Last week I had a chat with playwright and maker Noemie Huttner-Koros, as part of PWA’s This Is How We Do It podcast series. The idea is that a few younger writers interview a few more established peeps about playwriting craft, and practice, and etc. It’s a lovely project, and a grand privilege to be in a lineup of writers including Paschal Berry (yes!), Declan Greene, Lally Katz and Kate Mulvaney.
I scribbled down a bunch of notes before and during the conversation, thoughts and ideas about playwriting and art-making and career paths and so on. In the end the conversation went where it went, but I still have this page of disconnected notes – so in the spirit of this blog, I’m going to type them up as a list – a pillowbook of stray observations and life lessons.
Gillian Schwab’s set for Oceans All Boiled Into Sky (2008). Pic by ‘pling
Playwriting is about creating interesting problems for other artists to solve. You don’t come up with the solutions yourself. Every artist surrenders control of their work when it leaves their hands, but as a playwright you surrender more control, and earlier, than most other written forms. Lean into that.
Produce your own work. Produce other people’s work. I became a producer (of festivals, mostly) for five years almost full-time. It’s a super useful skill because you’re serving other people’s visions, you’re helping them realise their ideas – and you’re learning how it’s done. You’re also building a network of potential collaborators and advocates down the line.
On the flip side, don’t get trapped as a producer if you really wanna be an artist. There are plenty of kickass producers, curators and editors who are passionate about what they do – there are also a fair few who are embittered artists who gave up on their own work. Surely it’s better to get out of the game altogether than to be working on behalf of other artists and resenting them? (That’s what woulda happened to me, anyway.)
When I stopped being a producer to focus on my own art, I took a significant step back, career-wise. Most people who knew me knew me as a festival-maker. People didn’t know or care about my scripts that much. I had to go back almost to the beginning.It was worth it.
Mick Bailey said, never have a plan B – you’ll end up using it.
I don’t know if this is good advice or not but I followed it.
Kill Climate Deniers is easily my most successful script – it won a play award in 2017, subsequently has had multiple productions in a few different countries, it’s done very well for me.
A couple of months before it won the award, I wrote a note to myself where I acknowledged that the project was a failure. I’d invested a huge amount of effort in it and had pushed it out into the world a few different ways, but there didn’t seem to be a significant appetite for the work.
It was the same script before and after that award. A thing is a failure until it’s not.
I am NOT saying ‘believe in yourself, keep pushing, history will prove you right’. What I’m saying is, if you’ve been pushing a project for a while, there’s no real way to judge whether it’s is on the cusp of success, or if it’s dead in the water and you should give up. This is a desperately hard conundrum.
I don’t get off on reworking classic Greek texts, ancient myths or Shakespeare plays (but no disrespect to people who do).
The myths that resonate with me are the shelf categories of Gungahlin Video 2000, where I worked from 2003-05: Action, Romance, Comedy, Drama, Martial Arts, Horror, Kids, Documentary and Foreign.
Every good idea is either too bland or too weird when you first come up with it. It doesn’t matter – if you pursue any idea far enough and deep enough it becomes rich and unique.
My play Oceans All Boiled Into Sky was my distraction project, my guilty pleasure that I worked on when I was supposed to be working on other things, because it was so weird that I didn’t feel like anyone would ever engage with it, so I didn’t feel any pressure. The further I went into that insanely specific scenario,* the more it became the most interesting thing I’d ever written.
*a kid doing his driving test 4 billion years in the past when planet earth had just finished forming, while the oceans were still billowing clouds of steam
Working across multiple different communities (Canberra, Melbourne, London, Sydney, Manila) has been good for me because
(a) when work is thin on the ground in one place, there might be activity in another, and
(b) it means I’m always starting at square one. In London, no-one cares about the project I did in Melbourne. In Manila, no-one cares about the show I made in Sydney. It’s humbling but good for me.
I don’t know this for sure, but I think that when you’re starting out as a professional artist, your best shot at finding work is to become an expert at something. Ideally, the best in the world. Find a niche, then find a sub-niche of a sub-niche of that niche, and master it.
Science theatre is a niche. Interactive theatre is a niche. Interactive science theatre is a deeply sub-niche field. But because there were so few artists working in that space, Boho ended up becoming the go-to company for when people wanted that extremely bespoke thing. We scored gigs in the UK, Sweden, Australia, Singapore, China, we paid bills with it – because there was really no-one else doing it.
