hold an impromptu writing retreat in my parent’s house. Think of an Adelaide summer. Think of the dogs lying under the table, stretched as long as they can stretch so as to press their bodies against the tiles. Outside the grape leaves wilt. Inside I play a song by Elbow, Jesus is a Rochdale Girl, and then set a timer for fifteen minutes. That’s how long we have to write a response.

MAGGIE: This place stinks. GREY: It’s you’re ciggie. MAGGIE: Not even. It stinks through the smoke. That’s one hell of a smell you got goin on here, you know that? GREY: Do now. MAGGIE: Should empty your bins. GREY: I will. MAGGIE: Should clean your teeth. GREY: Okay. MAGGIE: Should get some shit from the supermarket, pour it down the fuckin drain and just run the taps full blast day and night for a week. That’s what you should do. GREY: Fine. MAGGIE: And that’s not me bein some neat freak, tight cunt, highly strung whatever. That’s just basic fuckin hygiene, that is. Dunno how you live like this.

MAGGIE: This place stinks.
GREY: It’s you’re ciggie.
MAGGIE: Not even. It stinks through the smoke. That’s one hell of a smell you got goin on here, you know that?
GREY: Do now.
MAGGIE: Should empty your bins.
GREY: I will.
MAGGIE: Should clean your teeth.
GREY: Okay.
MAGGIE: Should get some shit from the supermarket, pour it down the fuckin drain and just run the taps full blast day and night for a week. That’s what you should do.
GREY: Fine.
MAGGIE: And that’s not me bein some neat freak, tight cunt, highly strung whatever. That’s just basic fuckin hygiene, that is. Dunno how you live like this.

At the top of the page I write the lyrics: “I celebrate and mourn… Jesus is a Rochdale Girl… Got a house that you can smoke in.” Beneath it I write the first five pages of Blessed. The characters are labelled ‘A’ and ‘B’ but by the end of the day they have names and a completed first scene. Today, many drafts later, that scene is almost identical to the one I wrote that first day.

Other parts of Blessed I sweated over. The structure was so, so difficult. I remember telling Bridget Mackey that it was the hardest thing I’d ever written and she told me I said that every time. Sometimes it feels like a play grants you a win. This first day was that win. Blessed seemed to be telling me “I’ll give you this one. I’ll pour this one out like honey because you need a win now and you will need a win in the future. When you are utterly confused, re-read what I’ve given you and remember that we’ll get there.

I remember hearing once from a novelist who believed that if, on your first day of writing you don’t write fifteen pages then you probably aren’t inspired enough to write that novel. I don’t believe that. I’ve spoken here for three relatively pain-free beginnings. They were pain-free because they all began with a character whose clear voice made itself known to me. Those that begin with a concept are harder to start and usually I have to come at them sideways.

For WILDS, I carefully read the book it was inspired by and after each chapter I made myself write a scene or monologue as a response. I feel like I sort of tricked myself into writing these. I told myself they were just ‘moment’, just me processing what I’d read with no pressure to actually write something usable. By the end of the book I had 27 moments of theatre, many crap but some exciting. Some that revealed to me who and what I was dealing with.

I haven’t had one of those honey days in a while. It’s been sweat days for months and that’s okay. I’ll fight it out. Because there are things I want to say and I know I’ll find a way to tell them eventually. Some days it is nice to remember that not every page is a hard one. That plays want to be written and will sometimes help you along.

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conversation, interview, Theatre, writing

in conversation: cat commander on collaboration, questioning yourself and australianess

Cat Commander is a beautiful playwright and actor. Her upcoming show, YOU TOOK THE STARS, will mark the first time that she has been the writer rather than the writer/performer/producer/everything else. It is a massive step for us as playwrights, when we first place our words into the mouths and hearts of others. Cat and I sat down over liquorice tea to talk about this new stage in her life and career.

cat-pilot

The first image that comes up when you google search ‘Cat Commander’

Fleur: Turning on the recorder. They are informal. The one I just typed up ends with “I’ve got to go because I need to eat some chips” so don’t feel that it’s like “NOW WE ARE TALKING!”

Cat: Okay. Okay.

Fleur: So tell me, Cat, what have you been thinking about this week?

