Looking forwards, looking back...
I have now been working as a playwright/writer for long enough to be able to trace some ongoing preoccupations in my work and thought. At the start of a creative career many people need to deal with the personal demons and influences that have shaped them. I was no exception. My first play for the then-Magpie Theatre Company was for children (I have three). Songs, silly rhymes, garrulous characters (I Saw a Dinosaur would have benefitted from the proverbial blue pencil!). And an early iteration of the immediate history of ‘my people’ – the ruthlessly dour Scots immigrants to South Australia with their tenacity and courage and their moral blindness, albeit at several generations remove (The Ballad of Bonnie Wheeler). The best of my early plays, about the Kokatha people of north-western South Australia was withdrawn at my request given clashes between the company and my co-writer. It was entitled Loss, the which subject has been an ongoing preoccupation in itself. That hurt. But I’m glad now.
Other themes. Women. Compromised, courageous, faux-innocent and somewhat bloody-minded, as the women of my mother’s generation were. And many of mine, including me, living with an ongoing lack of agency which has had endless ramifications that are maybe not relevant right here. The Mourning After was my breakthrough adult play, a one-woman show, longer, said my lovely star, Nancye Hayes, than King Lear. (Blue pencil again!) That was in the days when Playbox Theatre (The Malthouse) was a dedicated production house for Australian plays.
The next few years included a lot of journeyman work, some of which I’m still proud of, some of which I need to put down to the fact that you learn in public in this field. Given that I am words-tragic and clearly needed to balance this predilection (‘Show, not tell’!), I quite consciously pursued work in other spheres. So I wrote for puppets, dance, youth theatre, radio and a musical adaptation (of Mem Fox’s Koala Lou). I’ve always been ambitious, which has been provocative to some. How dare this tiny middle-class woman claim the right to deal with difficult subjects!? So when I wrote a big, mean play [Carrying Light] about the operation of religious charisma that probably owed its genesis to friends lost to the nuttier reaches of spirituality, I had a mixture of success and really rather vicious attack. It was the first play written by a South Australian playwright to be staged by the STCSA [in concert with Vitalstatistix] for 15 years. It seems strange to think of it these days when one of theatre companies’ priorities is the staging of new work by Australian writers. But back then, those people [Rodney Fisher, Rosalba Clemente and Catherine Fitzgerald] went out on a limb for my tricky old play. I’m still proud of it, and them. The furore was useful too in that it provoked me to urge my husband to take a job offer in the Eastern states, so I escaped Adelaide for a bigger pond.
Thus, in the year 2000, I moved to Sydney. I had been reading Paul Carter’s work about the Australian landscape and the lost intimations of the past, along with Tom Keneally’s, The Great Shame, about the nineteenth-century potato famine migrations from Ireland to Australia. I was displaced from my home in South Australia. I had lost the big farmhouse kitchen that had been so much a part of the early years of my young family; my own myth, if you like. I had said goodbye to a significant older woman in my life who was descending into dementia. Unfairly, since I’d been the one saying, ‘Do it!’ I was angry and conflicted about the loss of possibility of writing at all in what now seemed an unsympathetic environment. And years before I had experienced the trauma of a stillbirth only to be given the miraculous re-birth and ultimate recovery of my son in circumstances most such parents do not receive. I had an idea for a play that synthesised some of these thoughts and yearnings but, in the busy-ness of the move, no chance at all to write it. It waited nearly a year until one morning, I found myself formulating a rough plan that looked more like a map than a piece of writing and then the play unfolded in a few bare weeks. It went on to become the Griffin Prize-winning Burning and the first of my plays that emphatically engaged with land and loss.
