It’s May 2018! There’s a lot going on. Gonna try and put some of it down in one place, just so I can see myself where I’m at.
Bec and I finished up in London late last year. At the beginning of December I got a plane to the Philippines. Spent two weeks in Manila, a new project with Sipat Lawin: Are You Ready To Take The Law Into Your Own Hands? It’s a big show – an action film and a jukebox musical showcasing the world of Filipino pop music.
As well as being a big colourful spectacle full of fight scenes and dance sequences, it’s also a work with a very specific tone and some key ideas, and if we don’t land those elements then the play loses most of its force and intent. So I spent quite a bit of time in conversation with JK, Ness, Alon, Ienne, Clyde, Ji-ann and Joelle, trying to articulate those more subtle elements.
The Earth Observatory is a research institution funded by the Singapore government to study natural disasters in the south-east Asian region. The scientists there look at volcanoes, typhoons, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, mudslides and lightning storms. Their goal is to help make Singapore – and the rest of Asia – more resilient to natural hazard crises.
Boho’s brief was to create a new game – or, in fact, a series of games – looking at the period just pre-disaster: from the first warning signs to the moment of impact. When it comes to earthquakes and tsunamis, the period from first warning to impact is usually measured in minutes – which limits the kinds of decisions you can make. For that reason, our brief was to explore two natural hazards which do give you some kind of notice: typhoons and volcanoes.
Gills’ design work here was out-of-control gorgeous, as usual
Over January – February, we created a series of short modular games looking at different aspects of the pre-disaster system: the challenges faced by local government in planning evacuations, the difficulties that scientists face in communicating uncertainty, the complex requirements each of us need fulfilled in order to be able to evacuate our home.
It was tough, as a month-long development always is, especially when you’re living out of hotel rooms in a foreign city. But it was smooth, too. It feels like our process is getting clearer and cleaner the more we work at it. There were some pieces we created that I’m really proud of – though I also left feeling like we could have done a whole lot more.
We had one of those moments that completely justifies the entire existence of collaboration, though. Muttley and I came up with a rough sketch for a game called Busy Mayors – a planning scenario for a group of local government officials trying to run an election campaign in the onset of a possible typhoon. The game is built on a lo-fi probability engine (aka the chance-o-gram) that Muttley designed, which looks like this. The genius moment came when we were trying to figure out how to scale it up for two teams of players – and Muttley, while working on another game entirely, came up with the idea of having two towns in the path of the typhoon – one will definitely be missed, and one will definitely be hit.
I know it doesn’t make a lot of sense written down like this, but trust me, that insight turned it from a playful activity into a game.
Gillian’s design was absolutely stunning – gorgeous tactile pieces evoking different south-east Asian building styles. And Nikki came up with a superb name for the show: ‘Get The Kids And Run’. EOS have pointed out, quite rightly, that it’s not an accurate name for the games we’ve made or the point we’re making, so it will get renamed at some point. But as a working title, I like it the most.
Then there was Kill Climate Deniers at Griffin, and all that noise and chaos. That was a lot of fun, that was a joy on every level.
Pic by Bryony Jackson
And in amongst it, Reuben and I presented our Kill Climate Deniers dance party event at Arts House as part of the Festival of Live Art. Over two Fridays in March, we busted out the solo show complete with Reuben’s blistering DJ set, which was a magic way of diffusing all that energy. I love getting to dance with an audience, I love it the most.
Reuben totally nailed the DJ sets, too. The first week was badass enough (happy watching the crowd lose it to Baby D’s Let Me Be Your Fantasy), but the second week was even more glorious. He closed out the set by mixing to a hardcore acid house banger, leaving his laptop up on stage and jumping down into the dancefloor with us – as Jordan said, the DJ equivalent of pointing the car at the pier, putting a brick on the accelerator and leaping out of the window.
Pic by Bryony Jackson
Now I’m in England, back working with Coney, and at the same time, Jordan and I are sending back and forth new drafts for CrimeForce: LoveTeam, which will go up onstage at Nesta’s FutureFest this July.
But it’s 5.45am at an airport right now, that feeling.
I arrived in Sydney in mid-February, near the end of rehearsals – about ten days before the first preview. I hung out at rehearsals, had good chats with the Griffin folk, and attended the show five times. This was quite a special experience. I don’t know how to describe it, but it was exciting and humbling and very gratifying.
Now that the season has concluded and the dust has settled somewhat, I want to write a little about one aspect of the experience: what it was like, as the playwright, to see Griffin’s production of Kill Climate Deniers take flight.
KCD won the Griffin Award for new scripts last year, which was incredibly generous of them (and also, ahhhh, how many brilliant playscripts were in the mix for that award and I got lucky? there are too few opportunities like this for new writing, hey). The award was a lovely acknowledgement of the work, and I’d’ve been happy with that, but then Griffin doubled down and programmed it for2018, first show of the season, with Lee Lewis directing.
I’d never met Lee before this, though I know of her work, and I’d seen her production of The Bleeding Tree. We had our first meetings over skype mid-last year, while I was working in England. Good chats, but you know what skype is like – hard to organise, and always too brief.
Eden Falk & Emily Havea. Pic by Brett Boardman.
I was overseas again when rehearsals started – this time in Singapore for a month developing a new Boho work at Nanyang Technological University. I arrived in Sydney in mid-Feb, ten days before the first preview, but I was completely absent for the first few weeks of rehearsals. This is the brief window when the playwright can actually be useful, doing script fixes and rewrites as the play goes on the floor for the first time.
Instead, Lee, the cast, the designers, and the company were left with the responsibility to make the show work, and to figure out how to stage this unstageable play.
I’m gonna go on a brief tangent about the craft of playwriting here, to help me articulate what I mean by ‘unstageable’:
One of the first lessons you learn when you start writing plays, is that as the writer, your job is not to be dazzlingly clever. Your job is not to impress the audience by showing off your writing skills or getting fancy with form. Your job is to provide your fellow theatre-makers with the material they need so that they can impress the audience.
Some writers – novelists, essayists and poets, for example – are more or less writing directly to their audience. The words you write will eventually be picked up and read by your readers. It’s a kind of direct transmission from author to reader – the art exists in the words you are transmitting to the reader, through the medium of paper&ink or what have you.
