Resources For Writers
There is a vibrant playwriting community across Australia that ATYP has the good fortune to tap into. Not only does ATYP present and develop theatre for young people, it also presents and develops theatre by young people 26 and under. In order to better support playwrights, we have been building a series of resources to guide playwrights and talk about the experience of being a writer.
There are few moments onstage more powerful than a good monologue. Done right it’s an act of virtuosity, a brief moment of stillness where everything else falls away save one startling single voice. Done badly it’s a twenty-minute drum solo – at best self-indulgent, at worst an interruption the audience endures waiting patiently for the show to resume.
A great monologue might work for many reasons, but a dud usually falls over when it stumbles on one of the following. When writing your own monologue here are ten things to consider:
1. Speech, Soliloquy and Story
First off, who is your character talking to? If they are talking to another character (played by another actor onstage or by nobody or even by the audience) then it’s a speech. Now we need to know a few things. Who is this other character? What is their relationship? This changes both the story and how it is told. You speak differently to your mother than you do to a stranger than you do to a child. Knowing who this other person is in your monologist’s life will decide how much your character opens up to them, how familiar they already are and what kind of language they use.
If your character is talking to him or herself it’s a soliloquy. Is this an internal monologue the audience is privy to or are they rehearsing a speech for later? There’s a difference.
Lastly your character may talk to the audience directly, as is the case for a narrator or Greek chorus. In this case they are often (though not always) telling us the story of someone else. Often (though not always) your narrator knows all. Often (though not always) they tell the story in third person. (ie “then Jack climbed the beanstalk etc”) Here the storyteller’s own identity is not the point. They are simply a tale teller and the means by which the story is told.
2. Who is this guy?
Who is doing the talking?
What does this person looks like. How are they dressed? How do they move? How do they speak? When people open their mouths they tell us so much more than simply what they’re saying. Just by listening we can tell things like their gender, their nationality and their age. Do they speak plainly or with a silver tongue? Do they present clearly or repeat themselves often? Do they speak bluntly or seek reassurance with a lots of questions? What vernacular they speak in might hint at their background; what jargon they use might give away their occupation.
*Shakespeare’s Othello was a naval commander and speaks often using maritime analogies.
In Drama as in life, characters only open their mouths if they want something. Speech without an intention is just bad exposition. What does your character want? Forgiveness? Help? Directions? Why are they telling us their dog died now? Are they trying to warn us about something? Are they consoling us by sharing their own private grief? Or are they buttering us up before they ask to borrow another hundred dollars? Each of these motives is different and each will affect the way the story is told.
4. Learn how to write silence
5. Stage Directions
Less is more. If you enjoy writing detailed stage directions write a novel. Directors ignore them anyway. Rather, choose your battles. Decide which stage directions are vital and remove all the others. Those that remain will be considered more carefully. Concentrate on your job and let the actors do theirs. Give your cast space to explore. Never tell an actor how to deliver a line.
6. Don’t Spell it Out
David Mamet said, “The job of the dramatist is to make the audience wonder what happens next, not to explain to them what just happened.”
Good writing raises questions and then rewards us with a partial answer. This in turn raises another question which will only be rewarded by continuing to watch. It keeps the audience intrigued and absorbed. Bad writing over-explains with an info dump. The writer doesn’t trust his audience to figure the story out so he telegraphs the plot in skywriting overhead. Your audience isn’t dumb. Trust them.
7. Suspense is your friend
Suspense is created by rousing the audience’s curiosity, by posing questions and delaying answers, by creating bigger and bigger complications and delaying resolutions.
Think about Ridley Scott’s Alien or Spielberg’s Jaws. For most of both films we never see the threat directly, instead we get glimpses and shadows, piquing our curiosity, tantalising us more and more then finally rewarding us.
8 Poetry versus prose
Both are powerful. Know their place. Poetry is seductive but beware of overusing it. Next to the verbal dexterity and rich imagery of poetry, prose can feel like it’s simple plainer cousin. It may not be as pretty as poetry but prose is the language of action and nothing is direct. When somebody’s trapped in a burning building they don’t scream, “Look how these flickering flames dance like gaily coloured gypsies all around me!”, they scream, “Help!”.
What is not said is often far more interesting than what is spoken out loud. Think Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf or Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts. These people find it almost impossible to say what they want to say, instead they circle around topics endlessly talking about everything BUT whatever needs to be said. Subtext is the elephant in the room.
10. Truth and Perspective
Lastly how much does your narrator know and how much do they think they know? Do they know the whole story or only a part of it? What don’t they know? What have they guessed? What have they got wrong? What might they have made up? What are they keeping back? What do they have to gain by telling us the truth? What do they have to gain by lying to us? And finally how do we know we can trust their word?
This list is by no means comprehensive but it’s a good start. The monologue is a simple and effective device and one that every writer worth their salt should have a grip on.
Van Badham is the Artistic Associate (Writing) of the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne. She has recently returned to Australia after living in the UK for several years, where she was Literary Manager of the celebrated Finborough Theatre in London.
When I was starting out as a writer, I believed a common fantasy – that if I just sent my script to the right theatre company, my genius would be recognised. My words would land fully-formed into a room full of professional actors, and all they’d have to do was learn their lines, then a set would be built, some lights would flick on – and I’d be famous.
The difficult reality is that it is not the written word of the play-script that is the art-form of theatre – it’s the live performance.
Creating great theatre is a process of dedicated and often time-consuming mediation between the two, in which the abilities of a diverse team of creative professionals explore the potential and refine the invisible mechanics that a script offers for entertaining an audience.
Most writers – especially emerging writers – are writing in isolation, without the assistance of trained actors, designers, technicians, directors and dramaturges to test each line and action live on stage.
