I’ve been taking a little time at the end of the year to do an overview of my current portfolio of projects.
One ongoing challenge for the sort of work I do is that it’s very hard to quantify your output. If I were just a playwright, then I’d presumably be able to point to a body of playscripts and say ‘that’s it, that’s what I’ve done this year’. Or if I just did solo shows, or just recorded albums, or just did *any* one thing, it would be easier to count.
It’s trickier when your work happens across a few different practices. Trickier still when some things happen under your own name, and some under the auspices of various companies, collaborations etc. Trickier even still when they take place in different countries.
So it was an interesting and useful task to spend a couple of hours breaking down all my existing projects. From playscripts to solo shows to collaborative productions to games to workshops, these are all the works I’m doing that are currently active.
(By ‘active’ I mean: if someone was interested in hosting / presenting one of these, we could find a way to make it happen.)
pic by jordan prosser
This is the list, as of December 2018:
Kill Climate Deniers – Playscript, solo show, album (with Reuben Ingall) and walking tour. What happens when the unstoppable force of climate change meets the immovable object of Australian politics?
CrimeForce: LoveTeam – In the future, everyone will murder a boy band member. Interactive performance using the tools of Futures Studies and scenario thinking to explore the future of pop music and criminal justice. Created with Jordan Prosser.
44 Sex Acts In One Week – A rom com playscript. A writer and photographer at a lifestyle blog are tasked with trying 44 different kinds of sex in one week.
You’re Safe Til 2024 – Solo show. Over the last year, I’ve invited scientists to select a series of objects illustrating the changes happening to the planet today. This is a showcase of the objects they’ve chosen and the stories they’ve told.
Get The Kids And Run – Interactive games / workshop. Players take on the role of managing a small town in the lead up to a volcano or typhoon crisis. Created with Boho for the Earth Observatory Singapore.
Sex Play – A performance about the ethics of intimacy. Created with Anthea Williams and Sarah Walker.
Finance System games – A set of games exploring the impact of climate change on the finance sector. Created with Coney.
The Future of Nature – Interactive solo show for conference audiences using futures scenarios to examine the future of nature documentaries. Created for Nesta.
Gobyerno (Government) – Interactive performance / workshop. Over two hours, audiences create an original documentary about their ideal society. Created with the Sipat Lawin Ensemble.
95 Years or Less – Interactive performance / workshop. Audiences explore the challenges facing an NGO trying to restore an Indonesian rainforest over 95 years. Created with Coney / Boho for Forum for the Future.
Kids Killing Kids– Documentary theatre performance. Follows the making of and backlash to Sipat Lawin’s 2012 production of Battalia Royale project in the Philippines. Created with Too Many Weapons and the Sipat Lawin Ensemble.
End Science Now – Playscript. A globe-trotting spy thriller about a group of renegades who go undercover to bring down the study of science worldwide.
Foreignoy – Performance. My Pinoy pop song mash-up for Filipino TV segment ‘You’re My Foreignoy’. Created with Sipat Lawin.
Of course, not all of these are at the same stage of development. Some, like Kill Climate Deniers or CrimeForce, are finished and ready to go. Others are still in development, and looking for different levels of engagement / collaboration from partners.
I found it really useful to make myself a rough map, to see what stage different projects are at.
It was interesting to see, for example, that since retiring the Kill Climate Deniers solo show, I have only one solo show coming up to being performable, and that’s a few months off.
As a working artist, I don’t necessarily have the freedom to decide how my year is shaped. But this was an interesting exercise in terms of helping guide me in prioritising between the projects I do have afoot.
(Note: I have plenty more projects at concept stage – we all do, I think – but the internet is not the best place to put my early thinking.)
Not everyone can be good at everything. Zoe Hogan is a brilliant playwright and a sharp thinker, but, as it transpires, she is completely terrible at knowing how good Drew Barrymore’s Never Been Kissed (1998) is.
Zoe’s take: ‘Never Been Kissed is incredibly turgid. I thought I might rewatch it but then I watched a 90 second video of the speech I want to use from it on YouTube and was like NO that is plenty for me actually.’
WRONG. Drew Barrymore’s 1998 high-school rom-com Never Been Kissed is flawless, meaning it is without flaws.
Let’s start with the 30 second teaser trailer on IMDB. Even this is a slice of pure poetry. On the basis of this alone, I was ready to give the movie 5-stars – but because I am a professional, I didn’t stop there.
This is the kind of due diligence and care for detail that, some might say, would have behooved the scriptwriters and editors of Never Been Kissed. I wouldn’t say that, obviously, and frankly, there is no room for that kind of snark in this review.
Never Been Kissed falls in the pantheon of late-90s teen films somewhere in the cluster of Cruel Intentions, 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s All That. Where Cruel Intentions and 10 Things both had rich, complex plots drawn from classic novels or plays, and She’s All That had the ugly-duckling-become-swan storyline and Freddie Prinze Jr’s brooding frosted tips, Never Been Kissed has, basically, Drew Barrymore, working her ass off to bring every bit of charisma she has to keep the ship from going under.
We begin with a woman standing alone on a baseball pitch, facing a huge crowd, and Drew Barrymore’s narration: ‘You know how in some movies, they have a dream sequence, only they don’t tell you it’s a dream? This is so not a dream. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. I was just trying to do my job! And then… things happened. Life happened. And now, I’m here.’
Having already watched the Youtube clip ‘Never Been Kissed 5/5 Movie CLIP – Finally Kissed’ (2 mins 42 seconds), I have some inkling of what this flash-forward sequence is setting up – and I’m excited! Excellent work, screenwriters Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein.
Suddenly, we flash back several months to several months ago, where we see dorky Drew Barrymore introducing herself as ‘the youngest copy editor at the Chicago Sun Times.’ She’s uptight and driven – but disrespected, including by her own assistant.
I don’t know what the fuck the deal is with this character, but whatever it is, he’s working it.
Her boss, rumpled news editor John C. Reilly, and her colleague, office harlot Molly Shannon, both want what’s best for Josie – but they don’t think she should be a reporter, because ‘you’re not wild enough.’
There’s a whole setup designed to hammer home the fact that Drew Barrymore is lonely, anxious, desperate to fall in love with a man who’ll sweep her off her feet, and ohmyfuckinggod it’s boring. As quickly and perfunctorily as the movie goes through the motions of giving Drew Barrymore a character arc to go through, it feels like it goes forever.
The only saving grace here, as in most of the flick, is that Drew is face-acting like a crazy person. She never does just one expression when five or six will do. Turn the sound down, and it’s like watching someone constantly trying to contain a sneeze.
(NOTE: This is also a film you can happily watch with the sound down.)
There’s an editorial meeting of the newspaper where the publisher arbitrarily announces that he wants someone to go undercover as a high school student for a semester to write an ‘undercover feature’ on what the kids are up to. 30 seconds later, Drew Barrymore is pulling up outside a high school.
This is probably a canny move on the part of screenwriters Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein. You’ve got a great plot conceit for your high-school rom com – a 25 year old goes back to high school undercover and gets a second chance to be cool! There’s just one problem: it makes no fucking sense.
You could either: (a) work with it to try and give it a faint sheen of logic, to win us over as audience members by acknowledging that we may have doubts, and assuring us that although we’ll have to suspend our disbelief to enjoy the story, at least the work is internally consistent, and we won’t be subject to 90 minutes of inane plot drift you, or (b) just steamroller through the plot setup asap and get to the high school payoff before we have time to ask what the fuck is going on.
You can rationalise this one of two ways:
1. The Chicago Sun-Tribune newspaper has eerie powers, the kind of sinister influence that means when they approach a high school principal and say ‘You’re going to enroll an adult woman in your high school for a semester right now despite the fact that she’s on record as graduating from a local high school seven years ago,’ the implied threat hangs so heavy in the air that the words ‘both hands fed finger by finger to a bear by members of the Chicago cabbage mafia’ don’t even need to be said out loud, or
2. American high schools are too broke to afford a principal, or any other staff member who might notice or object to the fact that a random stranger has started showing up to the campus every morning and sitting in class smiling brightly
Drew Barrymore arrives at school to a healthy soundtrack of Jimmy Eat World, one of the many timeless acts on the soundtrack. (Later on there’s a bit where the kids all get super starstruck by a mention of the Big Bad Voodoo Daddys. They were a… ska…? band?)
The fish-out-of-water effect of a 25 year-old going to high school is only slightly undercut by the fact that all of Drew Barrymore’s fellow high school students are played by actors in their mid-30s.
The fellow student characters are as bland as clear water. I didn’t realise until the credits that Jessica Alba and Leelee Sobieski both play significant roles – they are so boring it’s hard to pay attention to them even while they’re on screen.
Jessica Alba / Marley Shelton are literally in the foreground centre of this picture, but your gaze keeps sliding off her and focusing on the badass bro with the kind eyes to the right, and wondering what he’s up to 20 years later, if he’s happy with how his life turned out
In Drew Barrymore’s first class she meets an angry teacher who says sarcastically, ‘well I’m sorry I forgot to take my hot flush medication today!’
Some might say that this is a mediocre example of the awkward oversharing teacher trope which Tina Fey pulled off to perfection five years later in Mean Girls. Those that look deeper can see that Never Been Kissed is playing the longer game. By deliberately being kinda shit, NBK is preparing the ground for Mean Girls to excel.
Like John the Baptist clearing the way for Jesus of Nazareth, Drew Barrymore is the proto-Lindsay. In so many ways.
