100 Aussie plays in 100 days
Cristin Kelly is an AustralianPlays.org guest blogger
American dramaturg Cristin Kelly set herself a challenge that was guaranteed to bring her up to speed with Australian culture. She read (or watched) an Australian play every day for 100 days. Here are her thoughts on reaching the end of the project...
The goal for reading 100 plays was simple, if idealistically ambitious: to be conversant in classic and modern Australian theatre. I’m sorry to say that none of my background in theatrical history glanced upon Australia, and as a new arrival, I realised that I had quite the learning curve. One hundred plays seemed enough to at least get me knee-deep in Australian theatre.
As I read, I found that the styles of American and Australian plays are not so different, even if the tones and themes sometimes varied. Strong emergent themes included the harshness of outback life, Indigenous vs. European culture clashes, discrimination towards immigrants, the mistreatment of children, the refugee crisis, and the disenchantment of modern youth. Universal themes of love, family, and personal struggle were, of course recurrent, as well. These are the issues that seem to have captured the conscience and imagination of Australian playwrights.
Strong emergent themes included the harshness of outback life, Indigenous vs. European culture clashes, discrimination towards immigrants, the mistreatment of children, the refugee crisis, and the disenchantment of modern youth.
I feel that I read significantly more dramas than comedies, and without access to the music, I did not attempt any musicals. I made a conscious decision from the start to read equal numbers of plays by female and male playwrights. Some of the plays I’ve read I liked more than others, naturally, but all have given me pieces of insight. I have learned a headful of colorful Australian slang along the way, too!
People often asked where I was able to get so many Australian plays, and I owe a debt of gratitude to a few sources, including Currency Press, Playwriting Australia, Van Badham, Ben Ellis, Vanessa Bates, and David Williams at Version 1.0. I am also grateful to a number of people on Twitter and Facebook who offered many recommendations, most of which I got to, and a few that I still have on a list for the future (after an appropriately long break from reading plays).
Most of all, I give the utmost thanks to Australian Plays. I could not have conceived of this project without the brilliant Library Pass, which allowed me an endless playground of scripts. Their invitation for me to guest blog turned this from a small, personal goal into a public discourse. I am changed as a theatrical artist for having completed this project, and am heartened to know that others are being inspired to read, re-read and discourse on some of this great catalogue of work, as well.
—Cristin Kelly, November 2011
100 Aussie plays in 100 days
As I thought about what play to finish the project with, the perfect choice came to me when reading the first pages of Belonging, a theatre history text by John McCallum. On Our Selection, based on stories by Steele Rudd, premiered in 1912 and was far and away the most popular early Australian work. In its first four years, according to McCallum, over one million people saw it, and it was in revival until the 30s. It is about a family on a bush 'selection' (plot of land given by the government), and the various adventures in their lives. The plotting is thin by today's standards, and it veers towards the melodramatic, but the real charm of the piece is in the colloquial dialect and the silly one-liners. It would be hard to produce this successfully today, but given its significance in theatre history, I would recommend that anyone in theatre could find something to like in reading it.
DAY 99 (28 November) - CASTING DOUBTS by Maryanne Sam
I was intrigued by the premise of this play and also in the mood to read a comedy today. The tone of the piece is light and farcical, but the themes are serious. Set in a casting agency, the main characters are Aboriginal actors who all struggle to find their place in the business. One gets cast often, but usually plays stereotypical 'tracker' roles, others try to walk the line between making a living and not selling out, while another struggles to get cast because he is seen as 'too white' for Aboriginal roles. Underneath the comedy, Sam pushes forth questions that are serious to the Australian arts community. It is a light read that presents an interesting perspective.
DAY 98 (27 November) - MORNING SACRIFICE by Dymphna Cusack
Morning Sacrifice is a 1942 play about teachers in a girls school. The social conventions and moral standards that both the teachers and students are expected to adhere to are examined with disdain by Cusack who points up the hypocricy, harshness, and out of date mores within the school culture. While the social issues within the play are dated, and sometimes seem melodramatic, the characters are sharp and the dialogue crisp. On the merits of the writing, it is certainly worth reading today and remembering as part of the Australian theatrical canon.