This means that, as you’d reasonably expect, only a handful of plays ever land in the lap of a theatre company anywhere near fully-formed.
Finborough Theatre. Photo by Matthew TurnerIn the last twelve months, The Finborough Literary Department has assessed well over 1000 scripts. As the Literary Manager, I personally have read hundreds. We give every script the same amount of due consideration and in that time I have read just two scripts that I’ve recommended for immediate production.
The rest of the new writing we programme is borne of a development process of meetings, discussions, workshops and readings before, hopefully and eventually, a script goes into production.
Like many small independent theatres, The Finborough has no funding, and very limited resources. Yet we have a passion for new writing and give everything we’ve got to the writers with whom we work.
As assessors, we’re therefore searching amongst what we receive for two things: the theatrical potential of the printed play-text, and the kind of writer with both the technical skills and professional willingness to collaborate who will, with work, transition the blueprint of the draft to a ready production script.
We receive many more scripts than we can possibly ever develop. So that we use our scarce resources most effectively to make the best art, various criteria determine the selection of our writers.
These following points are by no means exhaustive advice, and I’ve edited them for glibness:
1.) Attach a cover-letter. Get the name of the Literary Manager right. Also, it helps to Google said Literary Manager. So, no “Mr Ven Badham”.
“Who cares about the cover-letter?” someone responded. “All that matters is writing a decent play.” We read many “decent” plays. Thing is, we want “decent” plays to be “astounding” by the time they hit the stage; we need to recruit writers who are meticulous and hardworking, and excellent collaborators. Getting the addressee’s name right demonstrates the writer is at least meticulous enough to plan their submission. It’s also a professional courtesy, and courtesy is the bedrock of collaboration. If you can’t be bothered here, what indication do I have that actors or technicians will be shown due professional respect in a development environment?
2.) Don’t write “I would like to submit this to you” if you are actually submitting it to us. It is indirect and inarticulate.
This is not a deal-breaker but instances of poor expression can be a source of quiet concern: we expect writers to have technical skill and precision with text. Alternatively, poor expression betrays a disturbingly slapdash attitude toward detail.
3.) Don’t make a big deal of going to Cambridge in your cover-letter.
A cover-letter is to establish your professional experience, your writing character and – through inclusion of a brief synopsis – whether your work meets our programming criteria. Mention your education, list the awards you have won and the other theatres who have staged your work. Any detail that hypes a sense of entitlement, however, is best avoided; the only meaningful qualifications in a development process are a flexible attitude and hard work.
4.) Please number all the pages of your play, especially if it is a paper copy. Please don’t use Tippex, strange formatting or crazy fonts.
Anything that makes a play unnecessarily more difficult to read or administer in the time-pressured environment of assessment raises questions about a writer’s willingness or ability to work within the organisational structures of a theatre.
5.) Please read the submission guidelines on the website of the companies and theatres you are approaching.
6.) Please watch the shows of companies and theatres you are approaching.
Every theatre has its own aesthetics. At The Finborough, we are explicit about the kind of dramatic stories and themes that appeal to our programmers and our audience. Sending us something that we explicitly do not want demonstrates a lack of interest in what is important to us; seeing our productions and reading our literary policy is a direct way of appreciating what we do to determine whether your work is suitable for us, or if our work is suitable for you.
7.) Don’t send us narky letters. We read everything we’re sent. Be patient.
A very small team of readers does its best to stay ahead of a constant incoming stream of scripts. It’s fine to receive a polite enquiry about a script’s progress, but hostile communications do little to recommend a writer’s ability to respectfully collaborate.
8.) Don’t include too many stage instructions.
We seek plays that provide other creatives the opportunity to deploy their talents. Scripts that contain at-length descriptions of stage properties or character actions show little respect for the creative capacity of directors, designers and performers to realise the interpretative artistic potential of a text. Assessors appreciate detail in stage directions only if it is integral to the action of the story.
9.) Explore that magic of theatre.
As theatre spaces have developed, so have styles of presentation that can make imaginative use of staging, design, performance and other effects.
Readers look for plays that understand theatre’s unique devices, and use of forms of presentation that can’t be replicated in novels, radio, films or TV – the magic of the theatre is what the human body and voice can conjure within the limitations of the theatrical space.
10.) If we tell you we want to see more of your work, be encouraged: we mean it.
Ultimately, we’re seeking within a text are moving and unusual truths that through performance can be shared with the world; the best test of good writing is the simple desire to keep reading.
Great theatre is a difficult trick, involving a lot of time, personnel and human effort, but if we ever find ourselves asking “What will happen next?” as we turn the pages of a script, the hard work ahead looks just like joy.
Ross Mueller is a playwright, and is the Artistic Director of Courthouse ARTS in Geelong, Victoria. In 1999 he wrote the monologue A Party in Fitzroy. Below, he explains how the piece came about and outlines the basic principles of monologues.
John Howard is Prime Minister and the Maritime Union of Australia is being put to the sword by his attack dog Peter Reith. The Federal government sanctions the use of violence as a means of conflict resolution in the work place. Friends and families are torn apart and as a response, I develop a play with music… Little Brother is performed in the Fitzroy Gallery as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival and becomes a minor Leftie hit. So acclaimed, that a return season at Trades Hall is commissioned by Comrades Paddy and Jim. In the first production meeting a problem is identified: Little Brother only lasts forty five minutes. Trades Hall need to sell beer to pay for the publicity. Comrade Paddy suggests an interval. Clearly not the ideal theatrical solution. Comrade Jim suggests an alternative: “Can you write another one?” This suggestion is crazy. So crazy… it just might work. (evil laugh).
With only weeks before the return season commences, the mission is agreed.
