2017 in review

My problem with my years is that they’re usually a confusing mess, running project to project, city to city, and if I try to sum them up it usually doesn’t make a lot of sense. This year was a little more structured than most. It went something roughly like:

January & February – it looks from my diary like I was travelling between Perth, Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney. Doesn’t look like I spent more than a week in any one place, hard to tell what I was doing, other than the Water Futures conference in Melbourne.

March – Castlemaine, Victoria, for the Castlemaine Festival with Gobyerno, then Shanghai with Best Festival Ever.

April – September – London. Straight London, working for Coney.

September & October – Sweden. In Linköping with Bec, and Stockholm for a couple weeks.

November – Back to London, more Coney.

December – Manila, working with Sipat Lawin.

(That was more for myself than for anyone else, it’s good to be across your own trajectory I guess.)

Anyway, I spent a bit of time yesterday thinking through my projects this year, and in particular, thinking how I handled them, whether I’m happy with my efforts or not. Out of curiosity, I tried scoring myself. Why not? Like Linton said to me this year after swimming at the London Aquatic Centre: can’t manage what you don’t measure.

So for each project, a score out of five. It has nothing to do with the success of the project, or the quality of the art – purely my own assessment of how I went. Did I bring my best focused efforts, or did I coast? & so on.

Here goes:

Life Raft – 3/5
One of my Coney briefs was to help Tassos devise a game for classroom students based on Fin Kennedy’s play. I ended up coming up with the most complex, multi-element game I’ve ever made – too much for a teacher to facilitate, but enough in it for Tassos to extract some useful elements. Didn’t get to follow through on the second phase development, tho, so not a finished job in some ways.

95 Years or Less – 4/5
Nikki Kennedy more or less built this one while I was scrambling around in between projects. But while I was there, it felt like the process was functioning well, and what we came up with was a strong and sharp prototype, building on the BFE form but with an interesting (and flawed) new decision-making game at the core of it.

The Shadow of the Future – 1/5
I started this Coney project (commissioned by the Imperial War Museum) with a strong idea – building on the prisoner’s dilemma tournaments of the 70s and a Cold War setting – but I didn’t produce much more than a decision-making mechanism, which the rest of Coney then took and developed into a totally new cross-platform format, with a whole new script. I didn’t do enough to satisfy myself here.

Science Gallery London – 3/5
Michelle McMahon and I ran two workshops for SGL in November. Still in process, but what I’m happy about here was the recalibration we did in between the two sessions, so that the second one felt properly targeted and landed well.

Save Our School / Run A Bank / Pharmacy Game – 4/5
A big part of my output this year was developing a new format of systems games that can be swiftly adapted, repurposed for new contexts, and delivered by a single facilitator. I’m happy because of the core game that sits inside these pieces (an exercise in which players deal with multiple tasks at the same time in a self-directed way) and because the finale is a good evolution of the madlibs format we’ve been playing with since early BFE. I’m also happy because for once in my life, I really worked through multiple playtests and kept coming back and making fixes, despite wanting it to be finished multiple times. Muttley’d be proud of me.

Gobyerno – 1/5
No complaints here, but delivering Gobyerno in Castlemaine was super fun, satisfying, energising, but it was the same show we’d built and run previously in Darwin. Can’t give myself any points because I was there as a facilitator, not a maker. But I now have young friends in Castlemaine, which is pretty fucking great.

Peak District – 1/5
This is genuinely my biggest regret of the year. Jordan and I took cameras and recording gear to the Peak District and spent a weekend walking and recording spoken word pieces. I didn’t take the time to properly write anything good in preparation. All the excuses – I was busy, it was a break weekend as much as a creative intensive etc – but the fact is, how often do you get a weekend away with Jordan Prosser to make new stuff? Don’t fucking waste it, Finig.

EGU essay – 2/5
Writing a long non-fiction essay about the European General Assembly of earth scientists I attended was a good move. Getting feedback from close collaborators and editing it over and over was a good move. But I didn’t land it anywhere, and that’s one of the main things I wanted to learn from doing it. Never get backed into a corner – but I let that piece get backed into a corner.

Water Futures – 1/5
I was there, and it was grand, but I was really just following Matt Wicking and Angharad Wynne-Jones’ lead. Sitting somewhere between facilitator and participant, I don’t think I contributed as much as I could/should have.

End Science Now – 3/5
A detailed treatment of a new script, a globe-trotting Tom Clancy / John Le Carre-style thriller about an undercover operative bringing down science itself. It has no home, but it was a valuable thing to research, to plan out in detail. Happy with the process so far, except that the draft is not yet done and so I can’t even share it yet for feedback. And there’s an unanswered question about the value of embarking on a big script project for something that is unlikely to ever be staged, but nothing is ever wasted, not really.

Are You Ready To Take The Law Into Your Own Hands? – 4/5
Taking an old idea for a vigilante story about a group of superfans on the hunt for a kidnapped popstar, adapting it to a Philippines setting, bringing it to Sipat Lawin. I didn’t do much more than write a skeletal draft, but I give myself points for correctly guessing a couple of elements that Sipat could build on to explosive effect. Watching this one rapidly transform as it hits a Filipino context and flies out of my hands into theirs has been one of the most satisfying creative experiences of the year.

44 Sex Acts In One Week – 3/5
Took my skeletal first draft for a Matthew McConnaghey / Kate Hudson romantic comedy, did a proper rewrite, and now I have… the straightest play I’ve ever written. I need to dive back in and do another round of edits based on feedback I’ve gotten, but then I have the job of making it weird. I don’t know what will happen with this one, but I’m pleased I’ve given myself a normal-shaped script, my very first.