DAY 97 (26 November) - THE BOOK OF EVERYTHING by Richard Tulloch, adapted from a book by Guus Kuijer
The recent incarnation of this play came highly recommended, and I was sorry to have missed it due to traveling. It is a young adult play with appeal for both children and adults. The main character is a charmingly curious 'almost ten year old' boy who is learning to question the people and ideas around him. There is magic (including a few appearances by Jesus), as well as serious themes dealt with a light touch. It is a compact gem, and I do wish that I could have seen it.
DAY 96 (25 November) - BUMMING WITH JANE by Tahli Corin
Along with familiarising myself with classic Australian plays, I also wanted to get to know some of the newer and emerging voices. Tahli Corin is a Sydney-based writer, and this piece was part of the B Sharp program at Belvoir. The main characters are a couple who live a happily rag-tag life, taking turns holding jobs, dumpster diving for food, and six months behind on their rent. There's something charming and romantic about this life, until the realities of adulthood catch up with them. It is funny, lively, and gives a rich voice to people disenfranchised from the mainstream of society.
DAY 95 (24 November) - THE RAIN DANCERS by Karin Mainwaring
Set on a desolate outback farm, a mother and grown daughter are shaken when their husband/father returns after leaving to register the daughter's birth 25 years ago. What follows is a dark farce, which left me with an impression of what Sam Shepard might sound like if he were Australian.
DAY 94 (23 November) - HELLY'S MAGIC CUP by Rosalba Clemente
This piece is a full-length family play, which would appeal to both children and adults. It is a modern day riff on the Arthurian legend set on a drought-ridden farm. Helly, the young hero, thinks that she is the princess, but finds out along the way that she is actually the knight. She gets assistance from a dead cow and a chorus of insects. I knew right away that I would like the world of this play when I read the stage direction, "it is important that the insects are properly accented and speak in high chipmunk."
DAY 93 (22 November) - JULIA 3 by Michael Gurr
I come away from this play with conflicted feelings. On one hand, Gurr gives us a fantastic character in the lead role of Julia, a woman who has developed a clear but complex understanding of the world's problems, based on both her own experiences and her voraciously reading of the daily papers. Julia runs a foundation with her husband's considerable fortune and takes three of her recipients as lovers. The men, meeting for the first time at Julia's husband's funeral, provided little dramatic interest for me. Julia's story is engaging, and would be a great role for an actress. In my estimation, she would stand well on her own without the supporting players.
HIGHLIGHT: The Season at Sarsaparilla by Patrick White
© Sydney Theatre Company (image from the 2008 production)
DAY 92 (21 November) - MYTH, PROPAGANDA AND DISASTER IN NAZI GERMANY AND CONTEMPORARY AMERICA by Stephen Sewell
This is a play about the fluidity of truth in a post-911 America, which is both hyper-paranoid and wrought with injustice. At one point, the main character expresses one of the main ideas, "the more security we have, the less secure we feel." From reading a few reviews, I know that this play caused something of a stir when it premiered, but a few years down the road, the ideas seem less revolutionary. I also felt that the narrative got muddled in over-telling about two-thirds of the way through. Nonetheless, it is clearly the work of a skilled dramatist, and worth reading.
DAY 91 (20 November) - WHORE by Rick Viede
This play has been on my radar for awhile, though I can't pinpoint why. I think, perhaps, it is just hard not to notice a play with such an upfront title! It is about two young sex workers who have very different reasons for being in the profession. These characters are given a human face, so that they are not defined by their work. The main character says that the worst fate she can think of is to be a 'cliche', and Viedes saves these characters from that fate. It feels youthful and universal at once.
DAY 90 (19 November) - THE DROWNING BRIDE by Michael Futcher and Helen Howard
Futcher and Howard also wrote A Beautiful Life, which I read earlier. This play confirms their compassionate take on difficult stories. Both pieces involve immigrant families with dark pasts, and both highlight the challenges and importance of forgiveness. These plays are quite different in terms of story, but the thematic threads cannot be ignored. These ideas are ripe for exploration, especially in a country like Australia with such a large and growing immigrant population.