Cat: The new sensation of what it’s like to be the playwright who is not onstage. I’ve done my job. I don’t have to do anything else. I feel like I could have done with a distraction this week to keep my mind off the fact that I don’t have anything to do.

Going into rehearsals today, I added an extra line. Maybe I did it because I felt like I needed to be involved. I also think the line needs to be there but I wonder if it was a bit of me going “argh! I don’t have anything to do and I feel a bit left out!”

Fleur: Are you loving that though?

Cat: Yeah! That’s good too! Part of me is going “oh you’re going to really miss it when you see it onstage and the people are applauding” but part of me is also going to love standing at the back every night.

Although there’s nowhere to hide! In rehearsal today, Kasha (Kaczmarek) delivered one of the monologues to me. It was this surreal out of body experience of going “I wrote that!” But it is also something I would say! So somebody has taken shit that I’ve said and is saying it back to me but making it make sense for their own brain! Kasha and John (Shearman) are such good actors. Even though I know what’s happening, I’m surprised by the way they make it real for themselves.

Fleur: Do you find your nerves different – you haven’t got to opening night – but are you actor nerves different to your writer nerves?

Cat: I actually feel pretty secure about this play because the bit that I enjoyed doing, the writing, I’ve finished. If it had gone on at first to third draft I think I’d still be panicking. “Fuck! I don’t know what this play is about!” But there was a massive jump between the third draft and the fifth or sixth or whatever this one is. I’ve figured out why I’m writing this and why I think people should see it and why I feel like it is worth of actors putting their time into. I think that is the thing I’m asking myself constantly about theatre: Why should people see it? Why should they pay to see it? Why ask actors to give up their time? I know what it’s like. I don’t want to give an actor a piece of work that’s not worthy of their time and energy.

Fleur: I’ve always thought that about your writing: what a delight it is for actors. I feel that comes from you knowing what feels good and hard to experience on stage but I hadn’t thought about it as also being this sensitivity to of what it’s like to invest months of time in words when you don’t know why you’re saying them.

Cat: I’ve thought a lot about it recently. I guess there is so much debate going on around theatre in Melbourne. So much of what gets up in Australia is largely irrelevant to us. It is overseas writing.

YOU TOOK THE STARS, promo image by Ben Prendegast featuring John Shearman and Kasha Kaczmarek

YOU TOOK THE STARS, promo image by Ben Prendegast featuring John Shearman and Kasha Kaczmarek

I was just in the States and I had someone ask me – and he was so curious and excited – asking me “what sort of theatre do you put on in Australia? What kind of plays?” And I was like “well… a lot of your plays. A lot of American plays.” And he was so genuinely shocked. “Why would you do that? Why wouldn’t you put Australian plays on?” That’s the question I keep asking myself. I’m really interested in American writing but I want audiences to experience our life on stage. I want actors to act without the falsification of using an accent. It is such a barrier to actually creating something beautiful, actors worrying whether they are getting their accent right. Or you are seeing an actor struggle with a text that’s clearly not meant to be spoken in this languid Australian accent.

Fleur: I ask those questions much more of independent companies, I must say. Why aren’t you producing local writing? It pisses me off when I see independent companies staging another production of LaBute. Look around you!

I’m sure that’s partly my ego as a local writer going “there are amazing writers here! Look! Right in front of you, fuckers! Why are you trying to make work that feels like mainstage? Why are you not digging your hands into the earth of Melbourne and pulling something out?”

Cat: But isn’t it interesting that we have this perception that it’s the funded theatre companies’ prerogative to put on overseas work and it is us, the struggling battlers that have got to put on and support our own stuff. Wouldn’t it be interesting if we lived in a world where amateur companies were going “let’s have a go at some overseas stuff” and it was the flagship companies were going “find me a new work! Let’s pump money into a writer.”

Fleur: Oh I absolutely don’t think it is the mainstage’s prerogative to produce all the overseas work! I would fucking love if one of them went “do you know what? This is our season of new Australian work.” I guess I just want independent artists to be trusting and supporting each other.

Cat: It is just a shame that we don’t have the population or the interest to support a wider range of programming from both mainstage and independent companies.

