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Putting Mistakes at the Heart of your Practice

There aren’t many moments in a creative career which you can identify as an actual breakthrough. Improvements come gradually, countless tiny adjustments, accumulating over years into something meaningful.

Every so often, though, you stumble on something that transforms your practice, immediately. A new method, a different perspective, a solution which opens up interesting new problems…

Vampire Play, 2004.

In 2004 I was developing a new script entitled Vampire Play for Bohemian. I had the bones of a script, some scene outlines and a few fragments of dialogue. In the room with the actors, I gradually fleshed this out into a proper script.

In one scene, enthusiastic vampire George Bekken describes a plan to ambush and kill several human commuters. My notes for the scene read: ‘Bekken describes her plan for the ambush. It is complicated, with heaps of strategy and tactics.’

I had planned to spend some time devising Bekken’s complicated plan in order to write this monologue, but I never got around to it. At the last minute, in a fit of laziness, I gave up and wrote:

bekken – Guys! This is the first ambush ever made by the Vampire Gang. We’re gonna do the most complicated plan, with heaps of strategy and tactics.

Surprisingly, this complete cop out worked (at least, as well as anything else in the play). None of the actors even seemed to notice – except Jack, who said (not unappreciatively), ‘You cheating bastard.’

This was a gamechanger for me. I had so many great ideas for plays that I had abandoned because to do them justice would require more skill than I had. Now I realised: I didn’t need to do them justice.

You don’t need research. You don’t need careful development. Screw careful writing. Put the ideas straight into the work, raw and unformed. Don’t worry that they’re clunky and half-baked: make a point of it. Celebrate it!

From this point on, highlighting mistakes and drawing attention to weaknesses became a core part of my creative tooklit.

Rather than avoiding extravagant setpieces in my work, I started doubling down on them. I stopped worrying about how to stage the scripts I wrote, and left all the practical stuff to directors and designers.

The unexpected solutions people found to these staging problems were usually the best parts of the show, so I started experimenting with increasingly impossible demands.

I stopped trying to find connecting threads between the disparate ideas in my scripts, and gave myself permission to include whatever idea excited me in the moment, regardless of whether or not it logically ‘fit’. I let contrasting elements sit together in my work without justification.

This can be powerful. As humans, we’re wired to look for connections and patterns. If you place two ideas next to each other in a work, sooner or later a connection will emerge. Maybe a collaborator or audience member will point out a relationship you never spotted. These links are usually more interesting than the ones you made consciously.

I took a lot of inspiration from reading an early draft of Declan Greene’s Pompeii LA. Declan had started the project with a tumblr blog, a scrapbook of child star-related links, articles and videos, anything that caught his eye. The script wasn’t a scrapbook, but in some ways it felt like one. Fragmentary scenes from cheap TV talk shows ran up against surreal lyric monologues about volcanoes.

When I saw the final version at the Malthouse several years later, it had grown sharper and cleaner, but I felt like part of its strength was the eclectic, weird web of ideas it was grounded in.

Making science-theatre, I used to endlessly worry about my work feeling like a lecture. I used to go to huge lengths to carefully conceal any science ideas. And then I finally figured out the solution: I stopped worrying about it.

In his review of the Kill Climate Deniers solo show, Keith Gow says:

How do you tell the story of climate catastrophe on stage without it feeling like a lecture? You run toward the science, challenge the media and make it a lecture. And combine it with a dance party.

To summarise: ‘How do you tell the story of climate catastrophe on stage without it feeling like a lecture? You… make it a lecture.’

 This may look like a lecture, but it is, in fact, a lecture. Pic by Bryony Jackson.

It turns out, the problem is actually the solution.

This is an endlessly flexible strategy. Make a list of the problems and flaws in your current project. Don’t try to solve them. Highlight them. Celebrate them!

These things are impossible to quantify, but I feel like this is the trick that’s allowed me to stay in the game.

I’ve never been the most talented playwright, nor the most hardworking and dedicated. Plenty of my peers are more skilled writers of dialogue and character, more able to connect with audiences emotionally.

I’ve managed to remain in the game partly because I’ve been able to turn my weaknesses into stylistic features – part of my aesthetic.