For script-writers, it’s a little different. Under normal circumstances, your audience will never read your work. The script that you’re labouring over isn’t intended to for a wide audience, and in most cases it will never be publicly released.
This is what a script looks like. It is… not pretty.
In theatre, the crucial moment is the performance itself. It all comes down to that moment of exchange between the audience and the performers. Either the play connects with its audience, or it doesn’t. By that time, as the playwright, it’s well out of your hands.
The script is not the art. The script is a blueprint that a group of other artists (directors, designers, actors) will use to create the art.
A playscript is a working document – more like a map than a novel. A script isn’t necessarily supposed to be a fun experience to read on the page – it’s a functional device, a tool for a group of professionals to use as a common reference during the creation of the play.
With that in mind, when you write a script, your readers are not the general public who will one day see the show, but your colleagues, fellow artists and professionals who will be building that show. Everything you write will be mediated through them – so your aim is to give them useful material they can work with effectively.
‘Useful’ here doesn’t mean detailed exhaustive instructions. In theatre, whatever your role is – writer, actor, designer, whatever – you’re expected to understand enough about the other roles that you know what they need, and you can communicate with each other.
As a scriptwriter, you need to include enough information that your colleagues can do their job, but you don’t tell them how to do it. You don’t tell a lighting designer which colours to use when they’re lighting a scene – you tell them what the mood is supposed to be, and leave the rest to them. You don’t tell an actor where to look or how long to pause – you write good dialogue and strong characters that they can work with, and they make those decisions.
This is why they tell young playwrights to avoid stage directions as much as possible. If the scene is strong and engaging, the director and cast can figure out the rest on their own. If it’s not working, no amount of stage directions will help. (And they’ll ignore them if they don’t like them, and it’s your fault.)
That’s a scary loss of control, and a lot of playwrights can’t hack it. But on the other hand, as a writer, there’s something really freeing about letting go of the responsibility of making all the decisions about the work you’re making. You realise that you don’t need to worry about how these characters will get from A to B – the actors will solve that for you. You don’t need to describe the scene in beautiful prose – just explain what mood you want and the director and designer will figure out how to evoke it.
When you accept that you’re not the expert on how to actually produce the effects that your script calls for, you start to leave more decisions in the hands of your colleagues. You can be less prescriptive, more ambiguous, let your fellow artists decide how to solve this particular puzzle.
Oceans All Boiled Into Sky. Pic by ‘pling.
At some point in my practice, I took this lesson and ran with it. I was working a lot with director barb barnett of serious theatre, and I was continually blown away by her creative solutions to the challenges posed by my scripts. I would write scenes that I couldn’t even visualise on stage as I wrote them, but I knew that she would always pull something out of the bag.
At some point, I started to throw deliberate challenges into my scripts – little playful problems that I didn’t know how to solve myself, just to see whether barb could figure something out. And she always did – and interestingly, her creative solutions to my script challenges were often the most interesting and exciting parts of the show.
By the time I wrote Oceans All Boiled Into Sky, which barb directed for serious theatre in 2008, I was deliberately pushing her – trying to come up with impossible tasks, unsolvable problems. Oceans is a sci-fi road trip / coming of age story that takes place in Canberra in the earth’s deep past – during the Hadean Epoch, before the Earth’s crust had cooled enough to allow liquid water to settle. Massive clouds of steam and water vapour circled the earth, occasionally falling in huge rainstorms that would instantly boil back into steam as soon as they touched the burning rock.
pic by ‘pling.
Oceans tells the story of a Canberra teen attempting to do his driving test in this ancient landscape. The play takes place in the old Mitsubishi Starwagon which is driving over the semi-molten rocks through clouds of sentient steam.
I had no idea how barb would go about manifesting this environment. I wasn’t sure it was possible.
Just to be sure, though, I inserted a scene in which a giant prehistoric spider (one of the Megarachne that used to run the world during the Carboniferous period) breaks into the car’s engine and wreaks havoc, until it is subdued by a ghost. Utterly unstageable.
I handed barb the script, sat back and waited for her to admit defeat.
Oceans as radio play. Pic by ‘pling.
barb’s solution was one of my all-time favourite creative theatrical choices: rather than trying to stage these insane scenes directly, she decided to present the whole performance as a live radio play – in the style of a classic radio serial. The actors, in costumes evoking 1950s radio professionals, stood in a row on stage behind five microphones, and performed the whole play without moving. Meanwhile live music and foley conjured up the sonic setting, Jack Lloyd’s glitch-flavoured video projection told its own parts of the story, and Gillian Schwab created an eerie backdrop for the performance with strange dioramas and atmospheric lights evoking the ruined remnants of Canberra’s Black Mountain Tower.
The lesson I took from this: obstacles and challenges within a script are an opportunity for creative problem-solving by the company, and that’s where a lot of the most interesting stuff happens.
Eden Falk. Pic by Brett Boardman.
But there’s obstacles, and then there’s unstageable. And for better or worse, Kill Climate Deniers – the script – is unstageable. It’s not a blueprint for a show or a map of how to get to one – it’s more like a loosely organised bundle of vignettes, challenges, factoids and contradictions. It’s a tumblr with a plot. Or if you prefer, it’s like a version of Sei Shonagan’s Pillow Book, but for Australian politics.
It’s not a script with obstacles – it’s all obstacle. It’s a series of impossible challenges, stapled together with a paper-thin plot that is half-mixtape, half-helpless enthusiasm. (I wrote a piece for the Griffin blog about this play-as-mixtape factor too, if yr curious.)
There is no way to simply pick this script up and stage it as written. A director tackling this work basically needs their own vision of how and what they want to put on stage, and then they curate their own selection of content from the script to fulfil that vision.
That’s a lot to ask of a theatre company, especially one you’ve never worked with before. There was a very good chance that the show wouldn’t work. Not because the material is bad, per se, but the chaotic energy that worked on the page (enough to convince the Griffin Award judges to give it the prize) doesn’t necessarily translate to live performance.
I was half expecting it to fail. And why not? Most plays do.
Lucia Mastrantone. Pic by Brett Boardman.
When I arrived in Sydney, a fortnight out from opening, I sat in on a few rehearsals, got excited watching the performers vibing off each other with this heated crackle, was blown away by Steve’s soundtrack, and Toby’s video elements. It’s always pleasure watching a group of first-class artists working at the top of their game. I was so excited!