In the next class, English teacher Michael Vartan from Alias gives the camera his best smokey gaze and introduces himself to Drew. Drew does her 50-expressions-at-once thing and it’s on. 18 minutes in and the romance arc has kicked in, that’s the only storyline I’m really paying attention to from here on out.
There is a whole side-thing where Drew also has a crush on a popular student, because he reminds her of a boy she had a crush on when she was a teenager, and there’s the makings there of a great love triangle, but the film kinda shoots the legs out from under itself because clearly Michael Vartan is (a) who Drew Barrymore is going to end up with, and (b) the film exhausts itself trying to bestow him with charisma, like in the scene where he plays ice hockey in front of his whole english class.
I appreciate his fresh-faced charm and sincere love of communicating the themes of Shakespeare plays to the kids, but he ain’t exactly stirring anything deep within me.
In the first half of the film, Drew Barrymore is unpopular. She befriends Leelee Sobieski and a gang of nerds, and hangs out with her brother, aka David Arquette, who has also never gotten over his high school baseball days, who really cares, less of this fluff pls
The only interesting scenes in this whole chunk are the heated flirtation scenes between Drew Barrymore and her English teacher. This, surely, is not how a high school movie is meant to go?
I thought, and correct me if I’m wrong, that a high school film was a chance to show a whole bunch of highly stereotyped student characters in a tightly wound ecosystem, driven by a series of social rituals (the sports event! the house party! the school play! the prom!). This film doesn’t even have a ‘who’s who in the zoo’ scene at the beginning, which is my favourite part of any high school film – where a wise insider explains to the newcomer the inner workings of the school system.
I don’t want a realistic depiction of life in high school (christ, can you think of anything worse?), I want a glossy, ramped up, vividly depicted micro-society as arcane and baroque as the goddamn Medicis: is that too much to ask?
I literally have no idea who any of these fucking kids are.
At 40 minutes in there’s a concert sequence featuring Ozimatli, who appear to be a reggae outfit (including the unnecessary record-scratching DJ in the background that was compulsory for bands in the late 90s). They look about as comfortable as a jam band performing a set on a Hollywood soundstage always looks. I hope it worked out for them.
(If memory serves me correctly, I wandered past a set these guys were playing at an Australian music festival about a decade and a half ago – they seemed happy with their lot.)
Drew meets her english teacher Michael Vartan at the gig (why is she at the gig? what is this gig? what is happening? did I blank on this bit of the plot, is there even a plot) and his girlfriend. In order to clear space for Drew and Michael to get together later in the film, we have to establish that his girlfriend is a real bitch, which is demonstrated by the fact that she expresses her dislike of Ozimatli and mid-tempo reggae ska in general.
MICHAEL VARTAN’S ARBITRARY GIRLFRIEND: ‘I’m sorry, I can’t even think in here! No offence, I know you love this stuff, I’m just hoping you get it all out of your system before you move to New York! My firm has season tickets to the Met.’
This is strong, clear dialogue that communicates character – everyone, take note.
Perplexingly, the other school girls have a whole suite of choreographed dance moves. They don’t have any lines of dialogue. It is unclear whether they have characters. What is happening. Does it matter. How long has this film been going on.
Drew sits down with some cartoon rastas, they give her a hash brownie. Now she is up on her feet dancing with Ozimatli. It’s… not great.
It’s kinda depressing that they brought in a stunt double just for this single doing-the-splits visual gag. Still, at least someone got paid out of this scene.
There’s a whole joke about the fact that she has the word ‘loser’ on a stamp on her forehead, which is pretty woeful, but then, how you gonna stay mad at this film when Drew is giving it these faces?
The midpoint of the film is a dark low: Drew Barrymore flashing back to her awful high school prom when she was egged by her supposed prom date, and then Drew Barrymore in the present day, running through the corridors in a state of trauma listening to Madonna’s Like A Prayer.
FACT: I’ve heard Like A Prayer a million times, but always on the radio or mixed in DJ sets – only recently did I listen to the whole song, and holy shit, the percussion breakdown in the last 90 seconds of that track is like a whole universe of joy unto itself.
Now for some reason her brother David Arquette also registers as a high school student and shows up to the school. He is instantly popular, because he eats a whole tub of chutney or something. I can’t tell. The student body are a faceless fucking mass in this film.
I’ve forgotten who Leelee Sobieski’s character is supposed to be in the 12 minutes since she was last on screen.
Now we are at a funfair. Possibly we’re listening to another Jimmy Eat World song. Drew Barrymore is on a ferris wheel, her english teacher Michael Vartan gets on.
What the fuck is this guy doing hanging exclusively with high school students?
But then, a propos of nothing, he launches into the best monologue in the whole film. Imagine these lines, delivered with the weary dedication of a professional actor who is fully aware of the dreck he has to work with, but is determined to do the best job he can in order to get the take done so everyone can go home on time.
(A kid from school says something stupid in the next car.)
MICHAEL VARTAN: You know I’d like to tell you that we all grow out of it, but it’s a lie. Some of us will always be rattling cages.
DREW BARRYMORE: Why do you do that?
MICHAEL VARTAN: I don’t know. You know what’s scary is that when you get older, it just gets more confusing. I mean, you know Laura, my girlfriend you met at the club? We’ve been going out for five years, and now, she wants me to move to New York. And – you know, I mean I should do it. You know, make the commitment, and grow up. I know we have our differences… You know what, I shouldn’t be talking about this stuff with you, I’m sorry.
DREW BARRYMORE: It’s nice to have someone to talk to.
MICHAEL VARTAN: Yeah, same here.
Now there’s the little cute moment where he says the line quoted in the trailer, you know he has feelings for her, and it’s totally naff, but honestly, it’s like Drew is being paid per facial-muscle-twitch, her face in this scene is worth the price of admission alone.*
*don’t ask how much I paid for admission
When I showed Rebecca this sequence of pics, she was like, ‘You’ve captured Drew Barrymore looking terrible!’ to which I had to say, no. She looks great here, and if you disagree, watch the scene yourself at Youtube Movie CLIP 3/5 Ferris Wheel Ride. for a lesson in what we in the performing arts industry call very good acting
In the next sequence, things are looking up. David Arquette makes it his mission to make Drew Barrymore cool at school. This skeleton appears, for no reason I can see.
The skeleton is never referenced in the script, which suggests to me that someone just brought it on set and left it there, and the director was like ‘yeah, sure, let’s have a skeleton, put it somewhere,’ and that’s how magic happens
There’s a really contrived sequence where Drew Barrymore’s harlot office colleague aka Molly Shannon shows up and gets brought in to run a sex ed class, and even before it starts you already find yourself mentally checking out and thinking about how much better Mean Girls did this, and you wonder, was Tina Fey watching Never Been Kissed in 1998, taking notes and making mental plans to utterly outclass it in every way in a few years’ time?
The ‘inappropriate sex ed class’ is a staple comedy item and it hurts me to see it done poorly
There’s some plot arc involving deciding on a prom theme, idk, I’m not really invested in it, but watching these actors work with the material gives me new sympathy for every cast in one of my plays who’s had to somehow give life to one of those poorly written sequences I’ve scribbled to get us from plot point A to plot point B.
This actor tho is having the time of his life.
Drew Barrymore suggests a new prom theme ‘MEANT FOR EACH OTHER: FAMOUS COUPLES THROUGHOUT HISTORY.’ It’s unclear whether this is a good idea or not, but who cares, the production crew have invested all the time that the scriptwriters didn’t spend on writing interesting characters, on costume and makeup.
Drew Barrymore is now friends with the popular girls, and flirting with english teacher Michael Vartan by playfully dabbing his cheek with paint while he does the same back at her (in reality: english teacher Michael Vartan would be in jail for this).
Also there’s a whole gag running through whereby english teacher Michael Vartan keeps making references that are too old for the kids, but which Drew Barrymore gets – but given the references are 20 and 25 years out of date respectively, the jokes don’t exactly land with stunning force
There’s some scenes where the girls buy new clothes and there is mad emphasis on the PVC pants, as timeless as the pop punk / ska soundtrack
Basically it’s a montage of pure pleasure, the joys of being a useless teenager.
I fucking love fakeass shots of well-dressed beautiful teens in the rich buttery light of a Hollywood soundstage played by actors in their 30s.
In comparison, actual real teenagers: no good.
Another moment from the trailer:
GENERIC TEEN CHARACTER (to Drew Barrymore): Guy is so totally clenching on you.
DREW BARRYMORE: Do I want to be clenched on?
We’re in the rich and joyful part of the movie where Drew Barrymore is beautiful and attractive and spouting teen gibberish. There’s a great moment in a newspaper interview where the publisher says ‘I WANT YOUR STORY IN TWO WEEKS’ – she’s been employed (full-time) by this newspaper to do undercover research for… half a year? And she’s expected to write a single story about it?
Anyway, in theory, this is the bit of the film where the stakes are raised, but believe me, the stakes in this movie are low, so lowwwwwww
Next is a house party scene. Standard Hollywood teen movie house party, notable mainly for this girl’s outfit.
There’s a little interesting thread in this film about both Drew Barrymore and David Arquette having potential hook-ups with 16 year olds while they themselves are 25. On paper: ethically gross. In practice: no 16 year olds were harmed in the making of this film, nor even, I assume, allowed anywhere near set.