As Glyn Roberts said, ‘Once you’re top of your field in whatever tiny subset of the field you choose, then you can branch out.’
I’ve been making theatre about climate and global change for about 15 years now. The subject of climate change has gotten more attention in the last few years, because of obvious reasons. But: I wouldn’t recommend making art about the climate just because it’s timely, or because you think you should.
If you’re fascinated by something, go towards that. Follow that curiosity, that obsession, and go deep into exploring something within the field. Don’t try to talk about the whole of climate change: be specific. Even more important: whatever you’re exploring, be obsessed with it, be an expert in it, be delighted by it, be undone by it. I suspect audiences follow the thread of what fascinates and excites you, not the thread of your earnest good intentions.
I started out in Canberra, in what I later learned was a small scene. It did not feel like a small scene. It was a struggle and we had enough panic and desperation.
If I’d moved to a bigger city, a bigger arts ecology, at that early stage, I would have been eaten up by it. I wouldn’t have had the courage to make my own stuff because I would have been stifled by all the other work being made around me by older, better artists.
The payoff for achieving things is really, really fleeting. After watching Griffin’s production of Kill Climate Deniers – the 5th preview – where it all came together, I walked on my own through Kings Cross and felt like this big clean wind was blowing through me, and the weight was off my shoulders, and I felt like I could relax.
That lasted about 8-10 minutes and then it was back to stress, panic, fear, guilt, all the base ingredients of the life.
A project is a success if it leads to another project. If every project leads to, on average, at least one more project, you have a sustainable career.
Always mention the fee in the first email or phone call.
The relationship is always more important than the project. If it’s a choice between compromising the project or burning your collaborator, always take care of the person.
There are exceptions to this rule, but they’re super rare.
I am 36 and it wasn’t until about two years ago that I began to learn how to learn.
Meanwhile, in my world: it’s been a really busy, outward-facing couple of months.
In September, Reuben and I presented You’re Safe Til 2024 as part of the UnWrapped Festival at the Sydney Opera House. The Opera House! So luxe! This was super fun, and a really great couple of shows.
Over three weeks in September-October, I was in Manila, working with Sipat Lawin on a development of Are You Ready To Take The Law Into Your Own Hands. Super exciting – this monster of a show is coming to Melbourne in February and I am JAZZED ABOUT IT.
In London, a game that I co-developed for Coney and the Wellcome Trust was played at the One Young World climate conference. Temperature Check is a game for 50 or so players about climate change, health, and managing a city in the face of escalating natural disasters.
Then at the end of October, I presented the first 30 minutes of a new work, entitled break into the aquarium steal the fish, at the Barbican as part of Nesta’s Future of Storytelling event. This was the first outing for this new solo show, which will premiere at Nesta’s FutureFest in March 2020. The work looks at the future of nature, ecology and eco-activism. The audience released some mosquitoes into the lecture theatre in the Barbican! Bless!
If anyone’s in London, I’m doing a work-in-progress showing of the full work on Tuesday 3 December – details here.
In London, Ben Yeoh and I presented a few outings of performance lecture Thinking Bigly, at Theatre Deli and for the Ealing Green Party. Bigly is an exploration of sustainability and how you can take climate action. There’s more info on Ben’s blog (and I’m going to write more about it soon).
You’re Safe Til 2024 is a 6-year project. We commenced work on it last year and it’s going to build until it culminates in 2024.
The 2020s are going to be a wild fucking ride. The anger of the climate movement is going to grow.
Now there may be a point where the disasters become so frequent and extreme enough that we can no longer have a global conversation any more – basically everyone just too desperate trying to survive in their own patch, with tens or hundreds of millions of people fleeing north and south from the equatorial regions.
But before we get there, there’s gonna be a few more years where a few tendencies continue to escalate:
1. Governing is getting harder. Flat revenues, distrust, polarisation and culture wars are making it harder to govern and new technologies are increasing the number of players who can circumvent action. Politicians are increasingly relying on populism to shore up their support, handing out rewards to themselves and their friends, and blaming foreigners and the poor for the resulting mess.
2. On the other hand, a significant mass of people are growing increasingly angry about how our futures are being burned up to feed the profits of a few rich fuckwits. Extinction Rebellion and the Schools Strikes are an escalation from previous climate activist movements, but they are a precursor to the next phase. There are going to be some big clashes in this decade.