Untitled Sex Play – 4/5
A week with Anthea at Battersea Arts Centre, this was one of those processes where we spent a lot of time clearing the undergrowth and getting down to the core questions, a solid foundation to build from. The thing I’m happiest about here is not anything I made or wrote, but the things I threw away. This was the first development of one of those multi-year slow building projects, and it was good to start by shedding a whole lot of assumptions and expectations. And we found a whole new language of working together (frequent dance breaks) that felt pretty lovely.

Kill Climate Deniers (solo show) – 1/5
Again, no points for repeating existing works. But I will say that I didn’t quite land the UK shows. Lots of reasons for that, and lots of lessons about what kind of content does work in this setting, but I can’t claim any sort of victory until I take those lessons and do something with them. Which: not yet.

Kill Climate Deniers (rewrites) – 3/5
I’m not good at rewrites or edits, and so it was a good experience going back to the script and rewriting it for the Griffin run. Folded in a brand new meta-play, updated a lot of the gags, and… look, I enjoyed doing it, but it’s impossible to score this one properly without seeing how it works on the floor. Rehearsals start next month at Griffin, we shall see.

Kill Climate Deniers (essay for HowlRound) – 3/5
This was a pleasure to write, and a pleasure getting to work with an editor. But it was short, so not too much learning.

Elevator Pitches – 2/5
Kieran Ruffles hit me up with a proposal for building a new podcast series of micro episodes, pitches for new works less than two minutes long. This kind of project is exactly the kind of thing I’m wired for, it couldn’t be more to my taste. & yet: so far, I only have 4-5 play pitches I’m really satisfied by. You gotta be an ideas generating machine, Finig, and my brain veered too quickly towards the absurd sketch show format of 22 Short Plays, which, this is not that. But I came up with a new outlet for the old Finnigan and Brother song ‘Looting The Aquarium’ as an end-of-days heist movie about the value of preserving wildlife amidst our own collapsing infrastructure (and Hana Martin came up with the tagline ‘We All Sink Together’), so it’s a project pointed in the right direction.

Appropriate Kissing For All Occasions – 2/5
After Louise Howlett produced this one for Melbourne Fringe, she hit up Isab and I for an extended rewrite. Not a high score yet because we’ve just begun work. We’ll see. The risk is that we’ve picked an angle and gone in on it hard, and though I have faith that we know what we’re doing, the original was built up over a lot of test shows and Isab trying it out on the floor. You can’t fake that work. So it’s all provisional.

Best Festival Ever – 2/5
We did the show in Shanghai! It was magic! By my scoring system here I should give myself only 1 point because we didn’t make anything new, but a bonus point because we had maybe our best night out as a company ever, in a vegetarian restaurant in the French quarter after a day of Shanghai exploring.

Aight. 2018. w3 w3lcome the future because we have no choice.

New play! Are You Ready To Take The Law Into Your Own Hands?

‘If you’re going to add to the noise, it better be nuclear.’
– JK Anicoche

Here in Manila for two weeks this December, working with Sipat Lawin on the first development of a new… something.

In some ways it’s hard to pin down what this one is, exactly. In other ways it’s very easy: it’s a play. An old school performance piece, possibly even designed for a black box theatre.

It’s called Are You Ready To Take The Law Into Your Own Hands? and it’s the story of young Filipino pop-music fan Celina Malabayabas, who witnesses her popstar idol Gracielle get kidnapped by thugs backstage at one of her concerts. Unable to convince the authorities that it really happened, Celina recruits her long-suffering sister and a rogue police officer, and begins to hunt Gracielle down herself.

In the process of finding and recovering Gracielle, the trio go through a gamut of high-octane Pinoy pop experiences: a Barangay beauty pageant, an underground Fliptop battle, a knife fight in the back of a speeding jeepney, a chase scene through the Pasig River, and an explosive, all-out finale showdown onstage at a pop concert.

It’s an excuse for a whole barrage of Filipino pop music, songs, dances, fight scenes and other heartracing spectacle, packed into one intense story about rescuing a popstar from certain death.

It’s also an experiment in form, using the tools of spectacle and emotional overload, and repurposing them towards different ends. But how that works (and if that works) are a whole conversation in themselves.

I’ve spent this two weeks watching JK, Clyde, Alon, Ji-ann, Ness, Joelle and Ienne put these scenes on the floor, testing them out in practice, while at the same time digging down into conversation to clarify the context. What’s the space we’re working in? Why do this? Why not do it?

As ever, I’m brilliantly out of my depth here in the Philippines, working in a context I don’t understand, and never will. But as ever, it’s a pleasure to sit in on these conversations with Sipat, to get a sense of how they articulate their purpose and their responsibilities as makers in the current era.

‘Philippines theatre has not caught up to the complex performativity of Philippines society.’
– Ness Roque

Also, it’s fucking exciting getting to watch these guys perform spectacle, because truly, no-one does spectacle like Sipat.

I WANNA WAKE UP WITH YOU
ALL IN TANGLES, OH –

November 2017 in London, a good old-fashioned barrage

95 Years or Less, pic by Ben Jones.

We’re creeping towards 2018, and for the first time in a long, long time, I feel like my life is inching towards more structure rather than less.

Last month in London was a good old-fashioned barrage, but in some ways, everything was tied together, everything was part of a bigger whole. This is what I did:

1. Sex Play
A week in the Battersea Arts Centre with Anthea Williams, doing the first development on our collaborative project with Sarah Walker. Previously it was going under the name of 44 Sex Acts In One Week, the name of my romantic comedy script, with the idea that the work would be scaffolded by that rom-com storyline. After one day in the rehearsal room it became clear that that’s not where the work is at, so we jettisoned the title, along with everything else we knew about it.

(We have a bundle of new possible titles, of which my fav right now is How Should Sex Be, but truly, you don’t rush a good title, just like you don’t let it get too far away from you.)

