I have always been very interested in how people came upon creative ideas, not scientific discoveries but specifically creative ideas. I wonder about the way someone thinks something up, how a character may look, the content of a painting, details of the way a play happens on stage.
The solutions to these challenges were very interesting to me as a young person essentially because I was challenged to find answers to them all.
How should a character look when you are starting from scratch building a character-puppet? What really needs to be in a painting in order for the painting to look like a Japanese woodcut? How do we present our short made-up play to the class now that we’ve discussed it as a group? Each of these was a crucial question at the time.
I’ve had professional experience creating new theatre works, most notably Puppy Love: The tale of a dog with Bruce Keller at Australian Nouveau Theatre and The Grip for DC Peacock Productions.
In my role of Senior Writers Tutor at the Australian Theatre for Young People (1987-1989) I regularly took students through the process of creating a story and turning it into a play and I think the tools employed to create new theatre works are universal, as evidenced by those employed so often in rehearsal spaces anywhere from the Australian National Playwright’s Conference or in institutions of learning such as AC ARTS, NIDA or WAPPA.
I have had the privilege of working on the development of new plays for other writers in workshops as an actor, such as Justin Fleming’s play The Blue Room (1997) and, as a movement director Faces In The Street by Frank Hardy (1988), with director Wayne Harrison, so I am no stranger to the process of developing a new script. I am in a privileged position here at AC Arts, enabled to participate in a process of devising a new theatre script with Stephen Sewell to be directed by Peter Dunn.
Stephen and Peter are guiding second and third year acting students through the process of devising a play ‘from scratch’. To participate in their process and reflect on my own past experiences provides me with a way to continue my own examination of process and assemble some thoughts.
As a Writer-In-Community I have worked all over Australia with groups identified as marginalised within their community including same sex attracted individuals, people with disabilities, people at risk in relation to public health issues and people who are isolated from their peers.
The process of devising a play can be motivated (and funded) by any number of sources such as local government, community groups and associations, schools, individuals, philanthropists, theatre companies, businesses, festivals and corporations.
To begin with I am limiting this examination to a small cache of material, and the experience at hand, in order to focus on the actual process of devising a play from a writer’s perspective.
Because I am informed by my prior experience in this area but have not attempted to bring my own thoughts together until now, this process of research and planning a negotiated project is about using this experience to assemble my own constructive thoughts around the process of devising a play.
I have contributed to the development of new Australian work at playwright’s conferences such as the Interplay International Youth Theatre Conference and the Australian National Playwright’s Conference and at the Griffin Theatre Company, where I was curator for the 1989 D Week at Griffin which introduced Timothy Conigrave’s Thieving Boy, Louis Nowra’s Death of Joe Orton, and Gordon Graham’s The Boys – later the film The Boys, Screenplay by Stephen Sewell.
The Griffin Theatre Company created a significant devised piece called Soft Targets in 1986, directed by Peter Kingston. Soft Targets was a play devised by the company to deal with the local AIDS pandemic, much as a play like The Laramie Project by Moises Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project or Nick Enright’s Property of the clan were devised to deal with tragic deaths in the community’s local to the tragedy.
Griffin was positioned in the heart of the AIDS crisis in Australia so it was completely natural for the company to devise a production that gave audiences an opportunity to process the contemporaneous circumstances they faced. Audiences are allowed to watch their fears and hopes explored by actors on a stage in the safety of a theatre, even if the content is not completely safe. A contentious issue such as AIDS in 1986 evoked many strong emotions in the community, giving them the opportunity to cry in the dark and have thoughts provoked was useful, and it made compelling theatre.
In my opinion another excellent example of work devised by professional artists engaged with members of the community is the Performance Positive series of events that took place in the following decade the 1990’s at the PRIDE Community Centre in Sydney, New South Wales. Funded by South East Sydney Area Health and PRIDE, the Performance Positive series of cabaret style performances were designed to deliver a public health message to a high risk target audience.
Works devised in the process included short plays and performance pieces by writers such as Alex Harding, Damien Millar, Stephen Dunne, Paul Capsis, Kirsty Machen, Alana Valentine, Victoria Spence, Dean Walsh and myself among others.
While I am working on Are There Bears? I am observing the process, taking notes, contributing to discussions and providing dramaturgical support when required to do so.
In my own time I am reflecting on the work I have devised with other people myself and what I have gleaned from interviewing playwrights Stephen Sewell and Nick Enright. I include all the interview material here transcribed.
WHAT IS THE PLAN?
The plan of attack used in devising a new work is usually relative to the type of development process it is and whoever is driving it as a process. I mention Soft Targets and Performance Positive because they demonstrate strong motivating forces that lead writers to devise new works with specific aims and objectives, such as ‘delivering a message’. Things like time, rehearsal space, all of the costs involved, they are usually very crucial elements out in the ‘un-funded’ real world. It is not unusual for a writer to draw upon the generosity of peers to work with them for free in the hopes they may one day get a chance to take their work further in a professional way.
In the context of a school the budget of the devised production is less of a concern to the writing process and really only affects the director’s production outcomes.
In the circumstance of Puppy Love (1985) there was Bruce Keller’s idea to create ‘a one man show for children that had interactive elements.’ Bruce brought his idea to me because we were already working together on a production and I had some experience creating children’s theatre. We started with this idea of a character and the idea of making that character very accessible to its audience then we set about devising ways of reaching our objective.
It is a one man show, but requires two people to perform. The only actual character in the play is Pat (the dog) a puppy. There is no set as such, only set-dressings. The production is written to be played in the style of intimate theatre and story-telling this is a tactile, energetic, interactive play.
As far as the plan of attack was concerned we had a rehearsal space and I arranged access to certain on-site venues I needed to use for exercises and equipment required in training for the production.
People (and puppy dogs) are informed by their environment, so it follows that a clear picture of the environment would help a character ‘identify’ and ‘express’ freely. To help Pat the dog come to life it was important to delineate the place and people around him.
We mapped out the backyard where Pat lived, and we named the people in his life we could be sure of; owners, next-door neighbours, passers-by.
The delineation of these things gets creative juices going. We would improvise after some discussion about things and how things were named. The decision to include a lemon tree in Pat the dog’s world was as much a product of discussion and construction as it was of improvisation.
We set out to explore Pat’s responsibilities and the changing nature of responsibility in the life of a child/puppy, and we decided to embed certain elements of nineteen fifties Australia as it lingered in Bruce’s memories into the world of the character.
A lemon tree was a certainty because Bruce and I both had lemon tree stories from our own back yards. The world of Pat the dog needed to be realistic, and it needed to be reasonably simple on the outside, and complicated on the inside.
We designed that the world would reflect the fact that Pat was not merely a puppy, he was a puppy with responsibilities growing into a dog, and he was learning to think things through. He was also a common thing you may find in any backyard, just like that poetic icon of Australian backyards the lemon tree. Pat the everyman, in his own little way.
Connected to the world we mapped out there were other characters able to come and go, as long as Pat or at least something of Pat’s, was centre of the universe in his world everything could remain balanced and clear. The most important thing about Pat the dog was that he was learning responsibility as he was growing up. His responsibility was the most important thing, and it was always centre of attention. It was his responsibility to special guard the garbage in the backyard.