What I would really like is to have time and support to make sure it’s right before it goes on stage. To know what right feels like. I think that’s what I’ve been trying to figure out.

I think if Melbourne could do with any more theatre it would be really meaty Australian work that up there with the dramatic structure of what’s being produced on the world stage. I don’t think conventional theatre is dead. I don’t think we’re ever going to want to stop seeing two people talking to each other; being outside of it yet still part of it. You are because you’re a meter or two meters or ten meters away.

I’m learning to think more thematically. To go “if I could sum this play up in a word or sentence, what would it be? What is it really about?” It’s not about two people talking to each other. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about people dealing with anxiety and trying to make love exist in the world where love seems so fucking impossible.

Last week I was thinking about myself the way an actor might think about a playwright. If I were the actor doing this play, I would google the playwright and I would find out what had been happening in the playwright’s life. That made me think.

I lost a friend last year and that sent me into a spiral of existential l doubt and questioning stuff. That made me go “oh, the word ‘death’ comes up a lot in this play.” It is clearly about a fear of dying and love is kind of all about a fear of dying. We’ve gotta make meaning out of this weird existence of ours otherwise why are we here?

Fleur: Oh dear. I’m just imagining my actors trying to google me to figure out what made me write The City They Burned. “Well she got naked a lot then got angry at God. Hmm.” That wouldn’t work. But I keep having these conversations with audience members who are asking just that. Where did this come from?

Cat: Yeah, I’m interested to have those conversations because I’ve never had them. I’ve never had that objective conversation where it’s not about “what did you thing of me? Was I doing a good job of the thing I wrote and acted and directed and did all the fucking sound cues?” Now it will be “hey, what did you think of this thing that I helped create.” I feel like I’ve been a part of something rather than an instigator of everything. It feels a bit more like what the artistic process should be like. I’m into this collaboration thing. I’d like to do more of it.

Fleur: It is an amazing feeling. It feels like such a privilege to have all these brains focus on your work with such love. I don’t think you can do new work – and indie, unpaid work – without a lot of love. Theatre is too hard to make without love. You make it with people you are in love with.

Cat: I think there should be ferocious debate and I think you should have intellectual respect for each other. I don’t think it should be 100% yes.

Fleur: Oh it should be hard! Hard isn’t a bad thing. But find those people who challenge that challenge you because they want it to be good. They want to be part of something good and they know you can be good.

Cat: The thing that I like about indie theatre is that part of the process is me cycling to South Bank on a Saturday morning to pick up some monkey ears from an old friend. “You’re a drag queen! You know how to sew! Why don’t you make me some monkey ears?” And there are probably lots of people who could have done that but, again, I want to be working with people I like. And people who make them regardless of the fact that I don’t reply to emails because I’m totally strung out and have no idea what’s going on right now.

That’s why I can’t do Tinder. People go, “you’re a writer, you should be really good at that!” No! I’m good at writing both the voices! When I don’t know what the other person is going to say I’m like “No! No! I don’t want to be a part of this!” You’re expecting me to give you the part of my brain that I’m using for the thing I care about! Anyway. That’s the next play, clearly. How much I don’t care about relationships. You Took The Stars is a play about how I’m really interested in them and now it is like “I’m completely disinterested because I am burnt the fuck out.”

Fleur: Well that’s a way to end it:

But, you’re fucking excited! You’re about to have your play open! How does it feel?

Cat: I’m over the moon. I couldn’t be happier.

Fleur: Congratulations. That’s really special.

Cat, Kasha, Matt Furlani and John, photographed by Ben Prendegast

Cat, Kasha, Matt Furlani and John, photographed by Ben Prendegast

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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.

stoningmary

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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creativity, Theatre, writing

against inspiration

Programming note: Many thanks to Cat Commander, Emilie Collyer and Wahibe Moussa for contributing their beautiful words and wisdom to them. Deepest thanks also to Katherine Coppock who has once again provided her beautiful illustrations for this post. Her work can be found here. 

I have this conversation quite often:

Me: How is the writing coming along?

Them: Great! Slowly! I can only write when I’m inspired.

Me: Fuck that.

