Plague Diary, I

27 March

Walking to the office this morning, first day of daylight savings. Cold spring wind blowing gusts along Whitechapel High Street. Today is the first day I can remember where the debris being blown is mostly blossoms and leaves rather than garbage.

The floors around the Kaaba in Mecca are white. I didn’t know that because I’d never seen it without thousands of worshippers surrounding it.

The pope prays alone in St Peter’s square in Rome. That’s a first in history, perhaps.

29 March

The signs in shop windows telling you they’re closed are a perfect expression of that shop’s character.

  • Small but officious travel agencies or optometrists, ‘Due to government advice, because of the Covid-19 regulations around social distancing, we will be temporarily closed, apologies for the inconvenience.’
  • No-fucks-given Indian restaurants, ‘CLOSED due to VIRUS’
  • Hipster art gallery with pangolin paste-up, ‘Closed til further notice: U Know The Score’
  • Bars, ‘We are filming you right now and there’s no money on premises, don’t even try it
  • And the Genesis cinema, which I walk past every day and which is giving me a little sense of positivity, has turned its cinema sign to just say: ’tis but a scratch’

Today I flipped between imagining that it will all be over and back to normal, then having moments where it sinks in that it will never be the same again.

Fri 3 April

Single plane in the clouds on the way to work, made me realise how quiet the skies have been. Feels like the air is clearer. I know that air pollution is way down, psychosomatically it feels like the outlines of buildings are clearer in the distance.

The Australia Council for the Arts announce 4 year funding. A big tranche of arts orgs have lost out, more than I expected. Places starting to go under. I felt myself wishing, on the walk home, that I could just see all the destruction now, that I could just know how bad it’ll get, and therefore just work from that, rather than continually revising expectations and having to readjust my expectations one week at a time. But uncertainty is part of the package, isn’t it?

Sun 5 April

Buses with signs on them advertising movies that are still to open in cinemas long closed. ‘Dark Waters with Mark Ruffalo, in cinemas now!’ No, no it is not.

Handwritten sign taped to the bus door by the driver, ‘please enter by the back door’.

The Old Vic have put posters up all around Mile End saying PLEASE BELIEVE THESE DAYS WILL PASS

Every day I hear the call to prayer from the East London Mosque echoing out through Whitechapel, which I’ve never heard before all the years I’ve been working here. Eerie and strange and lovely.

7 April

The Australian Rugby League has announced they’re ‘open’ to the possibility of quarantining all their players on one island away from their families for the rest of the year in order to enable them to get back to playing rugby. Why not? Why not anything, as of this week?

Work meeting to talk about furloughing today. I didn’t know what a furlough was a week ago.

10 April

Outside the Co-op supermarket, two young guys wearing huge gas masks with side filters, holding plastic-gloved hands and carrying groceries, maybe medical students from Queen Marys University? An old dude with white stubble stands on a doorstep in shorts and a singlet smoking a cigarette and looking at them in contempt. Two dudes listening to trap on their phone walk past, each with a face mask, each tugging it down to take a hit on a joint before passing it to the other and pulling the mask back up. Each of us pandemics in our own way, I guess.

12 April

A note in the coronadaily points out that parts of the lockdown are certain for months still to come, but many Americans have less than one month’s savings. There will be food banks soon, he says, the government needs to be honest about this.

14 April

Today was the first time I read the phrase ‘No Mask No Service’

16 April

The Tesco staff now wear t-shirts saying ‘Please keep 2m distance.’ In future years, when people hold Covid-themed fancy dress parties, that’s what I’m coming as.

Today I learn that the challenge of managing headphones, sunglasses and facemask was designed for people more coordinated than me.

17 April

Before, I had lots of lives: meeting friends, working in cafes, catching the train, early mornings at the gym, date nights out to see a show, curled up trying to sleep in a plane seat… more than I could count. Now I have three lives: at home with Rebecca, alone in a deserted office working, and walking up and down Whitechapel High Street in between the two. Not complaining, three is still a lot.

Dan Hill says: ‘According to Instagram, everyone is baking bread. According to sales figures, they’re not.’