DAY 89 (18 November) - THE STORY OF THE MIRACLE AT COOKIE'S TABLE by Wesley Enoch
I loved Wesley Enoch's Black Medea, which I read earlier in this project, and have gotten very excited about his piece I Am Eora coming to the Sydney Festival, so I thought I'd read a bit more of Enoch's work. This piece is about traditions and stories passed down from one generation to another in an Indigenous family. In this play, stories are like a lifeblood. My favorite idea presented in the play is that we tell and hear the stories that we need. They can adapt, grow, or die over time, as the people do. I loved this story.
DAY 88 (17 November) - HOLY DAY by Andrew Bovell
Set in a frontier settlement in the mid-1850s, Holy Day explores the extreme personalities that inhabited such a desolate landscape, and the violent tensions and strife that existed between the white settlers and the Indigenous people. It is a violent and intensely drawn play that I found both hard to read, and dramatically compelling.
DAY 87 (16 November) - THE SEVEN NEEDS by 7-On
To wrap up my 7-On reading, I picked up a book I have had on my shelf for some time and read The Seven Needs, an evening of theatre based on the components of Maslow's hierarchy. Each of the 7-On playwrights wrote a short piece on the theme of one of the needs. They run the gamut stylistically and thematically, and the collection showcases the diversity of styles within this group. It w as a nice chance for me to get another perspective on each one of these authors.
DAY 86 (15 November) - PORN.CAKE by Vanessa Bates
Vanessa Bates was my final 7-On member to read, and she was nice enough to send me a copy of her play Porn.Cake. I devoured this quirky, funny concoction of a play, and expect that I'll go back and re-read it. I think that there are likely many interpretations one could take from this play, but the idea that stuck with me was the notion of how inundated with information we are, and how cynical we have become, as a result. Bates takes us into a playful, shifting realm where things do not turn out as the narrative in our unconcious expects that they should.
HIGHLIGHT: the latest by Vanessa Bates
© Malthouse Theatre (image from the 2011 production)
DAY 85 (14 November) - THE MOURNING AFTER by Verity Laughton
The first monologue play that I read for this project was A Stretch of the Imagination by Jack Hibberd, and it was ultra-masculine. This monologue is very nearly its feminine opposite. The heroine is a radio soap star whose life is changing immensely. In some ways, it reminded me of the British solo play Shirley Valentine, though the character in this piece is fully original. It has an optimistic tone and I found the character charming.
DAY 84 (13 November) - COLD HARVEST by Noelle Janaczewska
Noelle Janaczewska was one of the first playwrights who agreed to be interviewed for my blog, so I have some familiarity with her work, which I admire a great deal. A common theme in her work is the immigrant experience, and this play tackles an aspect of that. Rather than focusing on recent immigrants, the story is about the grown children of immigrants, and the need to know where they come from and why. The narrative is mostly linear, though non-traditional in presentation and the text has a musical quality to it. It is fun to imagine the creative ways it could be staged, and the sounds and images that might be weaved through.
DAY 83 (12 November) - LAST ONE STANDING by Ned Manning
My next 7-On writer is Ned Manning. I chose Last One Standing, a play about an ageing father and his adult children. One thing I liked about the narrative of this piece is that my allegiances shifted from scene to scene: I was never fully sure how much of the father's best interests each child had in mind, or whether the father's choices were wise, in light of his age. These issues are complex and emotional, particularly with family dynamics and past baggage, which Manning fluidly points up here.
DAY 82 (11 November) - THE DAPHNE MASSACRE by Donna Abela
Continuing on with the 7-On theme, I read this piece by Donna Abela. It is listed as a young adult play, though I felt that it would probably be tough for anyone under about 15. It sets up a world where women routinely have their teeth extracted before marriage. The metaphor is clear, pointing up some of the absurd rituals women go through to maintain cultural norms of beauty and fitting in. The main character has free-thinking tendencies, but the chorus of her society is a strong influence. I think Abela is reminding both women and men to question why we do things and who we do them for.
DAY 81 (10 November) - THE WHARF AT WOOLOOMOOLOO by Catherine Zimdahl
Catherine Zimdahl's The Wharf at Woolloomooloo is the story of a young female painter in Sydney just post-WWII. She struggles to find her unique voice, but can't help but become entangled with a pair of well-meaning, overzealous patrons. Putting her controversial work up for show, she discovers that society is decidedly not ready for what she has to say. I was most intrigued about the idea of how difficult it is for an artists, especially a woman, to come into her own voice.