Between now and 2024 every country – particularly Australia – is going to suffer some major disasters, driven and exacerbated by climate change. People will die.
These deaths can be attributed to human action. If my parents die in a heatwave that could have been prevented, you can fucking bet I’m coming after the weak and corrupt politicians that facilitated that disaster.
2024 will be a particular hotspot for political crisis – the US culture war which peaks around election season is only going to get more hostile. The rich are ageing, the poor are not.
We are increasingly unable to ignore certain contradictions about our world. Our society is unsustainable – therefore it can’t continue as it is – therefore, it’s over.
That awareness is gradually percolating through the population, and by 2024 it’ll be at a critical mass where we’ll have to make some decisions.
In the next five years we will have finally shaken off the stale tail-end of climate denialism. By 2024, we’ll be fighting the real fight that will define the rest of our lives: mutualism or selfishness. Do we work together to reduce our collective impact on the planet, or do we selfishly put up walls to protect ours and ours alone?
So You’re Safe Til 2024, by the time we reach the final iteration of the work, isn’t going to look anything like where it started. It won’t be any kind of lecture, or a show telling people about the science of global change. We won’t need the science any more, the crisis will be embedded in our lives.
I think instead it will be a gathering, and a celebration, and a collective action.
Also it will be 8 hours of music and stories and images and it will end with a huge dance party and Reuben Ingall DJ-ing, which is how I know we’re gonna get through this century.
So I’m doing a couple of shows at the Edinburgh Fringe next week – a short run of the lecture performance version of YST24, and then a performance with JK Anicoche about our Battalia Royale project in 2012.
Some stray observations about climate and global change, in the form of a list:
– Everyone’s on their own journey in terms of their relationship with the crisis. We’re all feeling different things, moving between different emotional responses, at different times. Whatever you feel right now (anger, terror, despair, fascination, grief, numbness, confidence, all of the above, none of the above) is fine.
– Your feelings are gonna change and keep changing, there’s no final state, no equilibrium, no ‘correct’ state of being. The crisis is going to be a big part of our lives for the rest of our lives, our relationship to it will keep changing.
– Anyone who says ‘we need more art about climate change’ or ‘we need work that can say [this particular message]’ is probably just telling you what they need to hear at this particular moment.
– Reading more about climate change will not make you more sad or more scared. Ignoring the problem will not make you feel better.
– Don’t read short articles on news websites with scary headlines. That short-form stuff will trigger a feeling of panic without giving you more understanding. Read longer stuff, more thoughtful analysis, go a bit deeper. It’s worth the extra effort because you won’t feel so overwhelmed.
– Reading about the problem is not the same as taking action. Taking action (in whatever way makes sense to you) will make you feel better.
– Because the problem is intersectional, it cuts across every aspect of our lives. That means the solutions are intersectional too. Wherever you choose to bite off the problem, you’re helping. Clean cookstoves in India? Education for girls in Afghanistan? Writing a letter to your local MP about renewable energy? Whatever issue you choose to engage in, it all helps.
– Criticisms about hypocrisy (‘how can you care about the environment and fly / use plastic / eat meat?’) are often (not always) a way for the critic to displace their own guilt about the fact that they’re doing nothing to address the crisis. It’s boring and inane. If that’s you, stop it.
– We could turn this around right now if it weren’t for the actions of a few thousand wealthy men who are happy to sacrifice our collective future for their personal profit. It’s not a cosmic problem, it’s a human problem. That doesn’t make it easy but it does bring it within our reach.
– We all happened to be born in the midst of a planetary crisis unlike anything anyone’s ever faced before. This is a crazy moment in the earth’s history. No-one has the answers, no-one knows the future, don’t let anyone make you feel stupid for not knowing the right facts.
– No matter what happens in our lifetime, our obligations are the same: to fight rich fuckwits, to bear witness to what’s happening without hiding from it, and to be kind to each other.
A glimpse of Ceduna in South Australia, c/o Google Satellites.
For those who are interested, I’m presenting a couple of things at the Edinburgh Fringe at the end of August:
Last week I snuck up to Scotland to do a short script development at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh. I submitted a draft of 44 Sex Acts In One Week a few months ago, and they read it and liked it and invited me up to spend two days with a director and a group of actors, hashing out the work on the floor.
Script developments are the goddamn bloodflow.