So a week spent talking, testing things on the floor, reading things out loud, articulating speculative structures, and defining where we’re coming from, separately. Good work, thoughtful work, tiring work, and in some ways this is all about clearing the ground for the next phase.

March! Melbourne! A couple of weeks, this time with Sarah on board!

H+K systems mapping workshop, pic by Natalie Adams.

2. Systems mapping workshops
Then as Associate-in-Residence for Coney, I ran a series of systems mapping workshops for the financial services team at H+K Strategies (with Melanie Phillips) and for Science Gallery London (with Michelle McMahon). The rough format was to use the tools of resilience assessment to build up a map of what these organisations are and how they function.

These tools were originally developed by climate and systems scientists like our collaborators at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, and for the last few years Boho has been using them as the basis for creating participatory games. These workshops were a chance to flesh out the mapping part of the process, and to see if we could produce something useful to outside organisations.

95 Years or Less, pic by Ben Jones.

3. 95 Years or Less
At the same time, our longstanding relationship with Forum for the Future developed into a full-blown collaboration when they commissioned us to produce a new systems game based on the Harapan rainforest region in Sumatra, Indonesia. (Us being Nikki Kennedy, Toby Peach, Ben Jones, Natalie Adams and myself, representing Coney.)

In four weeks, we turned around a prototype of a brand new game, which we’ve now handed over to Forum. Intense work, high-speed work, exciting work.

You can read more about it (and you should) via Nikki’s post on the Coney website.

What did we learn?

Well, look, it was an old-school burst, in a lot of ways – trying to do a whole heap of projects in a very short amount of time. It wasn’t the worst it’s been, and I knew it was gonna be contained, and all in all, it was pretty tolerable. So no great stresses there.

It was a good lesson in not holding on too tightly, though. Collaborating closely with Melanie Phillips on H+K, Michelle McMahon on Science Gallery London, and Nikki, Toby, Ben and Natalie on 95 Years, I was relying heavily on all of them right from the outset. They all jumped in at the deep end, and with total grace and capacity, and because I was so stretched, I more or less ended up playing a support role on all three projects.

Not a great feeling, being spread thin like that, but nice to know that I can be, and that my collaborators will just make it work. So: grateful. And now: in the Philippines, on to the next thing.


95 Years or Less, pic by Ben Jones

 

Four weeks in October, four new script drafts

in Sweden, pic by Nikki Kennedy

Here are four new things and a bit of thinking.

I’ve been in Sweden for the last six weeks, mostly hanging in Linköping while Bec is in residence at Linköping University. This is one of those rare periods where I don’t have any pressing project admin, and was able to turn my attention to some actual writing.

In the final accounting, after subtracting a fortnight of work in Stockholm, I had four weeks, and the first thing I did was to strip my wishlist down to four main projects. That’s still a lot – too many for real deep focus or ticking off big achievements, but that’s where I’m at – I need to develop some new works up to the next phase.

In professional terms, I need some new work ready to take to potential partners and venues. I’d thought I was there already earlier this year – I’d done some R&D and writing for each of them, but not enough – I needed to really inhabit them, and go deeper. How can you get someone excited about an idea if you don’t have the material to really bring them into it?

(At the same time, I’m not disobeying the Glyn Roberts Stop Writing Plays rule: I may have drafted versions of these works or written detailed treatments, but these projects are still open for a director or creative partner to come onboard and shape with me from the ground up.)

So four projects, one week per project. If you get granular about it (which I did), that’s five days per project (life gets in the way). If you’re a bit of a mess, focus-wise (which I am), you can only really rely on a few good hours writing each day. Maybe three, with some extra hours around it for reading, note-taking, editing. Six hours a day if you’re lucky. So maybe 30 hours per project?

What I did:

Kill Climate Deniers
Rewrites. Griffin is producing this in March, but the script I submitted for the award was last heavily edited in late 2015. A fair bit has happened in politics since then. I was strongly tempted to leave all the political references as they are and stage it as a period piece (can Griffin afford to dress all the actors in 2015-era costumes?), but instead I dove back in, and in particular, refashioned the meta-thread that weaves through the script.

Editing is one of my weakest muscles as a playwright. Or, I should say, editing outside of a rehearsal room. I come from a devised theatre background where so much of the script development comes from seeing the actors and directors moving on the floor. It’s an incredible resource when you’re fixing and reworking a script, and I always feel a bit helpless without it. So this was tough, but good.

 

Are You Ready To Take The Law Into Your Own Hands?
At the other end of the spectrum: a new script for Sipat Lawin. This is a very different creation – the job here is to make a scaffolding to take to Sipat for a devising process. I wanted to produce scene descriptions, character profiles, a plot, and a series of setpieces to play with on the floor. The challenge here is the balance between creating something rich enough for the team to inhabit, and leaving space for them to effectively manifest the work as they see fit.

This is especially important when the work is about the Philippines, where I am definitively not an expert. It’s a pulp action saga about a kidnapped Filipino popstar, loaded with Pinoy pop songs – but which songs? and how does it play out? – all has to come from Sipat. So this was a case of careful restraint, holding myself back from shading in too many details or making limiting decisions.

End Science Now
I was really excited about this one, I wanted to write it up as a full draft, but I restrained myself: instead I hacked out the plot in detail, wrote a scene by scene treatment that marked out almost all the key dialogue and activity I imagine.

This is a much bigger picture story for me, a spy thriller in which a young military graduate goes undercover as a sociologist in order to BRING DOWN SCIENCE ITSELF. Building a narrative with so many moving parts, that provides a rough window into earth system science while also being a satisfying potboiler, is a new challenge. The most frustrating thing was laying all the groundwork to be ready to start drafting, and then holding off. But I need backing to mark this happen; a smart director, a good dramaturg, a context to write for. So we pause, for now.