The problem with this approach, of course, is that it lets you off the hook. Making a feature of your flaws can absolve you of the need to address them. Over a long period, it can stifle your creative development.

My writing craft is, frankly, not where I want it to be.

At this stage of my career, at age 35, I think the actual content of my writing is more interesting than ever before. But my grasp of the fundamental skills of playwriting is patchier than it should be. There are things I just can’t write that I wish I could.

Characters: How do you make them? Dialogue with more than two people: How do you script it? Realism (aka the most popular performance form of this era): What even is that?

I’m thinking about how to go forwards from here, continuing to use the tricks and techniques which have worked for me, but expanding my palette and building my skills. I have a long way to go.

I guess we all have a long way to go.

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Life business. A few weeks left in London, and I’m doing a couple of performance sharings.

On Monday 15 October I’m giving a talk about Sipat Lawin and the Battalia Royale project, and also chatting a little bit about Are You Ready To Take The Law Into Your Own Hands. JK Anicoche is joining remotely (skype willing) and Tassos Stevens is chairing – head here for details.

On Tuesday 16 October I’m doing a little sharing of a new project which right now is just going by the name Objects. RSVP here for details.

Speaking of Sipat: the rest of the crew just completed a residency for Gobyerno in Kinosaki, Japan – a realignment and exploration for the next stage of this project (as well as doing an adorable Gobyerno for kids workshop).

And in Australia, Boho is rolling out a set of workshops this month, for the Torres Strait Island Research Council, and the SafeWork NSW Conference. As ever, check out the website if you’d like to inquire.

The pleasure of bad reviews

This week I’ve been thinking about the value of bad reviews.

One thing I wish for every artist starting out is to get some really punishing reviews. If possible, before they get a positive mention.

My first shows, with Bohemian and then with Opiate, got a string of bad reviews. For years – probably the first four years of making work, from 2001 – 2005 – I don’t think we got a single good review.


Jack Lloyd, Mick Bailey, Nick Johnson and me, 2001. I still think about that jumper.

In retrospect, this being pre-social media, it was probably inevitable. The only review space in Canberra was the newspapers, and the reviewers at the arts desks were definitively not the audience for the kind of murky half-formed sci-fi theatre we were making. Maybe if there’d been an online space for our friends and peers to write reviews or share their opinions, there would have been a different feeling.

But maybe not. I mean the blunt fact was that the stuff we / I was writing was mostly not very good. I got a lot of reviews saying things like ‘wordy’, ‘clunky’, ‘lost and confused’…

And I think this was actually really valuable. First of all, because it meant I didn’t rely on validation from anyone outside the community. I learned that the only people whose opinions mattered were the fellow makers I was striving alongside and against.

Canberra at that time was a community of people supporting each other, competing with each other and learning from each other. If Hadley or Na Milthorpe or Chrism Rooks pulled some new trick out of the bag, that was a prod to the rest of us to up our game, at the same time as it was an achievement to be talked over and celebrated. We pushed each other to be the best we could be, and if you slipped or were lazy, then you’d hear about it, honestly, from your disappointed friends. The opinion of an outsider – usually much older – meant fuck all in that picture. Another bad Canberra Times review? Add it to the pile.

That was Canberra independent theatre in the 2000s, but I suspect the same applies to just about every creative community everywhere, especially when you’re starting out. You find your community, or you build it, and then you learn together, from each other.

Secondly, these bad reviews were useful because they let me know that my work was bad. Not in a rebellious fuck-the-man kind of way, just in the sense of being not very good.

A bad review is never fun to receive (well, very occasionally). Mostly they just sap your energy and positivity. Sometimes they fuck up the dynamics in a group by singling one artist out for praise and another for criticism. Every so often they teach you something useful about your work. Mostly they’re just a kind of heavy emotional weather you have to sail through.

It was really helpful for me to learn, right at the beginning of my career, how to put my head down and proceed ahead against the prevailing winds.

Positive comments came very, very slowly. I remember a review for Vampire Play which said, after a withering description of the content of the show, ‘Opening night audiences found this all very funny.’ Which, when I squinted at it the right way, felt like a grudging acknowledgment that even though the reviewer didn’t enjoy any of it… the show was working?


Gina Guirguis and Max Barker in Vampire Play (2004). Pic by ‘pling.