As a playwright, you’re constantly collaborating. I come from a devised theatre background, where a group of theatre-makers get together in a room to experiment, discuss and create the show together. The writer’s job in that room is not to come up with your own ideas, but to honestly document whatever the group devised, in the form that’s most useful for everyone.
But even as a solo playwright, you’re always collaborating. The finished playscript is a useless object in its own right – it only has any value when a group of creatives start using it. The director, the actors, the designers, they use the script as a working document in order to create a work of theatre. It’s that work of theatre that audiences eventually see. If everything goes to plan, the only copy of the script in the theatre on opening night will be in the tech box with the stage manager, and the audience won’t ever see it.
The natural habitat for a script is the rehearsal room. If the script doesn’t work in rehearsal, then the script doesn’t work. That is all.
A script development is a strange kind of laboratory which approximates the rehearsal process. In order to stress test the script, a director and a group of actors will read the work out loud, analyse the play’s structure and characters as they do in rehearsals, and even put some scenes on the floor. The goal is to figure out where the play is weak, and what needs to be done to strengthen it.
As a playwright, this is your real workplace, this is your territory. Everything else you do as a playwright is either preparation for or in response to developments like these. And so going into a development is always both extremely exciting, and really fucking terrifying.
In a very real sense, the company producing your work are your bosses. As a writer, you are working for them, to give them what they need in order to do their jobs. If you can get your bosses excited, that’s a good sign. If your bosses are perplexed and uninspired, that’s a concern.
So what I know about script developments is this:
You have to bring your absolute A game.
You have to work fast, because you never have enough time.
You have to be able to shift instantaneously from talking about at the zoomed-out structural level, to talking about granular scene by scene stuff, to talking about character intentions, to talking about individual lines that aren’t working, because you don’t know where people are going to take the conversation.
You have to be ready for the fact that following the first reading, the company may reveal that your play is about something completely different to what you thought it was about – and you have to decide what to do with that information.
You have to be ready to answer tough questions like ‘what is this play about?’ and ‘why is this scene in the play?’, and you have to be ready to answer ‘I don’t know’ when you don’t – and often you won’t – but know that if you can’t justify a scene in some way, it has to go.
You have to be able to take on board a multiplicity of ideas, that may be conflicting, that may be counterproductive, and you have to be able to hold them and gather them without jumping too quickly to judgement on which ones to follow.
Equally, you have to be able to edit and write fast, because script developments are rare and you have to make the most of every second.
You have to bring rough, unfinished material that can be worked with, rather than pristine scenes that you’re afraid to touch – but at the same time, everything you bring needs to be far enough along that the company can actually work with it.
You have to let go of being the expert.
In my ideal universe, I’d spend half my working life in rooms like this – and the other half sitting writing in preparation for them. For longer script developments (1-2 weeks), there’s this lovely pattern that emerges whereby the playwright spends half the day alone, writing and redrafting, while the company experiments with staging and blocking – then the other half of the day is spent sharing what you’ve made with each other. Days like that are probably my favourite days in this whole life.
Anyway, the development with the Traverse was lovely – the actors, director and dramaturges were all incredible, super sharp and professional, and we churned through a lot in two days. I finally got to see 44 Sex Acts on the floor! And I wrote some new stuff which I’m really happy with. Here’s a little scrap:
celina: Okay so this is my plan. I think if we’re smart, we can string them together, 1-2-3-4 and so on, for maximum speed and efficiency. We move from vulva licks to 69s to blindfolds to hair pulling to using the vibrator on my neck, bang bang bang bang. How much do you come?
alab: What? Like how many spasms?
celina: There’s like four acts that vary on where you’re supposed to ejaculate, and I think we can do them all together. Start by you coming on my stomach, then on my ass, then on your ass, then in your hair…
alab: How am I supposed to ejaculate in my own hair?
celina: Hmm, how far do you normally jizz?
alab: Maybe this far?
celina: Well maybe we need to turn you over mid-orgasm so your wang is here and your head is here, and then you can just come downwards in an arc on to your own head.
Alab tries getting into this weird handstand position.
‘Kill Climate Deniers is an evening exceptionally well spent’ – The Upcoming
‘A lovingly crafted satirical swipe at climate change issues that remarkably, given its predictions of catastrophe, provides a welcome shot of optimism perfect for today’s jaded and cynical times’ – Everything Theatre
‘An extraordinarily daring play that is a political rally for saving our environment’ –A Younger Theatre
‘3-D printed guns, eco-terrorists and the Australian Environment Minister on a killing spree…it’s as bonkers as the title suggests’ – LGBTQ Arts
(Now I’m wondering if there are any other companies out there who’d like to produce the script – if so, get at me.)
pic by ali wright
Ben Yeoh and I presented Thinking Bigly, our performance lecture about climate solutions, at the Museum of London and the Pleasance. This was super fun and we got to wear badass costumes.