(If I could be bothered, I could use IMDB and wikipedia to find out the age of the actors playing these kids, and prove my supposition that all these children are 30+, but there’s a limit to how deep I’m gonna dive even in a deep dive)
There’s an discussion to be had here around emotional maturity – when do we grow, how do we grow? – and the basic notion that Drew Barrymore and her bro are both emotionally stunted half-creatures because they are living and reliving the past.
Nostalgia is a toxic force, I really believe that. Remembering the past, honouring and loving the best bits of it, returning to the great music, art, experiences that shaped us – YES. But nostalgia feels like a warped version of that, and Never Been Kissed brilliantly illustrates how nostalgia can prevent us from becoming who we really are. I really think this.
The cheekbones actor playing the little popular dudebro asks Drew Barrymore out without kissing her, and we are at an emotional high-point in the film, it’s impossible for things to get any better. English teacher Michael Vartan is flirting with Drew Barrymore like there’s no tomorrow, what a time.
In terms of plot, I grant you, this is not a good film. In terms of mood: if all you signed up for was to watch some attractive actors walk around a set in good costumes with nice lighting and the camera in focus smiling blandly at each other: Never Been Kissed has you fucking sorted.
No YOU are a great writer, Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein!
(fyi screenwriters Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein are also responsible for masterpieces such as How To Be Single,He’s Just Not That Into You, an Amy Schumer film called I Feel Pretty, and ‘projects in development’ such as MEAN MOMS and THE EX GAMES)
John C Reilly unexpectedly tells Drew Barrymore to write about how english teacher Michael Vartan is clearly about to have sex with her. For some reason, in the last 20 minutes of the film, Drew Barrymore’s newspaper article is actually a concern of the story, and so she is given a moral dilemma – write about the teacher she wants to bone, or… don’t?
Drew Barrymore and her brother are dressed up to go to the prom, she is a historical figure of some kind? It’s unclear.
The high school prom includes kids dressed as the Village People, which is sorta great.
More pop punk! Girls dressed in bikinis. A gorilla suit. Arguments about who is barbie. Swans made of ice. Dancing. Again, it’s unclear what I’m supposed to take from this. There’s an ethical thing where David Arquette decides not to fuck the drunk 16 year old.
Leelee Sobieski is working with what she’s given.
The naming of the prom royalty sequence is a chance for the movie to hammer home that I don’t know who any of these fucking characters are
Side note: when I was in high school in Colorado in 1999, there was a legit political powerplay going on for who was gonna be prom king and queen. One serious contendor was a kid named Cory, a clean-cut blond kid with swept-back hair and a great chin and a good singing voice. The whole thing was so fucking absurd it did my head in, and all the more so because it means that Never Been Kissed has accidentally strayed into the area of being slightly accurate.
I don’t know anything about this band or this song, but if you’re gonna pick a tune to announce Drew Barrymore as prom queen, why not some bland late 90s rock pap? WHY NOT?
‘As is custom, the king and queen will now have their first dance’
As is custom.
(I didn’t go to the prom when I was in high school in America, but all my friends who did, aka the whole drama school nerd pack, informed me that while the prom king and queen were announced they made it their business to be out smoking weed in the carpark and yelling FOUR TWENTY at passing cars)
In an unexpectedly dope moment, Drew Barrymore drops some sweet Shakespeare while dancing with the dudebro – it’s exactly the right tone to strike at the right moment.
English teacher Michael Vartan is giving Drew Barrymore sex eyes while she dances with the prom king
I don’t exactly know what the plot arc with Leelee Sobieski is in this film, but she rips off her hazard suit and dances with the dudebro in a bright blue leotard
Drew Barrymore is dancing with english teacher Michael Vartan and they’re about to confess something to each other and then she realises she has to save Leelee Sobieski from having dogfood thrown at her and the music stops and Drew Barrymore is no longer prom queen because she stopped Jessica Alba from throwing dogfood at someone and this makes sense because
Now Drew Barrymore is giving a speech about how she’s an undercover reporter and how she hates school and hates popular kids and hates bullying
while Drew Barrymore gives Leelee Sobieski an amazing rap, note how the actors in the background of this shot are performing the emotion INTERESTED AND SINCERE. These are professionals.
‘There is a world out there bigger than prom, bigger than high school, and it won’t matter if you were the prom queen or the quarterback of the football team. Find out who you are and try not to be afraid of it.’
1. This is a poorly written speech, and it is beyond Drew Barrymore’s acting power, or the liberal use of sweeping strings, to make it into an emotional climax
2. There’s a real fascination in American popular culture with the idea of ‘BEING YOURSELF’. Just ‘be yourself, ‘be honest about who you are’, ‘don’t hide your true light that comes from within’, etc. On the surface it seems like good advice but it really breaks down under close examination when you consider that most people, especially young people (everyone, not just Americans) are shitheads.
A better moral imo would be something like, ‘TRY AND BE A BETTER PERSON THAN YOU ARE RIGHT NOW’ – which, in fairness, sorta seems to be what screenwriters Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein are limping towards here
Drew Barrymore runs outside and is confronted by a newpaper colleague who says, ‘Tell me you got something on [english teacher Michael Vartan]’ while english teacher Michael Vartan is in earshot, which is screenwriter code for ‘We need to tidy this story arc up and we didn’t think about it in the first draft’
I love how, in this world, everyone casually accepts that a 25 year old has been a student for a full semester and doesn’t even think to question it. That’s the kind of accepting trust that I want to bring to the people in my life. If a friend tells me that they’re actually a Irish separatist in deep cover, I want to just nod, without any further questions.
I can’t be bothered doing the 50 screencaps again, but trust me, Drew Barrymore face-acts the hell out of being told to fuck off by english teacher Michael Vartan*
*who is weirdly more stressed about being lied to by a stranger than he is relieved about potentially nailing a student
John C Reilly is pissed because Drew Barrymore was revealed to be a student by the competitor newspaper. He’s not really screwed, tho, because as we see here, he’s a versatile actor and he can do anything he wants
Drew Barrymore finds an inner well of strength inside her and insists WE WILL HAVE A STORY, OKAY?
this is the motivation I need when staring at another uninspiring first draft. you have to believe you have a story worth telling. drew barrymore has your back here. You will have an amazing story.
There aren’t enough monologue voiceovers in this film, so grab on to them while they last – here, for example, shot of Drew Barrymore typing, and
DREW BARRYMORE: Someone once told me that to write well, you have to write what you know. This is what I know. I am 25 years old, and I have never really kissed a guy. Yes, it is embarrassing to share this with the world. But it would be hard to explain what I learned, and how I learned it, without sharing this humiliating history.
I received an assignment, my first, as a reporter, to go back to high school and find out about kids today. What I ended up finding was myself, and that high school hasn’t changed.
I lived a lifetime of regret after my first high school experience. And now, after my second, my regrets are down to one. A certain teacher was hurt on my path to self discovery, and, although this article may serve as a step, it in no way makes up for what I did to him.
To this man, you know who you are, I am so sorry. And I would like to add one more thing. I think I am in love with you. And so I propose this. As an ending to this article, and perhaps a beginning to the next chapter of my life, I, Josie Geller, will be at the state championship baseball game.
I will stand on the pitchers mound for five minutes prior to the first pitch. If this man accepts my apology, I ask him to come kiss me, for my first real kiss.
fyi this is crazy high stakes for a first pash. Why Drew Barrymore couldn’t be happy with necking on a doorstep in Palmerston outside Mel Hamblin’s 18th birthday party like the rest of us is a goddamn question for the ages, but there you go. Drama. Stakes.
for some reason leelee sobieski has shown up to the finale, this may make sense for her character depending on her character, I never really figured out who she is
Surging strings, crowd scenes, cheers, how much does it cost to hire this many extras in hollywood? I hope they filmed this on the same day they did the prom scene, and just got everyone to throw jackets on over their ridiculous prom outfits
That said, 5 mins is a long time to wait for basically one event. In theory, that’s enough time for all the character arcs to be wrapped up in a series of cutaways. In practice, there are no other character arcs, and so, it’s unclear what we’re going to do for this time. Except, perhaps… Drew Barrymore’s face?
We get some good Drew Barrymore face.
English teacher Michael Vartan shows up, late, and Drew Barrymore acts ‘heartbreak’ with her face, and the string section in the soundtrack hangs on one piercing heartbreaking note, forever, and then he walks out and the soundtrack changes to swelling triumph (and a Beach Boys song)
he kisses her and says, ‘Sorry I’m late. It took me forever to get here.’
Drew Barrymore looks up at him and says, ‘I know what you mean.’
& if you think I’m immune to a slow zoom out and fade with a couple having their first kiss in beautiful buttery hollywood light, you’re damn wrong.
It’s hard to tell what kind of future Drew Barrymore and english teacher Michael Vartan’s romance has, but given that he’s just come out publicly as a teacher who’s been on the verge of hooking up with a woman he thought was a 17 year old student, and she’s a reporter who’s taken 6 months to write a single newspaper article, I imagine that professionally, they’re in some amount of trouble.
I started out with the intention to write this review of the film as if it were perfect, with no criticism whatsoever, but then I forgot that plan and ended up just writing out the plot and trying to remember who any of the characters were, which is perhaps a metaphor for how the film was written?
According to the new ‘readibility analysis’ that WordPress provided me without my asking for it, 37.3% of the words in this review contain more than 20 words, which is ‘more than the recommended maximum’
Yeah well you know what, life is short, soon enough the sea calls us home, we’ll all cross that dark sunless river and be dirt in the ground, motes of ash in the breeze, particles washed down to sea and folded into rocks on the ocean bed and drawn down into the mantle, frankly, I’m not spending my brief hours on this earth trying to please a WordPress plugin, as Drew Barrymore once tearfully said, you will have an amazing story, and I believe her
When I was young, I was talented. It nearly finished me.
