– nah we have a lot of trouble just all of us getting together, everyone’s got jobs, lives, you know
int – are you making money?
– no we’re paying to play, when you work it out, with petrol money, all that noise. and, sometimes we don’t get paid for gigs even when they promise we will.
– yeah we like to point to rebecca when that happens and say ‘our guitarist is pregnant, what are you, not gonna pay us?’
– yeah that doesn’t usually work though
int – are you still able to play even though you’re pregnant?
– I don’t know why that would stop me
– yeah that’s a fucking awkward question, dude. you wanna rethink that one?
int – okay I’m sorry. can you talk to us about the carnivorous kangaroos in your community? the rat kangaroos?
– that’s just a thing we deal with
int – yeah but I think you’ll agree, most bands don’t have to deal with that level of animal aggression in and around their rehearsal space.
– it’s an australian thing, right? they’re fucking scary but they’re not evil.
– I think you mean that most people in big cities don’t have this problem, yeah? I don’t think I encountered roos like this living in canberra
– beasts, I think is the technical term for them
– monsters, yeah
– I mean, it’s not unique to australia, though, right? there are communities in alaska and canada – like in british columbia – where they have grizzlies right nearby. and it’s the same deal, you drive nails and spikes into window and door frames so they can’t get in through your entrances, and you’re fucking careful with how you dispose of rubbish.
– and you never step outside the house without a rifle
int – how big do they get?
– they, ah, three metres?
int – three metres, jesus
– yeah they tower over you.
– and they eat anything
– yeah I think they used to be predators mainly, like, hunting diprotodons and so on
– those giant echidnas as big as sheep
– christ, those things
– anyway, they used to hunt more naturally I think, but now they scavenge whatever they can get, which is just about anything
int – do they eat humans?
– nah, they’ll fuck you up though if you get in a clincher with them
– lev’s aunt squared off with one a little while ago, that was intense
– yeah, my aunt was leaving the house at night and there was one that must’ve been just under her car, and when she went to open the door it just launched at her, ripped this big chunk from her arm, you can still see, it’s a nasty cut
int – what happened?
– well she shot it. she had a rifle on her, she shot it. there’s still, you can see the scorch marks on the bottom of the car where the bullet passed by. this is a couple of years ago now.
int – can you talk a little about the music you play? would you describe it as punk?
– I wouldn’t describe it as punk, no.
– we do a Clash cover, but that’s, just a good pop song, and I don’t think we’re particularly, you know, we don’t thrash around or break our guitars
int – you’re pretty intense on stage, though, you’d agree? I’ve certainly seen you smash equipment in gigs.
– and this is part of the reason we don’t get fucking paid when the venues say they’ll pay us!
– I blame rebecca, she kicked a hole in that amp in that darlinghurst gig
– I did, yeah. that’s not punk, though, I was just pissed off.
int – so you formed in rehab?
– we’re still in rehab.
– technically. if we could afford it we’d be in rehab. we’re not exactly getting full bed and board and therapy and such.
– but yes, we’re still living on-site.
int – so you formed as, what, outreach? were you formed by the rehab clinic?
– actually you know what, they didn’t seem that eager to take credit for us at first. but now, you know, they’re all about it.
– depends on the day, depends on the gig. sometimes they love us, sometimes they’re just like, keep your head down
– I mean it’s a fucking risk, isn’t it? nine days out of ten we’re a great fucking advertisement for the place – ‘you don’t need to be drug users to play music and be a great band, anyone can do it, addicts can be rock stars’ etc, but then when one of us relapses…
– but then what do they expect? we’re not, I don’t know who’s an example of a perfect band, but we’re not that. we’re not perfect. we’re not even very good.
– we’re good at music.
– yeah I fucking love our music. but we’re not superhuman. we’re addicts.
int – is it helpful being in a group of fellow addicts?
– well it’d be harder being on your own in a band full of regular people, sure.
– I don’t know, I don’t think of it like that. we’re not a support group, we’re a band. we’re friends. we play together because we want to play together, that’s all.
– yeah but that’s a bit facetious, though, right? because it does affect us, it does make a difference, it’s not like we don’t think about it. and it’s part of what people are interested in about us.
– it makes it fucking grim when someone relapses
int – do you want to talk about what happened to karen?
int – alright, well can you tell us, do you have a message at all? are you trying to get a message out there?
