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…

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