From a very young age I knew I wanted to be a writer. I loved reading, loved storytelling, loved worldbuilding. I churned out awful stories with plots stolen from trash fantasy novels in notebooks and on borrowed computers.
One high school English teacher gave me 15/15 for a script I wrote called ‘Shaft Vs The Vampires’. In Year 12, Jack Lloyd and I were invited to write the script for the school’s annual Fashion Revue. In retrospect that’s more confusing than flattering (what is a fashion revue and why does it need a script?) but at the time, these felt like important milestones.
Adults seemed to think I was capable of being a real writer one day. I assumed they were right. Why would they lie?
I probably did have some fluency, a sense of style. I liked writing, I wrote every day I could. As a 15 year old, maybe that’s enough to make you stand out.
What I didn’t know, what took me a long time to learn, is this: If you want to be a writer, talent is the tiniest part of the picture.
Talent is nothing compared with craft – and no-one is gifted with craft.
Craft is the ability to juggle ideas on the page. To express yourself quickly and flexibly through the smallest units of your form (sentences, lines of dialogue), assemble them into larger pieces (paragraphs, scenes) and then zoom right out to the bigger picture (plays, books, essays). To shift rapidly between generative and critical modes, so you can produce work easily and edit it intelligently. If you want to do something worthwhile in your work, you need all of that.
Writing craft is gained through hard labour and learning. It’s a kind of mental labour that’s actually quite similar to the muscle strain of physical exertion. It involves sitting staring at a word document for hours, in a kind of boring, painful struggle.
When you’re really working, your brain literally tries to flee the work (by changing the browser tab, cleaning the house, anything) and you have to force yourself back to it. It’s not being in a flow state – those only come when you’re doing something you already know how to do. Developing craft is about improving – setting yourself concrete, tangible goals, and then struggling towards them.
To develop craft – any kind of craft – you need two things:
1. Focus 2. The ability to learn.
I didn’t have either of these things. Not that I thought I knew everything – but being ‘talented’, I thought I could learn on the job. If there was something I couldn’t do, some technique or skill I didn’t possess, then rather than look for a teacher to help me learn it, I invented workarounds so I didn’t need to rely on it.
It took me a long time to learn how to learn.
Meanwhile, my peers were just rolling up their sleeves and getting on with getting better at writing. Maybe they weren’t as talented as me – or (spoiler alert) they were exactly as talented, but they hadn’t let it get in their way. They had the humility to learn, and the discipline to work at it, and very quickly they started improving. They locked in gains, kept ratcheting up, showed up with new exciting works and finished them.
Not that I was lazy, per se. Over my twenties I generated huge amounts of writing, volumes upon volumes of scripts. But all this wild, undisciplined effort wasn’t focused on making me a better writer – and so I plateaued. For a long time, I was producing work but not improving – and if you’re not improving, you get left behind.
In certain cases, for one person in a hundred thousand, talent is enough. If you’ve lived a particularly unique life, if you have an important perspective that the world is hungry for, then you don’t need a heap of craft. If your story matters people will find their way to it, never mind the rough edges.
For the rest of us, talent is a con. It’s valuable only if it helps gets you in the room with experts and professionals, because they will help you develop craft. That’s all it’s good for.
It finally dawned on me, slowly but surely, that I’d been treading water for a long time. Maybe I had some talent when I was young, but that didn’t count for anything, and besides, it was long over. That was a dispiriting realisation.
What saved me is that writing is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do, and I knew that nothing else would ever make me happy. So I had to begin, far too late, to learn how to learn.
I don’t know exactly what I’d say to a young artist whose work excited me in place of ‘you’re talented’, but maybe it’d be something like: ‘You have something in you worth working on.’ That’s what I needed to hear, anyway.
On the news / life front, I’m currently in Munich for a few weeks, joining Rebecca while she finishes up her residency at the Rachel Carson Center. I’ve come off the back of a busy few weeks for Coney, contributing to the company’s show at the Natural History Museum at the end of this month (as part of the NERC Impact Award Lates on Friday 30 November – go check it out if you’re in London).
I’ll be (briefly) back in Australia at the beginning of the year, before heading to Singapore over Jan-Feb with Boho for the last phase of our collaboration with Earth Observatory Singapore, creating a set of new games around volcano and typhoon hazards for the Science Centre Singapore.
And then, who knows? 2019 is a bit of a mystery at this stage. Get in touch if you know what I should be doing.
That pic of me at the top from 2004, btw, I think was taken by Nickamc.
Gwen Malkin’s a good kid with her heart in the right place – but after getting in an ill-advised fight, she’s been sentenced to spend the remainder of the school year at the toughest reform school in the country: Mary Magdalene’s School for Delinquent Girls, known on the street as Violence High.
Magdalene’s student body includes some of the most ruthless, brutal and criminally ambitious teenagers in the country, and the worst of them all is Gwen’s older sister, charismatic sociopath Katrina Malkin.
Gwen wants to straighten up and fly right, but her efforts to rehabilitate herself are blown out of the water when her sister leads the students in an armed uprising, taking over the entire school and kidnapping a visiting Swedish ballroom dance troupe.
Now, Gwen is trapped on the wrong side of the law. Surrounded by hardened criminals in a pressure cooker situation, there’s only one way to rehabilitate herself: with no holds barred.
Violence High is a new piece I’ve been writing while I’m in Munich: a genre mash-up of all my favourite elements.
I love a good rogues’ gallery. This play is all about assembling the worst, most vicious, creatively awful villains and putting them in one hostile situation. A high school full of con artists, political assassins, kidnappers, extortionists, hackers and murderers…
…and in the midst of it all, a girl with some rough edges and her heart in the right place, doing her best to stay one step ahead.
It’s also a showcase of crisp as fuck ballroom dancing. The TVs at the gym I’ve been going to in Cambridge Heath have been showing footage from a ballroom dance reality TV show, and it’s dope and I’ve been digging it. The dancing / fighting is soundtracked by a heartrending lineup of classic soft rock and ballads:
Bryan Adams – Heaven Heart – Alone Linda Ronstadt – Don’t Know Much Roxette – Listen To Your Heart REO Speedwagon – Can’t Fight This Feeling Vanessa Williams – Save The Best For Last Richard Marx – Right Here Waiting Milli Vanilla – Girl You Know It’s True Phil Collins – Sussudio
& on & on, many more.
It’s in early stage development at the moment – which is simultaneously the most spooky part of a new work, and also the most fun. Everything’s open, everything’s on the table. On the other hand, what it doesn’t have is a producing partner, a company or a specific context. All of those things tend to sharpen quickly the direction of the work, by closing down certain options and opening up others.
I have a couple of ideas for where this could be heading – but if any of these elements strike you as interesting, of course drop me a line.
Meanwhile – a sample scene:
ms pradeep: Ladies! As you know, we have the privilege of welcoming the Swedish Under-18s Ballroom Dance Troupe to our lovely school this morning, as the last stop on their highlights tour of our country, to showcase some of their extremely capable ballroom dancing.
But first, while the TV crew is here, we’re going to show the Swedes what we’ve been working on. You’re going to make me proud. I am not going to live and die as a PE teacher in a reform school for scum, and this performance is going to be my ticket out.
That means you hit every beat of the choreography we’vepracticed. If you don’t hit every beat, I beat the shit out of you. Do you understand?
MUSIC: Bryan Adams – Heaven
ms pradeep: That’s it, hit those moves! Pretend in your mind that you’re superstars, not wretched teenage nobodies.
katrina: Ms Pradeep! Oh excuse me, Ms Pradeep!
ms pradeep: What do you want?
katrina: I’m enjoying the choreography, but if I can be blunt, it’s a little derivative. It smacks of someone who’s watched too many dance-based reality TV shows. What’s at the heart of dance?
ms pradeep: Why don’t you tell me, you little punk. What’s at the heart of dance?
katrina: Passion. It’s the fluid motion of bodies and music. It’s feeling, fluency and flow. Your choreography is superficially competent, but it’s lacklustre, predictable and I don’t believe for a second that you mean it.
ms pradeep: You want to see me mean it?
Ms Pradeep swings the baton at Katrina – and Katrina’s arms burst free of her restraints…
On the news / life front, I’m currently in Munich for a few weeks, joining Rebecca while she finishes up her residency at the Rachel Carson Center. I’ve come off the back of a busy few weeks for Coney, contributing to the company’s show at the Natural History Museum at the end of this month (as part of the NERC Impact Award Lates on Friday 30 November – go check it out if you’re in London).
I’ll be (briefly) back in Australia at the beginning of the year, before heading to Singapore over Jan-Feb with Boho for the last phase of our collaboration with Earth Observatory Singapore, creating a set of new games around volcano and typhoon hazards for the Science Centre Singapore.
And then, who knows? 2019 is a bit of a mystery at this stage. Get in touch if you know what I should be doing.
There aren’t many moments in a creative career which you can identify as an actual breakthrough. Improvements come gradually, countless tiny adjustments, accumulating over years into something meaningful.
Every so often, though, you stumble on something that transforms your practice, immediately. A new method, a different perspective, a solution which opens up interesting new problems…
Vampire Play, 2004.
In 2004 I was developing a new script entitled Vampire Play for Bohemian. I had the bones of a script, some scene outlines and a few fragments of dialogue. In the room with the actors, I gradually fleshed this out into a proper script.