This is the bit of the post where I’d normally talk about what I’ve got coming up, and right now I can truly say: not a lot. At least, not a lot I can invite you to. I’ve been busy, in that way that a lot of freelancers are busy, trying to handle the impact, save what can be saved, plan what can be planned, and keep writing in the midst of it because writing is what makes me happy.

I’m hacking away at redrafts of 44 Sex Acts In One Week, my awful romantic comedy about a mismatched couple trapped into a week of endurance stunt fucking. If you’re curious, there’s more about it on the website, and a short script extract – which is now out of date, given that I’ve been rewriting and fixing and editing. So I’m looking forward to sharing more of that soon.

In my maker-on-retainer role at Coney, I’ve been working with Tassos Stevens to prototype a series of new Remote Socials, digital gatherings that explore different kinds of interactive play, regularly on a Friday night. There’s three more coming up, more info here if yr curious.

Most exciting, though, is that my partner Rebecca’s book is coming out! Fathoms: The World in the Whale is launching in Australia at the end of April, in the USA in August, and in the UK in November. Ed Yong (who btw has written two of the most essential big-picture pieces on the pandemic, here and here), said:

‘Fathoms took my breath away. Every page is suffused with magic and meaning. Humanity’s relationship with nature has never been more important or vulnerable, and we are truly fortunate that at such a pivotal moment, a writer of Rebecca Giggs’s calibre is here to capture every beautiful detail, every aching nuance. She is in a league of her own.’

Lessons learned from Are You Ready To Take The Law Into Your Own Hands?

pics by Sarah Walker, poster by Joyce Garcia

In early 2017, when Sipat Lawin and I were on tour to Castlemaine Festival with our interactive show Gobyerno, JK Anicoche and I took a morning out to have a coffee and talk about future projects. We started discussing the idea of a play – you know, an actual play, in a theatre – looking at politics in the Philippines.

In mid-2018, the first version of that show was performed in Manila. Just under two years later, in February 2020, we toured the work internationally to Arts House in Melbourne as part of the AsiaTOPA Festival.

Are You Ready To Take The Law Into Your Own Hands? is a big show – a huge action-musical beauty pageant. The plot follows the kidnapping of Filipino popstar Gracielle V, and the efforts of a small group of fans to track her down and rescue her. It’s a big theatrical spectacular – dance scenes, fight sequences, costumes, glamour, excess – and it’s also a sampler of Filipino pop culture, surveying the last 40 years of iconic Pinoy pop music.

pic by brandon relucio

The tour went really well – a sold out season, excellent reviews, a great audience response, and everyone involved was a real delight, from the Sipat crew to Arts House, to our Melbourne dance collaborators from House of Devine.

Behind the glossy projections and edgy fashions, the ultra-slick dance moves and remorseless entertainment, there’s a hall of mirrors where art and propaganda become almost indistinguishable. It makes for gut-wrenching, unsettling subtext.

However avowedly “not political” this show may claim to be, probably the closest analogues in European culture would be the work of Belarus Free Theatre and Pussy Riot, or Brecht in Threepenny Opera mode.

The talent, courage and urgency that fuel this all-singing, all-dancing satire of celebrity culture make electrifying theatre.

– Cameron Woodhead, The Age

Are You Ready to Take the Law into your Own Hands is as flashy, glitzy and energetic as it is intelligent, subversive and fun. It takes popular entertainment forms that shouldn’t necessarily work together, the action adventure and the glamour contest, and smashes them into each other in a delightful way that doesn’t entirely conceal how intelligent it is.

– Rob Reid, Witness

pic by sarah walker

It’s also a major accomplishment to pull a project like that off. This show had a touring party of 12, which is a lot, and it’s a full-blown multimedia extravaganza – 360 video projection, non-stop choreography (with 15 people onstage), live video-streaming, detailed lights and sound… and without showing off the budget, we did it for Very Very Cheap.