DAY 80 (9 November) - MY VICIOUS ANGEL by Christine Evans
DAY 79 (8 November) - THE FLOATING WORLD by John Romeril
I have been meaning to get to John Romeril for some time. The Floating World is a sprawling play that took me a long time to read, though I suspect it would be fast-paced and perhaps even dizzying in performance. To try to briefly summarize the plot would be to do a disservice to the complexity of this play. Rather, it is worth mentioning the collage of styles, images, and waking dreams that collide in one huge play.
HIGHLIGHT: a 'sprawling' work by John Romeril
DAY 78 (7 November) - A BEAUTIFUL LIFE by Michael Futcher and Helen Howard
Focusing on the story of an Iranian immigrant family in Australia, this piece draws a comparison between the justice systems in Iran and Australia. When the father of the family, a refugee, is put on trial for a riot that broke out at the Iranian embassy, his lawyers and family have the sense that the prosecution is unjust. Scenes in Australia are juxtaposed with scenes from the father's past, which included a brutal stay in an Iranian prison. His past is one that he can never leave behind, but he perseveres with the belief that he is building a "beautiful life" in his new country, and that his treatment by the courts is just. With all of the terrible situations portrayed in this play, it is ultimately and uplifting and hopeful story.
DAY 77 (6 November) - BENCH by Hennie Taylor
As the title suggests, the play takes place on a bench - a park bench on which three older ladies meet. They have a territorial struggle, at first, but begin to realize that they are able to support each other. Each woman has developed a coping mechanism to help with the baggage they carry, and find resiliency in telling lies and carrying on with humor. There is a nice interplay between the characters that keeps this play moving. Looking over the plays I've read for this project, very few have dealt with elderly characters, so it is nice to read a script that is dealing with an underrepresented demographic.
DAY 76 (5 November) - LOVE ME TENDER by Tom Holloway
I continued on with another Tom Holloway play (this is actually the third one, since I started the project seeing his recent play, And No More Shall We Part). While I was not personally as moved by this play as I was by the other two, I did find a lot to ponder in the ideas explored. Moreover, I was struck by the unusual and free form architecture of the script. No characters are assigned to particular lines and there is no proposed number of cast members. What an amazing invitation to a director!
DAY 75 (4 November) - RED SKY MORNING by Tom Holloway
There is little that I want to say about this play's themes, style, or structure, lest I spoil the experience of going in without preconceptions like I did. All that I might say is that it is an unusually moving and profound piece of theatre, one that shook me on a deeply emotional level. This play is a stand out as one of the highlights of this project.
DAY 74 (3 November) - GOOD WORKS by Nick Enright
I was feeling a bit sleepy when I finally got to my reading, and, thankfully, this play was a perfect one to keep me alert. It is comprised of short non-linear scenes that piece together a 60-year story of how two generations of characters ended up who and where they are. The careful placement of clues and pieces of information kept the sense of mystery building.
DAY 73 (2 November) - THE PEACH SEASON by Debra Oswald
Someone on Twitter recommended Debra Oswald's The Peach Season to me. I liked the other play of hers that I read for this project, Mr. Bailey's Minder, so thought it would be a good bet. The thing that strikes me the most about Oswald's work is the richness and compassion with which she writes her characters, as if she cares for them and wants them to flourish, despite some pretty desperate backgrounds and circumstances. It is hard not to pull for everyone in these plays.
DAY 72 (1 November) - RAINBOW'S END by Jane Harrison
I finished the anthology of Indigenous Plays I've been reading over the last few days with Rainbow's End by Jane Harrison. It is about three generations of women in the 1950s. The world is slowly starting to open up for this family, as evidenced by the teenage daughter who has been able to go all the way through school and a set of encyclopedias that is slowly making its way into the home. The tug of the old problems is still keenly felt, though, with a housing crisis and some lurking family secrets. Quite a beautifully crafted play, with lively characters, humour, and subtle commentary.
As I mentioned earlier, this collection also contains David Milroy's Windmill Baby, which I saw recently, so am not reading for this project. It is an important play, which I highly recommend for anyone who has not yet read or seen it.