Next up, I’m heading to Edinburgh in August to do a few performances of You’re Safe Til 2024 at the Pleasance.
In this blog post I want to share a little history of the You’re Safe Til 2024 project so far. Partly it’s an opportunity to acknowledge the many people who helped create this work, and partly because I think the strange twists and turns of this project are a good example of the strange ways a piece of theatre makes its way into the world.
I’ve also been dreaming about making an epic show – a durational work, eight hours or more. In my head, the ideas of planetary transformation, global change, need an 8-hour show. Audiences need time to sit with these concepts, and they take a lot to unpack. I’m not talking about an extended science lecture, I’m talking about an event, a form of performance that matches the scale and complexity of the material.
In mid-2018 I had a brainwave: I could use objects as a way to frame this work about global change. What are the unique objects of this moment in history? What can looking at those objects tell us about planetary change?
I began interviewing scientists, asking them about planetary transformation: What’s the biggest change happening in the world today? What object might represent that change?
Of course I wasn’t the first to have this idea – there are numerous books, podcasts and exhibitions about ‘anthropocene objects’ – but as far as I could find in my research, no-one had made a theatre show using them before. Performance is a very different artform – I could do and say things with these objects that no-one else could.
I was so excited by this concept, I contacted musician Reuben Ingall and asked if he’d be interested in joining me on this one. Reuben and I had most recently worked together closely on Kill Climate Deniers. He’s a brilliant performer, I couldn’t think of anyone I’d rather be on stage with.
I also approached playwright Chris Thorpe, whose work I’m obsessed with, and asked if he’d be willing to give me some dramaturgical guidance. He kindly agreed. Designer Gary Campbell hosted an early scratch and offered to help make some of the objects I was discussing.
So by November 2018 I had a concept, a bunch of research, and a group of collaborators. I’d decided that the first iteration, in 2018, would be a classic 60 minute show. I’d start there, and then grow it into the huge version over the next few years. I pitched the first version to a couple of places.I settled in to write a first draft of the script.
And here I ran into problems. Or, to put it bluntly, the whole work fell apart.
pic by adam thomas
My central idea, which was that I could use a set of anthropocene objects as the spine of the performance, was… not gonna work. A performance is an active three-way relationship between the performer(s), the audience and the subject of the play. There has to be an active process, an experience that happens live in the room, between these three poles, and something has to change as a result.
What I had was a set of static objects, which in and of themselves told fascinating stories about the world, but which had no relationship to me, or to the audience. It might work as a book, a podcast or a museum exhibition – but not a play.
Over the course of two days, what started out seeming like a small crack in the conceit gradually deepened, lengthened, and then the whole work fell to pieces.
Oh well – worse things have happened. I figured, I could start again from scratch. A shame, but so it goes.
But then I got a letter from Griffin Theatre saying they’d agreed to program my work (provisionally titled ‘The First Thousand Objects’) in the Batch Festival, April 2019. Which meant I had four months to build the work from scratch.
I could’ve pulled out, but I didn’t want to. The Griffin audience is too lovely, and the chance to perform on that stage was too tempting. And besides, I like a good tight deadline. So I accepted the offer, sent them a new title (‘You’re Safe Til 2024’) and got back to work.
pic by veronica barrett
Over three conversations with Chris Thorpe over November – December, I started to scrape together a new structure. This one was built around an attempt to communicate big ideas of global change. A small scene about an awkward conversation I’d had at a networking event was retooled as the inciting incident for the play. I kept the scripts for Chris Thorpe’s Status and Confirmation open in separate tabs so I could switch to them constantly for inspiration on building a solo show structure.
When I’d pitched the show to Reuben, I’d pitched it as an exploration of different objects – and he was imagining building a soundscape out of those objects. So I tried to keep those elements in place, being aware that Reuben’s time was limited and he wouldn’t be able to remake the soundtrack from scratch.
I shared an early version of the script with Hadley, who picked up on a throwaway line about Hamilton: The Musical and suggested I try to create my own home-brand Hamilton in the show. Hadley’s theatrical instincts are always on point, so I leaned in to that hard and built a whole subplot of the show around my attempt to perform Hamilton despite never having seen it.