In one scene, enthusiastic vampire George Bekken describes a plan to ambush and kill several human commuters. My notes for the scene read: ‘Bekken describes her plan for the ambush. It is complicated, with heaps of strategy and tactics.’
I had planned to spend some time devising Bekken’s complicated plan in order to write this monologue, but I never got around to it. At the last minute, in a fit of laziness, I gave up and wrote:
bekken – Guys! This is the first ambush ever made by the Vampire Gang. We’re gonna do the most complicated plan, with heaps of strategy and tactics.
Surprisingly, this complete cop out worked (at least, as well as anything else in the play). None of the actors even seemed to notice – except Jack, who said (not unappreciatively), ‘You cheating bastard.’
This was a gamechanger for me. I had so many great ideas for plays that I had abandoned because to do them justice would require more skill than I had. Now I realised: I didn’t need to do them justice.
You don’t need research. You don’t need careful development. Screw careful writing. Put the ideas straight into the work, raw and unformed. Don’t worry that they’re clunky and half-baked: make a point of it. Celebrate it!
From this point on, highlighting mistakes and drawing attention to weaknesses became a core part of my creative tooklit.
Rather than avoiding extravagant setpieces in my work, I started doubling down on them. I stopped worrying about how to stage the scripts I wrote, and left all the practical stuff to directors and designers.
The unexpected solutions people found to these staging problems were usually the best parts of the show, so I started experimenting with increasingly impossible demands.
I stopped trying to find connecting threads between the disparate ideas in my scripts, and gave myself permission to include whatever idea excited me in the moment, regardless of whether or not it logically ‘fit’. I let contrasting elements sit together in my work without justification.
This can be powerful. As humans, we’re wired to look for connections and patterns. If you place two ideas next to each other in a work, sooner or later a connection will emerge. Maybe a collaborator or audience member will point out a relationship you never spotted. These links are usually more interesting than the ones you made consciously.
I took a lot of inspiration from reading an early draft of Declan Greene’s Pompeii LA. Declan had started the project with a tumblr blog, a scrapbook of child star-related links, articles and videos, anything that caught his eye. The script wasn’t a scrapbook, but in some ways it felt like one. Fragmentary scenes from cheap TV talk shows ran up against surreal lyric monologues about volcanoes.
When I saw the final version at the Malthouse several years later, it had grown sharper and cleaner, but I felt like part of its strength was the eclectic, weird web of ideas it was grounded in.
Making science-theatre, I used to endlessly worry about my work feeling like a lecture. I used to go to huge lengths to carefully conceal any science ideas. And then I finally figured out the solution: I stopped worrying about it.
How do you tell the story of climate catastrophe on stage without it feeling like a lecture? You run toward the science, challenge the media and make it a lecture. And combine it with a dance party.
To summarise: ‘How do you tell the story of climate catastrophe on stage without it feeling like a lecture? You… make it a lecture.’
This may look like a lecture, but it is, in fact, a lecture. Pic by Bryony Jackson.
It turns out, the problem is actually the solution.
This is an endlessly flexible strategy. Make a list of the problems and flaws in your current project. Don’t try to solve them. Highlight them. Celebrate them!
These things are impossible to quantify, but I feel like this is the trick that’s allowed me to stay in the game.
I’ve never been the most talented playwright, nor the most hardworking and dedicated. Plenty of my peers are more skilled writers of dialogue and character, more able to connect with audiences emotionally.
I’ve managed to remain in the game partly because I’ve been able to turn my weaknesses into stylistic features – part of my aesthetic.
The problem with this approach, of course, is that it lets you off the hook. Making a feature of your flaws can absolve you of the need to address them. Over a long period, it can stifle your creative development.
My writing craft is, frankly, not where I want it to be.
At this stage of my career, at age 35, I think the actual content of my writing is more interesting than ever before. But my grasp of the fundamental skills of playwriting is patchier than it should be. There are things I just can’t write that I wish I could.
Characters: How do you make them? Dialogue with more than two people: How do you script it? Realism (aka the most popular performance form of this era): What even is that?
I’m thinking about how to go forwards from here, continuing to use the tricks and techniques which have worked for me, but expanding my palette and building my skills. I have a long way to go.
I guess we all have a long way to go.
Life business. A few weeks left in London, and I’m doing a couple of performance sharings.
Speaking of Sipat: the rest of the crew just completed a residency for Gobyerno in Kinosaki, Japan – a realignment and exploration for the next stage of this project (as well as doing an adorable Gobyerno for kids workshop).
And in Australia, Boho is rolling out a set of workshops this month, for the Torres Strait Island Research Council, and the SafeWork NSW Conference. As ever, check out the website if you’d like to inquire.
This week I’ve been thinking about the value of bad reviews.
One thing I wish for every artist starting out is to get some really punishing reviews. If possible, before they get a positive mention.
My first shows, with Bohemian and then with Opiate, got a string of bad reviews. For years – probably the first four years of making work, from 2001 – 2005 – I don’t think we got a single good review.
Jack Lloyd, Mick Bailey, Nick Johnson and me, 2001. I still think about that jumper.
In retrospect, this being pre-social media, it was probably inevitable. The only review space in Canberra was the newspapers, and the reviewers at the arts desks were definitively not the audience for the kind of murky half-formed sci-fi theatre we were making. Maybe if there’d been an online space for our friends and peers to write reviews or share their opinions, there would have been a different feeling.
But maybe not. I mean the blunt fact was that the stuff we / I was writing was mostly not very good. I got a lot of reviews saying things like ‘wordy’, ‘clunky’, ‘lost and confused’…
And I think this was actually really valuable. First of all, because it meant I didn’t rely on validation from anyone outside the community. I learned that the only people whose opinions mattered were the fellow makers I was striving alongside and against.
Canberra at that time was a community of people supporting each other, competing with each other and learning from each other. If Hadley or Na Milthorpe or Chrism Rooks pulled some new trick out of the bag, that was a prod to the rest of us to up our game, at the same time as it was an achievement to be talked over and celebrated. We pushed each other to be the best we could be, and if you slipped or were lazy, then you’d hear about it, honestly, from your disappointed friends. The opinion of an outsider – usually much older – meant fuck all in that picture. Another bad Canberra Times review? Add it to the pile.
That was Canberra independent theatre in the 2000s, but I suspect the same applies to just about every creative community everywhere, especially when you’re starting out. You find your community, or you build it, and then you learn together, from each other.
Secondly, these bad reviews were useful because they let me know that my work was bad. Not in a rebellious fuck-the-man kind of way, just in the sense of being not very good.
A bad review is never fun to receive (well, very occasionally). Mostly they just sap your energy and positivity. Sometimes they fuck up the dynamics in a group by singling one artist out for praise and another for criticism. Every so often they teach you something useful about your work. Mostly they’re just a kind of heavy emotional weather you have to sail through.
It was really helpful for me to learn, right at the beginning of my career, how to put my head down and proceed ahead against the prevailing winds.
Positive comments came very, very slowly. I remember a review for Vampire Play which said, after a withering description of the content of the show, ‘Opening night audiences found this all very funny.’ Which, when I squinted at it the right way, felt like a grudging acknowledgment that even though the reviewer didn’t enjoy any of it… the show was working?
Gina Guirguis and Max Barker in Vampire Play (2004). Pic by ‘pling.
A reviewer once called my work ‘polarising’. Which is not a compliment, but you can take it as one. Another critic said, ‘At its best, David Finnigan’s mind is like a bowl of noodles’ – & who doesn’t like noodles?
When I performed a spoken word piece at the Nuyorican Cafe in New York, the MC remarked afterwards, ‘This performance has really made me consider how unprepared I am in the case of a medical emergency at one of these events.’ That remark kept me going for months.
I feel bad for young artists who are acknowledged and celebrated early. A good review is intoxicating, and to get that endorphin hit early would be addictive – and destabilising. If I’d somehow had a hit show early on, I would have spent years and years trying to recreate that formula – and you never can.
You can really fuck a young artist up by calling them ‘talented’ or ‘promising’. I’m grateful no-one ever lauded me like that (not anyone who sat through w3 w3lcome the future, anyway). Instead, by the time I had a genuinely successful piece of theatre, I had a solid history of practice behind me, and I wasn’t desperate to repeat the same tricks.
Now I’m middle-aged, I can see how scarce critical culture is, how few professional critics are operating out there, how vital that piece of the puzzle is. Robyn Archer described critics as ‘the third leg of the tripod’ (alongside artists and audiences). These days I’m hungry for reviews, especially intelligent, sharp, critical ones. The idea of the smartest people in the room tearing my stuff apart is the most exciting, empowering thing I can think of. These days I have a list of favourite critics who I’m hoping to one day get bad reviews from.
A good review is froth on the daydream – it’s a good buzz for a couple of hours but it doesn’t amount to much in the real world. And a bad review can’t stop you – and if it can’t stop you, it can’t hurt you.
So this is what I know about myself, this is the mantra.
1. I was very bad when I started.
2. I’m a little better now.
3. If I keep at it for another 40 years or so, I will be quite good.
Life / art stuff: It’s late September 2018. I’m in London until the end of October, living my best life as Coney’s associate-in-residence. Three small things to mention:
1. Jordan Prosser and I recently released a short spoken word EP, recorded in Munich in June when we were rehearsing CrimeForce: LoveTeam. Some reflective poetry, including a beautiful piece by Jordan entitled Dear Dr Karl, all set to some beautiful unreleased Fossil Rabbit tunes.