We had a six week development period followed by a four week season with two shows a day. The original season was to be followed with a tour. We were prepared to tour wherever we had to go. The plan was to keep it a two person event, a one man show.
The script of Puppy Love was edited from the stream of consciousness material written by the actor at the end of each day’s set improvisation. The ‘monologue’ of the character was experienced through side-coached improvisation and then written down in a stream of consciousness fashion by the actor. I edited this material into a final script. One of the primary keys to Puppy Love was the fitness regime I prepared for the actor. It made the best use of the ten weeks we had before we went on tour.
In order to facilitate the creation of the character I conducted physical and vocal training each day to build up the actor’s strength to work on all-fours in character, and to experiment with movement and creating atmosphere with restricted-broad storytelling physicality.
I define ‘restricted-broad storytelling physicality’ as a body movement that has restrictions, such as lack of digits (fingers, toes) for expressive use – e.g. the situation of being inside a character body suit; this restriction requires a broader physicality – pointing, waving, rotating the limbs and being quite bold and direct with physical statements within character.
These skills need to be developed to a point that they become like dance movements, so identifying them and then building on them daily was my strategy to help us reach maximum potential for the tour we would be going on.
Pat the dog needed to have a great deal of stamina; this was in the days before ‘energy drinks’ as we are now offered, but I would not condone an actor use what’s called ‘energy drinks’ for a show like Puppy Love, or any other show really. We actually kept a large drinking bowl for Pat on stage in order to provide the actor with refreshment as well as show that puppy’s need a bowl of water.
Bruce used to lose a considerable amount of body fluid during each show as he was stitched into a cowhide suit to play the role and wore arm, leg, ankle and knee pads for protection and support.
The script emerged after a couple of weeks spent playing and discussing in improvisation in the afternoons after completing the physical training and research for the day. As I was also working nights in the theatre on the ANT production of Raymond Cousse’s Kid’s Stuff it seemed inevitable that aspects of Kid’s Stuff made their way into Puppy Love. I think if a comparison were to be made between the two scripts, some similarities in rhythm would emerge. I would say in retrospect that Kid’s Stuff was, in a sense, very much a style guide to my editing of Bruce’s stream of consciousness material. Certain repetitions and structures in sentences were very helpful to keep the imagery simple and clear, and to identify a distinct process of reaching a conclusion.
In the case of developing the script for The Grip (1992) I was approached by actor Catherine Carter and asked to develop a play for her to perform. Catherine asked me to come up with themes and ideas in order for us to discuss them which we did before we set out on a development journey. I had already formed a few ideas about writing something about women and the notion of witches.
With The Grip the script was ultimately written in a day, mostly in the form of monologue, after extensive research and work had been done to set mood and create experience for the creative team. The ‘extensive work’ included going and finding real on site experiences in an environment that would serve as the mental ‘set’ of the play.
My approach was to provide us with a shared experience of the environment so we could discuss it, make discoveries, become inspired and perform certain exercises such as listening to the trees and the atmosphere in general, looking at it, touching it, being immersed in it and experiencing the vulnerability of being a human in it.
Certain rituals were performed such as selecting objects that would be used as props in the play, and those props were symbols and representative of particular characters whom populated the world of the play and were part of the proceedings taking place. None of the characters had been written or developed at that stage, just a story line.
The rituals were based on research I had done in my preparation and although I refer to them as rituals I could easily substitute the word ‘exercise’ but the working-rhetoric we adopted tended to favour the more spiritual side rather than the self-conscious theatrical craft based rhetoric of our activities.
The Grip and Puppy Love were both professional productions with funding provided in part by government arts grants. The script for “Are There Bears?” is different in so much as it is being created in a school environment with students. This process is similar to the processes I have conducted with students at the Australian Theatre for Young People and in classes at Darlinghurst Theatre with adult students.
The ultimate objective is to create a production with the aim of engaging students in how a play may be written from the ground up – or to put it another way, from some conceptual idea to a concrete thing such as a script.
There are many other forces at play in relation to the script development process within the context of a school; indeed this is one part of a much greater process that the students are undertaking in order to become competent with particular elements of their work.
When dealing with the feedback of the students it is important to consider that the stresses and balances at play are reflective of their position in a much greater process that involves different sorts of judgement calls and decision making mechanisms to those that an actor encounters in a professional environment where the situation is likely to be less circumspect.
The delivery of the process and the activities employed to teach the students are relative to their position as students. In the professional environment the daily activities involved in the process of development tend to be more engaged with reaching the desired outcome and not at all about the adjudication of the individuals involved in the process.
In my opinion this makes the professional environment a far more productive place for this type of activity. I do not wish to undermine the process I am observing at AC Arts but I do think it is important to draw the distinction between the two situations as I believe the outcome is very heavily influenced by the process in its entirety and as suggested by Stephen Sewell in his interview, this is more a crash course for the purposes of delivering an educational example of something that is indeed more organic, complex and streamlined in a non-school environment.
I recorded an interview Stephen at the beginning of the process after he had spent a few days working with the students. The following is a transcript of the interview where I have highlighted some points in bold:
David Jobling: Stephen can you please explain what you are doing here at AC ARTS?
SS: I’m assisting the acting students in the devising of a new show from scratch, I’m not writing but I’m encouraging and assisting and trying to help people through what is essentially an exercise in writing aimed specifically at actors.
David Jobling: You’ve done experimental exercises like having them write down a single line of dialogue and then swap it for one someone else wrote and then deliver it seeking to create meaning – what was the result of that exercise?
SS: What my philosophy is, is that one of the hardest things to do is to begin; an associated phrase with that is that ‘it actually doesn’t matter where you begin,’ so we began this process by me simply saying write something down and each of them wrote a sentence and then we threw it into the pool (onto the floor) and then we picked those sentences up randomly and then read them out and that was our beginning. And in that, one of the sentences that was used was, “So we find ourselves in a place of no place and a time of no time,” and that for me was a very kind of resonant phrase that reflected both on the nature of theatre and the nature of the kind of theatre that I like, and more generally a philosophical position. And a poetic position – a poetic beginning. So we then began to develop and listened to those things. I broke the team of twelve or thirteen actors into groups, they used those sentences as the kernel to a drama that they started to improvise. The third element of ‘it is important to begin’ (and ‘it doesn’t matter where you begin’), the next part of that is – by constantly polishing and working and worrying at where you begin – you achieve two results. One result is that you begin to enter an imaginative space that perhaps you didn’t know it existed, so it’s an anti-rational kind of process, and the second part of it in this situation where we’ve found ourselves where there’s a whole bunch of people, it allows the development, or encourages the development of a kind of group mind. That’s what a big part of the two weeks of the process that we’ve been working on has been about. It’s the development of a group mind or a group identity out which can arise a set of wishes and desires and dreams that is then the real work, the real material for a theatrical product. If I had one writer. Say I was doing it with you I’d just say “Write something, and let’s start working on that,” and over a period of time, you know, two three days, four days, five days, eventually we’d start getting into the things that fascinate you and the things that fascinate me and between those two things and the rubbing of the stones as it were, of those impenetrable stones that we begin with, we can rub them away and shape them and begin to find what ultimately, is a reveal about our own characters.