We were lucky – we were booked to fly through Hong Kong on our way to Australia, those flights were cancelled – but we were able to refunded and alternative flights. We were watching the news every day for coronavirus to wipe out the production – but through sheer luck, the outbreak didn’t escalate in either the Philippines or Australia across all of February. It wasn’t even a major news item in Australia while we were there, certainly it didn’t impact our audiences. If we’d been performing even a week later…

But it also worked so well because every single person threw everything at it to make it happen. Arts and performance venues always amaze me with how generous they are to touring companies, but on this occasion, Arts House really went above and beyond to make this show possible. Now we’ve done it once it’ll be comparatively quite easy to do it again, but that first production – that was such a risk, and Arts House really went out on a limb to make it happen.

pic by sarah walker

LESSONS I LEARNED FROM THIS PRODUCTION:

– I love watching Sipat Lawin on stage
It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed myself so much on tour, and a large part of it for me was simply the pleasure of seeing the artists of Sipat Lawin back onstage. For years, the company has been presenting all kinds of participatory work, site-specific and community work, creating platforms for conversation and contemporary rituals. The work the company does is so grounded in the community of Manila. They’ve shifted a long way from their origin as a theatre company emerging out of the Philippines High School for the Arts.

But at the same time, they’re all still such theatre creatures – and they come to life on stage like no other artists I know. After touring Gobyerno to international festivals for a few years, I felt frustrated that no-one knows the secret: that Clyde Enriquez and Adrienne Vergara are phenomenal triple-threat performers. So a big motivation for creating this show was simply to give them a platform to show off their acting, their dancing and their singing.

And then Ji-ann Lachica and Bunny Cadag came on board, who I am mad fans of! And Blanche Buhia, who I hadn’t met before but who is great!

pic by brandon relucio

– I create problems, JK solves them
JK and I have worked together as writer and director many times over the years, but this felt like a real crystallising of our collaboration in a lot of respects. In particular, over the last month, as the script more or less solidified, I found myself in the role of identifying problems. Dramaturgical issues, things that weren’t quite right in the flow of the action, tonal problems…

And it felt to me that as long as I could identify a problem with enough precision, JK could solve it. If I could explain an issue with a sequence, but also, explain what that sequence needed to do in abstract terms, JK would find a way of bridging that gap. His bag of tricks seems to be bottomless – and even better, he’s so adept at using unexpected elements to solve a problem, to use lights or audio or video or text or dance or costume in really counterintuitive ways.

– This is the hardest script I’ve ever worked on
I’m credited as the writer of the show, which is an overstatement. It’s probably better to say I was responsible for the script, which was more about making sure all the material that everyone wrote was roughly balanced and connected. But it was very, very difficult.

Trying to create a performance that’s so rooted in Filipino context make sense for an international audience while making it meaningful for a Pinoy crowd too: it felt like playing both sides of a chess game where both players follow different rules. And what became clear through the season in Melbourne was that this show doesn’t work when it’s 90% there, or even 95% there – it needs to nail it, or else it’s going to fail badly.

We were in real trouble back in October, at the end of the last development – Emily Sexton from Arts House and Saddiah Boonstra from AsiaTOPA came across to watch our sharing and they were incredibly positive, but there were some fundamental problems with the tack we were taking, and it was going to sink like a stone in front of an Australian crowd. And I didn’t know how to solve it.

This is the only process I’ve ever been involved with where I’ve thought, ‘I need more white people in the room’. I was the only international eye on the material, and I lost all my objectivity, and I no longer knew what Australian audiences would or wouldn’t connect with, or how to make sense of it.

Thankfully, Hadley read over the script and cracked it, pinned down the central idea which let us put a new lens on it and gave us a way to frame the material for westerners. And thank christ, it worked, because the first time we put it in front of Australians was on dress rehearsal night.

pic by brandon relucio, wtf is jk wearing here

– There’s a pleasure in withholding
Even if we’d tried, we couldn’t explain all the cultural nuance or political context in the play for a western crowd – and it would have been exhausting and boring for everyone if we’d tried. So we tried going the other way – having translated the script into english, we translated certain portions of it back into tagalog – effectively making those parts inaccessible to the Australian audience.

That way, we hoped, people would understand that they couldn’t understand – that there were things in this story that were out of their reach, and that was fine.