I think ‘inspiration’ is a really dangerous word for writers and waiting for it is why projects don’t get finished. Now I say this as a master procrastinator. How many plays have never come into existence because I was too busy crying over orchestral flashmobs on youtube? I couldn’t begin to guess. But waiting for inspiration is the perfect way to stretch timelines into a comfortable eternity. The fact is that writing takes practice. Rather than waiting for the perfect story to unfold, to drizzle from your fingers like honey and run smooth across your page, settle for putting something on the page. I am all for forced creativity. Of course I’ve had those Inspiration Days. They are the most beautiful and delicious of things but also I have written some of my best work on days when every moment was agony; when I have paced, ranted into my phone, dug my fingernails into my palm, completely doubted my own intelligence and somehow sweated my way through to something beautiful.

Sometimes I think that artists need to borrow from athletes and approach our practice as something we must exercise and keep in shape. The Big Game isn’t everyday but we must be flexing those muscles on a daily basis. So today I bring you some tips for the 39 out of 40 days when creativity isn’t on your side.

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Katherine Coppock, ‘All the things’

1. Warm-up.

I tell myself that the first twenty minutes of writing will be utter bollocks. It helps. You don’t judge; you just get words out. Use language casually without striving for greatness. Just get them on the page. Give yourself permission to write page after page that you never want anyone to see and have no desire to read back to yourself. Push through until something sparks.

Often my warm-up isn’t about trying to write a scene because that will only frustrate me. Instead, I set myself challenges. Here are a couple of them.

  •  Writing from a song.

Pick a song. Listen and, without thinking too hard, begin to writing from the ideas it sparks. Set your alarm for three minutes from the end of the song. I fucking love writing with an alarm on because it absolutely outlaws over-thinking. I’d suggest doing this with three songs in a row. After the last song, give yourself a further fifteen minutes to write from whichever one got you most excited. You could also use photos or random lines from books or plays instead of music but I like the way songs give you some thinking time.

  • ‘Like a something.’

I stole this from a Jenny Kemp workshop. I really enjoy it for when I’m stuck on a particular scene or character. It is a bit like brainstorming on a particular topic. All sentences begin with ‘like’ and it is simply about describing around an idea or character. If I am writing on a character I might begin with comparing them to an animal and then describing what that animal is like. At the bottom of this entry I’ve included one I did on loneliness last year.

2. Create deadlines.

I don’t mean just telling yourself to do something by a certain date: there has to be some repercussions for not finishing it and the best repercussion is public shame. Yes, I’m all for shaming myself into productivity. Call up some friends and invite them to come around next week and read something that doesn’t exist yet. Knowing that you will have expectant people sitting in your living room, staring at you over cups of tea is a wonderful incentive.

 

Now these are conversations that I am constantly having with fellow writers. When Cat Commander proof-read for me (and thank you, Cat!) she wrote back that so much of her working out takes place in her head rather than on the page but she is constantly turning over new ideas and approaches. “My trick to get things going is to think of someone that I might be having difficulties communicating with and to write down the thing I would least like to say to their face. Voila. There’s an interesting scene.” Charging headfirst into what makes you uncomfortable is an outstanding way to find something truly gritty; something that burns the tongue, leaves the eyes watering and the stomach turned.

I asked fellow playwrights, Wahibe Moussa and Emilie Collyer for their tips for combating the difficult days. Here are their beautiful responses.

 

Emilie Collyer

1. Set a word, page or time deadline


On days it is like sludge, I do 500 words when working on prose or one scene or section if it’s theatre and a block of one hour if all I can manage is to scrape my way through a few half finished pieces.

2. Trick yourself


I’m not working, just going to look at what I wrote last week and have another document open at the same time to jot down any notes, fixes, new ideas, it’s not work, just active reminiscing.

3. Sneak in sideways


I always have at least 2-3 things I’m working on that are different stages. Just open each one and have a look and add one little bit – the act of opening a document and entering it often gets me moving again.

4. Don’t be afraid to make chucking bad stuff part of your work


Look at a story or piece of writing you’ve been unsure about and be bold enough to say ‘yep, that is shit. It didn’t work and it’s never going to work. I’m going to add it to my compost folder and start something new in celebration.’ The old one out, one in philosophy.