David Jobling: You’ve said recently that sculpting is something you find interesting. Clearly you have an interest in structure and the way things can, maybe can, possibly can fit together, or maybe they can not. Does that fascination come from the sage playwright wanting to build his skill set and understand how things come together?
David Jobling: Yeah.
David Jobling: That’s a very clear simile for a playwright to use, so tell me a little more about that constructive impulse and creativity.
SS: I suppose there are two major parts to it or two different sides to it. The first is for me the most difficult part of writing or of creating anything is an entrance into the unconscious. I firmly believe that the energy the psychic energy that we need or the energy that an act of creation needs is an unconscious energy so that a big part of my process has to do and has always been to do with kind of deranging as it were, myself, and stopping other people when they’re attempting to do something like this (to create something) to prevent them from thinking too much about what they’re doing before they do it. For me it’s a mystery. We don’t know where we’re going. The only thing that’s guiding us is the desire to be there. That’s the only thing to guide us and that unconscious guide – you know if I was going to step back and ask what’s that guide doing? – that guide can be all sorts of things including evil things but I think principally you know what it is, once people have set themselves on the path of wanting to be a creative artist think that guide is attempting to heal something hurt and wounded inside us.
David Jobling: So are you subscribing to the idea that writers for example are ‘making an attempt to heal their own psychoses’?
SS: Yes I do and I think that psychosis is a very good word for it. James Joyce for example you know was very likely to have been absolutely psychotic except for the fact that he filled the void with words.
David Jobling: In this process everyone’s a creative individual headed towards this outcome. This place that we’re going to be. This play that we’re going to be in.
David Jobling: Observing the process I can see that you are placing things out there and situating them into the domain of the group. You are putting out little ideas that reticulate and come back in other ways, and they become formal elements in a matter of days. I can see you doing that quite consciously in the process. You are doing that consciously aren’t you?
SS: Yes. I suppose I’m, what I’m like, what I just described as the creative process or half of the creative process or maybe a little more than half but anyhow.. that’s a strong element but also it takes a long time. If I was doing that myself it could be months of that sort of process of derangement and struggle and as you know yourself just that kind of flopping around and not being, the uncertainty and the dead ends and you know, the frustration, that’s ultimately a vocation or something but what we have here is a process that’s only going to last six weeks and that will result in a presentation in front of an audience so to some extent it has to be prodded along and perhaps not done as in depth as you’d like to. I mean really this is a kind of a crash course I suppose. At the end of the process what these students will have will be I hope a number of tools with which they can in the future if they want to do it – to throw themselves into a more complete creative process for themselves.
What Stephen is saying here corresponds with what I believe as a theatre practitioner and the tools he mentions are useful indeed.
I say these tools are universal based on my experiences creating new scripts.
In 1985 when we set out to develop the script and production ‘Puppy Love: The tale of a dog’ we had a luxurious six week development and rehearsal schedule that included regular vigorous training sessions that I designed to prepare us for the outcome, a very vigorous one man show. That was our job essentially from nine to five each day and we had the use of the ANT theatre space to rehearse in. I call that luxurious because in 1992 Catherine Carter and I were restricted to the equivalent of four week’s professional income for the whole creative development project. I broke the creative development process into two two-week blocks with a three week interval between them in order to prolong the ‘derangement’ as Stephen calls it.
This sort of practical approach allowed the creative process to have more time to turn over, five weeks of pre-writing (material I had already been thinking of and researching for a while anyway) including two weeks of taking the actor to on site expeditions and exercises. I was ready with a story idea and three characters.
Now I’m looking to an interview I did with writer Nick Enright OAM (1950 – 2003) about his plays, starting with Country Music and including A Man with Five Children two plays originally developed with acting students. In his generosity Nick provides some excellent points.
The first production in NIDA’s new Parade Theatre opened on July 17, 2002. It was Country Music the Australian premiere of a new play by NIDA graduate and teacher, Nick Enright.
David Jobling: You’ve got a show that’s soon to open here at NIDA called Country Music; how long have you been working on Country Music?
Nick Enright: The students and I started improvising and kicking around ideas in September of last year (2001) and we workshopped the play for a few months and then I went away and wrote the piece and we’ve been rehearsing for two months, we open next week.
David Jobling: It sounds quite interesting because it’s a mix of a lot of the issues that are around in Australian society; that are around at the moment. What sort of issues are you touching on?
Nick Enright: Principally I suppose it’s the sense of what it is to be Australian now; in a country which is so divided and so full of tension and hostility really. I think like the students and like the two directors who are working on the show, I think we all feel that this is a crucial time for Australia because you have to take a position. I think it’s been true probably since the emergence of Pauline Hanson, that probably, the one positive contribution she made to the national discourse was to require all of us to define what it is that we actually believe about Australia, and I think that since the events of 2001 and now 2002 particularly in relation to border protection and refugees the whole country’s politicised and the sense of distress and concern that a lot of us feel about government policy and about the kind of country that we’ve become is probably the central idea at the heart of the play – so there is, there are four parallel stories running through the evening it’s quite a big night and it’s set in a fictional country town, one of the stories is about the detention centre which is in the town and an Iraqi man who escapes from that, and there’s an Aboriginal ghost story which underpins the whole piece which is really the sort of matrix that the rest of it sits in, and there’s a by-election a wedding, a couple of runaway teens, and uh, it’s a big night.
David Jobling: Sounds very Australian. Your description sounds very Australian. You mention an Aboriginal ghost story? Now in A Man with five Children which you developed with students in, at WAPPA (Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts) in Perth, there was also a fellow who essentially became a ghost or a spirit by the end of the play – is this a running theme for you?
Nick Enright: Not consciously, ah, when I say that there’s an ‘Aboriginal ghost story’ there’s a story that happens in real time but it happens a hundred years ago, it’s a colonial story about the usurpation of land to make a coal mine and what that provokes in an Aboriginal man who is the kind of custodian of this piece of land. That story is real, it happens in real time but then it becomes a ghost story for the present so it’s both, it’s happening in two time frames, but yes in Man with five children, the young Malaysian, Chinese, boy who disappeared comes back and we never know whether he is literally a ghost or whether he is a projection of the consciousness of the man who sent him (away) but maybe it is a theme I’ll have to think about that.
David Jobling: I’m interested too because you have worked with students a lot of the time, you did Summer Rain in 1983 with NIDA students, and now Country Music, A Man with Five Children was originally done with WAPPA students is there a major difference between working with large groups of students and sitting at home writing something that’s coming from your, specifically just from you?
Nick Enright: There’s an enormous difference particularly in the case of this piece, not so much in the case of Summer Rain which was written on those students but nonetheless it was constructed at home, this one has absolutely grown out of the ideas and the concerns of the students and even though a lot of the narrative ideas were provided by me, there’s quite a considerable input from them into character development, into the stories, and indeed it was the students choice to, or the students passion about the detainees that got that story into the play. So, their contribution is enormous.
David Jobling: That’s interesting so it’s as much a reflection where their heads are at-
Nick Enright: Oh indeed, in fact the first question that we asked them the first day we met was, “What is it to be an Australian now, at this point in time?” and they all just had the floor no one was allowed to question them, each of them could speak for as long as they wanted to about what it felt like to be Australian.