Over January – March I wrote and rewrote the script more times than I’ve ever rewritten anything before. I emailed back and forth with Jack Lloyd about ten times, who suggested countless amends and fixes and restructuring devices, and slowly it took shape.
Rebecca and I were in Melbourne for a month in March. In that time I committed to doing four sharings of the work, one a week, to give myself rigorous deadlines. I showed it to Sarah Walker, Max Barker, Tom Doig, Laura Jean Mckay, Jordan Prosser, Michael Greaney and Rebecca Giggs. Marieke Hardy gave me the structure of a Kim Noble show, which I borrowed. Bridget Balodis gave me super sharp notes on the structure and how to end the thing.
I arrived in England at the beginning of April, and carved out a weekend to spend with Annette Mees looking at the work. I presented it once for her, and she straight away went into a line-by-line breakdown of the work with me, finding moments of light and shade, clever repetitions, memorable hooks.
Gary Campbell made me an incredible latex chicken (to represent the weird growth of chickens in the last 70 years) and a facsimile of a goose that had been sliced up by a jet engine (technically known as a ‘snarge’). I spent three days alone in Toynbee Studios drilling lines, learning 60 minutes worth of text by heart.
And then I got back to Australia, had two rehearsals with Reuben, and we headed up to Sydney to perform that same week. And on the Friday night, we kicked off the first show.
pic by adam thomas
The Griffin shows were lovely – as we left the stage following the first performance, Griffin associate Phil Spencer said, ‘It’s well on the way,’ which felt like a good compliment. The right kind of praise.
And I learned a lot about the work, about what doesn’t work and what might be worth pursuing.
What didn’t work, bluntly, was the science lecture. I mean, we could just about get it over the line, we could just about keep the energy up through those bits, but they always felt like work. Work for us, work for the audience. So my grand conjecture, the experiment I’ve wanted to carry out for years, now has an answer: No, you can’t put straight science on stage. Not if you want an audience to crackle with excitement (which I do).
There were things that did work. Being on stage with Reuben is always a joy, and his music was stunning. The scientists’ stories were interesting when they were about the scientists themselves – humanising the science. The final monologue, in which I actively resisted taking responsibility for people’s emotional responses to the issue of climate change, was an interesting and charged moment.
pic by adam thomas
So now, the next step: pull it apart. Having taken a bit of time off, we’re going to return to the work over the next few months and start from scratch, thinking about building the next iteration, the 2020 version.
Over the next five years, we’ll work our way up to the full-blown show. The 2024 version will be an 8-hour epic, a huge spectacle, a wild experience: a novel, a journey, a battle, a prayer, a party.
In the meantime, each year we’ll present a new iteration. Each version will take on a different form, focus on a different aspect of the bigger picture, and gradually, the whole colossal project will take shape. I’m already beginning to glimpse the outlines, and I’m excited.
2019 was the Science Lecture. 2020 will be the Party.
A couple of weeks ago I did a radio interview about Reuben Ingall and my new show You’re Safe Til 2024. The interviewer asked about ‘climate art’ and ‘climate theatre’ in particular – Why isn’t there more climate art? Is theatre particularly well suited to talk about these issues? and so on.
Even as we were talking, it struck me that the term ‘climate art’ is fragmenting and dissolving.
Twenty years ago, when we talked about climate, we tended to describe it as a scientific issue, with environmental and political facets. ‘Climate art’ therefore had connotations of scientists talking about the issues, maybe some speculative future scenarios, possibly some politicians arguing.
In the last few years, there’s a growing awareness that climate change is not a topic of discussion: it’s the backdrop against which all our decisions and plans take place. It’s the paradigm within which every artist and writer on this planet is operating right now.
The world is changing around us. We see it in global warming and the increase in extreme weather events, in the vanishing of insects from our shared habitats, in the ubiquity of plastic pollution everywhere we go. It’s not a distant future possibility – in 2019 it’s visible everywhere and in everything. It’s always in the corner of our eye.
Frankly, it’s too big to be a genre.
And so, more and more, every work of contemporary art becomes ‘climate art’.
In the 19th century, most English writers were, in some way, writing about the Industrial Revolution. The characters in Jane Austen’s novels were operating in the aftermath of the Enclosures, which forced farmers off the land and into the cities. This created the labour supply for factories and mills and resulted in the social milieu that Austen explores. Similarly, Charles Dickens depicted labour conditions and the new urban lifestyle created by the rise in manufacturing.