This is not a device I’ve ever tried before, or even seen used that I could recall, so it was a total gamble – but it worked.

– One of the pleasures of Filipino performance is excess
The first production of Are You Ready in Manila in 2018 went for nearly 4 hours – with no interval, and with the audience on their feet for most of it. Theatre in the Philippines is longer, bigger, more emotional, in every way more than theatre in Australia.

For the Melbourne show, we had a hard time limit of 90 minutes – so how are you going to capture that excess in that timeframe? Containing that excess risks diluting it. But it’s very hard for western audiences to cope with an epic durational Filipino work, with those huge emotions. We get tired, we get bored, it starts feeling all the same to us.

(Conversely, it’s worth remembering that western theatre often reads to Filipino audiences as short, bland and boring.)

For example, in the original Manila performance, Ienne’s religious homage was 27 minutes long. In the Melbourne version, it was a mere 7 mins. But it was heartbreaking to lose all that material, partly because from my perspective, the longer that sequence went, the funnier it got.

pic by sarah walker

– I don’t know what western audiences saw when they saw those scenes
I genuinely don’t know whether the Melbourne audience experience would have been improved by recognising all of the myriad references and details in Bunny’s performance as Malaine, or whether the strangeness of it was its strength.

– Without the execution of the spectacle, the show wouldn’t have worked
I’ve seen (and done) lots of theatre in Australia that gestures towards spectacle, but this one really had it. Choreographer Jared Luna made it BIG.  Lighting designer Roman Cruz, video artist Joyce Garcia, cinematographer Brandon Relucio and sound designer J Laspuńa made it feel like an immersive cinema experience. Sigmund Pecho’s stage management, with the help of Kirby Vicente and Rod de los Reyes completely tied it together. The dancers of House of Devine came in with such energy and precision.

I think the concept and the script of the show were pretty smart (of course I’m gonna say that). But smart doesn’t make for a good night out – I don’t necessarily book a show because I want to see something smart. What I want, deep down, is to see something beautiful, colourful and reckless – and then to have a thin veneer of smart layered over it so I can tell myself I’m still a sophisticated theatre-goer. That’s what Are You Ready is for me – a gloriously decadent spectacle with just a little smattering of Clever as spice.

pic by sarah walker

– Acting opposite Adrienne Vergara is HARD
In my one scene with Ienne-Ienne, I had to literally bite my cheek every night to stop myself laughing. Eventually the inside of my mouth was in genuine pain because I’d been chewing it so hard, so I had to develop other strategies, like counting backwards in my head while she was talking, or else I was guaranteed to lose it and laugh.

Don’t get me started on trying to write scripts for her. She is brilliant and merciless.

– I want to do it again
Please, someone book us to do the show again. I promise, Sipat Lawin will make your theatre explode with light and heat.

pic by sarah walker


So it’s 13 March, and obviously everything is in shutdown due to the virus. I’ve got a couple of gigs upcoming that are now either cancelled or on hold, and everything is very fluid. Hope you and yours are keeping well.

Couple of quick links on the topic of the virus:

The Atlantic posted a good piece answering the question ‘What does social distancing mean?’

If you want some good commentary from an epidemiological perspective, chronyclecovid19 is doing a great daily briefing newsletter.

For the keeping of your soul in these turbulent times:

Julia Johnson just released a stunning new single ‘Breathe Him In’ – soothe your heart for 3 mins.

And most exciting of all, my partner Rebecca Giggs book Fathoms is now available for pre-order!
In the US!
In the UK!
In Australia!

!!!

Lessons from Thinking Bigly

Ben Yeoh is an investor, a playwright and chair of the board for Coney, the UK theatre company I work for. We bonded over conversations about systems theory and climate change, and in 2018 he invited me to be a co-presenter for his Thinking Bigly performance lecture.

The show takes a bird’s eye view of the climate crisis from an economic and policy perspective, and then dives into the big question: What can we do?

This is much more in Ben’s wheelhouse than mine. I work a lot with climate scientists and researchers, but these questions of policy and solutions are well outside my understanding. But Ben wanted some help creating some interactive sequences in the show, and I jumped at the chance to be involved – partly to get to perform with him (Ben is a powerhouse & a big inspiration for me) and partly because I was pleased to be pushed out of my comfort zone and forced to grapple with these issues through a very different lens.