David Jobling: So are you the sort of writer that sits and takes notes while that’s happening or do you just listen very carefully and go away and think about it?
Nick Enright: In that case I took notes and one of the things that I did much later was reflect back to them things that they’d said, so we could see how much of it had found its way into the play.
David Jobling: So what was that like? Were they surprised when you started to reflect back?
Nick Enright: Um yes and I think they were pleased. They could already see that a lot of the things they’d expressed were already in the play and indeed lines from improvisations had found their way into the play but when they realised the point at which we’d started when we didn’t even know what the stories were going to be we were just talking about Australia and then when we got to rehearsal where there’s this document called a play and they could say “Oh yes, because three or four of us expressed these views that took form as a story”.
David Jobling: So what’s it like then to be at home thinking I’ve got this idea, I’m going to sit down I’m going to write a play, and is that what happens with you or does someone whisper in your ear, “Nick why don’t you write this, why don’t you look at the Lee Leigh murder,” for example? How does that happen?
Nick Enright: Err, it’s pretty much one from column A and one from column B. There’ll be projects like Property of the Clan and Blackrock which it turned into, which were suggested by a company. And indeed vigorously resisted by me. And there are other ideas like A Man with Five Children that just come in to your head and you kick them around until they’re ready to be written.
David Jobling: Let’s just go back. Why did you “vigorously resist” the Property of the Clan?
Nick Enright: The proposal to write a play about, not to write a play about the Lee Leigh case, but to write a play using that material, came from Brian Joyce who was running Freewheels which was and still is a Community Theatre company in Newcastle (New South Wales) and Brian had asked me to write ‘a play’ and I said, “Why don’t you suggest a subject” and he said “Lee Leigh” and I said “You’ve got to be mad I wouldn’t touch it because the only response I could have is a very conventional one of shock and anger and they’re not good starting points for a play, and he said “You don’t understand, there’s a whole group of kids in this community whose views and deepest feelings haven’t been expressed everything was closed off, no one was, there was no discussion, the community just went to ground and he said that he felt that a play would be a way of ventilating for those kids because when I wrote the play it was only two or three years after those real events and so the agreement was that we wouldn’t do a play where those events were dramatised but we would create an event that was about a group of kids who were witnesses to a parallel sort of event and I’m very glad that he persuaded me because it was a wonderful exercise.
David Jobling: And so what about then taking it from the stage and turning it into a film? What process did you go through there?
Nick Enright: Well the material went through several processes. First was Property of the Clan which is a very simple theatre-in-education play for four actors and no scenery. Where inevitably you focused on the kids, they were young actors, there were some older characters in it but essentially it was about a group of young teenagers. And then when there was interest from various main stage companies in the material they said “why don’t you just build up the roles of the adults” and I thought well I’d rather write a new play and the chance of creating a community on stage with a large group of actors and having parent child relationships and rather more complex class relationships was too good to resist so I wrote Blackrock which in many ways is a different play even though the central triad is more or less the same. I mean even the narrative is quite different. And then when the opportunity came to rework it as a film the attraction of that was that the environment of the play is essentially visual and there’s a fantastic contradiction, visual contradiction in that world, which in the theatre you can only suggest but on film you can put the smoke stacks the steel works next to the surfing beach which is exactly what happens in Newcastle so you see these two violently oppositional worlds and I thought that was a really good environment in which to tell a screen story. And I wanted to have a crack at translating the narrative into film terms and again it probably differs from the play of Blackrock as much as Blackrock differs from Property of the Clan even though it’s recognisably from the play the narrative is quite different the characters have different weight and are characters that have been expanded and crucially of course we brought the girl, Tracey, the murdered girl onto the screen so she was a presence, whereas in the play of course she never appears.
David Jobling: I’m starting to think now of Mongrels too, a very strong play about Australian larrikinism and writing and the relationship between a couple of writers over a long period of time. Was that something that was based in reality or was that something that came from your head?
Nick Enright: Well the jumping off point was a friendship which was a real friendship a historical friendship between Jim McNeil and Peter Kenna who were two quite major figures in the renaissance of Australian playwriting in the seventies and eighties and in reality they were friends, they weren’t close friends but they got on well and they admired each other’s work. But they were chalk and cheese. McNeil who had spent many years in prison on charges of armed robbery and various things and Peter Kenna who was physically very frail spiritually and emotionally incredibly strong and lived with a kidney disease for most of his life in fact was on a dialysis until he had a transplant and they were such fantastic opposing archetypes that I took the essence of those two people and turned them into fictional characters and gave them a kind of antagonistic relationship but inevitably what happens when you do those things is that reality is left behind and they become aspects of yourself, and people took great glee in identifying them as characters and identifying quite inaccurately the other people in the play as real people. Where as in fact the truth is they were versions of me.
David Jobling: So you’re not a David Williamson by any stretch of the imagination but in terms of process in terms of creating conglomerates of people and in some cases maybe throwing the cat amongst the pigeons as far as all his mates are concerned kind of looking over their shoulder wondering if you’re taking notes while you’re having dinner in their backyard around the barbie or something..
Nick Enright: Mmm
David Jobling: You’re really looking into yourself and finding where would this part of you be if this happened..
Nick Enright: Yeah!
David Jobling: These circumstances..
Nick Enright: Exactly like the process of acting you know that it’s the ‘what if’ you know, ‘what if?’ instead of it being this shape and this size and this gender you know, I had these thoughts, and these feeling but in another body or in another profession, another career. Um, certainly in the case of Mongrels it would be silly to deny that those two are based on two real people and I did use some of the biographical facts of those two lives, certainly stuff that was on the public record but that’s unusual for me, that’s quite unusual. The Blackrock material that we were talking about, The property of the Clan material was widely and inaccurately thought to be a sort of documentary account of a whole lot of real people, in fact they’re all invented. And even the murderer is as unlike the real murderer of the real girl, of Lee Leigh, is as unlike that character as is possible to imagine.
David Jobling: So jumping again, forward in time, possibly I might be confused but there’s also deep down inside of you a young Liza Minnelli?
Nick Enright: Well that’s a very good point because that’s a show that’s full of very real people but they still have to be invented I mean even if the characters called Judy Garland or Liza Minnelli or in deed Peter Allen, you’ve got all that documentary material available to you but they are still characters in a narrative, you know, the way they express themselves and the things they do are to some degree out of your own head. I know that sounds ridiculous because a life which is as well documented as Peter Allen’s you think all you have to do is just put it on the stage but ultimately he is a fictional character called Peter Allen.
David Jobling: I’ve wanted to say to you since seeing it I don’t know how long ago, it was on at Her Majesty’s when Her Majesty’s was Her Majesty-
Nick Enright: It was four years ago.