5. Don’t be afraid to look at the shiny bits


Even on bad days there is probably one piece of your own writing you don’t hate or even quite like. Read it. Say it aloud. Move around and remember what it feels like when you kind of nearly get it right. Remember you don’t have to do that TODAY but every little piece of bad writing or hard writing leads to the shiny moments which invariably come out of the fucking blue – and hey today might be the day.

 

Wahibe Moussa:

A biggie for me is when I think I know a character or an aspect of the story too well, but on examination, I realise I only know one element really well. My mind seems to be stuck on it like a broken record. So I start a dialogue with this point of resistance.

Start a list headed with the character’s name (or scene title) eg Tom is … Then list everything you know. Allow that to digress into every personality trait you can think of. I don’t usually time myself, but you can if you need to. Then I draw up a second list, headed Tom Knows … This being the things Tom knows that I never in a million years suspected.

Once I’ve exhausted all possibilities I take a 10 minute break – no more or you may never get back into it – and read and re-read the list taking note of the descriptions that give that resonant ‘ping’. Choose whatever strikes you out of the lists and use it for the next writing riff: 10 minutes for each description, don’t think, just write. Then repeat the rest and read process. Choose a sentence that really ‘pings’ your Writer’s muscle and use it to enter into the next scene. When you finish with one, come back to the descriptions and repeat the process. You can make as many lists as you like – what Tom knows about Alice… What Tom likes… What Alice hates about Tom… Etc. I find myself coming back to these lists again and again whenever I get stuck about a character and something new always emerges.

 

Me again. Hi:

Just remember that writing isn’t easy. That’s not because you are bad at it, it is because you are doing something incredibly difficult and that is fantastic. Don’t make the mistake of equating struggle with failure. Pushing through pushes through. Work with sweat and swearing. Bite down and snarl your way from word to stinking word. You are dragging something into being that has never been before. That is remarkable and it is hard. Really, really hard. But don’t wait for inspiration to find you. Hunt that fucker down.

 

Now for my example of a warm-up exercise. I wrote this in 2013 when working on yours the face. This is an abridged version as these things can go for for pages.

Like loneliness:

Like the sensation of hollowness in the centre of your chest. Like there is a cavity inside your ribs and your lungs and your heart and your organs are not large enough to fill it.

Like not quite knowing how to move your arms. Like looking down at your hands and thinking them alien.

Like holding another person’s hand in a crowded city and feeling a chasm open up between you.

‘There’s a hole in my neighbourhood down which of late I can’t help but fall.’

Like sitting on a tiny desert island – one cartoonish palm tree – watching the ships sail past and having nothing to flag them down with. Soon you stop trying.

Like cooking for one. Like not bothering to eat it.

Like tumbleweed.

Like a dull mechanical hum.

Like muffled voices receding. Muffled laughs laughing.

Like not getting the joke.

Like the iron curtain.

Like ringing silence.

Like a tortoise. Like a sloth. Like being left behind.

Like not having learnt your lines. Not preparing the speech.

Like the colour grey.

Like distance.

Like the Australian landscape. Like naming a town Nhill. Or Wail. And placing it in the middle of flat nothing.

Like cutting down trees.

Like not coming whilst masturbating.

Like taking valium. Like the world going soft.

Like procrastination.

Like not screaming. Like deliberately not screaming.

Like not being met at the airport.

Like trying to merge on a freeway. Like no one letting you in.

Like puberty.

Like having sex with a stranger you have known for ten years.

Like being the only one who doesn’t know the words to a song. To a big, big fucking famous song. Like everyone is standing up to sing it and – oh God! There are actions.

Like hiding. Trying to camouflage into the couch. Melt into the clothesline. Disappear behind the shopping trolley.

Like standing in the middle of London, not recognizing a single street name.

Like forgetting how to read. Forgetting a face.

Like reaching. Like striving. Like grasping. Like failing.

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Katherine Coppock, 2014 ‘Like reaching. Like striving. Like grasping. Like failing.’

 

Thank you to all of your for your beautiful contributions to this post.

Emilie Collyer’s work can be found here.