But I still wasn’t sure it was going to work.
Watching the rehearsals, there were a couple of sequences that weren’t clicking. They were slowing the show down, draining energy, and the material wasn’t necessary. I nudged Lee to cut them.
She refused, and told me to wait and see. Wait and see.
Sheridan Harbridge. Pic by Brett Boardman.
Production week was intense and slow moving – so much tech to install and set up. 18 speakers, 4 projectors, 2 TVs, additional lights… the biggest concern was that there simply wasn’t enough electricity in the building to power all of this equipment, so they had to be careful to not switch everything on at once.
Complex tech setups mean less time for actually running the show, so the first preview performance was also the first full run of the show (which apparently hasn’t happened at Griffin for at least the last five years). So watching the first preview, the real fear was that the show would literally break midway through, something would catch on fire or collapse and the actors would have to pause the play or restart from the top
That didn’t happen. They made it all the way through to the end. It was a rough show, in comparison to how tight it became over the course of the run – the pace was lagging and there were weird pauses and slumps. But watching it that night, seeing all the different elements together for the first time, I finally got it. I saw the shape of the show that Lee had been envisioning, and I realised that it was going to work.
The sequences I’d wanted to cut, that had felt flabby and unnecessary in rehearsals, turned out to be hinge points in the performance, crucial moments of stillness amidst the chaos.
There’s an interesting moment for a playwright that happens during any new production: the point where you are no longer the expert on your own play. You dreamed it, wrote it, edited it, lived and breathed it for months or years. But at some point, you realise that you’re no longer the authority. The actors know the lines better than you. The designers understand the reality of what you’ve been imagining better than you. And the director has a better sense of the big picture, the shape of the show, than you ever have or will.
It’s a weird moment, but a lovely one. It turns out Lee had a clearer understanding of what Kill Climate Deniers is than I did. Possibly she always did.
Sheridan, Bec and Emily. Pic by Brett Boardman.
And I can’t overstate how much of a colossal achievement it was for the company – Lee, the cast, the design team, the production crew – to find a performance form that could deliver on the possibilities within that script.
The playwright gets to claim a lot of the credit when the show is a success. It’s your name on the poster etc etc. But I truly had no idea how to make this play work. I was pretty sure it couldn’t.
So I guess what I’m trying to say is: Khym Scott, Lee Lewis, Bec Massey, Lucia Mastrantone, Emily Havea, Eden Falk, Sheridan Harbridge, Toby Knyvett, Trent Suidgeest, Kirby Brierty, Jonathan Hindmarsh, Steve Toulmin, Dino Dimitriadis, Will Harvey, Estelle Conley, Phil Spencer, Griffin Theatre Company: you win. You motherfuckers, you win.
My problem with my years is that they’re usually a confusing mess, running project to project, city to city, and if I try to sum them up it usually doesn’t make a lot of sense. This year was a little more structured than most. It went something roughly like:
January & February – it looks from my diary like I was travelling between Perth, Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney. Doesn’t look like I spent more than a week in any one place, hard to tell what I was doing, other than the Water Futures conference in Melbourne.
March – Castlemaine, Victoria, for the Castlemaine Festival with Gobyerno, then Shanghai with Best Festival Ever.
April – September – London. Straight London, working for Coney.
September & October – Sweden. In Linköping with Bec, and Stockholm for a couple weeks.
November – Back to London, more Coney.
December – Manila, working with Sipat Lawin.
(That was more for myself than for anyone else, it’s good to be across your own trajectory I guess.)
Anyway, I spent a bit of time yesterday thinking through my projects this year, and in particular, thinking how I handled them, whether I’m happy with my efforts or not. Out of curiosity, I tried scoring myself. Why not? Like Linton said to me this year after swimming at the London Aquatic Centre: can’t manage what you don’t measure.
So for each project, a score out of five. It has nothing to do with the success of the project, or the quality of the art – purely my own assessment of how I went. Did I bring my best focused efforts, or did I coast? & so on.
Life Raft – 3/5 One of my Coney briefs was to help Tassos devise a game for classroom students based on Fin Kennedy’s play. I ended up coming up with the most complex, multi-element game I’ve ever made – too much for a teacher to facilitate, but enough in it for Tassos to extract some useful elements. Didn’t get to follow through on the second phase development, tho, so not a finished job in some ways.
95 Years or Less – 4/5
Nikki Kennedy more or less built this one while I was scrambling around in between projects. But while I was there, it felt like the process was functioning well, and what we came up with was a strong and sharp prototype, building on the BFE form but with an interesting (and flawed) new decision-making game at the core of it.
The Shadow of the Future – 1/5
I started this Coney project (commissioned by the Imperial War Museum) with a strong idea – building on the prisoner’s dilemma tournaments of the 70s and a Cold War setting – but I didn’t produce much more than a decision-making mechanism, which the rest of Coney then took and developed into a totally new cross-platform format, with a whole new script. I didn’t do enough to satisfy myself here.
Science Gallery London – 3/5
Michelle McMahon and I ran two workshops for SGL in November. Still in process, but what I’m happy about here was the recalibration we did in between the two sessions, so that the second one felt properly targeted and landed well.
Save Our School / Run A Bank / Pharmacy Game – 4/5
A big part of my output this year was developing a new format of systems games that can be swiftly adapted, repurposed for new contexts, and delivered by a single facilitator. I’m happy because of the core game that sits inside these pieces (an exercise in which players deal with multiple tasks at the same time in a self-directed way) and because the finale is a good evolution of the madlibs format we’ve been playing with since early BFE. I’m also happy because for once in my life, I really worked through multiple playtests and kept coming back and making fixes, despite wanting it to be finished multiple times. Muttley’d be proud of me.
Gobyerno – 1/5
No complaints here, but delivering Gobyerno in Castlemaine was super fun, satisfying, energising, but it was the same show we’d built and run previously in Darwin. Can’t give myself any points because I was there as a facilitator, not a maker. But I now have young friends in Castlemaine, which is pretty fucking great.