DAY 71 (31 October) - KING HIT by David Milroy and Geoffrey Narkle
This piece is a theatrical account of Geoffrey Narkle's young life. He grew up in a hard working, ambitious family until the government took he and his sisters away from his parents as part of the Stolen Generation. I feel that we gain much more empathy towards such tragedies when voice is given to the personal stories like this one. In the short forward, Narkle says that the process of writing and watching the play helped him heal from anger he took with him throughout his life.
HIGHLIGHT: Wesley Enoch's adaption of the Greek tragedy by Euripides
© Malthouse Theatre (image from the 2005 production)
DAY 70 (30 October) - BLACK MEDEA by Wesley Enoch
When I was in grad school, I did a class project on Medea, and had to read multiple translations and adaptations of the classic. I wish I had known about this piece back then because I think that it does exactly what a great adaptation should do: it maintains the familiarity of the original, but shows a modern audience why the play is still relevant. It is fiery and intense on the page, and I hope that someone will stage it again because I would jump at the chance to see it.
DAY 69 (29 October) - BITIN' BACK by Vivienne Cleven
Among my stacks of scripts, one book I was sure I wanted to get to was the Contemporary Indigenous Plays collection with five plays. I saw the recent production of David Milroy's Windmill Baby at Belvoir, but the rest are new to me. Today, I started with Bitin' Back by Vivienne Cleven. I love a well-constructed farce, and this one was rowdy and fun. There is also some social commentary, with a mother coming to terms with a son who wants to live his own life, not the one she has dreamed for him. For anyone who likes farce, this is a funny one, and thematically a bit different from a traditional romp.
DAY 68 (28 October) - TENDER by Nicki Bloom
This is a play with a mystery that never unravels itself. A man goes missing, and his wife cannot remember anything. His parents are wrought and have their suspicions. Scenes move around in time, so that we get increasingly more puzzle pieces, but large holes remain. The characters in this lyrical play are operating at their most vulnerable and honest, making for a raw, yet poetic, piece of theatre.
DAY 67 (27 October) - THE GOLDEN AGE by Louis Nowra
Having recently traveled to Tasmania, I was interested to read Louis Nowra's The Golden Age. This play is also one that has been most often suggested to me for this project. It is a well crafted and thoughtful play about a group of people found living in complete isolation for three generations in the woods of Tasmania. Set side by side with World War II, the play asks us to examine essential questions about our humanity and at what cost to ourselves and the world do we live the lifestyles we do.
After reading the play, I did a quick Google search and learned that there is actually a literary genre called Tasmanian Gothic. Now having seen a little bit of the beautiful and rather remote island, I can see how it would capture many authors' imaginations - including Nowra's.
DAY 66 (26 October) - THE DARK ROOM by Angela Betzien
In this piece, three pairs of people occupy one 'dark room,' and occasionally intersect. The most unusual thing about this play is the fluid nature of time and space, which is used to strong theatrical effect. I found it quite intriguing.
DAY 65 (25 October) - SALT CREEK MURDERS by Melissa Reeves
I so enjoyed the two plays by Melissa Reeves I read a few days ago, that I wanted to return to her work. Salt Creek Murders was unlike the other two pays I read, but also such a great read. It was easily one of the scariest and most suspenseful plays I have ever read, a great slow burn thriller.
DAY 64 (24 October) - MR BAILEY'S MINDER by Debra Oswald
Mr. Bailey is a cantankerous, alcoholic man who needs quite the feisty, energetic character to keep him in line. In steps Therese, a new caretaker, who has the tenacity to turn his life around. This is an energetic drama that deals with those memories that we can never move past. The two lead characters have a quick-witted interplay that made this a fast and sweet read.
DAY 63 (23 October) - A STRETCH OF THE IMAGINATION by Jack Hibberd
Solo actor plays are tricky. It takes a versatile actor playing a powerhouse character to make a full evening of a monologue, but when they work, I find them thrilling. This play's character, Monk O'Neill, is a most unusual character who reveals most aspect of his solitary existence - ups, downs, and the very mundane. This piece is full of theatrical action and is clearly written with the challenges of staging a one-person show in mind. For my taste, I think I would find it a bit rough to sit through because of Monk's hard edge, but I really appreciate the intricacy with which Monk is drawn and the inherently theatrical imagery in the play.