A reviewer once called my work ‘polarising’. Which is not a compliment, but you can take it as one. Another critic said, ‘At its best, David Finnigan’s mind is like a bowl of noodles’ – & who doesn’t like noodles?

When I performed a spoken word piece at the Nuyorican Cafe in New York, the MC remarked afterwards, ‘This performance has really made me consider how unprepared I am in the case of a medical emergency at one of these events.’ That remark kept me going for months.

I feel bad for young artists who are acknowledged and celebrated early. A good review is intoxicating, and to get that endorphin hit early would be addictive – and destabilising. If I’d somehow had a hit show early on, I would have spent years and years trying to recreate that formula – and you never can.

You can really fuck a young artist up by calling them ‘talented’ or ‘promising’. I’m grateful no-one ever lauded me like that (not anyone who sat through w3 w3lcome the future, anyway). Instead, by the time I had a genuinely successful piece of theatre, I had a solid history of practice behind me, and I wasn’t desperate to repeat the same tricks.

Now I’m middle-aged, I can see how scarce critical culture is, how few professional critics are operating out there, how vital that piece of the puzzle is. Robyn Archer described critics as ‘the third leg of the tripod’ (alongside artists and audiences). These days I’m hungry for reviews, especially intelligent, sharp, critical ones. The idea of the smartest people in the room tearing my stuff apart is the most exciting, empowering thing I can think of. These days I have a list of favourite critics who I’m hoping to one day get bad reviews from.

A good review is froth on the daydream – it’s a good buzz for a couple of hours but it doesn’t amount to much in the real world. And a bad review can’t stop you – and if it can’t stop you, it can’t hurt you.

So this is what I know about myself, this is the mantra.

1. I was very bad when I started.
2. I’m a little better now.
3. If I keep at it for another 40 years or so, I will be quite good.

That’s all.

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Life / art stuff: It’s late September 2018. I’m in London until the end of October, living my best life as Coney’s associate-in-residence. Three small things to mention:

1. Jordan Prosser and I recently released a short spoken word EP, recorded in Munich in June when we were rehearsing CrimeForce: LoveTeam. Some reflective poetry, including a beautiful piece by Jordan entitled Dear Dr Karl, all set to some beautiful unreleased Fossil Rabbit tunes.

2. This October in London I’m doing a few small shows and sharings. On Monday 1 October I’m presenting a 10 minute piece at Camden Peoples Theatre as part of their scratch night.

On Tuesday 16 October I’m doing a scratch performance of a brand new piece I’m working on with the working title of Objects. Over the last few months I’ve been interviewing scientists and thinkers, and asking them to each choose an object that they think represents something interesting about the Anthropocene and the huge changes happening in the world today. I’ll be sharing a couple of these objects and would love some thoughts.

6.30 – 7.30pm Tuesday 16 October
Location TBC

3. On Monday 15 October I’ll be presenting a short talk / performance about Sipat Lawin at Toynbee Studios. I’ll be discussing the Battalia Royale project, and also Sipat’s more recent work including Gobyerno and Are You Ready To Take The Law Into Your Own Hands? I’ll be joined remotely by Sipat director JK Anicoche, technology willing.

6.30pm Monday 15 October
Toynbee Studios Cafe, Commercial Street, near Aldgate East


Battalia Royale. Pic by Gibbs Cadiz.

4. 2019 is approaching and who knows what I’ll be doing? NOT ME, PAL. If you have any thoughts, suggestions or interesting offers, drop me a line.

Starting new projects / wrestling with ghosts

 A pic that Jordan took while we were in Munich. This captures my headspace well rn. Pic by Mr J Prosser.

Crowded London headspace. What’s the word for it, that feeling where your mind’s just an open deck of cards being shuffled by the city, and you do your best thinking with your eyes kept low to the ground and the horizon’s always just a few centimetres away or there’s no horizon at all, everything’s just always spinning into the fog?

It hasn’t been as busy or intense as it could be / has been / will be, but you know the sensation of casting your mind back to recall what you’ve been doing all month, and all you can see is waves breaking over pebbles.

It’s August 2018. Here’s my interesting challenge of the moment: How do I prioritise and drive my work forward without a specific pressing deadline or any particular momentum around a project?