2. This October in London I’m doing a few small shows and sharings. On Monday 1 October I’m presenting a 10 minute piece at Camden Peoples Theatre as part of their scratch night.
On Tuesday 16 October I’m doing a scratch performance of a brand new piece I’m working on with the working title of Objects. Over the last few months I’ve been interviewing scientists and thinkers, and asking them to each choose an object that they think represents something interesting about the Anthropocene and the huge changes happening in the world today. I’ll be sharing a couple of these objects and would love some thoughts.
6.30 – 7.30pm Tuesday 16 October Location TBC
3. On Monday 15 October I’ll be presenting a short talk / performance about Sipat Lawin at Toynbee Studios. I’ll be discussing the Battalia Royale project, and also Sipat’s more recent work including Gobyerno and Are You Ready To Take The Law Into Your Own Hands? I’ll be joined remotely by Sipat director JK Anicoche, technology willing.
6.30pm Monday 15 October Toynbee Studios Cafe, Commercial Street, near Aldgate East
Battalia Royale. Pic by Gibbs Cadiz.
4. 2019 is approaching and who knows what I’ll be doing? NOT ME, PAL. If you have any thoughts, suggestions or interesting offers, drop me a line.
A pic that Jordan took while we were in Munich. This captures my headspace well rn. Pic by Mr J Prosser.
Crowded London headspace. What’s the word for it, that feeling where your mind’s just an open deck of cards being shuffled by the city, and you do your best thinking with your eyes kept low to the ground and the horizon’s always just a few centimetres away or there’s no horizon at all, everything’s just always spinning into the fog?
It hasn’t been as busy or intense as it could be / has been / will be, but you know the sensation of casting your mind back to recall what you’ve been doing all month, and all you can see is waves breaking over pebbles.
It’s August 2018. Here’s my interesting challenge of the moment: How do I prioritise and drive my work forward without a specific pressing deadline or any particular momentum around a project?
Now that CrimeForce is done, and Kill Climate Deniers has receded well into the background, I’ve got a bundle of projects at various early stages. And this is exciting! In a way. These projects could become anything, there’s no limits on them, my imagination is the only constraint, I can dream big, I can make them into whatever I choose, etc etc.
Of course, it doesn’t feel like that. What it feels like is that there’s no energy around the work – no-one’s asking for them, no-one’s clamouring to read these scripts or jockeying for the right to present these shows, and so it’s hard to believe in them myself.
I suspect the reality is somewhere in between. There are people who might care about these works, there are contexts that might suit them, if I really threw myself at the task of connecting with those people. But that’s not the priority: what really matters right now is finding the energy to make these works good – or even to make them exist.
Because my entire creative and professional life is based around projects, and because of the jagged and varied nature of those projects, my calendar and schedule is always all over the place. When I’m in delivery mode for a script, or a game, or a show, it’s hectic and demanding and swallows up all my energy and thinking. When I emerge from the other side, I then have to figure out what I’m doing with myself, and how best to shape my time.
I think of myself as continually returning to square one. Every few weeks, it feels like, I have to go back to the basics and figure out what I want, and how to go about getting it. In some ways that’s great – it means I never, ever get caught in a rut. (Sometimes I fantasise about how nice a rut sounds, the sheer delight of getting bored.) I’m always going back to first principles, recalibrating myself and starting again.
After 18 years of this, you’d think I’d be better at it – but it’s always a jolt to find myself with an empty tasklist, unsure about what to do next, what’s most important and where to begin.
New projects never fare well in that mix. I find myself tinkering with the existing projects, where the jobs are simpler and more clearly defined, rather than diving in to grapple with the vague, ill-defined jobs at the beginning of something new. An item like ‘Check Kill Climate Deniers website is compatible with new Google search crawlers’ is clear, defined and easy to tackle. An item like ‘Figure out Reincarnation Play’… what even does that entail?
New projects are vague and loose ideas, to begin with. In order to condense into something more meaningful and structured, they need time spent on them just thinking. And ‘sit and think’ is always gonna be less urgent than other tasks, whichmeans that new projects run the risk of never getting past the vague idea stage.
The same goes for ‘write new draft’,‘research origins of patriarchy’, ‘type up notes from late night dancefloor’ and so on. And the upshot is that new projects don’t get created – or at least, they take far longer than they should to get to the stage of being tested, put on the floor, scripted and/or pitched.
This is where, for performing artists, festivals come in super handy. Any festival – from the sleaziest, cheapest fringe festival on up – provides you with a place and a time by which you need to have manifested an idea into something.
But right now I’m trying to do better, just by myself. I’ve got some ideas that I’m trying to condense into actual work, like those fog farms in Chile condense mist into drinking water. And no-one cares whether these new ideas happen or not, or whether they happen by any particular date. But like Sarah Walker said, ‘self-imposed deadlines are the most satisfying to hit’.
Chilean fog farm = the creative process. Photo by Nicole Saffie.
So this is the deal. I have two new playscripts – 44 Sex Acts In One Week and End Science Now – both of them dope as hell, and I’m breaking the Glyn Roberts rule and working on them myself, without any company attached. Fuckit. When I’m done they’ll be the best things I’ve ever written.
I’ve got two new schemes for performances to present: one a solo piece which I’m calling, for now, The First Thousand Objects. I’m gonna scratch 10 minutes at Camden Peoples Theatre at the beginning of October, but the performance date isn’t the most important deadline for me – the real achievement will be tying off a bunch of research and completing some interviews for it.
The other piece sits in a conversation with Ness Roque, and that’s a whole other performance form which I need to learn more about before diving in: learning about a performance form is a deadline in itself.
And I’m chewing through a new thread of text to go into the next Sex Play development with Anthea and Sarah. I know that whatever I end up producing probably won’t end up in the final show itself, but trying to navigate the complex threads of this topic in written form is the best challenge and is teaching me a lot.
But of course just doing the writing and the making isn’t enough – it never is. There are problems to be solved about navigating the systems of production to give your work an outlet, and those problems demand as much creativity and inspiration as any of the other parts. I’ve got some thinking to do there too. But right now, the goal is just to make.
Things don’t want to become good. Draft scripts like being bad, they seem to enjoy it. Ideas are happy to not take concrete shape. Nothing interesting wants to exist. So, I think, we’re wrestling with ghosts.
Which is a strange profession to be in.
More news-y update:
I was in Munich with Bec in June, working mostly on CrimeForce: LoveTeam, but with a little bit of new writing in amongst it. Jordan came for the last week, and we finished making that show, writing, rehearsing. Then to London, Nickamc joined us, and we hammered out a week of hard rehearsals before FutureFest at the beginning of July. 6 shows in 2 days on a hot weekend at Tobacco Dock, we got to know CrimeForce very well, and it was good, it was good.
Sam Burns-Warr. Image by Sacha Bryning.
And in the midst of that process, Jordan and I recorded a little spoken word recording – a Munich EP! – to be released very soon. Little bright stories in the green German summer, with some new Fossil Rabbit songs accompanying them.
Then it was dropping back into Coney stuff. My official day-job, as much as I do anything that you could describe that way, picking up pace rapidly. A hectic month, and that’s not slowing down any time soon. My proudest achievement there was a systems map of the world of job automation – always satisfying to drill down into a bundle of research and turn it into a gameable schematic.
But in amongst that, I was able to finish a new draft of 44 Sex Acts. Which has made me inordinately happy, because as ridiculous as this script is, it now has some scenes, some images, some exchanges in it that I’m really happy about. I’m still not great at writing characters, which is something you really need in order to make a romantic comedy work, but we’ll get there.
And lastly, I ran a workshop at Arte Urbana’s scriptwriting village in Bozhentsi, Bulgaria. A lovely few days in the Eastern European mountains outside of Sofia, with a lovely group of mentors and practitioners. But my workshop! I guess I overthought it, went through three different drafts of what I’d do with my three hours, and in the end it was… somewhere in between lecture and workshop, and not quite satisfying enough as either.
Me chatting in Bozhentsi, while Daniel Bye looks on. Pic by Dimitar Uzunov.
It’s an interesting skill, teaching. You can be a good maker and not know how to teach (I hope), and you can be a good teacher and a terrible maker (I believe). How much do the two correlate? What do students need? How do you give them enough to guide and provoke them without overwhelming them?
I’d like to be a better teacher, whatever that entails. I’d like to be able to condense the little tricks and tips I’ve learned along the way into something I can communicate more clearly. But that’s another challenge, another project, another arc. Either way, on this occasion I think I learned more from the students than I gave them. Maybe it’s always this way.
Workshop participants smashing out their fourth press conference in a game of Press Conference Every Minute. Pic by Dimitar Uzunov.
The most popular boy band in 2050. Pic by Sacha Bryning.
I’ve just spent a few hours trying to get over a tricky speedbump in the writing of CrimeForce: LoveTeam, so I feel like now might be a good time to ease back and reflect slightly.
First of all, what is CrimeForce: LoveTeam?
In simple terms, it’s a participatory performance lecture by Jordan Prosser and myself which uses a scenaric futures lens to look at the future of pop music (specifically, the future of boy bands) and the future of the justice system. We’re about to launch the first major public outing of the work at Nesta’s FutureFest in London this July, with Nick McCorriston on board as our future-pop composer and DJ, and Sacha Bryning illustrating our storyboards.