We’ve performed the work about 10 times now, in theatres (the Pleasance, Theatre Deli), museums (the Museum of London), for private businesses (pwc) and community groups. Ben’s also presented a solo version a few times, on his travels as a sustainable investor.

Doing the show has been educational for me in the best possible way. It’s forced me to grapple with climate policy and economics, to examine my own lifestyle, and to reflect on where best to put my energy.

The show keeps developing and evolving with each performance, and it wasn’t until a few months in that Ben produced this slide, which sums up the show beautifully, and which I love so much I’ve adopted it as my go-to for how to tackle the crisis in my own life.

Lower One Impact
Pick one impact you’re having on the planet and work on lowering it. The idea here is that rather than trying to transform your lifestyle to become completely carbon neutral, pick one particular area where you’re having an impact and work to reduce it.

Start by calculating your impact – the WWF footprint calculator is a good start. Identify one area where you can make a significant difference. For a lot of people, that’s likely to be flying, eating meat, or driving a car. Work on bringing it down. Then when you’ve reduced it or eliminated it, turn to the next thing and address that.

Support One Innovation
Ben uses the word ‘innovation’, but I’d say ‘solution’. The point here is that climate change is intersectional – it cuts across every facet of our lives and society – but that means that the solutions are intersectional too.

There are so many places you can start to make a difference – there are countless charities and NGOs out there striving towards climate solutions. Pick one (or two, or three) and support them, either financially or with your time.

If you’re in a wealthy economy, use your money to support NGOs and organisations working in the developing world – your money goes a long way, further than you think. Support small and diverse orgs.

Project Drawdown is a breakdown of 100 different climate solutions. Have a flick through this list and see if any of them resonate with you. If so, find an NGO working in this space, get behind them. Support education for girls. Donate to the clean cookstoves initiative. Help Indigenous groups fighting for land rights.

For real, learning more about a particular climate solution and supporting a particular organisation or project will genuinely make you feel better.

Start One Conversation
We need to talk about the massive changes happening to the planet more than we do. Be willing to start that conversation. Don’t lecture people or just dispense depressing facts, talk about it.

Try, ‘I’m scared about how I’m going to live in a decade or two. How about you?’ Or, ‘What are your plans for when the crises start to escalate?’ (I mean, pick your moment, obviously, don’t be weird.)

Be vulnerable, be curious, be open, be compassionate, be a human with other humans in the midst of big global transformation.

Write One Letter
In terms of effort vs reward, writing letters is the most impactful thing you can do politically. When did you last write a letter to a politician? Or a CEO?

For me, writing letters to politicians is a slightly unnatural thing to do. It feels weirdly private, whereas posting something on social media feels public. You don’t get the same immediate feedback – you do sometimes get a letter back, but it takes weeks or months. But the facts bear it out: this is the most powerful thing we can do to effect political change.

I’m trying to make a routine of writing one letter a fortnight, to a politician or to a CEO. When I have the impulse to put something on social media, I’m trying to convert that urge into writing a letter. It’s counterintuitive but honestly if we could convert a fraction of the time we spent tweeting about climate change into letter writing, we would swamp politicians’ mailboxes and they would have no choice but to take it seriously.

These are my reflections on some of what I’ve learned from researching and co-presenting Bigly. I highly recommend getting this from the source, tho – come to a performance of Thinking Bigly (though I warn you, they tend to sell out as soon as Ben announces them, he has a following), or at the very least, get on Ben’s mailing list. Well worth your while.


 

Six new productions of Kill Climate Deniers in 2020

From the 2018 Griffin Theatre production. Pic by Brett Boardman.

I’m really excited to announce that there will be six new productions of Kill Climate Deniers this year, in six different cities.