Now that CrimeForce is done, and Kill Climate Deniers has receded well into the background, I’ve got a bundle of projects at various early stages. And this is exciting! In a way. These projects could become anything, there’s no limits on them, my imagination is the only constraint, I can dream big, I can make them into whatever I choose, etc etc.

Of course, it doesn’t feel like that. What it feels like is that there’s no energy around the work – no-one’s asking for them, no-one’s clamouring to read these scripts or jockeying for the right to present these shows, and so it’s hard to believe in them myself.

I suspect the reality is somewhere in between. There are people who might care about these works, there are contexts that might suit them, if I really threw myself at the task of connecting with those people. But that’s not the priority: what really matters right now is finding the energy to make these works good – or even to make them exist.

Because my entire creative and professional life is based around projects, and because of the jagged and varied nature of those projects, my calendar and schedule is always all over the place. When I’m in delivery mode for a script, or a game, or a show, it’s hectic and demanding and swallows up all my energy and thinking. When I emerge from the other side, I then have to figure out what I’m doing with myself, and how best to shape my time.

I think of myself as continually returning to square one. Every few weeks, it feels like, I have to go back to the basics and figure out what I want, and how to go about getting it. In some ways that’s great – it means I never, ever get caught in a rut. (Sometimes I fantasise about how nice a rut sounds, the sheer delight of getting bored.) I’m always going back to first principles, recalibrating myself and starting again.

After 18 years of this, you’d think I’d be better at it – but it’s always a jolt to find myself with an empty tasklist, unsure about what to do next, what’s most important and where to begin.

New projects never fare well in that mix. I find myself tinkering with the existing projects, where the jobs are simpler and more clearly defined, rather than diving in to grapple with the vague, ill-defined jobs at the beginning of something new. An item like ‘Check Kill Climate Deniers website is compatible with new Google search crawlers’ is clear, defined and easy to tackle. An item like ‘Figure out Reincarnation Play’… what even does that entail?

New projects are vague and loose ideas, to begin with. In order to condense into something more meaningful and structured, they need time spent on them just thinking. And ‘sit and think’ is always gonna be less urgent than other tasks, which  means that new projects run the risk of never getting past the vague idea stage.

The same goes for ‘write new draft’, ‘research origins of patriarchy’, ‘type up notes from late night dancefloor’ and so on. And the upshot is that new projects don’t get created – or at least, they take far longer than they should to get to the stage of being tested, put on the floor, scripted and/or pitched.

This is where, for performing artists, festivals come in super handy. Any festival – from the sleaziest, cheapest fringe festival on up – provides you with a place and a time by which you need to have manifested an idea into something.

But right now I’m trying to do better, just by myself. I’ve got some ideas that I’m trying to condense into actual work, like those fog farms in Chile condense mist into drinking water. And no-one cares whether these new ideas happen or not, or whether they happen by any particular date. But like Sarah Walker said, ‘self-imposed deadlines are the most satisfying to hit’.


Chilean fog farm = the creative process. Photo by Nicole Saffie.

So this is the deal. I have two new playscripts – 44 Sex Acts In One Week and End Science Now – both of them dope as hell, and I’m breaking the Glyn Roberts rule and working on them myself, without any company attached. Fuckit. When I’m done they’ll be the best things I’ve ever written.

I’ve got two new schemes for performances to present: one a solo piece which I’m calling, for now, The First Thousand Objects. I’m gonna scratch 10 minutes at Camden Peoples Theatre at the beginning of October, but the performance date isn’t the most important deadline for me – the real achievement will be tying off a bunch of research and completing some interviews for it.

The other piece sits in a conversation with Ness Roque, and that’s a whole other performance form which I need to learn more about before diving in: learning about a performance form is a deadline in itself.

And I’m chewing through a new thread of text to go into the next Sex Play development with Anthea and Sarah. I know that whatever I end up producing probably won’t end up in the final show itself, but trying to navigate the complex threads of this topic in written form is the best challenge and is teaching me a lot.

But of course just doing the writing and the making isn’t enough – it never is. There are problems to be solved about navigating the systems of production to give your work an outlet, and those problems demand as much creativity and inspiration as any of the other parts. I’ve got some thinking to do there too. But right now, the goal is just to make.