– I don’t know, honestly. maybe ‘love each other’?
int – seriously?
– seriously, I don’t know.
– we could play you a song
– yeah, if there’s a message, it’s in the music, it’s not something we can necessarily write an essay about separate to the songs
int – alright, well, yes please – I got the recorder set up, if you guys want to play a tune.
August 2014 is a kind of creative anniversary for me: it’s exactly ten years since Bohemian’s production of my script Vampire Play.
This show was a major milestone of my theatre practice – Vampire Play was my then best script, the 2004 production was one of the biggest shows of Bohemian’s first incarnation from 2001-06 (along with The Dumb Waiter / Quiet Time and Titus Andronicus), and it was perhaps the first play I did that was successful on its own terms.
image by grant stoops
Vampire Play emerged from an RPG module I devised as a teenager but I never got the chance to run, in which warring gangs of the undead fought one another in the tunnels of the London Underground. When my friends and I left school in 2000 and formed a theatre company, I stopped thinking about RPGs, but after a couple of years of writing and producing our own shows I found myself returning to the idea, and thinking about repurposing it as a play.
Having never visited the London Underground, I made the decision at some point to shift the setting, sewers and subway systems and all, to Canberra, despite the fact that Canberra has nothing remotely resembling a subway system or any kind of train network. Creating an entirely fictional additional layer to the city for this play instantly opened up a whole other dimension for my writing. Since I first began writing, all of my work has focused in one way or another on Canberra, but in writing Vampire Play I found a way to begin to describe the scary and complex city I experience, not the weird neutered monochrome Canberra so many other people seem to see.
(This attempt to reimagine and describe alternative visions of Canberra in order to reflect the city’s inherent strangeness has been a regular feature of my work ever since – Finnigan and Brother’s track Move To Canberra is another example.)
Instead of planning out the script and then writing it, I instead spent many months over 2002-03 scribbling down scraps of dialogue, scene ideas, thoughts and notes, in one overstuffed document. Only in the final stages of the process did I start assembling them into one piece, and extracting a group of characters from the mess of ideas. (I’ve recently returned to this approach with my scrapbook blog for my new script Kill Climate Deniers.)
The script, like most of my stuff, is available for free download, and there are no performance rights or costs if you want to produce it. As always, if you’re interested in producing one of my scripts, just give me a yell and let me know.
finn: kiinalaisia ilotulituksia, senkin hölmö vanhus! (chinese firecrackers, you old fool!)
The story of Vampire Play goes something like this:
Since building an underground train network, Canberra has become a hub for vampires, who are able to hide from the sun 24 hours a day in the tunnels and sewers, and find ready prey in the swarms of human passengers travelling from Tuggeranong to Gungahlin. The city has become so overrun by vampires, in fact, that they are fighting among themselves for hunting territory, claiming stations and train lines for their exclusive domain. Gangs of the undead are forming, carving out territory and defending it tooth and nail, until eventually they are overrun by other competitors.
In this brutal and unstable landscape, gangs emerge and collapse incredibly rapidly, sometimes in the space of days. Vampire Play traces the rise and fall of one gang – the Vampire Gang – whose total existence and occupation of Dickson Station lasts just under an hour.
The Vampire Gang has four members: incompetent leader and music fanatic George Bekken (Gina Guirguis), 130 year-old crippled big-game hunter Manson Lane (Jack Lloyd), recently killed teenage board-game prodigy Karen Blacksmith (Alison McGregor) and a 30,000 year old Cro Magnon vampire named Bones, who has spent the last thousand years in a coma at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean (Max Barker).
Arrayed against the Vampire Gang are members of rival gangs including the leader of all-female Caecus Venatricus gang, blind control freak Gwen Malkin (Hanna Cormick) and the brutal Finnish-speaking leader of the Tapeworms, known only as the Finn (barb barnett).
Because the story ends badly for all of the protagonists, I made the decision to run the play backwards, with each scene occurring chronologically earlier than the one that came before it. In this way, the play starts with sole survivor George Bekken sitting on a beach on the south coast of NSW at dawn, waiting for the sun to come up over the waves and fry her, and works its way back over the course of the night to the Vampire Gang’s chaotic emergence the previous evening, when a train full of Caecus Venatricus smashes into Bones just underneath Dickson Shops.