What actually does any of the above paragraph mean? I know, it’s a lot. But in short: Jordan and I have created a Law and Order-style crime thriller, set in the future, about the murder of a boy band member.
It’s 2050. Britain’s police force has recently been renamed the CrimeForce, and the biggest pop group in the world today is a teenage boy band called LoveTeam. In a penthouse suite overlooking the city of London, the body of Kevin LoveTeam has just been found – bludgeoned to death.
Now, the race is on for CrimeForce detectives McAuley and Prosser to crack the case and find Kevin’s killer, before they strike again.
McAuley and Prosser’s investigation will lead them from grimy black market shanty-towns to opulent charity balls, from the dark criminal underworld to the glittering heights of pop stardom, and bring them face to face with the sinister reality behind the pop music facade.
Jordan and I have been working on this project together since 2016, when we did a 3-month research residency at Carlton Connect in Melbourne looking into the practice of ‘scenaric futures’. It’s been simmering for me even longer – since my 2014 Churchill Fellowship research trip brought me face-to-face with the world of Futures Studies and Experiential Futures.
But FutureFest will be the first public outing for the work. This first iteration will be a live performance, with Jordan and I telling the whole story between us as a two-hander. Mixed in with the detective story are brief lecture interludes, which unpack some of the science behind the story, and some samples of speculative future pop songs, performed by composer and sound artist Nick McCorriston.
It’s an introduction to some of the big discoveries in the world of molecular biology and music production, and what these discoveries might mean for our criminal justice system or for how we access and experience music. It’s a science lecture, a pop concert and a classic episode of Law and Order all in one.
More or less.
So far so good. But there’s one more key element: this is not a show about the future, this is a show about how we think about the future.
Thinking about the future is hard. Really hard. We’re bad at thinking about next week, let alone next decade.
Scientists working in the realm of Futures Studies have developed critical thinking tools to help them grapple with the future. One of the key tools is the idea of the Scenaric Viewpoint. This is what Jordan and I are trying to share in this work.
The key idea underpinning this whole practice is: We can’t predict the future.
The future doesn’t exist. It hasn’t happened yet.
So rather than being about predicting, the scenaric approach is about creating future scenarios to ‘give you more options in the continually evolving present’. I won’t go into the theory here, but in practice, futurists create multiple different future scenarios. You can have as many alternative futures as you like – but in practice, scientists tend to limit themselves to just a few. In fact, usually, just four.
In fact pretty much always: four.
Again, I won’t go into the reasoning here, but if you look at different forecasts by government agencies, research bodies, the military, the IPCC and so on, they have four alternative scenarios.
Jordan and I did the same. We created four alternative future scenarios for London in the year 2050. In each scenario, we imagine different decisions by individuals and countries that might result in very different worlds. In each scenario, the justice system, youth culture, politics, music and fashion have all taken very different forms.
In each of the four scenarios, Kevin LoveTeam is murdered and Detectives McAuley and Prosser are sent to investigate. We meet the same characters and follow the same rough journey (every episode of Law and Order meets the same characters and follows the same rough journey), but in each version the world itself is different. And in only one of the four future scenarios do the detectives catch the killer.
It’s up to the audience to make sure that that’s that future we end up in.
This all sounds like a lot, but in practice, this has involved A LOT of Jordan, Nick and I discussing and listening to the history of boy bands and chart pop, and watching a lot of Law and Order. Nickamc has composed a series of alternative future pop anthems for us, and the show does conclude with a boy band live concert finale, because of course.
I’ve written a bit about the future of pop music for the Future Centres blog here, if you’re curious, and Jordan dove into the reasons why Law and Order provides a great tool for thinking about the future on the Nesta blog.
But the main thing I’ll leave you with is that the Backstreet Boys’ 2013 documentary Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of is a brilliantly constructed piece of cinema, and the Backstreet Boys’ new single Don’t Go Breaking My Heart is better than you’d probably expect.
It’s May 2018! There’s a lot going on. Gonna try and put some of it down in one place, just so I can see myself where I’m at.
Bec and I finished up in London late last year. At the beginning of December I got a plane to the Philippines. Spent two weeks in Manila, a new project with Sipat Lawin: Are You Ready To Take The Law Into Your Own Hands? It’s a big show – an action film and a jukebox musical showcasing the world of Filipino pop music.
As well as being a big colourful spectacle full of fight scenes and dance sequences, it’s also a work with a very specific tone and some key ideas, and if we don’t land those elements then the play loses most of its force and intent. So I spent quite a bit of time in conversation with JK, Ness, Alon, Ienne, Clyde, Ji-ann and Joelle, trying to articulate those more subtle elements.
The Earth Observatory is a research institution funded by the Singapore government to study natural disasters in the south-east Asian region. The scientists there look at volcanoes, typhoons, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, mudslides and lightning storms. Their goal is to help make Singapore – and the rest of Asia – more resilient to natural hazard crises.
Boho’s brief was to create a new game – or, in fact, a series of games – looking at the period just pre-disaster: from the first warning signs to the moment of impact. When it comes to earthquakes and tsunamis, the period from first warning to impact is usually measured in minutes – which limits the kinds of decisions you can make. For that reason, our brief was to explore two natural hazards which do give you some kind of notice: typhoons and volcanoes.
Gills’ design work here was out-of-control gorgeous, as usual
Over January – February, we created a series of short modular games looking at different aspects of the pre-disaster system: the challenges faced by local government in planning evacuations, the difficulties that scientists face in communicating uncertainty, the complex requirements each of us need fulfilled in order to be able to evacuate our home.
It was tough, as a month-long development always is, especially when you’re living out of hotel rooms in a foreign city. But it was smooth, too. It feels like our process is getting clearer and cleaner the more we work at it. There were some pieces we created that I’m really proud of – though I also left feeling like we could have done a whole lot more.
We had one of those moments that completely justifies the entire existence of collaboration, though. Muttley and I came up with a rough sketch for a game called Busy Mayors – a planning scenario for a group of local government officials trying to run an election campaign in the onset of a possible typhoon. The game is built on a lo-fi probability engine (aka the chance-o-gram) that Muttley designed, which looks like this. The genius moment came when we were trying to figure out how to scale it up for two teams of players – and Muttley, while working on another game entirely, came up with the idea of having two towns in the path of the typhoon – one will definitely be missed, and one will definitely be hit.
I know it doesn’t make a lot of sense written down like this, but trust me, that insight turned it from a playful activity into a game.
Gillian’s design was absolutely stunning – gorgeous tactile pieces evoking different south-east Asian building styles. And Nikki came up with a superb name for the show: ‘Get The Kids And Run’. EOS have pointed out, quite rightly, that it’s not an accurate name for the games we’ve made or the point we’re making, so it will get renamed at some point. But as a working title, I like it the most.
Then there was Kill Climate Deniers at Griffin, and all that noise and chaos. That was a lot of fun, that was a joy on every level.
Pic by Bryony Jackson
And in amongst it, Reuben and I presented our Kill Climate Deniers dance party event at Arts House as part of the Festival of Live Art. Over two Fridays in March, we busted out the solo show complete with Reuben’s blistering DJ set, which was a magic way of diffusing all that energy. I love getting to dance with an audience, I love it the most.
Reuben totally nailed the DJ sets, too. The first week was badass enough (happy watching the crowd lose it to Baby D’s Let Me Be Your Fantasy), but the second week was even more glorious. He closed out the set by mixing to a hardcore acid house banger, leaving his laptop up on stage and jumping down into the dancefloor with us – as Jordan said, the DJ equivalent of pointing the car at the pier, putting a brick on the accelerator and leaping out of the window.
Pic by Bryony Jackson
Now I’m in England, back working with Coney, and at the same time, Jordan and I are sending back and forth new drafts for CrimeForce: LoveTeam, which will go up onstage at Nesta’s FutureFest this July.
But it’s 5.45am at an airport right now, that feeling.
I arrived in Sydney in mid-February, near the end of rehearsals – about ten days before the first preview. I hung out at rehearsals, had good chats with the Griffin folk, and attended the show five times. This was quite a special experience. I don’t know how to describe it, but it was exciting and humbling and very gratifying.
Now that the season has concluded and the dust has settled somewhat, I want to write a little about one aspect of the experience: what it was like, as the playwright, to see Griffin’s production of Kill Climate Deniers take flight.
KCD won the Griffin Award for new scripts last year, which was incredibly generous of them (and also, ahhhh, how many brilliant playscripts were in the mix for that award and I got lucky? there are too few opportunities like this for new writing, hey). The award was a lovely acknowledgement of the work, and I’d’ve been happy with that, but then Griffin doubled down and programmed it for2018, first show of the season, with Lee Lewis directing.
I’d never met Lee before this, though I know of her work, and I’d seen her production of The Bleeding Tree. We had our first meetings over skype mid-last year, while I was working in England. Good chats, but you know what skype is like – hard to organise, and always too brief.
Eden Falk & Emily Havea. Pic by Brett Boardman.
I was overseas again when rehearsals started – this time in Singapore for a month developing a new Boho work at Nanyang Technological University. I arrived in Sydney in mid-Feb, ten days before the first preview, but I was completely absent for the first few weeks of rehearsals. This is the brief window when the playwright can actually be useful, doing script fixes and rewrites as the play goes on the floor for the first time.
Instead, Lee, the cast, the designers, and the company were left with the responsibility to make the show work, and to figure out how to stage this unstageable play.