David Jobling: Four years ago huh? You are the singular Australian writer possibly the singular writer in the world (?) to put two HIV+ men on stage together singing a love song that everybody loves, certainly all Australian’s love ‘I honestly love you’ the old Olivia Newton John song, and when I saw it and sat there in tears while that was happening I looked as you do when you’re involved in theatre, I looked up and down the row at all of the middle-aged and older people who were also sitting there in tears –
Nick Enright: And they absolutely went with it, yeah. Yeah. It’s helped of course by the fact that the song is so wonderful, ahem, and that it was very well played and extremely well directed, I mean, particularly that relationship and it didn’t take any special courage to do that because that was you know, I mean the documentary truth was that he lost Greg you know, to AIDS in the eighties and that man was the great love of his life. I thought we pulled some punches in the show and there were a lot of battles about it because I thought even though that relationship was as truthfully represented as we could in the amount of stage time as we had it did kind of feel as though Peter Allen had suddenly become gay you know having been with Liza Minnelli where as you know in fact he was gay from the age of thirteen or fourteen. It was the relationship with Liza that was the aberration rather than the other way round and he was of course extremely promiscuous and the material the songs, the lyrics are actually about dropping people, being dropped, moving on, getting over relationships you know, and I think there’s a rawness to the writing that we could’ve addressed more, a lot of material got cut which was investigating that idea further because I thought it was interesting to see someone who was a kind of root-rat who then falls in love-
David Jobling: Yeah! It’s a really beautiful piece. I’ve got to say that The Boy from Oz is my favourite Nick Enright.
Nick Enright: Ah.
David Jobling: Because it’s, you know I remember a lot of those events and I guess it’s a happy thing but it’s also got incredible sadness in it and I just think that it’s just amazing to watch that sort of thing; and also it’s an Australian musical you know?
Nick Enright: In deed but it was a very positive, and yeah that was everyone, you know that wasn’t me, I mean you know, the person who writes the book in a musical is not really a playwright in the sense that when you write a play, it’s true, I mean the play writing is actually done by the director and the writer and the choreographer and the designer, you know, it’s a communal effort. But I do think that what we collectively achieved with these fabulous actors particularly with Todd was something that was heartfelt but which didn’t depress you, which said finally that the spirit of somebody lives on. The premise of the show was always, from the time that I started to work on it a man earning the right to stand in the middle of the stage wearing plain black pants and a plain white shirt and ‘Tentterfield Saddler’ and you felt that there was a completely open channel between him and his experience on the one hand and then the audience on the other that you know that this is who I am there are all the things that have happened to me, you know; my father was a drunk, and he killed himself, he married a girl with an interesting face, all of that stuff, and also the notion that he’s finally homeless, which is in the song, you know that he’s a traveller, that he keeps moving and incredibly honest and wonderful song..
David Jobling: It’s like the journey from ‘Tenterfield Saddler’ to ‘I still call Australia home’
Nick Enright: Yeah.
David Jobling: Yeah, definitely-
Nick Enright: But we always wanted Tenterfield Saddler to be in that point of the show that really does end the show I mean ‘Rio’ was just a sort of you know-
David Jobling: Bit of fluff?
Nick Enright: Bit of fluff at the end and interesting, the audience, it never quite took fire because the audience were in a different, I mean it was fun.. it was.. you know people enjoyed it; we always said we’d give them Rio and they’ll go crazy but in fact they wanted to be in the Tenterfield Saddler mode.
David Jobling: It was very emotional. I mean it’s very emotional journey and you basically had this collection of icons on stage that I think everyone was so excited.. Kristy Hinze??
Nick Enright: Amphlett, Crissy Amphlett But you know the thing about the material once again this words come up in this conversation before every piece that’s worth doing is based on a fundamental contradiction and what you need to do is crack that contradiction because our lives are full of oppositions and contrary forces and what fascinated me from the start about Peter Allen and this is only the show that I chose to write, another writer would have found another set of values in the material but what fascinated me from the get go was that Peter Allen the performer was as funny and as outrageous and as wicked an as sensual and as flamboyant as he wanted to be and never showed any kind of vulnerability you know, that was the contradiction for the audience what he sang the songs are all about pain and he’d do these songs and I mean like ‘Two little boys’ which was you know beautiful song which we didn’t get use in the show and they’re heartbreaking and he finishes and he say’s “Well did ya like that?” You know and it’s ‘Aaah you’re all so sad, you’re all such sooks and he mocks the emotion that he’s just generated and I think that’s really interesting
David Jobling: Do you think that’s an Australian thing?
Nick Enright: Yes. Yes. Quintessentially Australian and one of the reasons why the Americans loved him was that he wasn’t you know a falsely sincere, “I love you all very much, and you’re all so beautiful, this is the best night I’ve ever had…” I mean he would slag the audience you know, and they loved that they loved the sense that he was you know taking the piss all the time
David Jobling: Almost a Dame Edna without a frock.
Nick Enright: Absolutely that’s a very good comparison. It’s a very similar relationship with the audience and I think the Americans similarly respond to Barry Humphries in that way.
David Jobling: Are you re-writing Boy from Oz for America?
Nick Enright: No I’m not with the project anymore. I don’t even know where they are I think they had a commitment from Hugh Jackman to do it at the end of this coming season and I don’t know where that is now. But it’s another whole team doing the show.
David Jobling: Right, does it, will it say anywhere based on the original play blahdy blah Nick Enright or?
Nick Enright: I don’t know. That’s yet to be determined It’s all perfectly amicable but they have a new director and a new writer and a whole new production and in a way it was kind of inevitable cause what they want to do of course is showcase the songs, that’s the primary reason for doing the show, but for the Americans even though there were a whole group of people that loved him he was never the big star that he is here where as the Australian version is based on the fact that he walks onto the stage and says “Hello Sydney” or “Hello Melbourne” and we’re all prepared to buy the fact that this is Peter Allen come back to life where as in America you could not do that show and you’ve got to treat Judy Garland very differently and Liza Minnelli very differently you know the relative weight of those relationships has to be looked at and I felt it was better, you know for someone to start fresh.
David Jobling: So is it an American writer and American team essentially.
Nick Enright: Yep.
David Jobling: Yeah?
Nick Enright: Michael Schermann who wrote Rent is writing the book I think that is good.
David Jobling: Yeah, so the HIV component is going to be intact?
Nick Enright: Oh absolutely probably even stronger I would say.
David Jobling: Okay.
Nick Enright: And they won’t be so worried about the promiscuity because it’s you know, it’s less, he’s less of a cuddly teddy-bear for them.
David Jobling: We’re sort of in America now Lorenzo’s Oil how long ago is that, 1992?
Nick Enright: That’s a long time ago, we’re doing all the old ones, that’s more than ten years ago.
David Jobling: Well I mean, I guess, I suppose we’re doing all the old ones because I mean I’ve known you for twenty years or first met you, you know, twenty odd years ago, a little bit longer in fact so I, I can’t say I’ve seen absolutely everything-
Nick Enright: You’ve done pretty well-
David Jobling: But I’ve seen a lot and I just remember the emotion and the dilemma and you’re talking about contradictions and such and Lorenzo’s Oil does come to mind it’s something that is full of real pain and a different sort of pain, that I think and maybe it’s your Australianness that has created that somehow and you are talking about this stuff coming from inside yourself so..