DAY 62 (22 October) - DIMBOOLA by Jack Hibberd
This play in a way reminded me of some of the rowdy, participatory plays that are popular in the US, such as Tony 'n Tina's Wedding or musical plays like Pump Boys and Dinettes and Oil City Symphony. It's a raucous party, and a bit hard to understand on the page, though I can imagine it is quite a lively theatrical experience.
DAY 61 (21 October) - GWEN IN PURGATORY by Tommy Murphy
Gwen is a 90-year-old woman, who has just been installed in a new house, full of gadgets she struggles to understand and populated with relatives who all have their own motivations. The moral of the story: be nice to your grandmother (and a bit patient as she tries to figure out her mobile phone).
DAY 60 (20 October) - FURIOUS MATTRESS by Melissa Reeves
After The Spook, I was happy to pick up another one of Melissa Reeves's plays. Furious Mattress has the intriguing theme of exorcism. I liked that she did not approach the subject with an aim to vilify the exorcists, but took a more theatrical approach. Like The Spook, the dialogue was funny and smart. I've really enjoyed getting to know her work.
DAY 59 (19 October) - THE SPOOK by Melissa Reeves
Focusing on a young man recruited to be a spy against the local Communist party, this quirky and sometimes sad play highlights just how sill the Communist 'witch hunt' was. I loved Melissa Reeves' funny and clippy dialogue and offbeat characters. It was a great read.
DAY 58 (18 October) - THE GIFT by Joanna Murray-Smith
Earlier in the project, I read Joanna Murray-Smith's The Female of the Species, which I did not especially care for. I knew it was stylistically a departure for her, so I wanted to read something that was more typical of her style. The Gift is a witty, thoughtful piece which I enjoyed very much. Though the often characters were sometimes hard to like and a bit broadly drawn, the questions that the play raises (which I can't discuss without giving too much away) and the crackling dialogue made this piece well worth the ride.
HIGHLIGHT: The Gift by Joanna Murray-Smith
© Melbourne Theatre Company (image from the 2011 production)
DAY 57 (17 October) - RUBY MOON by Matt Cameron
I don't always care ambiguous endings in plays because I feel that there should be a very good reason to leave the audience hanging. Ruby Moon was one of the better examples I've read of a play whose ambiguity enhances the main idea of the play: parents wonder what happened to their missing child, and they do not know who to trust or even what is reality. It was striking how similar these characters' journeys were in comparison to the true-life people chronicled in The Disappearances Project, which I read earlier. With both pieces, you are left to wonder how you can ever move on from the strange netherworld that is the mysterious disappearance of a loved one.
DAY 56 (16 October) - THE TATTY HOLLOW STORY by Dorothy Hewitt
Completing the Dorothy Hewett collection I've been reading, today's play was The Tatty Hollow Story. In Mrs Porter and the Angel, Tatty Hollow was the object of fascination, and lived in a broom closet. In this play, Tatty Hollow still enchants everyone she meets, and though all the other characters know her, she remains a mysterious character. A party of her former lovers come together because they feel they are being haunted by Tatty Hollow. Each has memories of the entrancing woman, and none can let her go. Ironically, no man can possess her, but neither does it seem that Tatty Hollow can ever stop looking for happiness in the adoration of men. The social commentary about the objectification of women remains bitingly relevant today.
DAY 55 (15 October) - THE CHAPEL PERILOUS by Dorothy Hewitt
The next play in my Dorothy Hewett collection was The Chapel Perilous, a partially autobiographical tale of a woman who sought to live life on her own terms, despite breaking many social taboos. Stylistically, the play might be called a collage - part Knight's tale, part Vaudeville, part social commentary, part musical theatre. The main character is seen at once as a hero and a flawed woman with sins that she must ultimately account for, not the least of which includes failing to follow her true calling of becoming a great writer. It was hard to separate the author from the play, as it seems as though Hewett laid herself bare in a most theatrical fashion. It's a brave and bold play.
DAY 54 (14 October) - MRS PORTER AND THE ANGEL by Dorothy Hewitt
Continuing on with the Dorothy Hewett collection, today's play was the absurdist romp, Mrs Porter and the Angel. It is a wild, hysterical, and shocking "modern fairy tale" that deals with the secret lives of academics. Stylistically, it is drastically different from the more naturalistic This Old Man Comes Rolling Home, but the common denominator is the poetic, musical language.
