interplay wrap-up pt 7: Ending Gorgeous and Bile

Wisdom and sensitivity: I admire them, I don’t possess them, but I know how to recognise them and David Burton has them in spades. Burton is a Queensland writer and sage, and his script Ending Gorgeous is a striking mix of bizarre humour and thought-provoking narrative. Burton credits his parents in the script dedication, and I quote:

For Dad, for teaching me everything a young man should know: superheroes and politics. For Mum, for teaching me, above all else, take care of your family.

Which sounds ludicrous, but that’s more or less Ending Gorgeous in a nutshell. Margaret Hart is an Australian woman in her mid-50s, and as well as being a mother of two, she’s a miraculous superhero who’s been the tool of the Australian government for the last 50 years. As her son Billy quotes in an interview:

BILLY: My mother could fly by the time she was eight. While her peers were learning a is for apple she was being studied under the kind of examination that even a cancer-riddled lab rat would find invasive. She never learnt how to write a love letter to her grade five classmates, because she was transported from calm and pleasant St. George to
Sydney and Canberra so she could sign a contract with the defence force. And sometime between there and fourteen when Zimbabwe happened, she learned how to use a tampon for the first time. It was tougher for her.

Ending Gorgeous is an extremely well-constructed fable about the tangled web of world politics, the misuse of power and the effect of public life on the family. Those are some fairly big topics, and the mastery of Burton’s script is that he focuses the script so tightly on the tangible: Hart’s intervention in a corrupt military dictatorship in the Pacific, the media focus on her daughter’s fertility, the impact of her husband’s death on Hart’s family unit… It all rings true and it all carries weight.

also, Burton is media savvy as hell and wins extra points for good calls about celebrity pregnancies.

Maja Westerveld Bile. Maja is a Dutch writer and this one came out of the blue. After multiple readings, Bile still resists my attempts to classify it. How can I explain? It’s the story of a brother and sister. In a room. For an afternoon, an evening and a night. They talk. One of them leaves. That’s it.

Ms Westerveld: resisting all attempts to classify her.

Okay okay but what is carried in their conversation is so much love and so much hate that to quote it will do it injustice. There is so much history, there is a lifetime of two lonely souls trapped in each other’s faces, cut off from the real world and drowning in each other, and conveyed in tight little morsels of dialogue. How can I convey the way the two siblings draw each other in, share hints of affection and deep sympathy, and then spit sudden venom at each other when they are most vulnerable? Bile is the word for it.

I’m not going to try and analyse and unpick it, the script resists analysis. Let me instead quote from one of my favourite monologues:

BEN: I was so proud, when you would reach for my hands as we crossed the street, or if I had to carry you when you got tired of playing soccer.
You, on my back with your legs hanging.
With your sports shoes with lights in them and your laces untied, your knees usually grazed and full of black traces of sticking plaster, bruises on your shin.
Your hair would tickle in my neck and I would listen to the soft smacking of your lip as you would suck your thumb near my ear.
Almost sensual, only back then, I didn’t know yet.
I only knew I could walk around like that for hours, with your sleeping face safely curled up behind my neck.
Smiley snout.
You hated that nickname and I would stick up for you when people called you that.
“You’re crazy, she doesn’t have a snout!” I would say.
And you would hide behind me and press your little nose against my underarm.
That made me the strongest.
The very strongest and you knew that.

interplay wrap-up pt 6: Wilde Abandon

Will Henline Wilde Abandon. It is one of the greatest pleasures in this shambling fucked up world in which I dwell to change my mind. Whatever you mean by that, however you read those three words, for me the act of changing my mind is the single best reason to hobble through the day. Wilde Abandon made me change my mind. Twice.

William Henline looks like this most of the time.

Henline’s a Washington DC / New Jersey-based playwright and Wilde Abandon is a play about Oscar Wilde. Like Jennifer Williams’ Untitled, Wilde Abandon creatively fills in some gaps in the historical record – in this instance, Wilde’s relationship with a gentleman named Alphonse Conway. The historical record says that Wilde bought him a shirt, then got sent to prison for ‘gross indecency’. What was so indecent about this shirt? Was it soaked in Nessus’ blood and did it burn Alphonse’s flesh until a passing shepherd kindly set him on fire? Was Eliot referring to Oscar Wilde’s unique tailoring in this stanza from Little Gidding?

Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove

According to William Henline: No. Henline’s play constructs a speculative affair between the two men while Wilde is on a seaside holiday writing The Importance of Being Earnest.

I really love the Ballad of Reading Gaol but you know normally it’s hard for me to care a lot about Oscar Wilde.

Surprise 1: it’s totally enjoyable. My normal reservations toward period drama come unstuck because (a) Henline has the language in his pocket and it’s easy to suspend disbelief and (b) the story moves along in a rapidly tightening spiral towards the inevitable conclusion.

Surprise 2: the characters deepen. The initial scenes paint a clear picture of both Wilde and Alphonse, which is eroded as more information comes to light, until at last I completely reversed my initial judgments. And that’s satisfying as hell.

interplay wrap-up pt 5: allUcanEAT bitches

Timo Kocielnik’s allUcanEAT. I have an emotional connection with this script. It’s 8 pages of straight genius and every line hits home for me.

Timo is an 18-year old writer and theatre-maker from Hamburg, Germany (where allUcanEAT was recently performed). It’s hard for me to separate Timo’s age from this text (because he’s eighteen goddammit), but describing it as ‘prodigious’ is patronising and does no favours to the work. It wouldn’t matter if allUcanEAT was written by an 18 or a 38 year old – the point is that it cleverly captures a whole range of sensations and feelings which few other people have effectively documented.

I’m not a Blizzard fan but I appreciate the importance of to the world of online gaming.

The world of allUcanEAT is online gaming. Now I have to pause to ask a pertinent question: why is it so fucking hard for theatre writers to get to grips with the internet? A pretty good fraction of writers use the internet, a significant quantity basically live on it, but when it comes to writing intelligently and sensitively about it for the stage, there seems to be some kind of magical hurdle.* Plays about the internet are either moralising outsider gibberish or clusterfucks of out-of-date in-jokes (or in the case of Patrick Marber’s Closer, both). So Timo scores serious points for demonstrating that you don’t have to descend to idiocy to treat the topic.

moralising AND gibberish: congratulations on Closer, playwright Patrick Marber.

But allUcanEAT does more than that; it pulls out some of the simple facts of online gaming and places them on stage – with no adornment – to be examined and appreciated. For brevity and elegance, dig this:

PETE: I kill 200- 300 times a day and die maybe 150 times. You learn to appreciate life. I do.

And this I found intriguing in a way that I can’t explain:

ROB: I‘ve arranged my desktop in a way that the symbols are hidden behind the border. The background is full of numbered squares. It’s like this: after the 7 doesn’t follow the 8, but the 97 and under it is the 23. Before playing I always practise with this. I widen a number combination and try to click fast on the numbers. 87! 94! 4! 19! 66!

well how do you arrange your icons?

The best part is imagining how this would or could be staged. Someone please stage this. Do it now.

*I’m expecting now to be corrected by a wave of people suggesting intelligent sensitive plays about online issues. I welcome it. Bring it on, please.

interplay wrap-up pt 4: Pompeii LA & Swinging Numbers

Declan Greene‘s Pompeii LA. Declan is ‘a loud opiniated gay’ and a member of Melbourne faggot theatre duo Sisters Grimm. Pompeii LA is the story of a burned out child-star and the eruption of a volcano underneath Los Angeles. Well I say story, but that’s an exaggeration. It’s 41 pages of blistered embers, scorched bones and bleary fragments, scraped together and heaped together in a play-shaped pile.

Example: one of the scenes is a list of conspiracy theories, of which my favourite is: ‘You don’t need to eat. Food is a concept developed by the government to keep you working forever. Truly, you only need oxygen and water to survive. Truly, you can live off sunshine and the warmth of your fellow man.

Right on, right on. This play occupies the same warped territories of motel rooms, carparks and freeways as JG Ballard’s later work (and for once I don’t feel bad making a shallow comparison, because Declan told me that Crash fed into this piece). The other touchpoint for me is William Gibson’s Spook Country, in which the power of virtual reality is harnessed to make installations commemorating Hollywood star overdoses.

LA according to JG Ballard and Declan Greene.

What I like about Pompeii LA is the complete refusal to submit to any kind of grounded reality, no matter how straightforward it would be. Why put a volcano under LA? It’s already constructed on the rift where California is pulling itself free of the rest of the United States. An earthquake would surely be just as good, and far closer to reality. But at least part of Declan’s intention with this script appears to be giving the finger to reality. Which is a noble goal in itself.

what the fuck was Seaquest DSV?