Things don’t want to become good. Draft scripts like being bad, they seem to enjoy it. Ideas are happy to not take concrete shape. Nothing interesting wants to exist. So, I think, we’re wrestling with ghosts.

Which is a strange profession to be in.

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More news-y update:

I was in Munich with Bec in June, working mostly on CrimeForce: LoveTeam, but with a little bit of new writing in amongst it. Jordan came for the last week, and we finished making that show, writing, rehearsing. Then to London, Nickamc joined us, and we hammered out a week of hard rehearsals before FutureFest at the beginning of July. 6 shows in 2 days on a hot weekend at Tobacco Dock, we got to know CrimeForce very well, and it was good, it was good.

Sam Burns-Warr. Image by Sacha Bryning.

And in the midst of that process, Jordan and I recorded a little spoken word recording – a Munich EP! – to be released very soon. Little bright stories in the green German summer, with some new Fossil Rabbit songs accompanying them.

Then it was dropping back into Coney stuff. My official day-job, as much as I do anything that you could describe that way, picking up pace rapidly. A hectic month, and that’s not slowing down any time soon. My proudest achievement there was a systems map of the world of job automation – always satisfying to drill down into a bundle of research and turn it into a gameable schematic.

But in amongst that, I was able to finish a new draft of 44 Sex Acts. Which has made me inordinately happy, because as ridiculous as this script is, it now has some scenes, some images, some exchanges in it that I’m really happy about. I’m still not great at writing characters, which is something you really need in order to make a romantic comedy work, but we’ll get there.

And lastly, I ran a workshop at Arte Urbana’s scriptwriting village in Bozhentsi, Bulgaria. A lovely few days in the Eastern European mountains outside of Sofia, with a lovely group of mentors and practitioners. But my workshop! I guess I overthought it, went through three different drafts of what I’d do with my three hours, and in the end it was… somewhere in between lecture and workshop, and not quite satisfying enough as either.

 Me chatting in Bozhentsi, while Daniel Bye looks on. Pic by Dimitar Uzunov.

It’s an interesting skill, teaching. You can be a good maker and not know how to teach (I hope), and you can be a good teacher and a terrible maker (I believe). How much do the two correlate? What do students need? How do you give them enough to guide and provoke them without overwhelming them?

I’d like to be a better teacher, whatever that entails. I’d like to be able to condense the little tricks and tips I’ve learned along the way into something I can communicate more clearly. But that’s another challenge, another project, another arc. Either way, on this occasion I think I learned more from the students than I gave them. Maybe it’s always this way.

Workshop participants smashing out their fourth press conference in a game of Press Conference Every Minute. Pic by Dimitar Uzunov.

In the future, everyone will murder a boy band member.

 The most popular boy band in 2050. Pic by Sacha Bryning.

I’ve just spent a few hours trying to get over a tricky speedbump in the writing of CrimeForce: LoveTeam, so I feel like now might be a good time to ease back and reflect slightly.

First of all, what is CrimeForce: LoveTeam?

In simple terms, it’s a participatory performance lecture by Jordan Prosser and myself which uses a scenaric futures lens to look at the future of pop music (specifically, the future of boy bands) and the future of the justice system. We’re about to launch the first major public outing of the work at Nesta’s FutureFest in London this July, with Nick McCorriston on board as our future-pop composer and DJ, and Sacha Bryning illustrating our storyboards.

What actually does any of the above paragraph mean? I know, it’s a lot. But in short: Jordan and I have created a Law and Order-style crime thriller, set in the future, about the murder of a boy band member.

It’s 2050. Britain’s police force has recently been renamed the CrimeForce, and the biggest pop group in the world today is a teenage boy band called LoveTeam. In a penthouse suite overlooking the city of London, the body of Kevin LoveTeam has just been found – bludgeoned to death.

Now, the race is on for CrimeForce detectives McAuley and Prosser to crack the case and find Kevin’s killer, before they strike again.

McAuley and Prosser’s investigation will lead them from grimy black market shanty-towns to opulent charity balls, from the dark criminal underworld to the glittering heights of pop stardom, and bring them face to face with the sinister reality behind the pop music facade.