· There is no money and so the new play needs to be a monologue.
· It needs to go for at least half an hour (so people feel satisfied)
· It needs to sit with Little Brother as a companion piece.
· It needs to sell some tickets because Who’s Afraid of the Working Class is playing in the room next door “A party in Fitzroy” is a line from a song by my favourite band Weddings Parties Anything, a cultural institution in inner Melbourne.
Their break up has left deep scars on many of us who love music, pubs and cider.
Their demise coincides with the rise of Howard Conservatism and Melbournians of my age are in the middle of a kind of grieving. Comrade Jim agrees that this is good fodder for theatre and so with time as my enemy and production guaranteed, I go back to Geelong and I write my first monologue.
This is when the problems begin. Monologue is one person speaking on stage and so… “Who is this person speaking to?” New writers often answer this question ambiguously by saying that their character is speaking to “nobody” or to “themselves.” This is possible in human reality, but the adoption of this answer as a theatrical convention ignores the contract we try build with an audience. Our audience don’t always need to be named, but they do need to be present. Otherwise this is poetry and poetry’s not theatre.
In dialogue characters can fight. A tries to impact B. The audience is C (complicit) but not necessarily active. C stays because there is conflict and it’s exciting. In monologue we remove B from the equation and then we are left with just A and C. Through this devolution the audience has automatically been elevated up the food chain and so needs to become active. The writer must answer the question of Who is this person speaking to? with a definite logic. In A Party in Fitzroy I addressed this question immediately.
Gordo is speaking to Bri. Brian is Gordo’s best mate. Tonight, the audience is Bri. This gives us a good reason to stay. We are essential to the locomotion of the drama. The writer must make decisions to keep an audience involved. What about change? How does change occur by the sound of one voice speaking? It’s monologue. Options are limited. We’ve read the program and we know that nobody else is going to walk through the door and so for change to occur the revelation must happen in real time, in front of us. Perhaps even because of us but it must affect us. Thirty minutes is a long time to listen to somebody ramble but it’s a short time to spend with a friend who needs us. In A Party in Fitzroy, at the two thirds mark in the play we witness Gordo say:
I cannot believe that you can surf a crowd, Bri… that you can throw you life on the hands a of hundred strangers, cheating fractured bones and broken noses, abrasions, concussions and death … and then end up drowning face down in a puddle, in a pile of gravel on the street on the way home. Face down on Christmas Eve… come on, mate… I will not accept that as reality.
The revelation is pedestrian and tragic and by now we have invested. We understand why our grieving Melbourne boy is alone on a rooftop at Christmas. We need to care what happens to Gordo.
And I will sit alone on this roof and cry like a baby because the MCG isn’t big enough to hold my grief… its boundaries will bulge with the sorrow that fills my guts… because I’m so sad, so jealous, so lonely… there’s no more party in Fitzroy.
There is no rule about how long a good monologue should be, but the audience will let you know when the party’s over. In 1999 A Party In Fitzroy is directed by Aidan Fennessy and performed by Luke Elliot as a double bill with Little Brother. A Party In Fitzroy outlives Little Brother by many years.
In 2002 Ross Mueller was selected as the Australian playwright for the International Residency of the Royal Court Theatre in London. He won the Wal Cherry Play of the Year (2006) for The Glory, was nominated in 2008 for Best Play in the Green Room Awards for two separate works and won the 2009 New York New Dramatists Playwright exchange for his play Concussion. In March 2011, his most recent work, Zebra, starring Bryan Brown and Colin Friels and directed by Fresh Ink mentor Lee Lewis, premiered at the Sydney Theatre Company. Ross has been shortlisted for the Patrick White Award three times. He has been an affiliate of the Melbourne Theatre Company, was a founding member of Melbourne Dramatists and has been commissioned by Melbourne Theatre Company, Playbox, Canberra Youth Theatre, Hothouse and ABC Radio National. His plays are published by Currency Press, Full Dress Publications and Playlab. Ross is currently Artistic Director of the Courthouse ARTS in Geelong.
Nothing like a provocative title! Now that I’ve got your attention, let me explain.
Well, of course you are a writer – you spend your time putting words on paper. You share with poets, short-story writers and novelists other professional aspects, such as working alone in a room for months on end; perhaps a stationery fetish; certainly a habit of ostensibly going for walks, but in fact busily processing ideas. Maybe you even have a love of wordplay, a hatred of seeing language mangled and abused.
But playwrights are in a different business, because what we write is not an end-product. It’s not written to be read, it’s a blueprint for a future structure, an architect’s plan. It’s a roadmap, a set of instructions, a code to be cracked. Our collection of words on paper outlines something ephemeral and virtual: a world waiting to be given physicality, breath and life.
When I go to literary festivals, I feel like the odd one out. There’s something fundamentally different about what I do. I feel more at home with costume-designers and stage-managers. Playwriting is not a literary pursuit, nor can its collaborative nature be overlooked. Novelists sometimes have a hard time making the transition to playwriting: they aren’t comfortable with input from all corners; they don’t like having to rewrite according to the strictures of an actor’s limitations, or a company’s budget. Playwrights understand that in order for a production to serve their vision, compromises must be made.
In fact, the joy of playwriting lies in watching your fellow artists bring your vision to life. There’s no point being didactic or precious; there’s no pleasure for them in realising a script that doesn’t allow room for their own imaginations.