Sydney University Drama Society – 11-21 March, Sydney
Monash University Student Theatre – 26 May – 6 June, Melbourne
io Productions – 22 July – 1 Aug, Launceston, Tasmania
Canal Cafe Theatre – October, London
Švandovo divadlo – July-December, Prague
Canberra (secret) – July, Canberra

These are all badass companies and makers and I’m excited about each and every one of them. If you’re in any of these cities: GO CHECK IT OUT.

It’s hard for me to judge, but six new shows feels like a lot – it’s certainly more productions of a new script than I’ve ever had before.

As much as I want to claim all the credit for having written a brilliant play*, it seems to me that this burst of new productions is a consequence of 2020. Everything caught fire. My parents nearly lost their home. We were treated to the pathetic performance of politicians gleefully shilling for fossil fuel interests even as thousands of people (my best friends!) were evacuating from their homes. We are staring down the sheer nihilism of a political system willing to condemn future generations to an uncertain existence on a degraded biosphere.

Fuck those guys. I’ve never felt it more urgently and fiercely.

Theatre, of course, doesn’t change the world. Theatre can’t even change people’s minds. (This show, I promise, is not ‘reaching across the aisle’ to convert anyone.) But what theatre can do is gather a group of people together in a room and provide space to reflect and share. And that’s not nothing.

In conversations with the six companies producing the show, each of them has expressed that producing this play is not just about the end result on stage – it’s also about the conversations they’re having in rehearsals, the fundraisers they’re holding for climate charities, the activism they’re undertaking alongside the work… It feels like putting on this show is an excuse for organising and gathering forces, making good things happen in the world.

So I’m excited and proud and excited and scared and excited.

*I’m very proud of the script, I won’t lie


Are You Ready? pic by Sarah Walker

I just landed back in London after a month away working in the Philippines with my true loves the Sipat Lawin Ensemble, on our grand action-musical Are You Ready To Take The Law Into Your Own Hands? We did a beautiful sold-out season in Melbourne, with some great reviews and a really lovely response from the Filipino community.

V happy with this review

& this one!

Now back in London, and getting ready for four things:

Break Into The Aquarium
FutureFest, Fri 20 March
A brand new interactive show in which the audience carry out a heist on a major cultural institution. A deep dive into the world of rewilding and the future of ecology.

Thinking Bigly: A Guide To Saving The World
Theatre Deli, Thurs 26 March
The latest performance of Ben Yeoh and my performance-lecture about climate solutions. Sadly sold out, but keep an eye out for late release tickets.

You’re Safe Til 2024: Deep History
Theatre Deli, Wednes 1 April
The second episode of YST24, combining a deep history tale of the last 75,000 years of human history with a minute-by-minute tale of my hometown over new years eve three months ago.

Coronavirus
This is a shock to our globally connected social-economic system, and as a freelance playwright and performer, it’s already taking its toll. But we’re gonna get through this, and I’m determined to not be caught off guard by it. So it’s a good time to do some scenario planning and think through some possible outcomes.

My Thinking Bigly colleague Ben Yeoh has written an interesting post with reflections from his perspective in the health/investment landscape.
I’m enjoying biologist Ian Mackay’s Virology Down Under blog on the topic.
And this NYTimes piece made me want to send a bunch of flowers and a thank you card to every single person in Wuhan. The hell those guys went through to buy us those eight weeks – much love, much love.

One final shot from AUR – this one c/o Brandon Relucio – just purely for my look of bemusement at JK’s outfit here

The indifference

Black Flag

Rereading Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life, as I do every couple of years, because it’s such a lovely story. He charts out the evolution of the American hardcore underground over the 1980s in a series of beautifully written band profiles. As always, the story of the Minutemen is beautiful and inspiring, but this time what stuck out for me was a line in the chapter about Black Flag: ‘the frustration of toiling in the face of indifference.

This struck a chord.

In the world of art, you often hear stories of work that faced opposition – being booed, attacked by critics, censored, banned. We all have stories of being ripped off, let down, burned out, screwed up…

I sometimes get asked if it were hard facing the opposition to Kill Climate Deniers. The answer is: no. Having a chump politician and some pundits gunning for your work is energising. Being told by theatre companies that they like the script, but they’re not going near it because they don’t fancy the fight was honestly some of the better rejections I’ve ever had.