Would it be fair to describe them as ‘Industrial Revolution writers’? Would it be useful? Maybe it’s better to say, the Industrial Revolution is a frame through which every novel written in the 19th century can be viewed through.
In the same way, just about every artwork produced in the 21st century can be viewed through the lens of climate change and planetary transformations.
What does this mean? Well two immediate consequences:
1. For those writers and artists who are interested in starting to make ‘climate art’: relax – you’re probably already doing it. You don’t need to read a volume of scientific literature or government reports, you don’t need to be qualified, you just need to be writing about the world.
2. For those writers and artists who don’t want to make climate art – too bad, you’re already doing it. If you avoid talking about the climate, your work will be read, in retrospect, as either wilful or oblivious denial. And that’s not a bad thing! There’s nothing wrong with escapism in a time of struggle – don’t ever get suckered into thinking that the only art that matters is ponderous ‘worthy’ nonsense.
So my prediction, then, is that we’ll cease to see collections of ‘climate fiction’ or festivals of ‘climate art’. I predict that in the 2020s we’ll develop a new label for works that reflect directly on the linkages between the environment, society and the economy – but I guarantee you it won’t be ‘climate art’.
POSTSCRIPT: After I’d written a draft of this post, Rebecca shared this quote from David Wallace Well’s Uninhabitable Earth with me:
(This is good stuff, but I disagree with Wallace Wells that global warming stories ever offered an ‘escapist pleasure’ – in my lifetime, climate-focused artworks have always sat in the category of Worthy Art; something that people think is important (for some reason) but is always depressing and dull.)
pic by honor harger
In life and art news, it’s been a super busy patch of time. Reuben Ingall and I presented the first set of shows of You’re Safe Til 2024, our new performance exploring planetary change. This was the first development of what will eventually become an 8-hour work in 2024.
We kicked it off at the Batch Festival at Griffin Theatre in Sydney, followed by shows at Smiths Alternative in Canberra, the Art+Climate=Change Festival at Bunjil Place in Melbourne, and finally, the Straits Clan in Singapore.
On Monday 17 June I’ll be joining playwright, sustainable finance expert and all-around charismatic genius Ben Yeoh onstage at the Museum of London for our performance lecture Thinking Bigly, which talks about possible solutions to the climate crisis.
Kill Climate Deniers was just onstage in Brisbane for a season at Metro Arts, produced by THAT Production Company – which judging by the reviews (here, here,here), seemed like it was a fucking dope night out.
It’s March 2019, and there are some new projects about to enter the world – I am EXCITED.
You’re Safe Til 2024
Over the last year, I’ve been interviewing scientists and asking each of them the question, ‘What’s the biggest change happening in the world today?’
The answers have yielded a fascinating collection of objects, images and ideas: a sensory snapshot of the planet. Million year ice cores, broiler chickens, whales singing with ship engines, sand scorched by nuclear tests, and lots more.
Over the last few months, I’ve turned the results into a new show, entitled You’re Safe Til 2024. It’s an unlikely documentary in sounds, stories and beats – a highlights reel of the strange ways in which humans are remaking the earth.
Ward said: ‘It’s the coolest play I’ve ever read and quite frankly what is not to love about the words: a self-aware post-modern comedy AND action play about climate change, politics, and media hysteria.’
Finally, in June, I’ll be giving a performance at the Museum of London alongside playwright, pension fund manager and extraordinary maker-of-things-to-happen Ben Yeoh entitled Thinking Bigly: A Guide To Save The World.
A theatre performance talk about sustainability and how you, finance and policy can be part of the solution. What reasons do we have to be hopeful in the current crisis moment? Shape our story through interactive games and learn about solutions to the world’s climate and sustainability challenges.
Ben is an extraordinary thinker in this space, and it’s super exciting getting to perform alongside him – I’m learning a lot as we piece this thing together. Stay tuned for details and tickets.
It’s a very newsy blog post, but some times there’s just a lot of granular stuff to say. The other side of all of this is: I’m doing alright, I’m struggling with the ongoing project of becoming a better writer and artist, and the other day Rebecca and I went hiking in the Dandenongs and saw a forest yabby resting on the path like this guy, who then crawled back into her hole with her pincers angled up at us; it was a good day.
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.