But just as we need our collaborators, they need us. To laypeople, the playwright’s job is to write dialogue. They don’t understand that the words spoken are merely the tip of a very large iceberg. And sometimes it’s not only laypeople, but theatre-makers as well: It drives me crazy when they talk about not needing a writer, that they’ll “improvise dialogue.” (The most gifted artists can come up with good material, but that doesn’t make it a play. If it is a cohesive, affecting, well-structured, thought-provoking work then I would argue that someone in that group has some playwriting talent.) They should know better; they should know that the playwright is responsible for the characters, narrative, structure, relationships, exposition, meaning, the world of the play with its rules and atmosphere, the sense of being taken somewhere and through something and out the other side. All these things are augmented – the sound designer makes that atmosphere chilling; the actor makes the character unforgettable – but without the playwright these artists have nothing to build on.
While language can certainly be a useful tool, it’s not what playwriting is ultimately about. An audience comes to the theatre not to hear poetry, but to see characters in action: characters under pressure, characters in relationship with each other. They come to see what people are prepared to do to each other in order to get what they want. Characters’ dramatic actions – how they act upon each other – are what we are interested in, and the words they use are a means to an end.
I don’t mean to denigrate good dialogue or wonderful language – if you have a gift for these, so much the better – only to point out their secondary place in compelling theatre. “What about Shakespeare?” you ask. “What about Caryl Churchill, plays like ‘The Skriker’ or Jenny Schwartz’s ‘God’s Ear’, which are all about language?” Yes, language is an integral part of these writers’ works, but it is never prioritised over the drama. We don’t go to ‘Romeo and Juliet’ for the poetry, but to see those young lovers struggle to be together. The words they use are Shakespeare’s gift to the actors, the rhythm and breath as much as the imagery and assonance help the actors realise their characters in their particular emotional states. If this weren’t true, Shakespeare would be remembered as a poet only, not a playwright. His work would not continue to live across all cultures four hundred years on. Ask any school-kid about the difference between reading ‘Hamlet’ in class and then seeing it performed well…
(In my experience as a dramaturge, it’s often the writers of dazzling repartee, snappy one-liners and luscious poetry that have the hardest time rewriting: gorgeous language is hard to turf. We get attached to a good scene in a way that we don’t to a bullet-point outlining an action. That’s why I recommend not actually starting the writing of scenes until you’ve got a strong idea of structure, character, shape etc: like this you’re less likely to have to do a major overhaul down the track.)
One thing that sets us apart from our collaborating theatre-makers, and aligns us with literary writers, is the time we need to take. The writer’s job is to think. We have to spend the time in our heads going down rabbit-holes, hitting dead ends and working our way back out again, turning over every possibility, making choices and then refining and polishing these until they glow. This can take a few months, or a few years. It’s deep work, and can’t be rushed over. That’s why it takes a long time to write a play and only six weeks to rehearse it: the groundwork has been done.
A novel, poem, short story is complete in itself. A play is not, it’s a provocation. Its job is to inspire and engage the imaginations of the director, designer, composer, choreographer, actors.
The balance for us playwrights is between making clear the intention of our work, while leaving enough open space for our collaborators to fulfil this intention.
Hilary Bell writes for stage, radio, screen and music theatre. Plays include Wolf Lullaby (Griffin, Atlantic, Steppenwolf), Fortune, The Falls(Griffin Theatre), The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Ruysch, Memmie Le Blanc (Vitalstatistix, Deckchair), Open-Cut (WAAPA), The Mysteries: Genesis (Sydney Theatre Company), The Bloody Bride (NORPA) and Angela’s Kitchen (with Paul Capsis and Julian Meyrick). She has written libretti for musicals (The Wedding Song, comp. Douglas Stephen Rae), song cycles (Talk Show, comp. Elena Katz-Chernin), opera (Mrs President, comp. Victoria Bond) and for Phillip Johnston’s score to Murnau’s silent film Faust, premiered at the New York Film Festival. The White Divers of Broome, for Black Swan State Theatre, has just played at the Perth International Festival.
In train are a musical, Do Good And You Will Be Happy, with Phillip Johnston, The Splinter, coming up at the Sydney Theatre Company in August, and Victim Sidekick Boyfriend Me, for the National Theatre’s Connections programme across the UK. Mrs President premiers at Anchorage Opera in November.
Hilary is a member of the playwrights’ company 7-On, and a recipient of the Philip Parsons Young Playwrights’ Award, Jill Blewitt Playwrights’ Award, Bug’n’Bub Award, Aurealis Award for Fiction, the Eric Kocher Playwrights’ Award, the 2007 Inscription Award and an AWGIE for Music Theatre. She is a graduate of the Juilliard Playwrights’ Studio, NIDA, and the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. She was the 2003-04 Tennessee Williams Fellow in Creative Writing at the University of the South in Tennessee. She is a director on the Griffin Board, and on artistic advisory panels for Griffin and the Production Company, New York. Hilary also works as a playwriting teacher, mentor and dramaturge.
Anya Reiss, who wrote Spur of The Moment for the Royal Court at the age of 17, attended the National Studio as a mentor for The Voices Project 2014. There she was interviewed by Julia-Rose Lewis, author of This Feral Life from The Voices Project: Out Of Place and one of ATYP’s 4X4 writers.
You wrote Spur of the Moment when you were 17, it’s impressive you were thinking such complex thoughts about the world, what made you want to write it?