44 Sex Acts In One Week
I’ll be going into a short development with Anthea Williams for this at Battersea Arts Centre next week. That show – created in response to pics by Sarah Walker – originally emerged from my attempt at writing a rom-com. I realised that in order to make the work with Sarah and Anthea in good conscience, I need to have done due diligence by the original idea and go back to that rom-com, write the best version of it that I can.

So I went back to that draft, pulled it apart, zeroed in on the characters, reordered the plot, and then rewrote the script more or less from scratch. A good rewrite, completed for no-one but myself. And now I have a romantic comedy. It’s weirdly straight – as in, it’s heteronormative af and it plays within the rules of the genre. So I now have a script that feels normal. Which feels weird. But that’s satisfying, in its way.

So now I’m back in London for a month. Right back into the thick of things with Coney, which is exhilerating and satisfying. And four new word documents on my hard drive.

Why I became obsessed with U2 in 2011

melbourne, 2011, this is all I really remember.

So the other night Bec asked me, in all seriousness, ‘What do you think of U2?’ And I burst out laughing, because it made me think, maybe you can escape your past.  Maybe, in the bright light of 2017, people no longer look at me and think, ‘I must share U2-related news and content with that man’. We all commit crimes, but maybe there’s also forgiveness?

It inspired me to go back through my files, and dig up one of the strangest and most idiosyncratic projects I’d ever been involved with, which was the 2011 online audio piece Functioning As A Machine That Hates U2. I want to write about it here now, partly because it was an unusual creative process that I want to reflect on, and partly because of who was involved in it, and what happened with that group of artists.

In early 2011 I moved to Melbourne for the first time. We’d just finished the first You Are Here festival – which at that stage was a one-off, no guarantees of a second iteration – and I’d come down to crash at Max’s place in Northcote. I’d acquired from an op shop a copy of Eamon Dunphy’s biography of U2, entitled Unforgettable Fire: The Story of U2, and I found myself reading it over and over, unable to stop or switch off.

Slightly bigger context here: 2010 was a tricky year, creatively. I was overstretched on three big projects, each of which was at the upper limit of what I could handle: production managing the Canberra International Music Festival, Boho’s (fraught) collaboration with the Powerhouse Museum True Logic of the Future, and co-directing the second Crack Theatre Festival. They all came off, more or less, but they were individually hectic, and the combination of the three of them put me as close as I’ve ever been to a stress burnout.

Right off the back of that, the invitation to put together You Are Here (which Lande chronicled beautifully in her Griffith Review piece), which was itself a tough process and a tight timeframe (100 days from the first meeting with Robyn Archer to opening night). In some respects things turned a corner on the first day of You Are Here, when the festival team expanded beyond Lande, Anthony and I, and the whole thing suddenly started to get fun. But for the next few months, through this next little period in Melbourne, I was still in a wobbly place creatively. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go, and I definitely couldn’t handle the idea of taking on any more big projects (in the forseeable future, or, ever).

So instead I read Eamon Dunphy’s Unforgettable Fire over and over, growing increasingly obsessed and infuriated with every single choice that U2 made in the entire course of their career. I couldn’t switch it off, couldn’t put it down. I wrote in my diary, on one of those days, ‘at this point I’m basically functioning as a machine that hates U2’.

I found myself writing a response to the book –  something between a script and an endless screed. A meta-essay, or a stream of frustration, and in the way that sometimes happen when you get on a roll, everything that happened to me started to get folded in. I wrote about it on Facebook, and when people commented, I took those comments and rolled them into the text. At one point Rach Roberts sent me an essay about Bono she’d had to read as part of the Theology course she’d had to take, and that got folded in too.

There was no context for the work, no point or purpose, but then truly I’ve never needed a point or a purpose for my work, and that’s a problem with me.

In an impulsive way, I started sending bits of the script out to people I’d met, people who interested me, people whose work I liked, and asked them to do something with it. I didn’t have anything really concrete in mind, but I asked them to maybe record some parts as audio, and send them back.

One by one, people started sending back audio recordings of bits of the script. And soon, there was a whole bunch of content. Bizarre, stylistically disjointed content. But as soon as they started coming in, it started to feel like a real thing.

Nickamc joined me, and stitched the whole thing into a 12-part series – a 70 minute radio play / semi-scripted podcast, broken into short collage style episodes. And then it was real, and we put it up online and made it available to download, and put it out into the world.

I don’t think many people listened to the whole thing. I did, and it made me happy. Maybe the end product wasn’t the point. (Maybe it was the point, and I’m trying to let myself off the hook by claiming it wasn’t the point.) Who even knows?

But the interesting thing is, and what I’ve been really struck by when I came back to this project the other night, what happened with the group of people I hit up to contribute.

I’ve included extracts here from the recording, which are mostly less than a minute, so go on if you want a taster.

Nickamc and Max Barker
Two of my closest core collaborators, right from the very beginning of my practice. We’d already been working in super close quarters for over a decade by the time this project came around, and now we’re more than halfway through a second decade. The following is Max playing the role of the manager of fictional U2-esque band FULL NATURAL BUSH.

Lloyd Allison-Young
Lloyd and I had worked together on serious theatre’s production of Oceans All Boiled Into Sky, and then Lloyd moved to the US. We still haven’t managed to collaborate on a full show together, but we spent a development in London in 2014 working with Hanna Cormick on a new piece riffing on Dirty Dancing.