DAY 53 (13 October) - THIS OLD MAN COMES ROLLING HOME by Dorothy Hewitt
I have a collection of Dorothy Hewitt plays, and I am going to work my way through it over the next few days. This Old Man Comes Rolling Home is set in 1960s Redfern, and I was struck at how different is was from the Sydney I know today. It is the story of a family, but moreover, the story of a neighborhood. It is written in such a delicious dialect that the play is almost musical.
HIGHLIGHT: plays by the late Dorothy Hewett
DAY 52 (12 October) - THE BLACK SEQUIN DRESS by Jenny Kemp
I have to admit it: this play was my nemesis! I picked it up and put it down again repeatedly over the course of three or four days, continually opting for a different script. At last, I decided to work my way through it. I think the reason it was such a tough read is because it is more of a performance piece than a literary document. There is a good deal of visual narrative that is explained, but I found tough to imagine. I found myself looking at reviews and production photos to wrap my mind around the world of the play. I worked my way through the script, but know that I just scratched the surface of understanding. I am certain I would get much more out of seeing this play, rather than reading it.
DAY 51 (11 October) - PARRAMATTA GIRLS by Alana Valentine
This play is about a real state run home that institutionalized girls who were deemed problematic, either due to family circumstances or criminality (minor or major). In the play, a group of women return to the facility on an open day, prior to its closing. They remember the terrible treatment and abuse they received, and try to work their way to some kind of reconciliation with the past. I liked the structure of the play, in which time is fluid, because it effectively points up how the devastating acts from the past continue to haunt the present.
DAY 50 (10 October) - FOURPLAY by Jane Bodie
I was very excited tonight to see Jane Bodie's This Year's Ashes at Griffin, particularly because I have a little bit of history with the play, and am quite fond of it. Since I already knew this play, I decided that I wouldn't for this project, but opted instead to read one of Bodie's earlier plays, in honor. Fourplay is a romantic comedy, of sorts, with some very unusual circumstances. Like This Year's Ashes, the dialogue in Fourplay is biting and the path to happiness is neither clear nor expected. It is always fun to read a clever little play like this one.
DAY 49 (9 October) - WOLF LULLABY by Hilary Bell
A few months ago, I interviewed the delightful Hilary Bell, and in preparation for that, I read several of her plays. I did not, however, read perhaps her best known play, Wolf Lullaby; so, I wanted to get to it for this project. Based on some real life cases in which young children were murdered by other children, Bell poses unsettling questions about the nature of these crimes, refusing to cast the blame in the expected and salacious segments of society. It's a masterful, frightening, and sensitive work.
DAY 48 (8 October) - CHILDREN OF THE BLACK SKIRT by Angela Betzien
Aimed at high school students, this play is about children in a Victorian era orphanage. The play is not particularly text heavy, instead relying on a lot of physical narrative, as well as sound effects. The fun of reading this play was trying to work out in my mind how it might be staged.
DAY 47 (7 October) - SVETLANA IN SLINGBACKS by Valentina Levkowicz
Svetlana in Slingbacks by Valentina Levkowicz centres upon a Russian immigrant family in Adelaide in the 1960s. The family unit is collapsing around 12-year old Svetlana. Each family member has a means of escape, either literally or through fantasy. The most endearing aspect of the play is seeing the family drama through a child's perspective. It is both funny and sad, and consistently imaginative.
DAY 46 (6 October) - CMI (A CERTAIN MARITIME INCIDENT)
Finishing up with my collection of Version 1.0 plays, I read CMI (A Certain Maritime Incident). Not being from Australia, I did not know about the terrible SIEV-X case, in which 353 asylum seekers drown. The play uses transcripts from Senate hearings, which come off, to my reading, as ineffectual and badly focused. The debate rages on about what to do with asylum seekers, but hearing the stories of those who perished in such a cruel manner puts tragic human faces on a political issue.