I was doing the young writers course at the Royal Court and one of the exercises was on ‘home’. We had to write down facts about our living arrangements throughout our whole life, you know, where you lived as a kid, where you live now. And I was writing down the facts from when I was about 8. We had a lodger In my dad’s house in the countryside in Surrey which is where it (the play) is set. And I remember really getting on with him, and always hanging out in his room, but I was 8, and he was older. He was French and had a little sister, and I think he liked me hanging around because it reminded him of home. But when I was writing down the plain facts of it, it seemed strange. At the time it wasn’t at all, but when I wrote it down it seemed strange that there was a 25-year-old man in the house, that wasn’t a relative or a teacher, and I had a relationship with that adult male as a child, a sort of unsupervised relationship. And usually you don’t have a relationship with an adult unless they’re a family member or a friend or your teacher. And I started to think about how that situation could have been very different if I was older. It could have gone a very different way. I’ve also always been really interested in how selfish people can be. I really wanted to write something about selfishness. I really started to fit that idea in when I introduced the parents’ story, because a child is kind of intrinsically a selfish being, but if you put that selfishness that you accept in a child on everyone else, I mean everyone is like that, everyone can be as selfish as a young child, but what happens when you put four selfish people in a house together? People that are just doing what they want all the time. What are the knock-on effects from always being out for yourself? Not in a cruel way though, it’s like they are following their hearts. If everyone follows their heart, well I was interested in how selfish that can then become.
How did ATYP’s production differ from the original Royal Court production?
The set is very different, the Royal Court production felt a little like a dolls house, this feels, it’s cool, it feels more claustrophobic, more intimate, more engaging. You really do have sense that everyone is stuck in the house together.
When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
I started on the Young Writers Festival at the Royal Court, and as a part of that they open up their stages to people under 18. I did one of those festivals when I was 14 I think. Then I did another one, and then I was invited from doing the young one to do the adult course when I was 16, even though I was a bit young for that. I wrote Spur of the Moment in my second adult course. I really don’t think I decided I wanted to be a writer until they told me it was going to be on, because I was quite young it didn’t really enter into my consciousness that much, that it could be something that would lead somewhere.
What made you want to do the young writers festival initially? Who put you on to that?
My mum put me on to it because I actually really wanted to be an actor, and there was no acting courses, so she just said ‘try this out’.
It seems to be how everyone starts out.
Yeah exactly, their mums.
How much writing had you done when you wrote Spur Of The Moment?
I’d written a few full length things off the back of those courses. Looking back though, I mean, my mum just moved, and I had to clear out the house, and I was going through some of my old stuff, and I did write more than I ever realised I did. Everyone used to do that at my school, people would write plays and then we’d put them on in the playground, and then usually give up after a week. I think I was the only who was writing the whole script, everyone else was just talking about it, but I would actually always do the whole script, and then I’d give up after a week, but I was writing more than I realised.
So it was something that was always in you?
Yeah. But I wasn’t really that interested in it until later.
Maybe you didn’t really know it was an option?
Yeah, absolutely, I didn’t really know it was an option. I really didn’t think plays were being written by people right now. At school the only stuff you study is The Crucible and stuff from 50 years years ago. I didn’t realise it was career you could choose.
What kind of support did you have around you at the time of writing Spur of the Moment?
I wrote it on the Young Writers Program at the Royal Court. I think I had probably written most of it by the end of that course. During it we would meet one-on-one with a tutor and talk about our idea and so I met with Leo Butler for an hour just working out the story with him. It was evening class and we would meet once a week.
How much did it change from the draft you completed during that course to the production script that made it to the stage?
It didn’t change fundamentally at all, and I don’t think there were any new scenes, or any structural changes. Because I didn’t understand the practicalities of stage craft as well as I do now, everyone was often talking at the same time. The two stories do parallel each other now, but before it was a lot more explicit, and someone just told me to separate them out, so you could really see those stories, rather than just doing it straight down the barrel. It was overwritten, it got less written for the production.
Have you studied playwriting formally at university?
No formal training, just those writing courses. I did a group after Spur of The Moment, with more established writers, it was more of a writers group, a support group for writers to hang out and just talk about plays because otherwise you are just off on your own. It was quit nice for people to have a place to check in.
How important do you find that process of talking to other writers while you are writing?
I think it’s really important. I used to think it didn’t matter, but then once I was at the theatre with a writer and I just happened to tell her about a problem I was having in a play, not expecting anything, and she just kind of solved it for me instantly, she was just like, “why don’t you do that?” And I was like, oh wow I can actually do that, you don’t just have to be out on your own? Now I always try to get on courses like that where you can talk to writers and go to events where lots of writers will be. It’s not a hard job, in a ring-your-hands-out kind of way, like ‘poor you’, but it’s nice to talk to people who are also getting very upset because they can’t work out what the next scene is. Someone who understands that that can actually be upsetting. It’s just remembering that you’re actually doing a job where people can practically help you.
What has been your career highlight so far?
The night when anything opens is memorable. Spur of the Moment opening was definitely memorable. First reading of Spur of the Momentwas memorable, hearing that properly done, by proper actors. We did a short reading of it as a part of an event night, and that was the first time I heard it with an audience. That was probably the highest point I’ll ever get—when I knew it had gone well. It was just 20 minutes of the play, the highlights of it, the best bits. Just lots of swearing and all the kids loved it.
Is there a particular writer whose work you admire most?
Yeah. Dennis Kelly, Alan Ayckbourne, Martin McDonagh, Tennessee Williams. My favourite play is Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? I think that will always be my favourite play.
If you could go back and give your 17-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be?
When you get feedback you can disagree with it. Not everything someone tells you is necessarily right, or you should necessarily do. Just because they are a good tutor or good playwright or good dramaturg, it doesn’t mean what they tell you to do in your play is the right thing for your play. And being able to have that conversation with them openly, and not do what I used to do, which was sit there nodding along, thinking ‘You’re wrong, you’re wrong, you’re wrong!’, and then trying to do what you think they’re telling you to do, and then think at the end, well I wrecked it.
What are you working on now?
An adaptation of Spring Awakening and an adaptation of Uncle Vanya—I’ve done a first draft so I’m feeling a bit chill about that one, and I’ve worked with the director before so I think I know what we’re doing with it.