Opposition to your work is easy.* What’s hard is indifference.

In my career to date, the hardest reaction with which I’ve had to contend has been a lengthy, prolonged shrug from the world.

You put in the hours, the months, the years, and yet no-one seems to care. The people who engage with your work seem to enjoy it. There’s nothing obviously wrong with what you’re doing. And yet you don’t seem to be progressing. The world keeps finding new ways to not give a shit about what you make. Your creative life is no different than it was five or ten years ago, except that you’re more tired. And so on.

At least an active opposition gives you something to respond to. There’s friction, there’s hostility, there’s something. Whereas indifference is just nothing. Trying to get energy off indifference is like trying to strike a match on a wet rag.

Active opposition makes for a memorable narrative. It’s much more interesting talking about the poem that gets charged with obscenity, or the play that generates jeers and walk-outs from its audience on opening night.

It’s less interesting to say, ‘I worked for ages on this thing, and then when I shared it no-one really responded to it. It didn’t go anywhere. Nothing happened.’ But man, the second one is a thousand times harder than the first.

How do you get energy off being ignored? What Azerrad says about Black Flag that I love is that they fought indifference. That they responded to indifference by digging in, stubbornly, and saying, ‘you’re all wrong – what we’re doing is important, and the less you care, the harder we’ll fight to prove it.’ They took a kind of perverse pride in being ignored and dismissed – they turned their failure to draw any serious audience into a badge of honour.

I wish I could do the same. The closest I come is that when I get turned down by a theatre company or a funding body or whatever, I promise myself that I’ll do the project anyway, just to spite them. I’ll make something so good that they’ll be sorry and embarrassed they ever doubted me.

Yes, spite is an unhealthy, negative emotion, but maybe it’s better than despair or surrender.

There’s one other Black Flag story in Azerrad’s book that I love. The band drive all the way to Tulsa, Oklahoma for a gig, and only two people show up. The band’s young singer is disappointed, but the bass player sets him straight: ‘There may only be two people in the audience, but they came to see Black Flag.’

I return to that paragraph over and over again like it’s scripture.

——–

* In fairness, I’m talking about the kind of opposition that targets your work, not the kind of opposition that sets out to systematically belittle, oppose and destroy you personally. Structural inequality is a whole other thing, as are the media campaigns which set out to swarm on and harass the vulnerable. (Speaking of which: destroy News Corp.)


pic by anna kucera

It’s mid-January 2020. Spent the first two weeks of the year in a long-distance panic as my home was hit by the worst fires in recorded history, evacuating friends, destroyed homes and devastated ecosystems. Grim start to the decade.

I was due to do a performance of break into the aquarium at Theatre Deli, but instead I cancelled it and replaced it with a new show, created in the space of a week – an iteration of You’re Safe Til 2024 about deep history, the origins of humanity and the unfolding fires. I performed that this Thursday and it went well – well enough that I’d like to find a space to present it again soon. (Get at me if you have any thoughts!)

Also, Ben Yeoh and I did a performance of Thinking Bigly at Deli – my favourite so far. We’re performing it again in late March if yr keen.

I’m heading to Manila in a couple of weeks to run a climate-art workshop with JK Anicoche, and to rehearse Are You Ready To Take The Law Into Your Own Hands with Sipat Lawin. Then we head on to Melbourne to perform the show at Arts House from Wed 26 – Sat 29 Feb: get tickets! Come!

And then I’m back in London in March to launch break into the aquarium at FutureFest on 20 March.

As ever, feel free to get in touch if you have any suggestions that might make my life more interesting. And otherwise: peace!

1 January 2020

Hi everyone
let me stand before you today as leader
to express my sincerest sympathies for your losses

for the fear, for the damage, for the deaths
most especially for the hours days weeks spent waiting for news, for help, for supplies, or just for some kind of clarity about what kind of crisis this was going to be
before it resolved into being the worst kind.

I’m sorry. I’m sorry beyond what words can say.

