Is a Playwright’s Utopia possible?

What does a Playwright’s Utopia look like?
That was the provocation for an industry forum held as part of Playwriting Australia’s (PWA) National Play Festival 2015. Taking place at the Adelaide Festival Centre last week (Weds 22-Sat 25 July), many of Australia’s leading playwrights, dramaturges and directors and many emerging writers gathered to ponder this – an idealism that perhaps did not stack up against the reality of looming funding cuts. The forum’s participants were selected from expressions of interest, so many already had something to say. Over the two morning sessions the usual gripes and concerns were aired, but there was also a collective sense of purpose. And the message seemed to be that it was up to artists and arts organisations to demonstrate first and foremost to the Australian public, their audiences, the relevance and importance of theatre to our social, cultural and imaginative lives.
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The Australian Writers Guild (AWG) was also there consulting with playwrights on guidelines for best practice for professional work. Given the number of writers in the room the development of this work-in-progress was rigorous and intense and we can only hope the final draft will be embraced by the theatre industry.
The Equity Diversity Committee (EDC), part of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, presented another shot at creating a utopia. Writers were encouraged to sign a Diversity Pledge. This could be inserted alongside character descriptions in the script and would encourage the diverse casting of roles.
In addition, various topics were raised that ranged from proper payment for playwrights, new models for engagement with communities, independent versus main stage writing, to the privileging of auteur or director-led productions over new writing. Many of these topics are a constant whenever playwrights congregate but it is important to keep these discussions alive. Nonetheless, as pointed out from time to time, it will be incumbent on playwrights to speak up for themselves if they want more opportunities for productions of their work.
As much as this point may be true, in the current climate where fear of exclusion is the main driver of behaviour, many will stay silent. This is reflected in the recent concerns that many of the major performing arts companies did not speak out in favour of smaller companies and independent artists when George Brandis, the Minister for the Arts pulled over one billion dollars from the Australia Council for the Arts and transferred it to the new National Program for Excellence in the Arts, the NPEA. The muted leadership from those in a position of strength, led some to ask how can less powerful voices be expected to take up the slack?
Many of these concerns and dilemmas were beautifully encapsulated in the keynote address for the Festival given by Joanna Murray-Smith, one of Australia’s most prolific and produced writers. Murray-Smith poignantly revealed her vulnerabilities in this precarious profession through the personal story of her struggle with the loss of her mother, a champion of her work and a woman of immense integrity. She described her love affair with the writing life and how at the centre of it she placed the audience. An essential player in this drama that writers rarely talk about, Murray-Smith described the audience as an ‘amorphous, sometimes frustrating, occasionally disappointing and often inspiring lover’. This brought her onto not the banalities of a writing life, a topic often discussed in the forum, but its philosophy, and it obligations. She asked ‘What is my greater responsibility to the world I write for?’
Murray-Smith asserts that her intention is a radical one, but at the same time she is bored by overt political plays that trumpet an ideology in crass unimaginative ways. For her, the best writing is that which ‘channels up from the dark, that defeats our less interesting strategies. Our hearts are more interesting than our heads.’
Many in the audience for her address, who had spent the day grappling with a Utopian vision for playwrights, may have agreed with her sentiments. But it would have been bitter sweet as many they do not have the opportunity to even show their work to an audience, and what little chance there is, is under attack. Perhaps sensitive to the trials of most writers for theatre, Murray-Smith did call on them to have courage, not only in their writing, but also in ‘writing in the face of all oppositions’. More importantly, as many in the arts are wondering when and where the axe will fall, she stated that pragmatism is not art and that ‘courage comes also in saying what is important out loud, at the cost of something. Because the cost of silence is a greater cost.’
At the Festival there were many thinkers, academics, and bureaucrats alongside arts workers. The collective experience and intellect in the room was immense.
Whether Playwriting Australia’s Industry Forum, the AWG’s Best Practice Guidelines, the Equity Diversity Pledge or even Murray-Smith telling us how it is, will be provocations to action for some or all of them still remains to be seen.
In her closing remarks Murray-Smith asked artists to be open about their love for their audience, society and the wider world. And perhaps more importantly she recognised that ‘When artists stand up to be counted, we do so not from negativity or dogmatism, but from a profound engagement with our world and how it works, a connection to justice, and an unshakeable interest in humanity.’
That sentiment sums up the relevance of arts to us right now, and should inform any Utopia playwrights hope or strive for in these confronting times.