Where do you see yourself in 20 years?
I don’t know. Exactly the same but richer. That’s what I want. I mean doing the same thing, writing and doing screenplays, but richer maybe?
Did you feel like your work was bad when you first started?
Yeah, yeah of course, I think everyone does, surely? You don’t write your first thing and think, ‘Well, I’m just fucking brilliant, that’s my career trajectory sorted! Done’.
What are the things that have been memorable about Australia?
I really enjoyed seeing Miss Julie at Belvoir St. I really liked that space. It’s a really nice theatre the way it is laid out.
What felt different about it?
Just bigger and nicer, and there seemed to be a real love for it. In England people are sometimes a little embarrassed about studio spaces like that. Also the seats are so comfortable! I took a fucking photo of the seats, those are nice seats! I was thinking, please let me take these home. It was an intimate space, it didn’t feel pretentious, it felt like a lovely space. I love the weather in Sydney too. Incredible.
Has there been anything not so fab about Australia so far?
The fear of fucking wildlife! It’ not a fake fear. That is my real fear. Even just now I’ve been checking all around the bathrooms and the bedrooms for things before I can go in.
Like, spiders specifically?
Yes. And snakes you have to shoot in case they kill you! In England if you’re scared of something you think, ‘Shit, I hope I never see one’. Here people are like ‘When you see it, just don’t touch it and it probably won’t attack you, and it might not be a poisonous one anyway, and it might not bite you very much.’ That’s not normal, that it not OK.
And moths obviously after last night? (Ed: what happens at the National Studio, stays at the National Studio)
All things that are smaller than my hand, or things with fangs.
Do you think you’ll come back to Australia?
And to finish, if you could give one piece of advice to a young person with dreams of being a writer what would it be?
Yeah, it’s about finishing everything you start. It’s very easy, to start and think, ‘well it’s a bit shit’ and then stop, and then try a new idea. It’s just knowing everything you write, no matter how good you are, your first draft will be shit. It’s about pushing through to the end of that. I think that’s really the only difference between people who write and people who don’t. Just push through the embarrassment of how bad you are the first time, and then go back and make it good.
When I teach playwriting the first thing is to get to know the people I am working with. No embarrassing rhyming name games.
Like many teachers, I just ask people to talk about themselves – I am Lachlan Reynault Philpott, I was born in Sydney but then we moved out west. My first memories are of the rat plague and the rats that took my baby sister from us and so on.
As traffic flows to the centre of the city each morning, people come at it this task in different ways. Some order their information chronologically, others randomly bump all over the place. Some repeat facts they can’t get past, others focus on people, or places. Some conjure a mood that captures their essence as if they were an olive. No matter how the person shapes what they are saying, the rest of the group always seem to enjoy the variety.
When that exercise finishes, I ask the collective writers to talk about their work- the words they are writing down. It is then that something odd occurs- the little paths, the back way and the side roads from before disappear, get blocked or blown up. And suddenly everybody is using the same road to talk about their work, like we are all on some congested freeway heading through the petrol haze into LA.
And I say LA because the way people talk about their plays suggests to me the way people talk about their films as they cruise down the freeway washing down the drivel with their drive thru bucket of greenteamegamocochinofrappe. Always through the frame of story and character. I get why film talk is about story and character but theatre is different and to many writers the unspoken imposition of the solitary route can present an issue.
Try as we might it is not easy to change a system which seems to need writers to pitch the story. At some point we writers are going to need to talk about characters and protagonists and other terms that turn your shit black with boredom. But what I think would have helped me before I became aware of my process is if my entry point had been seen as being as valid as more traditional ones. It is helpful to acknowledge that writers and theatre makers connect to material in a range of ways. Some lucky people do think in narrative and character terms. But others think mood, are driven by an question and some begin with a sense of place.
The workshop I ran recently offered tools to writers who don’t naturally begin with plot and character by acknowledging that there are lots of ways to connect to and develop ideas, even if in the end some fool only wants the synopsis.
In the recent workshop we collectively examined the value of connecting to place. As homage to both Elinor Fuchts and Gertrude Stein, we talked a lot about landscape because I was interested in asking how a writer can take the audience hand by hand and allow them to step into the experience of the world of the play rather than just sitting and looking at it.
People often say: Why is a sense of place important when theatre is essentially about people?
So I ask them…tell me this… You have just met somebody you are interested in them. You want to find out as much as you can about them. I give you a choice. You can have ten minutes talking with them or you can have ten minutes to look through their bedroom and home- their underwear drawers, under their bed, their mail, in their bathroom cabinet, the view out their window. Which do you choose?
Few people choose to talk.
Writers and detectives need to get information wherever it is offered and the world offers so much. I am seduced and fascinated by place-the smells, sounds textures and chorology. I take the time to stand still in one place and watch, listen, smell and touch the unlimited constellations of possibility unfold.
I once got asked to co-write a play set in Stockholm. I tried to write it and gave up. I don’t know Stockholm. I’ve only been there once and have no real sense of what it is like to live there, to walk down the street there, feel lonely or in love there, to know summer is coming or going there.
All of my plays have been inspired by strong connection to place: a chaotic high school in Inner-city Sydney, an abandoned junkyard full of buses, a tattoo parlour in a dodgy suburb, a strange little house with a palm tree full of baby ibis, the plastic Sydney gay scene, the dizzying pulse of Kings Cross.
We know that people love theatre when they relate to the characters on stage, when people are experiencing the same things, asking the same questions. The same thing can be said about place.
I live in Sydney and I write about Sydney. I am constantly trying to make sense of the city’s complex patterns and rhythms.
Audiences also like stories that come from the place they live in, love in and try and make sense of every day.