Jordan and Sam
I knew Jordan and Sam very slightly at this point, through school and through programming their first show The Landlords at Belconnen Theatre in 2008 as part of the Wet Season (word Jan Wawrzynczak, another connection you helped make). Along with Georgie McAuley, I met up with Jordan and Sam in the Philippines later that year and began work on Sipat’s Battalie Royale, which led to the four of us forming the Too Many Weapons collective and producing material from full plays (Kids Killing Kids) to the Rizal Fountain Raps series of spoken word pieces.

Applespiel
I’d worked with Applespiel on the Crack Theatre Festival and then You Are Here, but not creatively. A year after this, Nathan, Nikki and Rachel from Applespiel joined Muttley and I in London, and we’ve spent the last six years making systems games around the world.

Sipat Lawin Ensemble
So at this time I had no real relationship with Sipat. I’d met them for one night in 2009 when they produced To Heat You Up And Cool You Down, and I’d gone to Manila to check it out. We’d exchanged a couple of emails subsequently, but that was it. I sent them the script not expecting anything – what would this Filipino theatre company do with a rambling text about U2? They said they’d get in touch, and then I didn’t hear anything from then, and I figured that was that.

The night before we were going to release the radio play, I got an email from Sipat with some audio attachments. I called up Nickamc:

‘Sipat have sent through their segment and you need to hear it.’

‘What did they do? Can we use it?’

‘…I don’t know? But, it’s amazing.’

It was partly the sheer insane weirdness of what Sipat sent through that convinced me to move my commitments around and find a way to be in Manila to work on Battalia later that year.

This is the first bit of what they sent us – go on, I dare you.

– No, it’s the gates of heaven – no firing squad, it’s just outside heaven and U2 has arrived and the angel at the gate of heaven is like

– WHO ARE YOU

– I… I’m U2.

– TELL ME WHAT YOU HAVE DONE SO THAT I MAY DETERMINE WHETHER YOU ARE WORTHY OF ENTERING HEAVEN

– I was a band. We started out being called Feedback, and then we changed out name to The Hype, and then we signed up for this young band talent contest as U2 –

– No, it’s not heaven, it’s the future – it’s the science fiction future – it’s a cyberpunk dystopia –

– You mean neon in the rain

– Neon in the rain, that’s right, and a little girl walking along the sidewalk finds an old broken down robot in the rain

– No, this is how you can be U2 reliving your story

– Okay go

– The girl sees this body lying in the gutter, and at first we think it’s crusty wino, and then we realise it’s an old Irishman, and then the camera zooms in and we see its eyes are actually red LEDs, so it’s robot Irishman

– So it’s Terminator

– So the little girl kneels down beside the collapsed robot Irishman  in the rain and she presses some buttons on its wrist and she’s all like

– Oh robot? Oh Mr Robot? Who are you? Why are you lying here all deactivated in the rain?

– And the robot’s jaw cranks open and closed and it murmurs

– Little girl, I was U2 –

Five year plan

 Jordan took this pic of me nine months into my middle age

Last year around August I had a week up my sleeve without work, and no urgent projects or deadlines or anything. I had enough money up my sleeve after doing this residency with Jordan, and I had work coming up in Sweden in October, so I decided to take a week without seeking money and do a five year plan.

I was living at Emma Hall’s place in Melbourne, and so every night when she came home from work or from rehearsals (building her new work Ode To Man), I was sitting with sheets of paper and index cards spread out over the floor, trying to condense my vague ambitions out of the air into some kind of actual plan.

First step was to do an update on where I’d gotten to since my last attempt at a five year plan, which was in 2013. I’d just finished the third You Are Here festival, just turned 30, and made a solid promise to myself to get out of festivals and arts producing for good. I have memories of making a solid set of plans at the time, but when I looked back on it, it was more like a 5-page stream of consciousness written after the final night of the festival, lots of panicky sentences in all-caps saying WRITE FINIG JUST FUCKING WRITE

But it was good rereading it anyway. I could say, at least, I’d fulfilled that minimum criteria of not going back into festivals or producing. (I was lucky, all the time I remember I was lucky, to get one of those Ozco Early Career Fellowships before they swept them away thanks to Brandis’ pointless beef with the Council.) And then I turned my head to the next five years.

I wrote a list of headings, all the different facets of life I thought were important, which were, roughly:
• Physical health
• Emotional health
• Finances
• Creative practice
• Impact
• Networks
• Experiences
• Public profile
• Possessions
• Relationships
• Sex
• Lifestyle
• Family
• Friends

Then underneath I wrote down everything I could think of that I wanted from each of those facets of life in the next five years.

(yes I know, I included ‘sex’ in my professional five year plan, it seemed worth considering)

Some of it was straightforward, some of it was not. I spent a bunch of time reflecting on the kind of art I want to make – how have my tastes changed in the last few years, what structures do I need to make in order to make the stuff I want to make, etc. I did a bit of writing at the time about an aesthetic paradigm that emerged from Kill Climate Deniers and Kids Killing Kids, a way of coming at a core idea from a number of different forms, honouring the fact that I have neither the discipline nor the craftsmanship to just write something plain, simple and beautiful.

I also dug my head deeply into the question of how to make a living while making art, given that I don’t really want a regular job on the side (I travel too much to make that work, unfortunately). Is it possible to earn a basic living through small commissions, consultancies, writing gigs etc, in the specifically weird sub-sub-genre of participatory science performance drawing on complexity theory and resilience thinking?

It has to be. It has to be, because, as Mick Bailey once said, never have a plan b.

So I wrote a list of things to try, questions to ask, hypotheses to test, that circle around, ‘Who would pay for the sort of work I do? Under what circumstances would they pay for it? How much would they pay for it? How frequently could I expect those sorts of opportunities to arrive? Can I live off that much money?’

Now it’s a year later, and I’m in London, trying to make this city work for me, trying to answer these questions in this context. I’ve spent four months as Associate-in-Residence with Coney (concluding at the end of August), working on my own systems gaming stuff which has grown out of Boho’s work in this field, as well as doing some small commissions work for Coney.