Another one-person play, this time for a man, followed (The Lightkeeper). Again, it speaks of an engagement with the history of my colonialist forbears – this time the men and women who inhabited the lonely lighthouses of the Limestone Coast. It also follows on my preoccupation with landscape, humans in a world that is everything but human. And song. And love, and grief, and yearning. I got the chance to work further on the landscape side of things with the giant puppets of Erth Physical and Visual Inc in their deep-time show, Gondwana, and a few years later with the adaptation of Patricia Wrightson’s The Nargun and the Stars. More puppetry with the very talented Peter Wilson in his show with the Japanese Kazenoko Theatre Company that toured and toured around Australia, Japan and the US and the UK (Hello Maru-chan). Joshua’s Books, about the archaeologist who first excavated the biblical town of Jericho, Kathleen Kenyon, was a return to the tussle both with deep(ish!) time and notions of the spirit, as was Fox a few years earlier, where I engaged again with my Celtic roots. Fox was the better piece, but no effort is wasted. I returned to my folk loyalties with a sumptuous (Mark Thompson’s costumes, Eamon d’Arcy’s cotton-candy set and Wojciech Pisarek’s images) adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen for Windmill Theatre that played in both Sydney and Adelaide.
As a jobbing writer you do quite a lot of work on other people’s ideas. Sometimes this aligns with your own preoccupations. Sometimes not. In 2010 I was asked to write a piece about the early colonialists of South Australia for the Adelaide College of the Arts (A Crate of Souls). It brought me face to face with ‘my city’ and the injustices and striving of those purposeful men and their grey-sparrow wives. And the great absence in their understandings of the original inhabitants of this land. My last play in Sydney, The Sweetest Thing, was a comprehensive engagement with love, loss, death, grief, maternal impact and desire. It’s one of the very few plays of mine that I wouldn’t change a word of.
Landscape calls you. We came back to South Australia. It was at this point that I moved definitively from work that eddied around my own concerns, however indirectly, to work that was about others, even if in all cases those others’ experiences had echoes with my background. In my first verbatim piece, I worked on a reading for the State Library of South Australia for the centenary of the SA Red Cross (The Red Cross Letters). It involved trawling through bundles of documentation of enquiries from the families and friends of soldiers lost in the battlefields of World War 1. The contrast between the innocence and good faith of the families and the savagery into which their children were pitched, was extreme, and heartbreaking. After the reading, it was clear there was a play here and that play went on to be produced by the STCSA in 2016. It’s too long a story about how I came to research and write Long Tan, produced in Adelaide in 2018 by Brink Productions. In the same way that World War 1 was the extreme experience of my grandparents’ generation, the Vietnam War was the extreme experience of my own. I’d been a protester against the war in my youth. I’d still stand by that. But you learn compassion and nuance as the years go by and now I wanted very much to talk to those men, not much older than I was who’d fought in the most vicious battle of the Australian troops in the 1960s. My play is almost entirely made from quotes from interviews with the soldiers who survived that day and the families of those that didn’t. There is, however, an overarch of landscape and spirit that is not verbatim. But it is a true account of that day, not a quasi-hero’s journey one. There’s room for both I expect, in a commercial world, but I hope mine maintains factual integrity.
I’ll talk about bottom drawer efforts and other genres in another post. This first blog is about the smoky old jet trail of a career in playwriting in Australia, so I’ll follow that to now. For the last three and a half years I’ve been working on a Creative Arts PhD at Flinders University, with Professor Julian Meyrick, my director from The Snow Queen. My subject is political theatre of trauma, which is another toughie, I know. It has taken a toll. But I’ve learned a lot. The play attached to the doctorate is called Bloodlines and it is set in Poland during World War II and amongst the Polish diaspora in Australia after. It draws on interviews with survivors of that place and time and their families and also a lot of research. But it’s not verbatim. After Long Tan I had to make clear to my interviewees that I needed the creative freedom to adjust facts to story. I also think this may well allow a useful distance for those people when/if they come to see the eventual play. I hope so. But basically, it is set in the fiercest trauma of (this time) my parents’ ‘time in the world’. But it is also one which in terms of a reckoning with the existence of evil no one born in the 1950s can avoid. And, no, I’m neither Jewish nor Polish so I expect some might say I have no right to tell that story. We can have a philosophical discussion about the rights and wrongs of diverse storytelling, but here is not the place. I undertook the doctorate so that I could write another big, mean play, the kind no one would ever commission me to do, the kind that might soak up three years of research and skills development. In Australia we are living through a period of narrow and shallow culture. No one in their right mind would write a play for 30 characters using 10 actors. That’s a shame. I have. I am pretty sure it is more than interesting, and I hope it finds a life someday. I guess we’ll see.