Peak District – 1/5
This is genuinely my biggest regret of the year. Jordan and I took cameras and recording gear to the Peak District and spent a weekend walking and recording spoken word pieces. I didn’t take the time to properly write anything good in preparation. All the excuses – I was busy, it was a break weekend as much as a creative intensive etc – but the fact is, how often do you get a weekend away with Jordan Prosser to make new stuff? Don’t fucking waste it, Finig.
EGU essay – 2/5
Writing a long non-fiction essay about the European General Assembly of earth scientists I attended was a good move. Getting feedback from close collaborators and editing it over and over was a good move. But I didn’t land it anywhere, and that’s one of the main things I wanted to learn from doing it. Never get backed into a corner – but I let that piece get backed into a corner.
Water Futures – 1/5
I was there, and it was grand, but I was really just following Matt Wicking and Angharad Wynne-Jones’ lead. Sitting somewhere between facilitator and participant, I don’t think I contributed as much as I could/should have.
End Science Now – 3/5
A detailed treatment of a new script, a globe-trotting Tom Clancy / John Le Carre-style thriller about an undercover operative bringing down science itself. It has no home, but it was a valuable thing to research, to plan out in detail. Happy with the process so far, except that the draft is not yet done and so I can’t even share it yet for feedback. And there’s an unanswered question about the value of embarking on a big script project for something that is unlikely to ever be staged, but nothing is ever wasted, not really.
Are You Ready To Take The Law Into Your Own Hands? – 4/5
Taking an old idea for a vigilante story about a group of superfans on the hunt for a kidnapped popstar, adapting it to a Philippines setting, bringing it to Sipat Lawin. I didn’t do much more than write a skeletal draft, but I give myself points for correctly guessing a couple of elements that Sipat could build on to explosive effect. Watching this one rapidly transform as it hits a Filipino context and flies out of my hands into theirs has been one of the most satisfying creative experiences of the year.
44 Sex Acts In One Week – 3/5
Took my skeletal first draft for a Matthew McConnaghey / Kate Hudson romantic comedy, did a proper rewrite, and now I have… the straightest play I’ve ever written. I need to dive back in and do another round of edits based on feedback I’ve gotten, but then I have the job of making it weird. I don’t know what will happen with this one, but I’m pleased I’ve given myself a normal-shaped script, my very first.
Untitled Sex Play – 4/5
A week with Anthea at Battersea Arts Centre, this was one of those processes where we spent a lot of time clearing the undergrowth and getting down to the core questions, a solid foundation to build from. The thing I’m happiest about here is not anything I made or wrote, but the things I threw away. This was the first development of one of those multi-year slow building projects, and it was good to start by shedding a whole lot of assumptions and expectations. And we found a whole new language of working together (frequent dance breaks) that felt pretty lovely.
Kill Climate Deniers (solo show) – 1/5
Again, no points for repeating existing works. But I will say that I didn’t quite land the UK shows. Lots of reasons for that, and lots of lessons about what kind of content does work in this setting, but I can’t claim any sort of victory until I take those lessons and do something with them. Which: not yet.
Kill Climate Deniers (rewrites) – 3/5
I’m not good at rewrites or edits, and so it was a good experience going back to the script and rewriting it for the Griffin run. Folded in a brand new meta-play, updated a lot of the gags, and… look, I enjoyed doing it, but it’s impossible to score this one properly without seeing how it works on the floor. Rehearsals start next month at Griffin, we shall see.
Kill Climate Deniers (essay for HowlRound) – 3/5
This was a pleasure to write, and a pleasure getting to work with an editor. But it was short, so not too much learning.
Elevator Pitches – 2/5
Kieran Ruffles hit me up with a proposal for building a new podcast series of micro episodes, pitches for new works less than two minutes long. This kind of project is exactly the kind of thing I’m wired for, it couldn’t be more to my taste. & yet: so far, I only have 4-5 play pitches I’m really satisfied by. You gotta be an ideas generating machine, Finig, and my brain veered too quickly towards the absurd sketch show format of 22 Short Plays, which, this is not that. But I came up with a new outlet for the old Finnigan and Brother song ‘Looting The Aquarium’ as an end-of-days heist movie about the value of preserving wildlife amidst our own collapsing infrastructure (and Hana Martin came up with the tagline ‘We All Sink Together’), so it’s a project pointed in the right direction.
Appropriate Kissing For All Occasions – 2/5
After Louise Howlett produced this one for Melbourne Fringe, she hit up Isab and I for an extended rewrite. Not a high score yet because we’ve just begun work. We’ll see. The risk is that we’ve picked an angle and gone in on it hard, and though I have faith that we know what we’re doing, the original was built up over a lot of test shows and Isab trying it out on the floor. You can’t fake that work. So it’s all provisional.
Best Festival Ever – 2/5
We did the show in Shanghai! It was magic! By my scoring system here I should give myself only 1 point because we didn’t make anything new, but a bonus point because we had maybe our best night out as a company ever, in a vegetarian restaurant in the French quarter after a day of Shanghai exploring.
Aight. 2018. w3 w3lcome the future because we have no choice.
‘If you’re going to add to the noise, it better be nuclear.’
– JK Anicoche
Here in Manila for two weeks this December, working with Sipat Lawin on the first development of a new… something.
In some ways it’s hard to pin down what this one is, exactly. In other ways it’s very easy: it’s a play. An old school performance piece, possibly even designed for a black box theatre.
It’s called Are You Ready To Take The Law Into Your Own Hands? and it’s the story of young Filipino pop-music fan Celina Malabayabas, who witnesses her popstar idol Gracielle get kidnapped by thugs backstage at one of her concerts. Unable to convince the authorities that it really happened, Celina recruits her long-suffering sister and a rogue police officer, and begins to hunt Gracielle down herself.
In the process of finding and recovering Gracielle, the trio go through a gamut of high-octane Pinoy pop experiences: a Barangay beauty pageant, an underground Fliptop battle, a knife fight in the back of a speeding jeepney, a chase scene through the Pasig River, and an explosive, all-out finale showdown onstage at a pop concert.
It’s an excuse for a whole barrage of Filipino pop music, songs, dances, fight scenes and other heartracing spectacle, packed into one intense story about rescuing a popstar from certain death.
It’s also an experiment in form, using the tools of spectacle and emotional overload, and repurposing them towards different ends. But how that works (and if that works) are a whole conversation in themselves.