If there is a plot, it centres around the deranged wanderings of former child star #, who is guided through the city by the sugary-in-the-nuclear-holocaust Judy Garland, interspersed with cameos from a variety of deceased former childstars (Jonathan Brandis! He was in Seaquest DSV! What was Seaquest DSV!) and culminating in an interview with David Letterman:

david letterman: So, you been keeping busy?
#: I’ve been busy, sure. I’ve been really busy.
david letterman: Oh you have?
#: Yeah, really busy. I’ve got − I’m making a movie, I’m writing a screenplay yeah? It’s about this guy, this celebrity, and he crashes his car and he realises − in this instant − he finds that if he goes fast enough − and if he drives fast enough − that the moment of impact, it’ll slip him back in time. Like half an hour back in time.
david letterman: Oh. Oh I see.
#: So he keeps doing it − he keeps slamming his car into things, and then he goes back in time, and he does it again and again − but then he realises, then he realises eventually that − that there are consequences. When he stops, and when he lives in the present he realise that he’s killed people, in the present − in the future − and he’s ruined lives −
david letterman: It’s a Back to the Future kind of thing.
Audience laughs.

And with a soundtrack of fucked up Noise and Industrial music (I noticed Whitehouse on the suggestions list). Makes me happy.

Didem Yildrin Swinging Numbers. This one fascinates me. Didem is a short story, film and theatre writer based in Ankara, Turkey. Swinging Numbers takes place on a huge clockface, so that the minute hand turns under the performers’ feet during the piece. The play is a Symbolist (is it fair for me to make that classification?) piece in which one man’s mind unravels into dementia at high speed. Across fifteen minutes, we see him move from obsessive compulsive logical behaviour into a scattered unhinged dialogue with his own mother, then finally a bizarrely hilarious facedown with the police pounding on his door.

Police: We are counting until 3. If you don’t open the door, we will start shooting.
Man: What? Are we counting numbers? This is the thing that I love doing most. However, there is something that I don’t understand; are we all counting together? It would be more logical to count in turn, I think.
Police: Three!
Man: Three? How come? Why have you started at three? You should have said one, first of all. I don’t understand.
Police: Two!
Man: If we are to count from three backwards, you should say this to me beforehand. I think we should start from the beginning.
Police: One!

cask of fucking Amontillado!

It’s Edgar Allan Poe! It’s The Black Cat, it’s The Tell-Tale Heart, it’s The Cask of Amontillado, it’s that wild deviant murderer narrator and I dig it. Didem has hinted that this piece may comprise the final third of a three-part series, which if it is true is enough to make me cackle with malicious glee.

interplay wrap-up pt 3: Jennifer Williams Untitled

Ms Williams.

Jennifer Williams’ Untitled. Jennifer is a Sydney writer and performer associated with the Actors Centre in Sydney and her Untitled is a one-woman show based on the life of Jane Austen. The conceit is this: at the age of 27, Austen accepted a marriage proposal from a Mr Harris Bigg-Wither* and then within 24 hours changed her mind and refused. Untitled traces the hours in Austen’s head which led from her acceptance to her refusal.

Needless to say, alarm bells are ringing. I’m not an Austen-hater (I was totally charmed by Pride and Prejudice) or a purist who wants to keep anyone from touching Austen as a topic for theatre. I just live in 2009, which means I’ve spent at least a third of my life drowning in Austen-kitsch, from the endless BBC / Hollywood adaptations to Bridget Jones Diary to Lost in Austen. It’s hard to fathom what any new player is going to bring to the field.

Fuck you, Lost in Austen.

What does Untitled bring? Quite a fair fucking lot, as it turns out. First of all, Williams has absorbed Austen-speak and spits it out effortlessly – there’s no sense of imitation, these lines might as well have been written by Austen herself. That already elevates it above Lost in Austen (fuck you, Lost in Austen), but even more, Untitled boils dowm the language and the landscapes and the preoccupations of Austen’s universe and delivers it in dense, image-rich bursts of spoken prose:

AUSTEN: Me – growing fat and majestic, as every good country wife should be, dining every evening on three courses, washed down by bottles of French wine, feasting on spreads of roast beef, venison, roasted fowls and pies, cutlets, patties and fricassees too numerous to remember by name.