Nick Enright: I mean in that case the material was a gift because the narrative which we scarcely altered at all you know ninety five percent of that of the story of that film happens in the chronological order that it happened in real life so the story was open and there to be done and those people who gave us their full cooperation the Odone’s, Augusto and Michaela Odone the characters played by Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon they made their lives and Lorenzo’s life available to us and even though, you know, inevitably it’s always a work of fiction finally we had so much material to draw on. And the scientific basis of the story was completely factual. In fact we had an obligation not to move from that. So in that case it would be hard to identify what’s personal in the material. Obviously some of it is. I think I probably beamed in on her in a very particular way. And had a very good rapport with both the real woman and the actress who played her-
David Jobling: Ah I’ve got to touch you-
Nick Enright: (Laughs)
David Jobling: You had a good relationship with Susan Sarandon.
Nick Enright: Yeah. Good working relationship. I wouldn’t say we were friends. We had a very good candid-
David Jobling: But how wonderful.
Nick Enright: Yeah, it was a thrill. You know it was great and Nick Nolte was fantastic too but there was something about the writing of that role that i could identify with even though George (Miller) and I wrote the whole thing together I think once again it’s the divided soul that you always go for. I responded to the fact that the real woman was both one of the most heroic people that I have ever known and also probably one of the loopiest. And that’s a really interesting combination. And one of the things which underpins the film is that that kind of dedication and sacrifice though it’s ultimately very noble doesn’t manifest itself as an ability it manifests itself as a kind of a madness.
David Jobling: It’s obsession.
Nick Enright: Yeah it’s obsession. And that was certainly what George and I, we’re both obsessive’s in our own ways; it’s what we responded to in the material. What was interesting about them was not that they cared because any parent cares about the fate of a child that’s a common-place. What was interesting about them was that they applied their energies and their intellects to finding a solution.
David Jobling: And that, do you see the parallel with yourself in that? Using your intellect to find solutions? Because you’ve been and probably always will be an actor and an acting teacher and you’ve imparted a great deal of information on young actors and you know probably older actors too, but you’ve been in those positions where you’ve assisted people find ways into themselves. So I mean is that something that you think about?
Nick Enright: Oh I wouldn’t put myself in the same, anything like the same league as those two. Certainly I think you’ve got to keep your brain engaged in the task but I don’t think I’ve got anything like either the capacity or the courage of those people. They were extraordinary. They are extraordinary. She’s dead now but they are extraordinary people. And again one of the things that interested me was that they were, had their son not been stricken with that disease they would have had a perfectly ordinary comfortable middleclass life. He was a banker and you know they had a very nice home and they travelled. You know, we would never have herd of them. They would have just been a perfectly ordinary nice couple. And disaster happens and out of it they find this extraordinary capacity to act.
David Jobling: Is that something that comes up in your work much do you think?
Nick Enright: I don’t know. As you’ve observed from some of my answers I’m not very good at finding common themes, it’s really for someone else to explore those things. I mean I suppose I’m interested always in, in people being tested. But I think that’s the condition of our lives. You know I think we only become interesting when we are tested.
David Jobling: So it’s not like a Noel Coward sort of world where it’s all kind of wit and fairly facile, there’s always a challenge…
Nick Enright: Yeah, well you know, I wish I could write as well as Noel Coward. And you know they’re all based in sound psychology I suppose I’m interested in, Williamson always said “Drama is people is people in trouble,” and I suppose for me it’s you know, people being tested by extraordinary circumstances and particularly latterly as with “Country Music” I do like to push people to push the characters to extremes.
David Jobling: So what sort of extremes can we look forward to in Country Music?
Nick Enright: There’s a life and death issue for a couple of people. There’s a situation which has just happened at Woomera of course. There’s a detainee on the run, who comes into contact with a whole lot of people in the community and that forces some quite extreme reactions. There’s a kind of hunt for this man and in the course of that a lot of relationships get unpicked. There’s a bi-election that creates huge hostilities and enmities. There’s the payback spearing of a white landowner by an aboriginal. There are reprisals, there’s a massacre, so it’s a frothy light bubbly evening in the theatre. There are a few jokes.
David Jobling: Is this a musical?
Nick Enright: No. No. It’s the music of this country. There’s a lot of underscore by a terrific young composer called Wan Lau (sic) has created a kind of a, you know, a soundscape. But no, there is a character who is a country singer who does, you know sings for a couple of minutes but no it’s not a musical.
David Jobling: Now this wouldn’t be a country singer similar to the country singer from Summer Rain by any chance?
Nick Enright: No it’s an aboriginal country singer who comes to town to be the surprise guest at a hen’s night and new readers join here –
David Jobling: Sounds very interesting. The way to wind up I guess and let you go and get on with your life; what’s next are you thinking ahead in terms of you have got something else on the boil?
Nick Enright: I’m going to have a big rest. I’m going to the Northern Territory and do some teaching and then I’m going to go away and sit on a rock somewhere and look at the sea.
David Jobling: So are you going to write your memoirs?
Nick Enright: Oh god no. No no!
David Jobling: Don’t you think there’d be just so many people who’d be really interested.
Nick Enright: I’d like to write a book about the Australian theatre, I wouldn’t want to write a book about me, I’d love to write a book about the people I’ve known and the lives that I’ve witnessed because we don’t document that stuff enough. Julian Merrick has written what is apparently a very good book about Nimrod which is great, um, but no I have no interest in writing anything about my life.
David Jobling: I think that’s such a shame because you’re so full of good stories you know and maybe that’s the people you’ve seen and the places you’ve been that sort of thing. I mean you had even with Lorenzo’s Oil so long ago, you were nominated for an academy award, now you’d be one of the few Australian writers that was nominated for an Academy Award.
Nick Enright: Yeah but that’s just you know a bubble, that’s just something that happens.
David Jobling: But it’s such an interesting bubble.
Nick Enright: Yeah. I don’t know. Anyway someone else can write the book.
David Jobling: Well thank you very much, I wish you well, I hope you have a great time sitting on that beach
Nick Enright: Thank you
David Jobling: And I hope you have a marvellous time with Country Music
Nick Enright: Thanks David.
I agree with Nick and Stephen that there are departure points in this relatively common play development process when used with students or community members or whoever, where writers can basically depart from the main stream of collaborative development activity and grow their own script from what is a rich garden bed of ideas. The questions that arise from this; is an individual writer driven to find ways of making these creative processes occur with their own work? To unpack their psychosis as it were?
What becomes evident in conversation with Stephen and Nick is the core of the work is essentially the writer’s voice.
On a practical level it can work like this – create a character, develop the characters story, improvise in character, develop that material so it fits into a dramatic arc with a beginning a middle and an end.
Once there are certain parameters to work within I am able to make decisions ‘in character’ and have emotional reactions based on a rational universe I am ‘inside’. I want to make the most of the drama I can identify, and in that, I want to identify the drama as universally as I possibly can, given my circumstances. Ultimately I want to get my story across in a clear and engaging way. There are only so many ways to learn how to be creative this way. As Stephen points out, it doesn’t really matter where you start, as long as you start. Obviously if you are creating something that has an opening date, it is best to have an idea to start with and some clear parameters.
The script of Are there bears? began when the detailed background stories and situations were written out, after originating through creative discussion between the actors and the playwright Stephen. The actors mostly did not write their own scenes. The script was edited in the rehearsal process little by little, a word here and there, a line sometimes altered – some scenes simply are ‘a bear appears’ – so it is a very sparse surreal magic script to begin with, then after a period away the mentor/writer returns and distributes his rewrites that alter the scenes considerably into a more coherent finished draft as far as dialogue goes.