I’ve spent this two weeks watching JK, Clyde, Alon, Ji-ann, Ness, Joelle and Ienne put these scenes on the floor, testing them out in practice, while at the same time digging down into conversation to clarify the context. What’s the space we’re working in? Why do this? Why not do it?
As ever, I’m brilliantly out of my depth here in the Philippines, working in a context I don’t understand, and never will. But as ever, it’s a pleasure to sit in on these conversations with Sipat, to get a sense of how they articulate their purpose and their responsibilities as makers in the current era.
‘Philippines theatre has not caught up to the complex performativity of Philippines society.’
– Ness Roque
Also, it’s fucking exciting getting to watch these guys perform spectacle, because truly, no-one does spectacle like Sipat.
We’re creeping towards 2018, and for the first time in a long, long time, I feel like my life is inching towards more structure rather than less.
Last month in London was a good old-fashioned barrage, but in some ways, everything was tied together, everything was part of a bigger whole. This is what I did:
1. Sex Play A week in the Battersea Arts Centre with Anthea Williams, doing the first development on our collaborative project with Sarah Walker. Previously it was going under the name of 44 Sex Acts In One Week, the name of my romantic comedy script, with the idea that the work would be scaffolded by that rom-com storyline. After one day in the rehearsal room it became clear that that’s not where the work is at, so we jettisoned the title, along with everything else we knew about it.
(We have a bundle of new possible titles, of which my fav right now is How Should Sex Be, but truly, you don’t rush a good title, just like you don’t let it get too far away from you.)
So a week spent talking, testing things on the floor, reading things out loud, articulating speculative structures, and defining where we’re coming from, separately. Good work, thoughtful work, tiring work, and in some ways this is all about clearing the ground for the next phase.
March! Melbourne! A couple of weeks, this time with Sarah on board!
H+K systems mapping workshop, pic by Natalie Adams.
2. Systems mapping workshops
Then as Associate-in-Residence for Coney, I ran a series of systems mapping workshops for the financial services team at H+K Strategies (with Melanie Phillips) and for Science Gallery London (with Michelle McMahon). The rough format was to use the tools of resilience assessment to build up a map of what these organisations are and how they function.
These tools were originally developed by climate and systems scientists like our collaborators at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, and for the last few years Boho has been using them as the basis for creating participatory games. These workshops were a chance to flesh out the mapping part of the process, and to see if we could produce something useful to outside organisations.
95 Years or Less, pic by Ben Jones.
3. 95 Years or Less
At the same time, our longstanding relationship with Forum for the Future developed into a full-blown collaboration when they commissioned us to produce a new systems game based on the Harapan rainforest region in Sumatra, Indonesia. (Us being Nikki Kennedy, Toby Peach, Ben Jones, Natalie Adams and myself, representing Coney.)
In four weeks, we turned around a prototype of a brand new game, which we’ve now handed over to Forum. Intense work, high-speed work, exciting work.
Well, look, it was an old-school burst, in a lot of ways – trying to do a whole heap of projects in a very short amount of time. It wasn’t the worst it’s been, and I knew it was gonna be contained, and all in all, it was pretty tolerable. So no great stresses there.
It was a good lesson in not holding on too tightly, though. Collaborating closely with Melanie Phillips on H+K, Michelle McMahon on Science Gallery London, and Nikki, Toby, Ben and Natalie on 95 Years, I was relying heavily on all of them right from the outset. They all jumped in at the deep end, and with total grace and capacity, and because I was so stretched, I more or less ended up playing a support role on all three projects.
Not a great feeling, being spread thin like that, but nice to know that I can be, and that my collaborators will just make it work. So: grateful. And now: in the Philippines, on to the next thing.
I’ve been in Sweden for the last six weeks, mostly hanging in Linköping while Bec is in residence at Linköping University. This is one of those rare periods where I don’t have any pressing project admin, and was able to turn my attention to some actual writing.
In the final accounting, after subtracting a fortnight of work in Stockholm, I had four weeks, and the first thing I did was to strip my wishlist down to four main projects. That’s still a lot – too many for real deep focus or ticking off big achievements, but that’s where I’m at – I need to develop some new works up to the next phase.
In professional terms, I need some new work ready to take to potential partners and venues. I’d thought I was there already earlier this year – I’d done some R&D and writing for each of them, but not enough – I needed to really inhabit them, and go deeper. How can you get someone excited about an idea if you don’t have the material to really bring them into it?
(At the same time, I’m not disobeying the Glyn Roberts Stop Writing Plays rule: I may have drafted versions of these works or written detailed treatments, but these projects are still open for a director or creative partner to come onboard and shape with me from the ground up.)
So four projects, one week per project. If you get granular about it (which I did), that’s five days per project (life gets in the way). If you’re a bit of a mess, focus-wise (which I am), you can only really rely on a few good hours writing each day. Maybe three, with some extra hours around it for reading, note-taking, editing. Six hours a day if you’re lucky. So maybe 30 hours per project?
What I did:
Kill Climate Deniers
Rewrites. Griffin is producing this in March, but the script I submitted for the award was last heavily edited in late 2015. A fair bit has happened in politics since then. I was strongly tempted to leave all the political references as they are and stage it as a period piece (can Griffin afford to dress all the actors in 2015-era costumes?), but instead I dove back in, and in particular, refashioned the meta-thread that weaves through the script.
Editing is one of my weakest muscles as a playwright. Or, I should say, editing outside of a rehearsal room. I come from a devised theatre background where so much of the script development comes from seeing the actors and directors moving on the floor. It’s an incredible resource when you’re fixing and reworking a script, and I always feel a bit helpless without it. So this was tough, but good.
Are You Ready To Take The Law Into Your Own Hands?
At the other end of the spectrum: a new script for Sipat Lawin. This is a very different creation – the job here is to make a scaffolding to take to Sipat for a devising process. I wanted to produce scene descriptions, character profiles, a plot, and a series of setpieces to play with on the floor. The challenge here is the balance between creating something rich enough for the team to inhabit, and leaving space for them to effectively manifest the work as they see fit.