I’m gonna go on a brief tangent about the craft of playwriting here, to help me articulate what I mean by ‘unstageable’:
One of the first lessons you learn when you start writing plays, is that as the writer, your job is not to be dazzlingly clever. Your job is not to impress the audience by showing off your writing skills or getting fancy with form. Your job is to provide your fellow theatre-makers with the material they need so that they can impress the audience.
Some writers – novelists, essayists and poets, for example – are more or less writing directly to their audience. The words you write will eventually be picked up and read by your readers. It’s a kind of direct transmission from author to reader – the art exists in the words you are transmitting to the reader, through the medium of paper&ink or what have you.
For script-writers, it’s a little different. Under normal circumstances, your audience will never read your work. The script that you’re labouring over isn’t intended to for a wide audience, and in most cases it will never be publicly released.
This is what a script looks like. It is… not pretty.
In theatre, the crucial moment is the performance itself. It all comes down to that moment of exchange between the audience and the performers. Either the play connects with its audience, or it doesn’t. By that time, as the playwright, it’s well out of your hands.
The script is not the art. The script is a blueprint that a group of other artists (directors, designers, actors) will use to create the art.
A playscript is a working document – more like a map than a novel. A script isn’t necessarily supposed to be a fun experience to read on the page – it’s a functional device, a tool for a group of professionals to use as a common reference during the creation of the play.
With that in mind, when you write a script, your readers are not the general public who will one day see the show, but your colleagues, fellow artists and professionals who will be building that show. Everything you write will be mediated through them – so your aim is to give them useful material they can work with effectively.
‘Useful’ here doesn’t mean detailed exhaustive instructions. In theatre, whatever your role is – writer, actor, designer, whatever – you’re expected to understand enough about the other roles that you know what they need, and you can communicate with each other.
As a scriptwriter, you need to include enough information that your colleagues can do their job, but you don’t tell them how to do it. You don’t tell a lighting designer which colours to use when they’re lighting a scene – you tell them what the mood is supposed to be, and leave the rest to them. You don’t tell an actor where to look or how long to pause – you write good dialogue and strong characters that they can work with, and they make those decisions.
This is why they tell young playwrights to avoid stage directions as much as possible. If the scene is strong and engaging, the director and cast can figure out the rest on their own. If it’s not working, no amount of stage directions will help. (And they’ll ignore them if they don’t like them, and it’s your fault.)
That’s a scary loss of control, and a lot of playwrights can’t hack it. But on the other hand, as a writer, there’s something really freeing about letting go of the responsibility of making all the decisions about the work you’re making. You realise that you don’t need to worry about how these characters will get from A to B – the actors will solve that for you. You don’t need to describe the scene in beautiful prose – just explain what mood you want and the director and designer will figure out how to evoke it.
When you accept that you’re not the expert on how to actually produce the effects that your script calls for, you start to leave more decisions in the hands of your colleagues. You can be less prescriptive, more ambiguous, let your fellow artists decide how to solve this particular puzzle.
Oceans All Boiled Into Sky. Pic by ‘pling.
At some point in my practice, I took this lesson and ran with it. I was working a lot with director barb barnett of serious theatre, and I was continually blown away by her creative solutions to the challenges posed by my scripts. I would write scenes that I couldn’t even visualise on stage as I wrote them, but I knew that she would always pull something out of the bag.
At some point, I started to throw deliberate challenges into my scripts – little playful problems that I didn’t know how to solve myself, just to see whether barb could figure something out. And she always did – and interestingly, her creative solutions to my script challenges were often the most interesting and exciting parts of the show.
By the time I wrote Oceans All Boiled Into Sky, which barb directed for serious theatre in 2008, I was deliberately pushing her – trying to come up with impossible tasks, unsolvable problems. Oceans is a sci-fi road trip / coming of age story that takes place in Canberra in the earth’s deep past – during the Hadean Epoch, before the Earth’s crust had cooled enough to allow liquid water to settle. Massive clouds of steam and water vapour circled the earth, occasionally falling in huge rainstorms that would instantly boil back into steam as soon as they touched the burning rock.
pic by ‘pling.
Oceans tells the story of a Canberra teen attempting to do his driving test in this ancient landscape. The play takes place in the old Mitsubishi Starwagon which is driving over the semi-molten rocks through clouds of sentient steam.
I had no idea how barb would go about manifesting this environment. I wasn’t sure it was possible.
Just to be sure, though, I inserted a scene in which a giant prehistoric spider (one of the Megarachne that used to run the world during the Carboniferous period) breaks into the car’s engine and wreaks havoc, until it is subdued by a ghost. Utterly unstageable.
I handed barb the script, sat back and waited for her to admit defeat.
Oceans as radio play. Pic by ‘pling.
barb’s solution was one of my all-time favourite creative theatrical choices: rather than trying to stage these insane scenes directly, she decided to present the whole performance as a live radio play – in the style of a classic radio serial. The actors, in costumes evoking 1950s radio professionals, stood in a row on stage behind five microphones, and performed the whole play without moving. Meanwhile live music and foley conjured up the sonic setting, Jack Lloyd’s glitch-flavoured video projection told its own parts of the story, and Gillian Schwab created an eerie backdrop for the performance with strange dioramas and atmospheric lights evoking the ruined remnants of Canberra’s Black Mountain Tower.
The lesson I took from this: obstacles and challenges within a script are an opportunity for creative problem-solving by the company, and that’s where a lot of the most interesting stuff happens.
Eden Falk. Pic by Brett Boardman.
But there’s obstacles, and then there’s unstageable. And for better or worse, Kill Climate Deniers – the script – is unstageable. It’s not a blueprint for a show or a map of how to get to one – it’s more like a loosely organised bundle of vignettes, challenges, factoids and contradictions. It’s a tumblr with a plot. Or if you prefer, it’s like a version of Sei Shonagan’s Pillow Book, but for Australian politics.
It’s not a script with obstacles – it’s all obstacle. It’s a series of impossible challenges, stapled together with a paper-thin plot that is half-mixtape, half-helpless enthusiasm. (I wrote a piece for the Griffin blog about this play-as-mixtape factor too, if yr curious.)
There is no way to simply pick this script up and stage it as written. A director tackling this work basically needs their own vision of how and what they want to put on stage, and then they curate their own selection of content from the script to fulfil that vision.
That’s a lot to ask of a theatre company, especially one you’ve never worked with before. There was a very good chance that the show wouldn’t work. Not because the material is bad, per se, but the chaotic energy that worked on the page (enough to convince the Griffin Award judges to give it the prize) doesn’t necessarily translate to live performance.
I was half expecting it to fail. And why not? Most plays do.
Lucia Mastrantone. Pic by Brett Boardman.
When I arrived in Sydney, a fortnight out from opening, I sat in on a few rehearsals, got excited watching the performers vibing off each other with this heated crackle, was blown away by Steve’s soundtrack, and Toby’s video elements. It’s always pleasure watching a group of first-class artists working at the top of their game. I was so excited!
But I still wasn’t sure it was going to work.
Watching the rehearsals, there were a couple of sequences that weren’t clicking. They were slowing the show down, draining energy, and the material wasn’t necessary. I nudged Lee to cut them.
She refused, and told me to wait and see. Wait and see.
Sheridan Harbridge. Pic by Brett Boardman.
Production week was intense and slow moving – so much tech to install and set up. 18 speakers, 4 projectors, 2 TVs, additional lights… the biggest concern was that there simply wasn’t enough electricity in the building to power all of this equipment, so they had to be careful to not switch everything on at once.
Complex tech setups mean less time for actually running the show, so the first preview performance was also the first full run of the show (which apparently hasn’t happened at Griffin for at least the last five years). So watching the first preview, the real fear was that the show would literally break midway through, something would catch on fire or collapse and the actors would have to pause the play or restart from the top
That didn’t happen. They made it all the way through to the end. It was a rough show, in comparison to how tight it became over the course of the run – the pace was lagging and there were weird pauses and slumps. But watching it that night, seeing all the different elements together for the first time, I finally got it. I saw the shape of the show that Lee had been envisioning, and I realised that it was going to work.
The sequences I’d wanted to cut, that had felt flabby and unnecessary in rehearsals, turned out to be hinge points in the performance, crucial moments of stillness amidst the chaos.
There’s an interesting moment for a playwright that happens during any new production: the point where you are no longer the expert on your own play. You dreamed it, wrote it, edited it, lived and breathed it for months or years. But at some point, you realise that you’re no longer the authority. The actors know the lines better than you. The designers understand the reality of what you’ve been imagining better than you. And the director has a better sense of the big picture, the shape of the show, than you ever have or will.
It’s a weird moment, but a lovely one. It turns out Lee had a clearer understanding of what Kill Climate Deniers is than I did. Possibly she always did.
Sheridan, Bec and Emily. Pic by Brett Boardman.
And I can’t overstate how much of a colossal achievement it was for the company – Lee, the cast, the design team, the production crew – to find a performance form that could deliver on the possibilities within that script.
The playwright gets to claim a lot of the credit when the show is a success. It’s your name on the poster etc etc. But I truly had no idea how to make this play work. I was pretty sure it couldn’t.
So I guess what I’m trying to say is: Khym Scott, Lee Lewis, Bec Massey, Lucia Mastrantone, Emily Havea, Eden Falk, Sheridan Harbridge, Toby Knyvett, Trent Suidgeest, Kirby Brierty, Jonathan Hindmarsh, Steve Toulmin, Dino Dimitriadis, Will Harvey, Estelle Conley, Phil Spencer, Griffin Theatre Company: you win. You motherfuckers, you win.