Drafted!

After the final workshop on Tuesday 14th April for The Orchae I’ve completed the next draft. I’ve even begun sending it out into the world (see below for synopsis)!
I invited Ray Omodei to attend the reading, as he had been informally involved in the early stages of the play’s development, and was unable to attend the Stage 2 reading.
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During this workshop nothing really major was highlighted, which I took as validation of the whole process and they way we had collectively interrogated the script. This doesn’t mean further changes are unnecessary if it goes into production, but it seems that the script is in a pretty good shape.
One thing I didn’t achieve was a new title for the play. As much as I like The Orchae (a play on words with The Bacchae and Orchid) I don’t think is a very easy word to read/say. As Ray said, imagine a member of the public trying to book a ticket over the phone – how would they feel trying to say it?:-) If anyone has ideas please let me know!
I expect I’ll continue to do minor edits but I’m happy with this draft at the moment.
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A short synopsis is here, FYI:
“The future: in a conservation area in the West Australian bush, five years into the future, Jim launches the book on Orchids begun by his wife, Jasmine, before her tragic death. As he reads a poem dedicated to her, time and place slip into memory and imagination…
The present: Jasmine prepares to leave for a field survey. Jim comes home from work, bringing with him an unusual perfume…
Jasmine is looking for the elusive Western Underground Orchid. This plant grows and flowers hidden below the ground and is critically endangered. It is found in only two locations in the world, one of them on Shane Baxter’s farm near the Western Australian wheat belt town of Merredin.
Shane Baxter, a wheat farmer, tries to clear his debts by taking in farm stay guests. His son, Will, returns home from his fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) job at a mine site, hiding addictions, secrets and resentment. He is appalled by his father’s attempts to earn extra income in this way, and by his refusal to clear more land. Will objects to the idea of saving the Western Underground Orchid if it doesn’t help the farm to survive. Taking matters into his own hands, he tries to scare Jasmine away, but with tragic consequences.
The past: history slips from the present to George, a Nineteenth Century plantsman struggling to stay alive without food and water in the WA outback where he is collecting plants. He was a plant collector working for Charles Fraser, the Government’s Botanist. Fraser is writing his infamous report on the soil of Western Australia; a document that hides the real problems settlers will face when they settle the new Swan River Colony in WA. Back in Kew Gardens, London, Queen Charlotte is fascinated by Kangaroos and all things Australian. But the renowned scientists, Sir Joseph Banks and Sir James Smith, find science is contested territory, affected by finance, politics and fainting women.
The future: after five years Jim finally decides to publish his wife’s book of orchid illustrations and now the book is launched. Jim is now in a new relationship with Josie, a former colleague of Jasmine’s, who wears an unusual perfume.”

The anatomy of a play’s development

When I write a play I often live with it for many years. The idea, the writing, the development, more development, the sending it out into the world and – in the best of worlds – its production on stage.

I mentioned in an earlier post The Botany Play first drafted in 2013. This has changed its name to The Orchae but I’m still not completely happy with that. Like the play, the title is a work in progress.

Over the past 18 months I received funding for dramaturgy, a reading and three workshops from Stages WA Playwrights Consortium for this play. It meant I could work with director Emily McLean and a number of fine actors: Dushinka Andressen, Tiffany Barton, Ian Bolgia, Alinta Carroll, Austin Castiglione, Peter Clark, Benj D’Addario, Greg McNeill, Sarah McNeill, Leah Mercer, Ben Mortley, Alicia Osyka, Igor Sas, Ethan Tomas and Ali Van Reeken. Not all at the same time, though:-)

I have also had some great input from John Aitken, Guy Boyce, Susannah Day, Deborah Grimberg, Brendan McCall, E. K. McFall, Ray Omodei and Marie Rodger – thank you all!

On Tuesday 24th March the first workshop for The Orchae took place. I’d been awarded 15 hours of development for this play by Stages, and decided to split this into 2 daytime workshops of 6 hours each, and an evening workshop of 3 hours. Everything taking place at the Blue Room Theatre, a wonderfully central and accessible venue.

Writing this post is  also an interesting exercise in defining the ‘anatomy’ of this play’s development: the way the whole is dissected into parts in order to understand how it all works together.

The Orchae had already had sustained support to bring it into being [I’ve written about this in previous posts, but here’s a quick summary].