This is especially important when the work is about the Philippines, where I am definitively not an expert. It’s a pulp action saga about a kidnapped Filipino popstar, loaded with Pinoy pop songs – but which songs? and how does it play out? – all has to come from Sipat. So this was a case of careful restraint, holding myself back from shading in too many details or making limiting decisions.
End Science Now
I was really excited about this one, I wanted to write it up as a full draft, but I restrained myself: instead I hacked out the plot in detail, wrote a scene by scene treatment that marked out almost all the key dialogue and activity I imagine.
This is a much bigger picture story for me, a spy thriller in which a young military graduate goes undercover as a sociologist in order to BRING DOWN SCIENCE ITSELF. Building a narrative with so many moving parts, that provides a rough window into earth system science while also being a satisfying potboiler, is a new challenge. The most frustrating thing was laying all the groundwork to be ready to start drafting, and then holding off. But I need backing to mark this happen; a smart director, a good dramaturg, a context to write for. So we pause, for now.
44 Sex Acts In One Week
I’ll be going into a short development with Anthea Williams for this at Battersea Arts Centre next week. That show – created in response to pics by Sarah Walker – originally emerged from my attempt at writing a rom-com. I realised that in order to make the work with Sarah and Anthea in good conscience, I need to have done due diligence by the original idea and go back to that rom-com, write the best version of it that I can.
So I went back to that draft, pulled it apart, zeroed in on the characters, reordered the plot, and then rewrote the script more or less from scratch. A good rewrite, completed for no-one but myself. And now I have a romantic comedy. It’s weirdly straight – as in, it’s heteronormative af and it plays within the rules of the genre. So I now have a script that feels normal. Which feels weird. But that’s satisfying, in its way.
So now I’m back in London for a month. Right back into the thick of things with Coney, which is exhilerating and satisfying. And four new word documents on my hard drive.
So the other night Bec asked me, in all seriousness, ‘What do you think of U2?’ And I burst out laughing, because it made me think, maybe you can escape your past.Maybe, in the bright light of 2017, people no longer look at me and think, ‘I must share U2-related news and content with that man’. We all commit crimes, but maybe there’s also forgiveness?
It inspired me to go back through my files, and dig up one of the strangest and most idiosyncratic projects I’d ever been involved with, which was the 2011 online audio piece Functioning As A Machine That Hates U2. I want to write about it here now, partly because it was an unusual creative process that I want to reflect on, and partly because of who was involved in it, and what happened with that group of artists.
In early 2011 I moved to Melbourne for the first time. We’d just finished the first You Are Here festival – which at that stage was a one-off, no guarantees of a second iteration – and I’d come down to crash at Max’s place in Northcote. I’d acquired from an op shop a copy of Eamon Dunphy’s biography of U2, entitled Unforgettable Fire: The Story of U2, and I found myself reading it over and over, unable to stop or switch off.
Slightly bigger context here: 2010 was a tricky year, creatively. I was overstretched on three big projects, each of which was at the upper limit of what I could handle: production managing the Canberra International Music Festival, Boho’s (fraught) collaboration with the Powerhouse Museum True Logic of the Future, and co-directing the second Crack Theatre Festival. They all came off, more or less, but they were individually hectic, and the combination of the three of them put me as close as I’ve ever been to a stress burnout.
Right off the back of that, the invitation to put together You Are Here (which Lande chronicled beautifully in her Griffith Review piece), which was itself a tough process and a tight timeframe (100 days from the first meeting with Robyn Archer to opening night). In some respects things turned a corner on the first day of You Are Here, when the festival team expanded beyond Lande, Anthony and I, and the whole thing suddenly started to get fun. But for the next few months, through this next little period in Melbourne, I was still in a wobbly place creatively. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go, and I definitely couldn’t handle the idea of taking on any more big projects (in the forseeable future, or, ever).
So instead I read Eamon Dunphy’s Unforgettable Fire over and over, growing increasingly obsessed and infuriated with every single choice that U2 made in the entire course of their career. I couldn’t switch it off, couldn’t put it down. I wrote in my diary, on one of those days, ‘at this point I’m basically functioning as a machine that hates U2’.
I found myself writing a response to the book –something between a script and an endless screed. A meta-essay, or a stream of frustration, and in the way that sometimes happen when you get on a roll, everything that happened to me started to get folded in. I wrote about it on Facebook, and when people commented, I took those comments and rolled them into the text. At one point Rach Roberts sent me an essay about Bono she’d had to read as part of the Theology course she’d had to take, and that got folded in too.
There was no context for the work, no point or purpose, but then truly I’ve never needed a point or a purpose for my work, and that’s a problem with me.
In an impulsive way, I started sending bits of the script out to people I’d met, people who interested me, people whose work I liked, and asked them to do something with it. I didn’t have anything really concrete in mind, but I asked them to maybe record some parts as audio, and send them back.
One by one, people started sending back audio recordings of bits of the script. And soon, there was a whole bunch of content. Bizarre, stylistically disjointed content. But as soon as they started coming in, it started to feel like a real thing.
Nickamc joined me, and stitched the whole thing into a 12-part series – a 70 minute radio play / semi-scripted podcast, broken into short collage style episodes. And then it was real, and we put it up online and made it available to download, and put it out into the world.
I don’t think many people listened to the whole thing. I did, and it made me happy. Maybe the end product wasn’t the point. (Maybe it was the point, and I’m trying to let myself off the hook by claiming it wasn’t the point.) Who even knows?
But the interesting thing is, and what I’ve been really struck by when I came back to this project the other night, what happened with the group of people I hit up to contribute.
I’ve included extracts here from the recording, which are mostly less than a minute, so go on if you want a taster.
Nickamc and Max Barker Two of my closest core collaborators, right from the very beginning of my practice. We’d already been working in super close quarters for over a decade by the time this project came around, and now we’re more than halfway through a second decade. The following is Max playing the role of the manager of fictional U2-esque band FULL NATURAL BUSH.
Lloyd and I had worked together on serious theatre’s production of Oceans All Boiled Into Sky, and then Lloyd moved to the US. We still haven’t managed to collaborate on a full show together, but we spent a development in London in 2014 working with Hanna Cormick on a new piece riffing on Dirty Dancing.