Lachlan is a Sydney-based writer, dramaturg, teacher and director. His first play Bison has had sell-out seasons in Adelaide, Belfast, London, Melbourne and Sydney. His other plays include Bustown, Catapult, Colder [Winner R.E Ross Trust Award 2007], Due Monday, Silent Disco (Winner, Griffin Award for Outstanding New Australian play 2009, Winning Finalist GAP PROJECT Aurora Theatre Co. USA, 2010, shortlisted BEST NEW AUSTRALIAN WORK The Helpmann Awards, 2011) Truck Stop and The Trouble with Harry. Lachlan has worked extensively as a writer with Amnesty International. He was also writer in Residence at Red Stitch Theatre, Melbourne in 2006 and Griffin Theatre Company, Sydney in 2010. Lachlan is currently developing the screenplay of Silent Disco funded by Screen Australia.
Lachlan has directed theatre at Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP) and was Artistic Director of Tantrum Theatre, Newcastle between 2003 and 2006. Lachlan co-founded wreckedAllprods with collaborator Alyson Campbell in 2000 and they have regularly produced work in Australia and the UK. Lachlan has taught extensively. Highlights include initiating an indigenous writing course for aboriginal students in inner-city Sydney, teaching script writing in Kenya, the UK and The Netherlands. He was the Literary Associate at ATYP between 2007 and 2010, where he directed Fresh ink, ATYP‘s emerging writers’ program.
I’ll stake a claim: I am the slowest playwright in the southern hemisphere.
Most plays take me years to write. Seven to ten years is normal. Writing my latest conflation (let’s call it This) I’ve had my skates on. It’s taken a mere four years to a first draft.
Between plays, I forget.
I call myself names. I dream again of gainful employment with regular hours. I tell myself I am over theatre, and it is over me. I tell myself I have nothing to say, nor ever did. Only questions. Then, waiting again, I remember. For a big play, and This is a whopper, I am looking at years and years of… (insert expletive here)
And so I muddle on. I carry an empty exercise book about with me, ever hopeful. It has my working title on the front in thick black pen.
I keep my hands busy. It used to be with cooking. These days it’s with woodwork, or gardening or yet another musical instrument I will never master. In this early phase, please, ask me nothing. Don’t say:
Are you working on anything? I can tell you nothing of what it is that occupies me. Only that some ineffable thing has caught my attention, lodged itself somewhere in my skin. Between the toes perhaps, like an irritant in an oyster?
It might become pearl. It’s more likely tinea.
Something is happening over which I have no sway.
I am absorbed, or rather, absorbing.
It is a process of incorporation.
It’s not waiting-in-idleness, though it certainly resembles it.
Something is in train. It started in the soles of my feet, perhaps, where flesh meets ground. Through a process of sustained attention – intermingled with profound anxiety – some kind of drawing up of meaning has begun.
My new beast, This will overturn everything I think I know about playwriting.
It will have no shape I can discern, no clear content, characters, style or purpose till the last.
It will have a context, yes, a faint sense of connection to something other than itself.
But for years its existence will be nothing more than a collection of notions and lists and nagging thoughts and conversations with myself. Some character may do this. Someone else might do this.
I might make use of passing obsessions. Forgery and the counterfeit. A certain celebrated artist.
Knowing no more about it than these few hunches, I will skirt my desk, avoiding my computer. There will be little point going near it.
Every now and then, almost furtively, I will scribble a word or two on the big sheet of butcher’s paper I’ve pinned to a wall.
Yet, slowly, this sense of being with something grows. Incipience. I choose the word quite deliberately.
There’s something here, within me, and it’s nearer now, but if you must ask me what it is, please, bear with me as I give you the vaguest of answers.
I’ll make sawing gestures, trying to draw in the air the invisible mechanics of this thing, how it must hinge here, and open there. I sense its inner workings, how the energy of it might be compressed here, to spring forth there, but I can’t find any words for it.
It’s still unspeakable. The sense of torment grows. All this time, and nothing to show for myself. I will have to give up.
Then, at last, one day, out there in the world, something tilts.
An old crack in the social fabric, something that had been papered over, yawns open.
A grand inequity is visible again, and I am furious. Fury becomes fuel. I have a reason to write this now. I know what it is, and more to the point I know why it is, and why I need to write it, now, at this time in my life.
Now I can see what This wants to be. I understand the joinery of the thing. I am, after all, a carpenter’s daughter. I have its measure; I have the tools and techniques.
I am a playwright again.
I sit at my desk. I look at the list on the butcher’s paper, on my wall.
It’s all there, every last angle and ornament, but now I know why. I have a design, and all that I’ve collected, each of these materials, has its place.
I write round the clock, pretty much, till I have hammered a first draft into the page.
Post-script (May, 2011):
Seven months later, and seven drafts on, I am cautiously beginning to allow This (not its real name) out of the house and introduce it to people I trust.
I hope it will see development and possible production in the next year or two.
Meantime, the wait begins again, with a new exercise book, a new working title, a couple of random hunches and some fresh sheets of butcher’s paper on the wall.
Peta Murray writes plays and short stories. She is also a dramaturg, director and has taught playwriting at Melbourne University and RMIT. She is currently co-facilitator of The Black Writers Lab for Ilbijerri Theatre, Melbourne. Peta’s best-known play, Wallflowering, has seen numerous productions in Australia and overseas. Other plays include AWGIE winners Spitting Chips and The Keys to the Animal Room, as well as Salt, which won the Victorian Premier’s Award for Drama.
