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 ☺

10 Years of Transcreation

Afeif and I are celebrating the Tenth Anniversary of our unique productive collaboration – transcreation this Saturday 4th October 2014.

Viv and Afeif ABC Studios

Featuring Dennis Haskell, Roderic Pitty, and David Moody we will share what we’ve achieved and what it means not only to us, but further afield. Transcreation, as we see it, isn’t just a means to bring Afeif’s words from Arabic into English, but a process of cross-cultural engagement. I hope you’ll be able to join the celebration and taste the complimentary Sudanese finger food, tea, coffee and soft drinks, as well as listen to the wonderful music of Nazik Osman & Eltayeb Hamid.

DATE: 4th October 2014
TIME: 7pm to 9:30pm
VENUE: Ethnic Communities Council’s Hall, 20 View Street, North Perth WA 6006
Books available for sale on the night.

Let’s PARTY in the ARTS….!

A life in the Arts is sustained by hope and resilience. Hope inspires me to keep putting my work out there, and resilience stops me giving up when my enthusiasm for what I do is not matched by funding and institutional willingness to support it 🙂 Audiences and readers are enthusiastic but I’m wondering if they realise what goes in to sustaining an artistic life/career. So, I thought I’d present an overview of what I have been doing since the beginning of the year to try to get my work out there, and why I think there should be a greater voice for Arts in the public conversation than there is now.
For those of you who are not involved in the Arts this is a snapshot of the time, energy effort and emotional investment many of us put into our work.
I started out with a concerted effort to apply for projects – currently totalling an estimated 40 or more discrete actions to realise my arts practices.
I decided this year I’d concentrate mainly on my theatre work: writing, acting, directing and occasionally producing. In summary:
Of these, 6 playwriting submissions had a positive outcome – dramaturgy, readings etc. and I’m working with a director on a potential productions in 2015.
I’ve presented 4 writing workshops and have 5 more lined up for the rest of the year.
I auditioned 5 times and was selected 3 times, plus I had on-going voiceover work. I performed in a remount of a play from last year, which was presented at a regional festival. I am currently in rehearsals for a show in November.
I was dramaturge/director on a play reading, and am currently in pre-production as a director for a play for next year.
I helped with publicity on ‘3 Seeds’, a play I transcreated with Afeif Ismail at the Blue Room Theatre, and I began producing a show that subsequently stalled.
However, I submitted some poems and of the 10 sent out, 2 were selected for publication and I am waiting to hear about 3 others. And I was a guest at a regional writing festival.
I also sat on panels, was involved in industry consultations, judged competitions, published reviews and articles, attended conferences, marked essays, gave talks and presentations, MC’d at events and gave informal dramaturgy to friends and colleagues when asked to.
Of the over 40 attempts to work, I’ve achieved 24 publications/activities so far this year, and I’ve been paid for 10 of them. So over half of the ‘work’ I’ve done has been unpaid. Around 20 applications were unsuccessful, so nearly half of my efforts to achieve work were also unpaid. This snapshot is not uncommon amongst artists. Often we are driven by passion as well as profit, plus there’s a belief that it’s important to remain visible and engaged in the Arts sector, otherwise you’re easily forgotten.
So why am I telling you this (and thanks for staying with me)? I said earlier that it’s time the Arts and Artists had a greater voice in the public policy conversation. Recently The Arts Party, a new party dedicated to arts and culture, has entered the political arena. But I feel arts should be a key part of every political party’s agenda of whatever stripe. If we want that to happen the question we should ask our politicians is ‘So, you want my vote, what’s your Arts Policy?’
Collectively, across all art forms, and arts and creative industries, we can have considerable impact. There are a lot of us!
If, like me, you are committed to working in the arts, or if you’re a passionate lover and supporter of the Arts (often we’re both) and you’re interested in being part of this, please make The Arts a political as well as a personal priority in your life.
Don’t delay – the 2016 election is not that far away…