Jordan and Sam
I knew Jordan and Sam very slightly at this point, through school and through programming their first show The Landlords at Belconnen Theatre in 2008 as part of the Wet Season (word Jan Wawrzynczak, another connection you helped make). Along with Georgie McAuley, I met up with Jordan and Sam in the Philippines later that year and began work on Sipat’s Battalie Royale, which led to the four of us forming the Too Many Weapons collective and producing material from full plays (Kids Killing Kids) to the Rizal Fountain Raps series of spoken word pieces.
I’d worked with Applespiel on the Crack Theatre Festival and then You Are Here, but not creatively. A year after this, Nathan, Nikki and Rachel from Applespiel joined Muttley and I in London, and we’ve spent the last six years making systems games around the world.
Sipat Lawin Ensemble
So at this time I had no real relationship with Sipat. I’d met them for one night in 2009 when they produced To Heat You Up And Cool You Down, and I’d gone to Manila to check it out. We’d exchanged a couple of emails subsequently, but that was it. I sent them the script not expecting anything – what would this Filipino theatre company do with a rambling text about U2? They said they’d get in touch, and then I didn’t hear anything from then, and I figured that was that.
The night before we were going to release the radio play, I got an email from Sipat with some audio attachments. I called up Nickamc:
‘Sipat have sent through their segment and you need to hear it.’
‘What did they do? Can we use it?’
‘…I don’t know? But, it’s amazing.’
It was partly the sheer insane weirdness of what Sipat sent through that convinced me to move my commitments around and find a way to be in Manila to work on Battalia later that year.
This is the first bit of what they sent us – go on, I dare you.
– No, it’s the gates of heaven – no firing squad, it’s just outside heaven and U2 has arrived and the angel at the gate of heaven is like
– WHO ARE YOU
– I… I’m U2.
– TELL ME WHAT YOU HAVE DONE SO THAT I MAY DETERMINE WHETHER YOU ARE WORTHY OF ENTERING HEAVEN
– I was a band. We started out being called Feedback, and then we changed out name to The Hype, and then we signed up for this young band talent contest as U2 –
– No, it’s not heaven, it’s the future – it’s the science fiction future – it’s a cyberpunk dystopia –
– You mean neon in the rain
– Neon in the rain, that’s right, and a little girl walking along the sidewalk finds an old broken down robot in the rain
– No, this is how you can be U2 reliving your story
– Okay go
– The girl sees this body lying in the gutter, and at first we think it’s crusty wino, and then we realise it’s an old Irishman, and then the camera zooms in and we see its eyes are actually red LEDs, so it’s robot Irishman
– So it’s Terminator
– So the little girl kneels down beside the collapsed robot Irishmanin the rain and she presses some buttons on its wrist and she’s all like
– Oh robot? Oh Mr Robot? Who are you? Why are you lying here all deactivated in the rain?
– And the robot’s jaw cranks open and closed and it murmurs
Jordan took this pic of me nine months into my middle age
Last year around August I had a week up my sleeve without work, and no urgent projects or deadlines or anything. I had enough money up my sleeve after doing this residency with Jordan, and I had work coming up in Sweden in October, so I decided to take a week without seeking money and do a five year plan.
I was living at Emma Hall’s place in Melbourne, and so every night when she came home from work or from rehearsals (building her new work Ode To Man), I was sitting with sheets of paper and index cards spread out over the floor, trying to condense my vague ambitions out of the air into some kind of actual plan.
First step was to do an update on where I’d gotten to since my last attempt at a five year plan, which was in 2013. I’d just finished the third You Are Here festival, just turned 30, and made a solid promise to myself to get out of festivals and arts producing for good. I have memories of making a solid set of plans at the time, but when I looked back on it, it was more like a 5-page stream of consciousness written after the final night of the festival, lots of panicky sentences in all-caps saying WRITE FINIG JUST FUCKING WRITE
But it was good rereading it anyway. I could say, at least, I’d fulfilled that minimum criteria of not going back into festivals or producing. (I was lucky, all the time I remember I was lucky, to get one of those Ozco Early Career Fellowships before they swept them away thanks to Brandis’ pointless beef with the Council.) And then I turned my head to the next five years.
I wrote a list of headings, all the different facets of life I thought were important, which were, roughly:
• Physical health
• Emotional health
• Creative practice
• Public profile
Then underneath I wrote down everything I could think of that I wanted from each of those facets of life in the next five years.
(yes I know, I included ‘sex’ in my professional five year plan, it seemed worth considering)
Some of it was straightforward, some of it was not. I spent a bunch of time reflecting on the kind of art I want to make – how have my tastes changed in the last few years, what structures do I need to make in order to make the stuff I want to make, etc. I did a bit of writing at the time about an aesthetic paradigm that emerged from Kill Climate Deniers and Kids Killing Kids, a way of coming at a core idea from a number of different forms, honouring the fact that I have neither the discipline nor the craftsmanship to just write something plain, simple and beautiful.
I also dug my head deeply into the question of how to make a living while making art, given that I don’t really want a regular job on the side (I travel too much to make that work, unfortunately). Is it possible to earn a basic living through small commissions, consultancies, writing gigs etc, in the specifically weird sub-sub-genre of participatory science performance drawing on complexity theory and resilience thinking?
It has to be. It has to be, because, as Mick Bailey once said, never have a plan b.
So I wrote a list of things to try, questions to ask, hypotheses to test, that circle around, ‘Who would pay for the sort of work I do? Under what circumstances would they pay for it? How much would they pay for it? How frequently could I expect those sorts of opportunities to arrive? Can I live off that much money?’
Now it’s a year later, and I’m in London, trying to make this city work for me, trying to answer these questions in this context. I’ve spent four months as Associate-in-Residence with Coney (concluding at the end of August), working on my own systems gaming stuff which has grown out of Boho’s work in this field, as well as doing some small commissions work for Coney.
London’s a good place to try to answer these questions. It’s no better or worse than anywhere else in the world, but if you’re an artist working with scientists, it’s easier here than a lot of other places. There are many, many arts and cultural institutions here that create a full-blown arts ecology, crowded and dense, with many many places where a person can carve out a niche. And, bluntly, there’s money. It’s expensive to live here, but there’s money moving through this system, and people willing to try new things and ready to experiment. So all of that is helpful.