So it’s like the distilled sensory experience of reading an Austen novel, which already makes me happy. But as well as embodying the Austen universe on stage, Untitled also turns the focus up that tiny bit more, allowing us to see the grit, the crooked edges and the misery lurking under the glossy surface of the books. The protagonist laughs and makes jokes like a prisoner sentenced to death; or more precisely to a lifetime of imprisonment and servitude. There’s a claustrophobia and helplessness reminiscent of Gilman’s Yellow Wallpaper and Woolf’s The New Dress, which peaks when Austen loses the plot and tears a book into shreds.

It’s 2009 and I think Feminism is officially a dirty word again. This century has a lot to be ashamed of, but I think if a play like this can turn the light on the grim iniquity underlying the glamour of the Austen franchise, there is hope for the next ninety years. Put even more simply: if this play doesn’t piss off some Austen fans, the director has done something wrong.

* I’m not even kidding.

According to the internet, this is what Harris Bigg-Wither looked like. I’d hit it.

Interplay wrap-up pt 2: Tomb of Three Kings

Interplay script highlights pt 2. This one’s worthy of a post in itself: Tomb of Three Kings by Ning An. Ning is a Beijing playwright and academic associated with the Chinese Theatre Association and the Beijing Opera. Tomb of Three Kings is a play based on a traditional Chinese story, and forgive the superficial comparison, but it excites in me the same exhileration as some of the stories in Borges’ Universal History of Iniquity.

How does it play out? The King is in his palace (bored) attended by way many courtiers and ministers and etcet. His 11th Queen bends over his lap, feeding him with grapes.

The King: So boring it becomes. Even your black hair is not as charming as yesterday. Is there any fun indeed in this palace?

At this moment a dwarf busts into the palace to announce the arrival of a magician dressed all in black who claims he can make the King happy. If that doesn’t have you on the edge of your seat already, you and I have nothing in common, but either way, it gets better. The man in black whips out a magic sword and a large gold Ding (this required some research to interpret) which they fill with boiling water.

A gold Ding. Note the research.

At this point the man in black CHOPS THE KING’S HEAD OFF and throws it into the boiling water of the Ding. At this point the man in black CHOPS HIS OWN HEAD OFF and throws it into the Ding. At this point there takes place A SEVERED HEAD FIGHT with the heads splashing around in the boiling water biting each other.

By this point, Ning has already slam dunked Tomb of Three Kings through the hoop of Breathtaking Theatre (with a fucking Ding), but she proceeds to bring it home in fist-in-the-air style with what follows. The courtiers squabble about the best way to extract the King’s head from the Ding (‘Fetch the longest chopsticks in the Palace!’) and then once the heads are out, they find that the faces have boiled off and they’re not sure which head belongs to which body. Yes, you read that correctly: this play has a scene in which a gang of stuffy public servants hold up a clutch of boiled skulls and try to identify which one is their ruler. Fuck yes.

Courtier 1
: I remember the King had a very prominent brow!
Courtier 2: But I remember that the King’s brow was not so prominent.
Courtier 3: Oh dear…

artists’ impression of a severed head fight in a gold ding.

In short, there is basically not a single criteria for an awesome play which Tomb of Three Kings does not satisfy. The only question is: how to get it staged?

Interplay wrap-up

So World Interplay was fairly extraordinary. 50 playwrights from around the world locked in a hellish backpacker’s hostel so ridden with herpes that we were afraid to touch anything that wasn’t each other for 12 days. And in the midst of it all, plays. Incredible plays. I’ll provide more thoughts as I go through them all, but of the 15 or so that I’ve read so far, here are some initial highlights.

Ms Borglund taught me that growing up is messy.

Hanna Borglund’s In Tina’s Head. Hanna is a 25-year old writer from Stockholm and In Tina’s Head is a 60-minute monologue about a young woman’s attempts to comprehend the impact that her relationship with an older man had on her when she was a girl. That doesn’t really give you any sense of it, though, it’s not that straightforward in any sense. It’s skewed. It veers from one-sided re-enactments of key moments in Tina’s life to bile-spitting interviews conducted with Tina’s sister and rival, to manic self-glorification. All of which is muddied by the fact that Tina is also playing the lead character in a (fictional?) play called Miss, about a female teacher who conducts an affair with a student.