Cat Commander tweets under the twitter handle @miss_commander

Wahibe Moussa tweets under the twitter handle @wtmoumou

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Dramaturgical Analysis, Theatre

on dramaturgy, the new, the inexpressible and the now

For this post I’ll be wearing my dramaturge hat. It is rather fetching and involves feathers.

This year I am doing lists. I have a list of plays I’ve read, shows I’ve seen, shows I’ve worked on, applications I’ve put in, blogs I’ve written, days I’ve spent in the rehearsal room (not enough), books I’ve read, times I’ve cried, times I’ve seen the doctor, times I’ve eaten ice-cream, times I’ve had sex, times I’ve slept without chemical assistance. Look, we’re only three months in but so far the message I’m getting from these lists is I spend more time on theatre than anything else. As of today I’ve seen twenty-seven shows this year and by the end of the week I will be up to thirty-one.

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The Hayloft Project’s ‘Arden v Arden’ in rehearsal. Photo: Sarah Walker

I’ve written before about how I try to go into every show as the most excited person in the room and how I try to find something in every show that I could not have done myself. I love loving theatre and this carries over into my approach to reading and assessing scripts. Before picking up a new script I take a moment to get excited. Sometimes it takes work. When you’ve already read four scripts that day, it is a case of deliberately re-setting to ensure that the playwright isn’t going to be disadvantaged by the fact that you picked up their script at 4.30pm. I aim to approach every new script with the same passion, enthusiasm and intellectual vigour I bring into the theatre. I try to look at scripts free of personal taste or my own stylistic preferences.

As part of an application last week I had to write the three key things I look for when assessing new scripts. Because I’m time-poor right now (teching three shows at MICF in the next two days), I thought I’d share that section of my application with y’all. This is by no means a definitive list but these are the three things that were on my mind last week. I’d be delighted to hear your thoughts on what you look for in a script.

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MKA’s development of Izzy Roberts-Orr’s ‘Twins’. Photo: Sarah Walker

  1. I look for originality in both form and content. Last year there was one day on which I seemed to read the same story again and again. It was the story of adult children returning home to care for a sick or dying parent. So many playwrights have told this story over the years because it is something that will happen to almost every family. I think it is particularly heartfelt story in Australia because so many of us move away from our hometown but age and death draws us all back in the end. I understand why it bears telling again and so I looked for the originality in the form: what made this universal story intimate and precious. What sets it apart from every other telling. I love finding a play that addresses an issue from an angle that would never have occurred to me. I love being surprised. Provided the playwright is surprising me in with either content or form I am a happy camper.
  1. I look to see that the playwright understands their medium. I want to see why this story should be staged rather than read and I want to see that the playwright has left room for staging and the actor’s voice within their script; that there is theatrical imagery, a good understanding of dialogue and even a sense that the play is incomplete in this form. I’ve found that often the scripts that read the best on the page are a bit dull on stage because space wasn’t left for the director’s imagination. I think it should feel a little wrong as text because that is not the way the playwright intended their work to be experienced. This is something that can only be understood by someone who truly understands the medium they are writing for. Likewise, theatrical dialogue is a skill only acquired by those immersed in theatre. So I look for a sense of theatre, of imagery, of the actor’s voice, of space for collaboration and that the script wants more from me.
  1. I want it to feel of this moment in time. This does not mean that I am biased against plays set twenty, thirty or one hundred years ago but I do want the writer to understand where theatre is at right now. There are plays written hundreds of years ago that still speak to us today and plays written five years ago that feel like their moment has passed. This is a dangerous sentiment because it can cross into the realms of personal taste but I try to look for scripts that would speak to a contemporary audience, both stylistically and thematically.

So they are my three points (at the moment). I’d love to hear your thoughts on what you look for when read scripts either as a director, dramaturge, actor or designer. Maybe one day I’ll write a similar post wearing my director hat.

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A rehearsed reading of ‘Under Milk Wood’ at Pony Fish Island, 2011. Photo: Sarah Walker

I always finish writing something like this and go ‘how the fuck can I find photos for this? Then I wander around Sarah’s site and wonder why I bother with words. Her photos can be found and should be stalked here. 

Thank you to Jem Splitter and David Lamb for proof-reading. 

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