The new dialogue provides opportunity for the characters to set certain elements into their scenes such as back-story and opinion and attitude. There is more relativity associated with the characters because of the added insight into their psychological, social and environmental contexts than there had previously been in the script. The amount of truth and moral value exposed by the rewritten scenes is increased because the relatable realities of the story are clearer, and provide an audience with universal reference points that are already part of the literary canon: incest, self realisation, self doubt, unrequited love, transformation.
It draws on the original discussions had by the group. Stephen did not alter directions that appeared in the original text, although these directions are more or less discarded by the Director.
When I asked him about this transition from the working script to this new draft Stephen described the shift as ‘brutal’ and I believe he was correct in calling it ‘brutal’ in relation to the actors working on the process, but not in respect to the script they have created or the experience the audience may ultimately receive at this point.
I think the addition of the realism into the magic has caused a magic-realism, meaning a play set in a realm that is not concrete dealing with universally concrete realities faced by people. This has driven the issues that the group were originally discussing back into a sharper focus. The adjustments they have to make as student actors could well feel insurmountable as the axis of the play suddenly shifts for them and presents them with new lines to learn and utterances that the character they feel they’ve developed are required to make.
Some sense of ownership over the material has been shifted for them as they are given their new scenes. I can see that as being described as ‘brutal’ by the writer because he knows this would be a different process if it were not a teaching exercise requiring them to shift in and out of Actor/writer mode to writer or actor mode.
Essentially Stephen has brought more interaction between characters into play and given more clarity to the audience of what the particular relationships are between characters in this world.
The realisation of the play is handed over to Peter Dunn the Director, who is also at odds (in empathy with the actors)between the script as it is delivered and the production he (they all have) has been building, and there appears to be some determination for the Director to have the final word on any changes. The dynamic of the process is a lot different in the environment filled with students I find.
Prior to the new draft of the script arriving I surveyed nine of the students involved to determine where they were at in terms of the process so far. I asked the question, “What was the point where everything gelled for you as an actor?” to which seven indicated it ‘had not gelled yet’ and two indicated they had some idea of the story they were telling.
So ironically they were not collectively very content with what they had to work with and now they are more concerned I think that there are new lines to learn and the ‘magical’ quality of the play has been destroyed by ‘pornography’ and ‘too much realism’. I think this is a moment of ‘shock’ and ‘traumatic stress’ for the actors, and they will get over it. The writing has certainly improved with the second draft.
I believe the play will be both magical and realistic, and I think the elements between the two depend very much on the process and ultimate realisation of the script under Peter’s Direction.
I also surveyed the students to find out what they had found challenging in the process. They responded by describing the writing, the understanding, the collaborating, the interpreting bad script as an actor, and connecting the dots between the various stories as the most challenging elements. It sounds like they all know how it feels to be a writer if nothing else.
A Man With Five Children went through extensive rewrites after and during workshops.
With Country Music the writer took the material away from the early improvisations and discussions and returned with a script that deliberately contained these elements.
From the writers perspective I see how the interaction with actors in a development process assists the writer enormously. This is a process of planning and testing out ideas; identifying circumstances and situations then playing around with them. This process works for me as a writer and as a director, for the director is very much part of the writing muscle-set lifting the play from the ground or getting the baby up on its feet.
The idea of going away into a room and sitting down to write a play is very different ultimately from writing what’s essentially monologue for The Grip or Puppy Love. Observing processes of play development at the Australian National Playwrights’ Conference I note that it is often the particular approach of a particular Director that enlightens a script or completely deconstructs it into oblivion. I think of Wayne Harrison directing Frank Hardy’s original musical, Faces In The Street and being restricted by the actual performance space in terms of achieving certain effects. Some venues can make a production seem very small, or to put it another way, the size of the venue can diminish the effect of the production. This may be said of the budget as well obviously, and even the promotional budget if a production has one.
Peter Dunn is using a combination of elements that have created a very sparse but rather beautiful environment. Live music, projected imagery and a stage of ocean sand. The one rule in the writing process was “no props”; this rule was broken in the development of one story-line so to me it seemed the actual development of that particular story was a little disseminated relative to the significance and meaning placed upon the particular prop. I could also see the benefit of having actors-in-training given something large and cumbersome to carry onto stage as part of their training so I accepted the departure from the rules as acceptable within the context of this particular development process.
One story line has really developed into the centrally significant core of the play to me, and that is the story of a man seeking to become a woman, and his relationship with his sister. This story received the most significant dramaturgical input on my behalf.
I was asked to provide a variety of things in the role of dramaturge including information on Bail Conditions and Restrictions in Australia and the United Kingdom, material about the Australian Sex Industry, personal communication with specialists in the area of being Transgender. I can see where the actors have responded well to receiving detailed information as they’ve developed their characters. I think the character who has become centrally significant in the second draft of the play is ‘Carlo/Carla’. I am fascinated by his story in this world, and it is that story that I would seek to develop in a further draft of the play, along with the journey of Lucky, Ariel and Gretel and the King. The other characters fascinate me less although I do not think I would remove any of them. I stress that my reflection is on the text relative to the process, not on the adjudication of the actors-in-training playing their parts.
To take a few steps further into this world would be very fascinating I am certain, but obviously my tastes and fascinations, were I to take it further, would be informed by my aesthetic, my voice.
I recorded another conversation with Stephen Sewell after his absence of four weeks. I look briefly to a portion of this interview now:
David Jobling: Stephen last time we spoke it was at the beginning of the process of “Are there Bears?” this is pretty much the end of the process you had to go away at some point for a couple of weeks was it?
Stephen Sewell: Um I think four.
DJ: Four? Gosh it was four, so it’s been quite a while.
DJ: You came back – what happened when you came back? Like in terms of the process of the script?
SS: Practically, or my view of it?
DJ: Practically, like what did we do?
SS: Well practically what had happened was that when I returned to Adelaide I saw a run-through of the show and so, not a lot of work had been done writing wise; so three quarters of the exercise was about the writers, about actor/writers, and putting a show together. So the major part of the writing that had been done was done in the first two weeks while I was there with them and at the end of that as you know we had a script. Now not a lot of writing work was done after that, in my absence, so the actor/writers had reverted to being actors and practically what they then attempted to do was just put the show on – get it on it’s feet and put it on.
David Jobling: “On” in the rehearsal context – on a stage
DJ: Get it set up to be a production as it was, as such.
DJ: Alright. Now given that you brought it up; what did you think of it when you got back? Like, the text on its feet, as it was, with actors delivering those lines, did it work for you in any way?
SS: Probably in lots of ways, it did work successfully, but what I really thought was that what a writer would normally do with that first draft, I mean basically we had a first draft.
SS: And that would give us an indication of where the writing for the next draft would go.
SS: But, instead of that, the first draft was being polished. So my view of it was that it was as a piece of writing it wasn’t tremendously good, i.e. it could get a lot better.
DJ: Yes which under the circumstances you would expect to a point wouldn’t you?
DJ: I mean any writer would write their first draft and look at it and go – as you said the first time we spoke in this context that we would, if it was just you and I, you would point out the things that you found fascinating and we would go and look at them.