There’s no easy way to say for sure what’s happening in the play, except that all these warped fragments provide brief glimpses into the inner life of a raw, unbalanced psyche. Except except except maybe we’re all just as raw and unbalanced as Tina. Maybe there’s no such thing as a normal, healthy sexual awakening. For better or worse, I identified a lot with Tina’s frantic, contradictory self-justifications. And who hasn’t analysed their love life for some kind of pattern or another?

TINA: Look – my make-out lists. I’ve been collecting make-outs since high school. Look at this one: Ages. And this list, it’s my favourite one: All my hairstyles. And with this conclusion: I get to make-out the most when I have short hair. And the statistics: During which season do I get to make-out the most? Summer. Which difference in age is most common? Two years older.

Gamerman: emotionally mature and so forth.

Ira Gamerman Split. Ira’s the hyper-articulate frontman of a raggedly elegant indie outfit named Even So and an unnecessarily sensitive and inciteful writer. From Baltimore. Or somewhere. Split is a relationship story about the break-up of one relationship and the beginning of another, but it’s not strained or awkward or awful because it’s genuinely fucking hilarious. The protagonist is coached through the intricacies of relationship politics (including my favourite scene; ROUTINE VIRGINITY TAKING BACKFIRES) by two imaginary friends: Vince Vaughn circa-Swingers and Mr Eskimo.

ADAM: Are you really an Eskimo?
MR. ESKIMO: No. Eskimos murdered my parents and enslaved me for years. Mr. Eskimo is my slave name. I don’t have a real name anymore.
ADAM: Wow. That’s-um. That’s pretty nuts.
MR. ESKIMO: Yes. But they’ll get theirs… IN HELL!

One of the first hits when I typed ‘Glyn Roberts’ into Google image search.

Glyn Roberts’ Shitzerland. This is the true demonstration of the power of the playwright. Roberts is a Melbourne writer who has spent a number of years as a politically aware dilettante drifter in the guts of Western Europe, and Shitzerland is like what you’d write when you know a lot of things about a lot of things and decide that you just don’t care any more. It’s more or less the story of a woman who wakes from a coma in a private hospital in Switzerland and gradually comes to learn about the circumstances which led to her being there. Really, though, it’s a fascinating example of a writer who has created a group of truly unloveable characters, and then delights in torturing them. It’s freezing cold, razor-sharp and utterly brutal.

Odette: He looks after you Isabel, you can’t go 50 metres without our help.
Isabel: I ran three kilometres the other day.
Odette: That’ll be the Negro in you I suspect. But when you collapsed whilst trying to remove your own heart with a stick, that was completely French.
Isabel: Practice that’s all. I’m Ukrainian.
Odette: Then I’m surprised you bothered to use a stick.

my scriptwriting journey

It’s Tuesday somewhere in the early stages of August 2009. Tomorrow I’m about to bustle to Cairns for a fortnight as a playwright delegate in the World Interplay festival. Following that, I’m working on a new script for the Street Theatre to be produced as part of a double-bill this October (more info as I get it). In terms of my playwriting, things are going really well (suspiciously well). So at this stage, I’d like to reflect back on where it all started, by digging up one of my earliest works. I don’t have much archived from my High School days, but this fragment from when I was 14-15 (with longtime collaborator Jackal Lloyd and myself subtly inserted into the narrative) stands up pretty well against anything I’ve written in the last nine years.

children + petrol stations = drama!

A petrol station. David “Handsome” Finnigan stands with his sidekick Jack “Wildboy” Lloyd.

Handsome: Sure does feel great to plug some juice into the old beast, don’t it?

Wildboy: You got that right, Handsome! Hey, whaddaya reckon we pick up some snacks to refuel us as well?

Handsome: Sounds great, I – Hey, what’s that?

Wildboy: Where?

Handsome: Over there, by that fuel pump, where that man is filling his car with petrol. See the naked toddler at his feet?

Wildboy: That naked toddler is smoking a cigarette! HEY! Man! Your kid’s smoking a cigarette!

Man: And?

Handsome:  Are you cracked? This is a petrol station!

Man: Look, he’s gonna start sooner or later, and I’d rather he did it where I can see him instead of experimenting with some sleazy-

Wildboy: You dumb fool! There’s petrol on the ground!

Man: What, you think it’s gonna blow up? That’s just an old wives tale.

Handsome: No don’t put the cigarette out on the ground!

Man: You guys are just jealous.