London’s a good place to try to answer these questions. It’s no better or worse than anywhere else in the world, but if you’re an artist working with scientists, it’s easier here than a lot of other places. There are many, many arts and cultural institutions here that create a full-blown arts ecology, crowded and dense, with many many places where a person can carve out a niche. And, bluntly, there’s money. It’s expensive to live here, but there’s money moving through this system, and people willing to try new things and ready to experiment. So all of that is helpful.

I have no answers to any of these questions, but the people here are great and I’m enjoying it, so there’s that. Good sunsets. A cafe near Bethnal Green overground station where old Turkish men drink coffee late at night and talk over the top of each other. Bhangra and grime blasting out of car windows. Bright moments.

And then meanwhile, in the midst of this, Kill Climate Deniers won the Griffin Playwrights Award! This was exciting, this I am so, so grateful for. Conscious of how, because I got lucky this time around, how many other playwrights missed their turn. But grateful, still. Lucky, happy, relieved, grateful.

But of course, winning an award like that can also knock you around, if you’re not careful. Something like that (for a personality like mine) can fool you into thinking that things are going to get easier from here on out. Like you’ve just been let off the hook, and from here on out you’re not going to have to struggle to get your work out into the world.

I think I subconsciously subscribe to the idea of some kind of professional finish line, whereby winning an award means ‘I’ve done it, I’m through, I can relax’. Intellectually I know it doesn’t work like that, but at some level, getting a nod of acknowledgment like the Griffin Award was like a signal to take my foot off the accelerator.

Bad news and rejection knocks you around but good news can also insidiously trip you up and make you lose focus on the real shit.

The real shit, which is, roughly: shut out the noise and the poison and just write.

The summary of my five year plan was basically: ‘Find a way to exist in the world that lets me make theatre, keep writing, with all the good people, and keep going, doing good and not causing harm.’

Chatting with Charlie Sofo many years ago about how well he was doing with exhibitions and projects at that time, I asked him whether he was succeeding. He said, ‘Success is if you keep going, failure’s if you stop.’

I like that framing a lot. It’s simple, but there’s something in it I didn’t consider at the time, which is that to ‘keep going’ gets harder / trickier / more expensive as you go along. The cost of being an artist rises over time, because as you improve, your standards go up, and the time and energy (and money) it takes to create a work that exceeds your last work increase all the time. And at the same time, your friends and peers are settling into real lives, real jobs, earning real money, achieving real life milestones, and you’re still… well.

So, when I won the Griffin Award, I had a bunch of chats with Glyn Roberts, now returned from Brisbane to Victoria, to take on directing the Castlemaine Festival. One day I’ll write down in one place all the snippets of advice and insights Glyn has given me (it’s Glyn who told me a couple of years ago to ‘stop writing plays’ as a way to make it as a playwright – I need to expand that out into a post in its own right) – in this instance, he pointed out that winning a prize like Griffin does very little on its own. You can do things with that award, it could be leverage in trying to get up certain projects or broker conversations with certain people, but as a thing in itself, it’s inert. You put it on your CV, on your website, you go on the list of previous winners on Griffin’s website, and then that’s it, unless you make that not be it.

And so, this is the eternal picking myself up off the floor and telling myself to return to the writing. Back to the real work. There are a million posts like this in the decade I’ve been writing this blog, countless attempts to tell myself, ‘Finig if you keep going you can keep going, if you don’t you can’t’. Countless links to this Out Hud song that starts with a weary voice saying, ‘Okay, let’s do the next one.’

It’s Sunday night in London and the sky’s darkening over the apartment blocks, listening to Out Hud, hope you’re all fighting, keep fighting

Quick life and art update on 9 July 2017

This is a very simple blog post, a surfacing just to say that I’ve been working, but not on anything that deserves much mention here.

I’ve been in London, more or less continually since I last wrote, and working as close to a 9-5 job as I’ve ever worked, as Associate-in-Residence for Coney. What that means, in practice, is two things:

I’m working on a line of new systems games – scenarios and activities to take into businesses (and schools) which illustrate different aspects of complex problems and decision-making. I’ve made a couple of rough prototypes, they’re at an early scratch stage, I think it’s going well…?

pic from a scratch of one of these new systems games

Alongside with these few games that I’m researching and building, I’m also working on a cluster of small commissions for Coney – small partner organisations who want games made for particular events, for particular audiences… They’re not huge projects but there are lots of them.

Between them, that’s been most of my output over May – June – July. So I have that sense of nervousness / frustration that comes from not having written anything real for a few months. But then, that sensation is really my normal headspace. My writing practice is so patchy, in all honesty (and I can say that now having spent so much time with realler writers who work in a consistent flow and who write no matter what the season), that I can’t ever complain about circumstances keeping me from writing.

I have a few notepad files full of notes, a cluster of quotes about sea level rise and the Bassian plain, a plan for a work entitled Are You Ready To Take The Law Into Your Own Hands?, and that’ll do for the moment.

In other news, Griffin Theatre awarded Kill Climate Deniers their 2017 playwriting award, which is just so lovely of them. I’m glad I’m glad I’m glad I’m glad I’m glad I’m glad.

And lastly, these are short videos I made sitting in my room in Stratford. The first is my favourite, as ridiculous as it is, the first is a little snippet of Anne Boyer and some reggaeton.


An update: I’m in London for the next few months

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An update! Where I am, what I’m doing, how it’s going.

I arrived in London about three weeks ago, and I’m here for the next few months. My main gig while I’m here is that I am Associate in Residence for Coney. That means I’m working full-time with Coney for the next few months, up until the end of summer, taking on a few small commissions and projects for the company, but also developing a new line of work: a line of systems gaming activities to be delivered to schools and businesses.