Jordan and I have been working on this project together since 2016, when we did a 3-month research residency at Carlton Connect in Melbourne looking into the practice of ‘scenaric futures’. It’s been simmering for me even longer – since my 2014 Churchill Fellowship research trip brought me face-to-face with the world of Futures Studies and Experiential Futures.

But FutureFest will be the first public outing for the work. This first iteration will be a live performance, with Jordan and I telling the whole story between us as a two-hander. Mixed in with the detective story are brief lecture interludes, which unpack some of the science behind the story, and some samples of speculative future pop songs, performed by composer and sound artist Nick McCorriston.

It’s an introduction to some of the big discoveries in the world of molecular biology and music production, and what these discoveries might mean for our criminal justice system or for how we access and experience music. It’s a science lecture, a pop concert and a classic episode of Law and Order all in one.

 More or less.

So far so good. But there’s one more key element: this is not a show about the future, this is a show about how we think about the future.

Thinking about the future is hard. Really hard. We’re bad at thinking about next week, let alone next decade.

Scientists working in the realm of Futures Studies have developed critical thinking tools to help them grapple with the future. One of the key tools is the idea of the Scenaric Viewpoint. This is what Jordan and I are trying to share in this work.

The key idea underpinning this whole practice is: We can’t predict the future.

The future doesn’t exist. It hasn’t happened yet.

So rather than being about predicting, the scenaric approach is about creating future scenarios to ‘give you more options in the continually evolving present’. I won’t go into the theory here, but in practice, futurists create multiple different future scenarios. You can have as many alternative futures as you like – but in practice, scientists tend to limit themselves to just a few. In fact, usually, just four.

In fact pretty much always: four.

Again, I won’t go into the reasoning here, but if you look at different forecasts by government agencies, research bodies, the military, the IPCC and so on, they have four alternative scenarios.

Jordan and I did the same. We created four alternative future scenarios for London in the year 2050. In each scenario, we imagine different decisions by individuals and countries that might result in very different worlds. In each scenario, the justice system, youth culture, politics, music and fashion have all taken very different forms.

In each of the four scenarios, Kevin LoveTeam is murdered and Detectives McAuley and Prosser are sent to investigate. We meet the same characters and follow the same rough journey (every episode of Law and Order meets the same characters and follows the same rough journey), but in each version the world itself is different. And in only one of the four future scenarios do the detectives catch the killer.

It’s up to the audience to make sure that that’s that future we end up in.

————

This all sounds like a lot, but in practice, this has involved A LOT of Jordan, Nick and I discussing and listening to the history of boy bands and chart pop, and watching a lot of Law and Order. Nickamc has composed a series of alternative future pop anthems for us, and the show does conclude with a boy band live concert finale, because of course.

I’ve written a bit about the future of pop music for the Future Centres blog here, if you’re curious, and Jordan dove into the reasons why Law and Order provides a great tool for thinking about the future on the Nesta blog.

But the main thing I’ll leave you with is that the Backstreet Boys’ 2013 documentary Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of is a brilliantly constructed piece of cinema, and the Backstreet Boys’ new single Don’t Go Breaking My Heart is better than you’d probably expect.

First four months of 2018

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.

Back to Australia for christmas/new years, and then in early January, I got on a plane to Singapore with Nikki, Nathan, Rachel, Muttley and Gillian, for a month-long development of a new work at Earth Observatory Singapore, Nanyang Technological University.

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.

Kill Climate Deniers: staging an unstageable play

Bec Massey as Gwen Malkin. Pic by Brett Boardman.

In the last few weeks in Sydney, the Griffin Theatre Company busted out the first full-scale production of Kill Climate Deniers. FORTY FIVE shows. A massive undertaking.

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 for  2018, 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’:

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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.

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 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.

2017 in review

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

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

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

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

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

November – Back to London, more Coney.

December – Manila, working with Sipat Lawin.

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

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

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

Here goes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 2017 in London, a good old-fashioned barrage

95 Years or Less, pic by Ben Jones.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

95 Years or Less, pic by Ben Jones.

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

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

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

What did we learn?

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

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

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


95 Years or Less, pic by Ben Jones

 

Four weeks in October, four new script drafts

in Sweden, pic by Nikki Kennedy

Here are four new things and a bit of thinking.

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

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

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

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

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

What I did:

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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