In 2003 Peta was awarded a Centenary Medal for services to Society and Literature, and in 2004 an Australia Council grant took her to the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris for a six-month residency. In 2006 she wrote Room for Playworks and the Melbourne Writers’ Festival. In 2010 two ‘micro-plays’ featured in Finucane & Smith’s The Carnival of Mysteries at the Melbourne International Arts Festival Peta’s stories have been published in anthologies, including Sleepers Almanac and New Australian Stories. Three of her plays are published by Currency Press. She is now completing a new work for theatre entitled: Things That Fall Over: an (anti-)musical of a novel inside a reading of a play with footnotes and oratorio-as-coda.
This speech was delivered on 10 February 2017 at Writers OnSTAGE OnSCREEN presented by the NSW Education Standards Authority in association with The Arts Unit, NSW Department of Education.
It’s really lovely to be here today at Writers On Stage / On Screen … It’s great that we can see and celebrate the outstanding work of previous HSC drama students … and inspire each other … before this big crazy challenging and hot year kicks fully into gear.
I’m old enough to have gone through school when drama was not a HSC subject, so my inner school student, my inner 16 teenage budding playwright, is a wee bit envious of this event … of the time and resources and faith that the education department now pours into the vitally important subject of Drama.
Drama? Vitally important? But it’s not a STEM subject. It’s just a bludge, a distraction, a soft option … Right?
Wrong. Super wrong. But why is that view wrong? … Because the heart of drama – telling a story – is only for the brave … because stories … like people, like all of us … have a capacity to either heal or harm … to hold or exclude … But how do stories do this? Well …
First of all … Stories take us places:
Playwrights write plays … stories that actors embody for us … The word ‘wright” in playwright is spelled W R I G H T – is an Old English word for “worker”, “craftsman” or “builder” … This “worker” was skilled not in tanning or baking or cow-herding … but in making things … Shipwrights made ships. Wheelwrights made wheels. Cartwrights made carts … They took raw materials, fashioned them, gave them new form and purpose … “Wrights” made particular things … things that enabled people to travel.
Like their etymological cousins, playwrights are people skilled in making things … Unlike their etymological cousins, their material is not wood, but words… and the particular thing that they make is not a ship but a story … which is still a vehicle … but it’s a vehicle for imaginative travel.
Secondly … stories organise our brains:
You probably know that drama comes from the Greek word “dra” which means “to do” or “to act”… But before we do or act, we have to imagine … If we didn’t imagine a great holiday, we wouldn’t book a flight … if we didn’t imagine ‘happily ever after”, we wouldn’t fall in love … if we didn’t imagine victory or conquest or retribution, we wouldn’t go to war … But how do we imagine action before we act? … We hop into a vehicle for imaginative travel… we mentally step into a story … So stories are like maps of a potential itinerary … They reign us in or set us free … They tell me if you are my enemy … or not … They reinforce my belief that I am dumb … or loveable … or fat … or fabulous.
Thirdly … stories don’t just organise our brains … they can also RE-organise our brains:
I’m working on a new play at the moment which is exploring post-traumatic growth … not stress … growth. I’m looking at how stories actually have power to re-organise our brain … the pathways of our thinking, the filing cabinet of our beliefs … especially after we’ve had a shock to our system. Scientists are now proving what artists have known forever … stories can renew us … they really can … individually and collectively … If we update that incessant self-chatter, if we rewrite our tarnished inner myths, if we integrate our imperfect past with a projection of a kinder future … we’ve started something… we’ve started to re-draw the map of our potential itinerary … started to shed the shapes we’ve been shoved into … shovel away the rubble of our misfortunes and mistakes … So, the right story could actually put us on the road to recovery … or discovery … or regeneration … Powerful stuff.
Next … bad myths are bad news:
All stories embed a value system in their structure … They buy into something … they assume a position which might heal or harm, hold or exclude, a person, a society, a whole nation … Not all stories are good for us …. some of them are bad myths … are dodgy vehicles for imaginative travel which might break down, cause road rage, or create a ten car pile up. Some examples might include:
– Global warming is a Chinese hoax …
– The trickle down effect will make everyone rich …
– Muslims trying to enter the United States are all terrorists …
– Aussies who eat halal meat are cunningly being converted to Islam …
Bad myths fail us … stunt us … divide us … endanger us … feed neuroses … rob us of our capacity to give and receive and reconcile and transform … So as storytellers, part of our job is to ask, what does the story I’m telling actually buy into or prop up?
Finally … sorry Aristotle, but we need new stories:
It’s hot. It’s hotting up. The next 3 days may well smash record temperatures. We need new stories, and the earth needs new stories too. Desperately.
For this reason, I don’t favour the notion that art or drama should simply hold a mirror up to humanity… We do need stories that reflect the sins we don’t think we commit … but more so, I think, we need and crave stories which drop us into a parallel universe where forgotten and unforeseen and healing possibilities can take us by the hand and teach us a new dance.
But where will you, the storytellers of the future, find the new stories that we and the earth need? Study, read, see plays and films, do your assignments … but don’t forget … you are your own primary creative resource … your night is full of dreams … your body is full of lived experience … your heart has small voices with huge yearnings which you must listen to and protect … and this ancient land has shaped the cadences of many tongues … so if your stories are sounding a little like the latest thing on Netflix, go and sit in a food court or a gym or a hospital the the desert and soak up the music and metaphors and meanings that emerge from this soil at this time in our human history.
I hope I haven’t said anything that’s scared you off … My intention is to do the exact opposite … because drama, as I said, is vitally important. It’s both a responsibility and a great privilege to be a storyteller … because then you are someone with some power to reject myths that cripple … and as such, ours is a life that is never short of hope.
I wish all of us happy travels … and look forward to the amazing places we’ll be taken to by the stories we are about to see …
Interviews with Australia’s leading playwrights and advice from emerging playwrights