The script was nominated for the Queensland Premiers Literary Award, which was a bolt out of the blue for me at that stage, and is still pretty surreal. The judges described it as:
…A mod-gothic fantasy of vampire gangs in the tunnels of Canberra fighting for life and territory… Pop-cult influenced and market savvy, this play gives us an original vision and voice… A writer to watch.
(‘Market savvy’ in this case probably referring to the plays regular and explicit endorsements of Capital Chemist, my first time actively promoting that franchise in my work.)
Vampire Play was my first experience working with a dramaturg – the excellent Paschal Berry, who would later tip me to the Philippines and the work happening in Manila. Jan Wawrzynczak and Linda McHugh at Canberra Youth Theatre offered us a bundle of in-kind support (including differenc coloured printing paper so we could distinguish between drafts of the script), Sylvie Stern from 2xx offered help with publicity and ‘pling took extraordinary photos (unless otherwise mentioned, all these pics are courtesy of ‘pling). I didn’t realise it at the time – we were so used to doing our own thing – but this was a signal that older artists were interested in what we were doing, and that we weren’t operating in a complete bubble as we’d imagined.
Bohemian’s production of the show brought together a really tight crew of artists from the community of indie theatre-makers centered at that time around Gorman House and companies like Bohemian, Opiate, NUTS and BKu. Founding Bohemiate Nickyj (Nick Johnson) directed it, bringing the work to a vivid, surreal life. Of the other Bohemians, Jack performed as Manson Lane, Mick Bailey did the sound design and Muttley designed the four different collectable programs. Boho co-conspirator Nickamc did the lighting, and Robyn Graf created the striking poster and flier images (see top of this page), as well as stepping into a variety of smaller roles alongside performer Angus Nicholson.
The show ran for two weeks at the C-Block Theatre in Gorman House over August 2004. Selling out an 80 seat theatre for a two week run doesn’t sound like a big achievement (especially given we reduced the number of seats to 64), but the audience response was hugely positive – so far beyond any of my previous attempts that it felt like a massive breakthrough. We made our money back, and a bit over – enough that Bohemian could finally pay Jack back for the massive quantity of transparent gauze curtain he bought for our 2002 production of The Woman in Black.
bekken: what is all this junk?
manson: prescription drugs.
bekken: Manson, we may have hit the jackpot. There must be hundreds of dollars in prescription drugs here.
manson: there’s no street value for this crap. seretide and pulmicort. These are asthma preventers.
bekken: yes but mersyndol. Dolosed. And Canestan.
manson: wowee, a whole tube of Canestan. Shame I don’t have thrush.
bekken: what’s that?
manson: Telfast, 180 milligrams. Antihistamine for severe hayfever and skin rashes. What?
bekken: it’s got pseudoephidrine in it. Pseudoephidrine. It’s a stimulant.
manson: bekken, we are the living dead. medicine does not work on us.
bekken: give me those.
From a scriptwriting perspective, Vampire Play is generally pretty terrible: there’s no character development, I had trouble (still have trouble) writing dialogue where more than two people are involved, it’s over the top and incredibly hard to stage (shout outs still to Nickyj for figuring out how to stage train crashes, characters burning to dust and a vampire being blown apart by fireworks stuffed into a gash in his stomach, onstage). Nevertheless. There are things that this play proved to me were possible, things that worked which I have kept returning to since, and things that I personally really enjoy about it and always have:
• It’s cruel.
The script is brutal, malicious and cold. Humans are tortured then murdered and characters are subjected to great pain and despair, for no other reason than for fun. There is no hope. This cruelty was/is important to me in my work, it was a feature of oceans all boiled into sky and it was a major part of my contribution to Sipat Lawin / 2MW’s adaptation of Battle Royale. I couldn’t articulate the reason for this cruelty back then (I’m only a little better now), but it shone through and I’m glad.
• It’s energetic.
I like my theatre cruel and also joyous (one of the reasons I’m so glad Jackal picked Titus as Boho’s sole Shakespeare production). While the characters are subjected to great torment, they (at least some of them) go about their days with passion, excitement and laughter. Enthusiasm. The moral, if there is one, has something to do with the fact that life – my life, your life, anyone’s life – is pointless and horrible and savage and meaningless and over-too-soon/drawn-out-in-suffering, but Life – the huge, complex, chaotic, unstable and infinitely detailed sweep of organisms struggling to continue existing – is beautiful, glorious and utterly indestructible.