I apologise because I struggled to get to where I am
I worked hard for decades, I threw everything at it, I cut corners, damaged friendships, told lies and lost touch with my own truth along the way

I wanted to be at the top
and the truth is I didn’t have a plan for when I got here
I wanted to be a leader, not to lead
and now you need leading and I honestly, truly have nothing to give

in here it’s very dark, in here it’s hollow, in here there’s nothing to give

and I apologise because I have it
your country
myself and my friends, we have it
we have our hands on every lever

and we won’t give it back
not til the sun is dark at noon
the ash washes up on the sand
the smoke creeps in under the doors and fills the house
the stars are blacked out
the highways are cut off
the phones no longer work
the animals flee in great mobs from the smoke
the water is stolen out of the ground and sold back to you in tanks
the elderly are suffocated in the smoke
the hospitals are out of power
the families sleep in their cars on the beach
the kids are ready to rush into the water when the sirens go

if you have a fire plan, enact it now
remember, don’t use a wet blanket
a dry woollen blanket is the best coverage

until then, what else can I do but goad you?
with celebrations, with sports matches, with sneering newspaper columns to mock you?

in heaven, the sight of the suffering in hell is part of the reward
what’s the point of being up here if we can’t enjoy the sight of your pain?

here, have cricket!
have editorials complaining about swear words and rude gestures!
be scolded for your bad manners in the 45 degree haze!

here, this’ll rile them up!
this’ll get under the skin of the self-righteous urbanites!
give them a poke while they’re choking to death!
give them a lesson on manners while they wait to know whether they should evacuate
tell them how brave they are with a twinkle in our eye

because cruelty is part of our reward

and part of your punishment is to know that after me
comes another one like me
and another one, and another one

until the last exhausted family sheltering from the firefront on the beach stumbles into the surf

How to be an artist: a list.

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.


Gillian Schwab’s set for Oceans, pic by ‘pling

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.

———

Gillian Schwab’s set for Oceans, pic by ‘pling

———————————————————————–

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).

Finally, I went up to Edinburgh a couple of weekends ago for the Traverse Theatre’s First Stages festival, which featured a staged reading of an extract from 44 Sex Acts In One Week, alongside five other dope new works.

Now it’s deadlines scribbling reading research rehearsals, trying to make things make things and hold tight.

As ever, if anyone’s got any proposals that might make my life more interesting, feel free to get in touch. Otherwise: peace!

at Carlos Celdran’s Living Room in Malate, Manila, with Bunny Cadag. RIP Carlos Celdran, <4 <4 <4

The 2020s are going to be a wild ride

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.

You’re Safe Til 2024
11.30am – 12.30pm Tues 20 – Fri 23 Aug, The Pleasance Attic

Kids Killing Kids: A Wake (with JK Anicoche)
11.30am – 12.30pm Sat 24 – Sun 25 Aug, The Pleasance Attic

Also, Reuben and I will be presenting You’re Safe Til 2024 at the Sydney Opera House on Saturday 14 September, as part of the UnWrapped Festival. Sydney folk, please come!

You’re Safe Til 2024
3.45pm & 6.00pm Saturday 14 September, Sydney Opera House

A few observations

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:

You’re Safe Til 2024
11.30am – 12.30pm Tues 20 – Fri 23 Aug, The Pleasance Attic

Kids Killing Kids: A Wake (with JK Anicoche)
11.30am – 12.30pm Sat 24 – Sun 25 Aug, The Pleasance Attic

Take care, yall.

Less Talk More Nibbling: My Informal Guide To Script Developments


pic by jordan prosser

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.

alab: I don’t know if I can come upside down.


In other life / art news, the Pleasance Theatre in London has just finished the London run of Kill Climate Deniers, which was an absolute delight. Here is a review round-up on something called Stagedoor, which assembled a bundle of reviews and comments.

‘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.

11.30am – 12.30pm Tues 19 – Fri 23 August
Pleasance Attic, Edinburgh

And then JK Anicoche and I are doing two presentations about the Battalia Royale project

11.30am – 12.30pm Sat 24 – Sun 25 August
Pleasance Attic, Edinburgh

If you’re in Edinburgh, come along.

Otherwise, as ever, give us a shout if you have any thoughts that might make my life more interesting.