The initial idea for the play had grown out of my fascination for science, in particular botany, and from research undertaken in London and Sydney. The London research took place during a Residency with The Arts Catalyst Science-Art Agency, supported by a WA Playwrights Development Initiative award in 2012. This allowed me to research at the Kew Gardens Library and the British Library. That year I also undertook self-funded research at the Sydney Botanic Gardens Library. During this research I came across some of the Australian stories featured in the play, as well as gained a greater understanding of how botany and colonialism were entwined.

Quite accidentally (in a news article) I read about a fascinating plant that is critically endangered and only found in two places in the world. Both of these are in Western Australia. The first location is outside Esperance, the second, outside Merredin. The plant is the Western Underground Orchid, Rhizanthella gardneri, that has a unique existence: it can only survive if it grows in close association with a fungus and a honey myrtle. That provided me with the foundation metaphor for the whole play – how the past, present and future are all linked, how we can only survive in partnership not in isolation. It also made me think about the way science names organisms – R. gardneri was named after Charles Gardner the WA Government Botanist in 1928 when it was first described scientifically. The way we name things as a form of recognition and ownership is a feature throughout the play.

Not long after I began my research the opportunity to apply to be a Writer-in-Residence at the Cummins Theatre in Merredin came up. I applied and thankfully I was awarded this – yey! During my time there, in Sept/Oct 2013, I wrote the first draft of The Orchae (then called The Botany Play) and had a great time talking to local people about the issues they face and getting a feel for the landscape in this area. I didn’t get to see the orchid in the bush as its location is a secret. But I saw places that were similar to where it might be found. On returning to Perth I was awarded dramaturgy through Stages in 2014 with Brendan McCall, the then artistic director of Cummins Theatre. He has been very interested in my play and had offered some comments and insights into the first and second drafts.

After the residency and the dramaturgy the script was taking shape and the characters were becoming more ‘stable’ (if you know what I mean). Sometimes characters are a means to an end for the narrative, but ultimately they will be very uninteresting people unless they have a full emotional life. The second draft built upon that. I also showed the script to a few trusted theatre friends and received some great feedback. A visit to the WA Herbarium in mid-2014 allowed me to see some specimens of the underground orchid for the first time. Although they were dried and taped onto paper, it was still amazing to see this incredible plant for real.

A Round Table Reading Stages Award in late 2014 was a great opportunity to work on structure and character. The play consists of two interweaved narratives, one contemporary and one historical. 

The contemporary story: Jasmine is an academic ecologist who partners with the Department of Parks and Wildlife on conserving orchids. She is also a botanical illustrator and is working on a ‘coffee table’ type book on the history of orchids. She is very committed to her work and does not notice her marriage to Jim is suffering. She heads off to Merredin to undertake a survey of an area of bush thought to contain the underground orchid. She has to deal with Will, the son of the wheat farmer, Shane, owns this land. Will objects to turning the land into a conservation park but Shane sees eco-tourism as a way to help clear his debts. This sets the conflict up and ultimately forces the tragedy.

The historical story: this shows how colonial botany was driven not only by an interest in the diversity of life on earth by eighteenth and nineteenth century scientists but also by an economic imperative. Renowned men such as Sir Joseph Banks and Sir James Smith were as much interested in the money they could make as in their contribution to knowledge. Social class also played a part and many of the people who made the botanical discoveries possible are largely forgotten by history, such as my character George. He tries to make his way in Australia but again this ends tragically.

Working on and building up these two main characters and narratives along with the many other characters in The Orchae was made much easier after hearing the play read, and the conversation and comments afterwards by cast and invited industry guests. It also confirmed the theatrical device I was using could potentially work well. I had invented a ‘chorus’ of sorts that I was calling the Bacchae. Their presence helped create a style for the work that made it easier for the past, present and future to blend together or transition from one time to another. When I was awarded workshop development this was one of the main questions I wanted to test ‘on the floor’ with actors and director, Emily McLean.

So that is where we are now. After the first workshop on Tuesday 24th March I realized one of the characters did not earn his place, and others need further emotional depth and ‘presence’. Also, the play’s balance of humour and drama seems to be working, but the presence of the Bacchae could be taken even further. The second 6-hour workshop on Wednesday 1st April confirmed the major changes I made after the pervious workshop were working. It also highlighted that George’s narrative through-line needed more clarity. So, I reordered and reworked some scenes to help achieve this.