DJ: And look at them again and un-tease those as it were, until we found some way of making them substantial elements of the work. So you came back in, you saw it. It kind of worked okay but it wasn’t in any particular genre that you would necessarily expect is it fair to say that? Or it’s magic-realism-
SS: It wasn’t the stylistic issues. It was um – let me say what I then did.
SS: And that will make it clearer what I mean. I then kind of applied myself to that script and did some rewriting, and it wasn’t polishing it was sort of re-writing through which or in which, certain of the contradictions and uncertainties and anxieties and ah, um, lapses and absences that were in the text were brought out and made heightened and er, made more extreme. That would be the process that a writer would do in the second draft like not too- It’s, it’s, interesting comparing it with film. I’ve now seen it happen many many times where film scripts are polished a long time before what the truth of what they’re about has been revealed.
DJ: U huh.
SS: So they get an idea. The writer gets an idea, someone gets interested in that idea and the idea of developing the script is then really to polish that draft into a conventional kind of form; especially in film. And abandoning, or thinking that’s actually development, when really what they’ve done is covered up the original spark of truth and um, and energy that was in the thing rather than reveal it.
I asked Stephen about the direction the play was taking, in relation to the actual direction of it, and he essentially bowed to the mastery of the director, suggesting he may question something, but he would also seek and find genius in it as well, and that this was essentially a political position.
This is where I think the actual production of “Are There Bears?” becomes problematic for me and my tastes – that there in the core of the creative process is a necessary yielding of the text to the Director by the Writer and based on a ‘political position’. Choices that are arbitrarily made in the rehearsal room have had to find their way into the production regardless of the developed meaning in the text, so some moments that appear to have meaning quite likely do not. I would use the example of an actor asked to do something at a rehearsal simply because they are present. No thought, no discussion – just an actor following a direction. Weeks later the same actor is doing the same thing with the same direction. There has been some physical fine tuning to the scene. It is not a ‘written scene’ as such, merely a segue of sorts. From the audiences perspective this actor has begun a journey by being in this scene…
The meaning of the actors’ movement and blocking is open to interpretation by the audience. The actor is “being an animal” and moving from point ‘a’ to point ‘b’ through a scene being played out by two other actors.
The actual inner monologue of the actor is relative to coordinating the required physical movement at a pace that is responsive to the scene being played out – it is a dance, rather than a verbal scene for this actor, as they move through the scene. The movement draws the eye of the audience and the audience are left to ponder the significance if any, of this actors’ character.
In “Are there Bears?” I could trace the origin of this particular moment, and see how it was essentially an arbitrary thing thrown in that the Director decided to keep; the development or meaning of this particular activity on the stage was stuck in that territory for me – probably because I was observing the process.
I certainly can imagine that the audience member who is fresh and has not seen the process may find some relative meaning in the little dance of the actor moving through the scene and they may connect this with the character this actor portrays, and the business of that character – a pornographer – and they may inscribe this with deeper meaning within the overall context and world presented by the play. I can trust that this will happen on some sort of level because it has crossed my own mind, so why shouldn’t the same or a similar thought have crossed some other persons mind?
I can see how these pockets of what I am seeing as arbitrary activity are necessary elements for the play to work within the context of this particular Directors vision in this particular exercise.
If I were directing this play I would not develop these elements in the way they have been developed here, but I do not mean to undermine the tastes or choices of Peter Dunn’s production. I simply mean to point out that there has not been so much ‘writing’ involved in these more technically based elements meant to train actors, and their meaning is far from fascinating, more introspective and dreamlike than I would have realised for this particular play myself. It’s a taste thing.
The next step for me to take is the one that identifies a way of developing a new work in order to plan my next move – to write a play.
I think I am most likely to follow the advice of both Nick and Stephen and take a story that has been kicking around in my head for a while and write a draft by first identifying the characters and the place. I will then take the first draft and seek out the problems, the bits that fascinate me, and any of the bits that appear to work well, and then refine the draft.
I think I would like to share my first draft with a director who has some dramaturgical experience.
I think I may avoid bringing any actors into this process until I am on a second or possibly third draft. This is because I want my characters to “speak” to the actors, and for the actors to find ways of finding the joy and truth in the characters’ voices, rather than the actors and process of rehearsal development informing the outcome, I want to be in control of that.
If I did have the luxury of working inside an institutional environment such as AC ARTS I would definitely turn to my own established process of developing work with actors.
I would create a schedule and working process that allowed me to draw the work from the actors as they grew with the development of the character – I would shape something from their work as they worked in a collaborative and reflective way – giving them a challenging and productive process, possibly more so than the one I’ve observed. It would certainly be quite different, with more focussed practical work for the actors to do on a daily basis, obviously more relative to the type of theatre that I am accustomed to producing; far more sensorial and organic a process based more in the realm of Mike Leigh than Peter Brook.
The useful hints I’ve had from observing the AC ARTS process are familiar:
- Find a start.
- Trace a story line with a start a middle and an end.
- Develop the characters and establish their context, what do they want, how are they getting it, what are they doing and why are they doing it.
- Refine, rework and rewrite.
I have found a start by writing some scenes from a real-life story as the story has unfolded around me, and this exercise has given me some insight into a story-line that may work on stage. I have done some preliminary writing to tease out some of the characters, and I have done some research to look at differing ways the story could be told.
Ultimately the difference between me and any other writer is the voice and experience of who I am compared with who they are. What do they think and feel compared with what I think and feel. I can’t say my process is better than your process any more solidly than anyone else can say it, because the process is so subjective. If I am in control of the process and the final outcome, I am at least creating something true to myself and my objectives.
Obviously a time comes when the text is handed over and a new influence starts to work with the plasticity of it. The process more or less begins, on another level, all over again. The new team realise and visualise the complete package as it is delivered to them, in a way that satisfies their interpretation of the package (the text).
I think it’s a universal element in communicating about a new work often where one refers to it as ‘my baby’ and I think this is directly drawn from the sense that a writer creates something – a potentially living and breathing being that has its own story to tell, on its own terms, in its own way. Once this ‘baby’ has been delivered, it is essentially the trick of the Director and team attached to the ‘baby’ who get it up on its feet, and help it to walk, then help it to tell its story authentically.
The process will provide an outcome whatever the process is, as long as certain universal elements are working to support the process.
I think key to all of it is that the conception is a process, not a split second event. The elements in a work of fictional drama, or even drama based on fact, may be cherry-picked by the writer over time, to coincide with universal truths that provide value or meaning to life.
The elements of story, character and context need to be present and their weaknesses and strengths will always require some research and revision and rewriting.
One story can be told in a myriad of ways, and then interpreted in another myriad of ways – the measure of a great script is one that draws on all of these elements in such a way as to create a story that can be retold again and again with visceral impact, Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet The Prince of Denmark’ for example, how many productions of ‘Hamlet’ are great productions? I would say ‘many’ are, and many are not so great; my point is there are very many productions of the play still being done.
After some time writing, I will be looking for a Director who appreciates my text, my blueprint, and can identify the elements in it that I would hope any astute and emotionally balanced person would. I would hope to find a Director who respects the form and content of the play’s text enough to realise it in a constructive and creatively appealing way. Not too big a hope I think.