The characters in Vampire Play all suffer excruciating miseries and defeats, but the system – the endless fractal warfare between gangs of vampires for territory and human prey – continues to churn, throwing out countless new innovations and wild encounters even as it mercilessly chews through its individual participants.
• It’s about the setting.
Earlier scripts of mine were more focused on the setting than the characters (Quiet Time and Chosei: Frozen Shape spring to mind), but Vampire Play proved to me once and for all that this was a viable way to write. The characters in Vampire are all two-dimensional cartoons with a back-story, a demeanour and not much else (sometimes not even that). The star of the play is the war in the Canberra underground with its rapidly evolving battlelines, protocols and traditions, an emerging mythology of legendary gangs and battles, and its own radio station (an idea stolen variously from Jeff Noon’s Pollen, 1979 film The Warriors and Mick Bailey), with the laconic DJ Mute commentating on the violence and playing a mix of classic rock and roll.
• The play is a mixtape.
Every script I write has a distinct soundtrack, at least in my head. When writing or devising a new play I usually listen to one particular genre or group of artists, and that soundtrack provides the aesthetic and energy of the work. I’ll always be able to recognise the bits of the script written to the pattern of a particular beat, or a scrap of dialogue stolen from song lyrics. My early scripts were written to a very specific musical accompaniment – w3 w3lcome the future was more or less a roadtrip mixtape – but it was Vampire Play where the soundtrack became an explicit part of the world of the play.
The idea of play-as-mixtape is now almost a fixture in my work. Oceans all boiled into sky was written to an experimental electronica / glitch soundtrack, Underage House Party Play was a collection of favourite party anthems from when I was a teenager, and Kill Climate Deniers features a playlist of exclusively late-80s/early-90s House and Techno club hits.
bekken: next we start franchising. I want some baby vampires to call me Mother Bekken. I want about fifty little Vampire Gang members trotting all round the north side.
bones: You want to make more vampires?
bekken: I want to make – I want – I don’t know what I want to make! I want to take ordinary commuters on their way home from work and instead of letting them watch the same old crap on the television, or download the same old shit off the internet, I don’t want them to drift asleep on the couch because they had a glass of wine after dinner. I want to show them something different.
bones: You want to show them your teeth.
bekken: I want to show them my teeth.
image by nickamc
Okay so what is the point of this extended nostalgia trip?
I’m aware of how indulgent this reflection is, revisiting a decade-old project and evaluating the lessons and skills I learned from it. At the same time I believe that there’s some value in the exercise, to see how my concerns and aesthetic have shifted or remained constant over the last ten years.
What jumps out at me is that I am still fascinated by the same ideas and I still gravitate toward the same stylistic approaches as my 21 year old self. My concerns and aesthetic have not changed in the slightest since Vampire Play (although I hope I’ve improved technically). What has changed since 2004 is that many other things (people, experiences, projects, ideas) have influenced me, taking those concerns and that aesthetic and directing them toward different ends.
When I was 21 I was desperately committed to the practice of making theatre. At 31 that commitment hasn’t lessened in the slightest, but it’s deepened with a greater sense of care and responsibility, an awareness that theatre is (or should be) a means to an end. Theatre is a tool that artists use to raise people’s consciousness, to communicate ideas, to connect people together, to make the world a better place.
Looking at the script again, there are facets of the Vampire Play world-building process I want to return to – the pleasure of constructing a self-contained universe that’s complex, exciting and provocative enough to draw audiences in to it. Similarly, it reminds me of the shameless indulgence of working in a genre: the familiar scaffold of plot and character, the opportunities to subvert and distort the genre tropes, and the clear hook with which to draw an audience in. This is something I’m exploring again with Kill Climate Deniers, but I’d like to delve even deeper.
image by nickamc
Lastly, digging up the photos, artwork and miscellanea from the 2004 production reminds me of the incredible group of collaborators involved in that project, and in the Canberra indie theatre community more generally. The DIY-theatre scene that existed in the city over 2001-07 was driven by so much excitement, dedication and generosity (and a total lack of technical skill), and I’m stoked to have been a part of it.
The reason I’m still making theatre, still in love with the artform and still excited by the possibilities is because of the incredible momentum of that community, the generosity of all those collaborators. Every time I look back I feel grateful to everyone who was part of that scene, however long or deeply.
Shout out to Canberra, is what I’m saying.
image by nickamc
All images courtesy of ‘pling except where I’ve noted otherwise.