The final reading on Tuesday 14th April will test this…

Reviewing Theatre

theatre masksOver the past 6 months or so, I’ve begun writing reviews of theatre here in Perth. I write for The Australia Times, an online magazine, that comes out bi-monthly.
As it is not a frequent publication, the reviews can be longer and more considered than the few hundred words allowed for more immediate reviews. The longer, later review may not be as attractive to theatre companies who see reviews as part of their PR strategy, and so want them to come out early on in the production’s run to generate bums on seats. It means that the production can be considered in a different way – not just as an expression of a particular reviewer’s taste or as an indicator of whether they recommend an audience attend it or not. The lofty aim I’m striving for is to build up a record of a production in some depth, place it in a wider context, and attempt to articulate a contemporary ‘canon’ for the theatre we see in Perth. I can’t see everything, or write about everything I see, but I hope I can make a small contribution to a bigger conversation.
I’m new at this, and maybe there are other ways of achieving it, but I’m having a go, at least. You can find my reviews posted here: Theatre Reviews

I also wrote an article about FringeWorld 2015 looking at the economic impact this has not only on businesses, but on artists, too: Forget Passion: unpaid work keeps fine festivals afloat.

Performing the Twitter Novella at #perthfest

I’ve just returned from Albany and Denmark in WA’s south west where myself and Peter Clark read the amazing Twitter Novella as part of the Great Southern Festival.
We had premiered this work on Sunday at the Perth Writers Festival and we will repeat this in Toodyay in April.
What an experience!! the twists and turns of the plot and the tugs and pulls of the narrative made this an interesting performance challenge! If you’d like to read the whole thing, it’s posted here. writingWA will be posting a YouTube of our performance soon, too. I’ll link that when it’s live.

DSC_0040I also chaired a couple of sessions at the Perth Writers Festival – The Best of Times with Peter Walker, Emily Bitto and Caitlin Maling, and Natural Observations with Annamaria Weldon, Deb Fitzpatrick and Inga Simpson. Both times it was great to hear these authors speak about their wonderful work. And the photo above was taken when I was having the best time doing a little observing of nature myself:-)

Now I’m moving on to a workshop for my play about the Western Underground Orchid. I’ve titled it several times (The Botany Play, The Orchae, etc.) but now I’m calling it Hidden. I’ll be working with director, Emily McLean, and some great actors in March. Thanks to support from Stages WA Playwrights Consortium this workshop will help me develop the script and make it rehearsal-ready – hopefully before I leave for California in May. Maybe one day soon Hidden will be produced! Yay!

Underground Orchid 2And this is a photo of the orchid (Rhizanthella gardneri) – a very rare and exceptional plant only found in WA.

Vale Carl Djerassi

It is with great sadness that I heard of the death on Friday 30th January of Carl Djerassi, aged 91.
I had the privilege of meeting him last year in Lincoln, England, and was inspired by the breadth of his knowledge and interests. During his life he contributed much to both science and art through his work and writing, and to society through his philanthropy.

His obituary is in the New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/01/us/carl-djerassi-dies-at-91-forever-altered-reproductive-practices-as-a-creator-of-the-pill.html?_r=1

I’m off to Sunny California!

DjerassiAt the end of last year I received some amazing news! I’ve been offered a place on the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in USA.
And it was in one of the most enthusiastic and welcoming invitation letters I’ve ever received:-) The opening paragraphs from Executive Director, Margot H. Knight read:

“YES. One of the pleasures of this job is saying YES to artists. You have been selected to be a resident artist at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program during the 2015 season. This is a remarkable achievement—867 artists applied for 66 residencies.
The quality, integrity and direction of your work clearly impressed our panelists.
Congratulations. Let me say it again—YES! Oh, and once more. YES!”

This will be such a wonderful opportunity to focus completely on a new play, tentatively titled ‘Subversive’ – but more of that another time. Needless to say, this play continues my fascination/obession with science in theatre and in society.
I only know that the last residency I held at the Cummins Theatre in Merredin was amazing! I truly appreciated the space and time to just write – it’s so wonderful to immerse oneself in the world of a play, and hopefully this immersion is realised through the play text as well.
Just a quick update to the ‘Botany’ play that I wrote during my Merredin residency, Stages WA Playwrights Consortium is supporting a workshop with the wonderful director, Emily McLean, and some very talented actors, to help move this text closer towards production. I changed the title to ‘The Orchae’ but I think I might change it again, as that one’s a bit obscure, perhaps. I’ll keep you posted…
Anyway – back to my research of ‘Subversive’!
And here’s to a productive and happy 2015 to you all ☺