What that looks like in practice will emerge over the next couple of months; I’m currently developing the prototype offer, and we’re chatting with some potential partners to help us test it out. That will be my main focus, and it’s super exciting.

Also on the systems gaming front, the Best Festival Ever crew are gearing up to present a season in Sydney at the beginning of June, at the Seymour Centre (alongside Chris Rapley’s 2071, super exciting).

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And, I spent last week in Vienna at the European Geoscientists Union General Assembly. This is a huge gathering of 14,500 earth system scientists, and it acts as a kind of survey of the current limits of humanity’s understanding of our planet. It was a pretty incredible space to be in, and I’ve written about it in a form which I will share soon.

I was there thanks to the Earth Observatory of Singapore, speaking about Boho’s upcoming collaboration with them to develop a new game looking at a natural hazard crisis. I gave a presentation about Boho’s work, including showing off the coin game from the beginning of A Prisoner’s Dilemma – a 10 year old trick now, but it still works beautifully.

Upon arriving in London, I did a short three-night run of Kill Climate Deniers at Camden Peoples Theatre. That was lovely, and a really fascinating set of performances, too – translating the work to a UK context is a really interesting challenge.

I’ll be presenting it again, as a one-off for Artsadmin’s 2 Degrees Festival in June. That’ll be the solo show plus the dance party, which is gonna be just lovely.

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And, finally, I’m curating and presenting a scratch night for Coney at Theatre Deli on Saturday 20 May. Simon Katan, Heather Barnett, Rhiannon Armstrong, Segen Yosife and Afreena Islam will all be presenting, and I’m going to do a short snippet myself – I think a little bit of the work I’m developing about Doug Cocks and his work, particularly his influence on Boho’s Food for the Great Hungers.

So London is hectic. I spent today just sitting in my bedroom in Stratford, writing. And at the end of the day it doesn’t feel like I’ve done very much, but we’re getting there, we’re getting there.

A child’s guide to Reuben Ingall

Pic by Sarah Walker

pic by Sarah Walker

One of the most frequent questions I get on this parenting blog (this is a parenting blog) is: At what age should I introduce my child to the music of Reuben Ingall?

The medical benefits of playing Ingall to a child in the womb are disputed, so let’s leave that, and I’ll give the simplest answer possible: You’re never too young, provided you listen to the right songs with the right mindset.

The question was sharpened for me recently when I was driving through Castlemaine with Clyde Enriquez. Clyde heard Dead DJ Joke’s wedding anthem Turn Down For Africa, and was instantly fascinated. She wanted to know more, hear more, and I was super frustrated with myself that I didn’t have an immediate primer to hand.

So: Clyde, I’m sorry I let you down that day, but without further ado, this is my proposed primer to the oeuvre of Mr Iconic. Enjoy.

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Dead DJ Joke – Turn Down For Africa
Start at one end of the spectrum. Reuben’s alias as a trashy mash-up DJ has produced way more than its fair share of gold, as well as a number of the best gigs of my life. This meeting of Toto and Lil Jon is a little slice of heaven, and the only song I would walk down the aisle to.

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Microwave Drone Ritual
Right at the other end of the spectrum, Reuben’s gorgeous drone performance from 2014 uses the sound of a microwave’s hum as its source material, which he layers and processes through 20 minutes of beatific chill ecstacy, before the performance concludes with a gentle ding (and a meat pie, ready to eat).

Eden Again
Reuben co-released with Paul Heslin a video album of reworkings of christian songs from some old religious VHS tapes. The whole album is nonstop gold (and Paul’s half is just as good, crunchier and harder) but this is my highlight, a beautiful slice of almost-folk music and a video that features copious amounts of Adam’s butt in the Garden of Eden. (And if you’re curious, I blogged about the whole release when it first emerged and blew my mind in 2011.)

Don’t Give Up and Dealt
It doesn’t really work to say that Reuben has a ‘main’ practice, because as far as I’m concerned every one of his diverse tendencies is just as valid as the rest, but in terms of heart-on-sleeve sincerity and raw beauty, his albums of processed guitar, laptop and singing are just lush and beautiful. My pick is the song Easy off Don’t Give Up, with that beautiful clarinet loop.

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Dead DJ Joke – Thong in the Sun
I like this Dead DJ Joke mash-up of Weezer and Sisqo more than I like all of Weezer and Sisquo’s respective outputs.

Foals – Electric Bloom (R Ingall remelt)
I don’t know the details, but from what I understand: a few years ago, UK band Foals invited members of the public to remix one of their songs, with the winners being included on the single. Reuben won that competition, with this song, which makes me think of things slowly fraying and collapsing in the cold. (Where do you hear it, though?)

Eric Carmen – Hungry Eyes (screwed by Dead DJ Joke)
My favourite thing that Reuben has ever done, I listen to this song 5-10 times a month most months of the year, then without warning it’ll spike to 50-100 times. Slowed down so that the guitar chugs along patiently forever, and the sax riff comes in like a motorboat propellor struggling to free itself from thick seaweed.

Finnigan and Brother – Move to Canberra (Dead DJ Joke remix)
It’s completely uncool to put one of Chris and my tracks in a primer introducing you to someone else’s music, but this remix is fucking hectic and it couldn’t be more trashy.

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Reuben Ingall – Jeff Buckley’s Hallejulah
This is really special. Nickamc produced a double A-side release where Reuben and Nick Delatovic both recorded songs entitled ‘Jeff Buckley’s Hallejulah’, in respose to the all-consuming anthem. Nick D’s is a wonderful pop banger, but Reuben’s is a straight-from-the-heart flash of gentle singer-songwriter honesty, reflecting on a friend’s funeral, the lazy ubiquity of Hallejulah, but how it manages to twist your guts up just the same. And this twists my guts up, my goodness.