I have no answers to any of these questions, but the people here are great and I’m enjoying it, so there’s that. Good sunsets. A cafe near Bethnal Green overground station where old Turkish men drink coffee late at night and talk over the top of each other. Bhangra and grime blasting out of car windows. Bright moments.
And then meanwhile, in the midst of this, Kill Climate Deniers won the Griffin Playwrights Award! This was exciting, this I am so, so grateful for. Conscious of how, because I got lucky this time around, how many other playwrights missed their turn. But grateful, still. Lucky, happy, relieved, grateful.
But of course, winning an award like that can also knock you around, if you’re not careful. Something like that (for a personality like mine) can fool you into thinking that things are going to get easier from here on out. Like you’ve just been let off the hook, and from here on out you’re not going to have to struggle to get your work out into the world.
I think I subconsciously subscribe to the idea of some kind of professional finish line, whereby winning an award means ‘I’ve done it, I’m through, I can relax’. Intellectually I know it doesn’t work like that, but at some level, getting a nod of acknowledgment like the Griffin Award was like a signal to take my foot off the accelerator.
Bad news and rejection knocks you around but good news can also insidiously trip you up and make you lose focus on the real shit.
The real shit, which is, roughly: shut out the noise and the poison and just write.
The summary of my five year plan was basically: ‘Find a way to exist in the world that lets me make theatre, keep writing, with all the good people, and keep going, doing good and not causing harm.’
Chatting with Charlie Sofo many years ago about how well he was doing with exhibitions and projects at that time, I asked him whether he was succeeding. He said, ‘Success is if you keep going, failure’s if you stop.’
I like that framing a lot. It’s simple, but there’s something in it I didn’t consider at the time, which is that to ‘keep going’ gets harder / trickier / more expensive as you go along. The cost of being an artist rises over time, because as you improve, your standards go up, and the time and energy (and money) it takes to create a work that exceeds your last work increase all the time. And at the same time, your friends and peers are settling into real lives, real jobs, earning real money, achieving real life milestones, and you’re still… well.
So, when I won the Griffin Award, I had a bunch of chats with Glyn Roberts, now returned from Brisbane to Victoria, to take on directing the Castlemaine Festival. One day I’ll write down in one place all the snippets of advice and insights Glyn has given me (it’s Glyn who told me a couple of years ago to ‘stop writing plays’ as a way to make it as a playwright – I need to expand that out into a post in its own right) – in this instance, he pointed out that winning a prize like Griffin does very little on its own. You can do things with that award, it could be leverage in trying to get up certain projects or broker conversations with certain people, but as a thing in itself, it’s inert. You put it on your CV, on your website, you go on the list of previous winners on Griffin’s website, and then that’s it, unless you make that not be it.
And so, this is the eternal picking myself up off the floor and telling myself to return to the writing. Back to the real work. There are a million posts like this in the decade I’ve been writing this blog, countless attempts to tell myself, ‘Finig if you keep going you can keep going, if you don’t you can’t’. Countless links to this Out Hud song that starts with a weary voice saying, ‘Okay, let’s do the next one.’
It’s Sunday night in London and the sky’s darkening over the apartment blocks, listening to Out Hud, hope you’re all fighting, keep fighting
This is a very simple blog post, a surfacing just to say that I’ve been working, but not on anything that deserves much mention here.
I’ve been in London, more or less continually since I last wrote, and working as close to a 9-5 job as I’ve ever worked, as Associate-in-Residence for Coney. What that means, in practice, is two things:
I’m working on a line of new systems games – scenarios and activities to take into businesses (and schools) which illustrate different aspects of complex problems and decision-making. I’ve made a couple of rough prototypes, they’re at an early scratch stage, I think it’s going well…?
pic from a scratch of one of these new systems games
Alongside with these few games that I’m researching and building, I’m also working on a cluster of small commissions for Coney – small partner organisations who want games made for particular events, for particular audiences… They’re not huge projects but there are lots of them.
Between them, that’s been most of my output over May – June – July. So I have that sense of nervousness / frustration that comes from not having written anything real for a few months. But then, that sensation is really my normal headspace. My writing practice is so patchy, in all honesty (and I can say that now having spent so much time with realler writers who work in a consistent flow and who write no matter what the season), that I can’t ever complain about circumstances keeping me from writing.
I have a few notepad files full of notes, a cluster of quotes about sea level rise and the Bassian plain, a plan for a work entitled Are You Ready To Take The Law Into Your Own Hands?, and that’ll do for the moment.
An update! Where I am, what I’m doing, how it’s going.
I arrived in London about three weeks ago, and I’m here for the next few months. My main gig while I’m here is that I am Associate in Residence for Coney. That means I’m working full-time with Coney for the next few months, up until the end of summer, taking on a few small commissions and projects for the company, but also developing a new line of work: a line of systems gaming activities to be delivered to schools and businesses.
What that looks like in practice will emerge over the next couple of months; I’m currently developing the prototype offer, and we’re chatting with some potential partners to help us test it out. That will be my main focus, and it’s super exciting.
And, I spent last week in Vienna at the European Geoscientists Union General Assembly. This is a huge gathering of 14,500 earth system scientists, and it acts as a kind of survey of the current limits of humanity’s understanding of our planet. It was a pretty incredible space to be in, and I’ve written about it in a form which I will share soon.
I was there thanks to the Earth Observatory of Singapore, speaking about Boho’s upcoming collaboration with them to develop a new game looking at a natural hazard crisis. I gave a presentation about Boho’s work, including showing off the coin game from the beginning of A Prisoner’s Dilemma – a 10 year old trick now, but it still works beautifully.
Upon arriving in London, I did a short three-night run of Kill Climate Deniers at Camden Peoples Theatre. That was lovely, and a really fascinating set of performances, too – translating the work to a UK context is a really interesting challenge.
And, finally, I’m curating and presenting a scratch night for Coney at Theatre Deli on Saturday 20 May. Simon Katan, Heather Barnett, Rhiannon Armstrong, Segen Yosife and Afreena Islam will all be presenting, and I’m going to do a short snippet myself – I think a little bit of the work I’m developing about Doug Cocks and his work, particularly his influence on Boho’s Food for the Great Hungers.
So London is hectic. I spent today just sitting in my bedroom in Stratford, writing. And at the end of the day it doesn’t feel like I’ve done very much, but we’re getting there, we’re getting there.