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Image by Robbie Karmel

Microclimates
The guitar / voice / field recording / processed loops side of Reuben’s output hit a high point with his 2015 album Microclimates, which you can grab from Feral Media. For me, it’s the 1-2 combo of the last two tracks: ‘Just Open A Page At Random’, ‘And Drop The Pin Anywhere’.

Sevenen
So the first Reuben Ingall I fell in love with was back in 2007, his guitar drone alias Sevenen. It was gentle, spacey ambient drone, which to me always sounded and felt like a warm shower of sound. (Appropriately, I vaguely have memories that Reuben recorded these songs in the shower, though I may have imagined that.) I don’t have any of my home-pressed Sevenen CDs any more, so the only song I can include is his processed reworking of Max and Nickamc reading a little snippet of an old script of mine from War in the North Sea.

Dead DJ Joke – Party Mix
DDJ’s Party Mix is a brilliant 30 minute slice of wonderfully pieced together, totally garbage mash-ups, and it opens with an unbelievably stupid dubstep remix of Teenage Dirtbag. Total no-brainer, you can literally feel yourself getting thicker as you dance. And it works, every goddamn time. I found this on Discogs, where would you even go to

The Same Power
As an example of Reuben’s working process: a while ago I sent him a Youtube clip of a Hillsong tune that I’d found particularly moving (watch it, feel it work its magic on you), and asked him for a remix. He got back to me about 25 minutes later with three different versions. I’m gonna share my favourite: ‘Conquered the Rave‘, the most hyped-up trance remix, which is just manically (spiritually) beautiful.

Kill Climate Deniers – Music To Shoot Climate Activists To
So I did it a second time, and featured a song that I had some involvement with. But in this case, my involvement was mostly just sitting in Reuben’s living room and watching him assemble the track, which was a goddamn revelation. The combination of that rollicking synth riff and those belting rave sirens is absolutely euphoric. Go on, dive in.

Ahhhhh, there’s too many more! I haven’t mentioned his ringtone remixes of the Doors and Spiderbait, his album of trance versions of Red Hot Chilli Peppers, the gorgeous live electro-acoustic group the Otiose Trio, or even any Inflatable Ingrid. But that’s enough for starters. Clyde, dig.

What I will say is: his official website is here, he has a FB page you can follow, and I haven’t even scratched the surface of good stuff you should be listening to.

What did I miss?

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pic by adam thomas

Castlemaine to Shanghai

I woke up this morning from a dream about seeing Fleetwood Mac play a tiny gig for twelve people in a quiet courtyard in Canberra, and I was utterly stumped for a long time about where I was. London? Sydney? I was under a comfortable doona and it was 6.30am and that was all I could figure out.

Came to me slowly, I’m in China. Shanghai, specifically. And so right now I’m writing a quick update in a little cafe near Changshu Station, and there’s a wintry sun and motorbikes weaving past the pedestrians on the pavement outside.

For the last two weeks I’ve been in Castlemaine, rural Victoria, for the Castlemaine State Festival. Gobyerno was programmed, and so myself and the Sipat crew (in this instance: Jk, Ness, Brandon, Ralph, Clyde, Alon, Ienne and me) were in residence for a fortnight.

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We were paired with eight students from Castlemaine Secondary College (word to Heidi, Xavier, Michael, Murray, Hannah, Nick, Gabe and Dash) who were on board as co-facilitators to deliver seven shows in five days. The first three to Year 9 and 10 students from the secondary school, and then four public shows on the weekend.

If you’ve not read about this before, Gobyerno is a large-scale participatory work originally devised by Ness, Jk, Brandon and I back in 2015, in which the audience create their own ideal government. They manifest that government first through a process of conversations and discussions, and then by devising and filming a documentary about their ideas. The documentary is filmed as a high-energy long-take, with the participants responsible for every aspect – the camera, art, performance, music, script, set, the whole thing – to a formula we provide them. It’s a 2.5 hour show, and a marathon, every time.

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It was a pleasure working with our student collaborators – having never met them prior, we were thrown into an intense fortnight-long full-time project, and they totally rose to it, and by the end were doing more than their fair share of the presenting. And the festival was great, but oh, it’s hard work facilitating.

I’d never intended to be a facilitator / performer in the show – I always pictured myself as a writer / devisor instead. But in the Australian context, it made sense to have an Australian facilitator as part of the mix, so. My first time actually performing in the show since Manila, 2015, and I’d forgotten how tiring it is to perform, to manage conversations, to make it all run.

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But it was great. We had good chats, interesting audience contributions, and in the final show, a really fascinating conversation with several Duterte supporters from Davao, which is a pretty good perspective to include in a conversation with mostly middle-class Australian arts audiences.

And then I went straight from Castlemaine to Sydney, and on a plane to Shanghai with the rest of the Best Festival Ever crew. We’re here performing as part of CAMP – the China Australian Millenials Project – a conference / laboratory for 80 young Chinese and Australian entrepeneurs, who are developing new projects over the next three months.

17620498_10154506621845829_2685278705931278026_o I stole pics from Nathan’s FB feed – we’re not in any of them, you will have to take my word for it that we were there

From a community arts project in rural Victoria with secondary school students talking about political activism and protest, to sitting in the headquarters of Intel in an industrial park in Shanghai learning about Chinese business investment policy. This life is baffling sometimes. Varied, on the verge of being schizophrenic.

But Shanghai is beautiful, I’m happy here. And then in a week or two: London, for the first UK season of Kill Climate Deniers, 13-15 April at Camden Peoples Theatre. It flows on, greater better faster cheaper.

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