DAY 45 (5 October) - THE BOUGAINVILLE PHOTOPLAY PROJECT
I continue on with my Version 1.0 scripts, today reading The Bougainville Photoplay Project. This is a different sort of a play: part lecture, part personal narrative, part show-and-tell - and I was intrigued about how this sort of play can be communicated from the page (thankfully the script includes some of the pictures, which illuminate the text). The story is about the PNG island of Bougainville, the location of a brutal civil war, which may have been funded by the Australian government. It is also the site of a personal story for the author and his family. Most of all, it is a place in which unprecedented acts of reconciliation and healing are taking place.
DAY 44 (4 October) - THE DISAPPEARANCES PROJECT
After seeing The Table of Knowledge early on in the project, I became very interested in Version 1.0's work, which is devised from existing sources, and presented with fascinating multi-media elements. The folks at Version 1.0 were nice enough to put together a few scripts for me, so that I could get to know their work better as part of the 100 Plays project. Today, I started with The Disappearances Project, which is about the experiences of family members of missing people. I had a DVD and could follow along in the script, which was a good way to experience this work because much of the emotional resonance came from the film reel, music, and what is unsaid in long, dark silences. It is heartbreaking, unsettling and frankly, sometimes creepy material. The stories are presented without judgement about what may have happened or why, and are deeply felt.
HIGHLIGHT: The Disappearances Project
© Version 1.0 (image from the 2011 production)
DAY 43 (3 October) - THE RIVERS OF CHINA by Alma De Groen
DAY 42 (2 October) - NO SUGAR by Jack Davis
I got off track with the Jack Davis plays in order to read the Lawler in time for the production yesterday, but there was one more Davis script I wanted to read, which is No Sugar. I was intrigued by this one because it is about the same family from In Our Town, about a decade earlier. It's a brutally sad story of the forced migration of an entire Aboriginal community for political reasons. In some ways, the disdain for the people in this story displayed by some of the officials is reminiscent to me of the treatment of many Native American communities in the U.S. These episodes are relatively recent in both country's histories, and certainly worthy of revisiting in our drama.
DAY 41 (1 October) - SUMMER OF THE SEVENTEENTH DOLL by Ray Lawler
I feel so fortunate that Belvoir is producing Summer of the Seventeenth Doll at the same time I'm completing this project. Having just read the 'first' two plays, it was a treat to see the live production of the Doll, which sometimes confirmed and sometimes shattered the images I had created in my head. This production was beautifully articulated; funny, lively, and intense. There is an emotional honesty and crispness of language that drives this play. I can fully understand its staying power.
DAY 40 (30 September) - OTHER TIMES by Ray Lawler
The second, chronologically, in the Doll trilogy, Other Times moves the story forward to immediately post-WWII. Everyone has grown up a bit, even if the furnishings are only slightly altered. After two plays, I do feel invested in these characters.
DAY 39 (29 September) - KID STAKES by Ray Lawler
If there has been one play mentioned to me more than any other as a 'must read' for this project, it is Summer of the Seventeenth Doll by Ray Lawler. It seems that everyone in Australian read it in high school, like we in the US read The Crucible. Since I have the luxury of reading 100 plays, I felt it appropriate to make my way through the whole Doll trilogy. Kid Stakes was written long after Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, but is the first in chronological order. It sets up the characters, setting, and back story. It stands on its own, but does give the feeling of leading into something longer. I look forward to seeing how it informs the next two plays.
DAY 38 (28 September) - THE DREAMERS by Jack Davis
In In Our Town, Davis presents the theme of racism rather directly. The interesting thing about The Dreamers is that the theme is much more subtly laid out. The play shows the comings and goings of three generations of an Aboriginal family, living in one house. It is through the characters' daily movements, rather than one dramatic event, that we see the influence of colonisation on the Aboriginal community. It's a beautifully drawn piece.
DAY 37 (27 September) - IN OUR TOWN by Jack Davis
After reading Jack Davis's children's piece, Honey Spot, a few days ago, I wanted to read some of his adult work. In Our Town is about an Aboriginal soldier returning from WWII. He has big dreams of building a good life for himself and his family, after fighting in the war, but the underlying racism in his little town stands in his way. My favorite line in the play is spoken by the main character's uncle, who lives on a white landowner's property, much to the town's chagrin: "It might be his land, but it's still my country." Therein lies the conflict.
DAY 36 (26 September) - SMASHED by Lally Katz
I took advantage of another Monday night rush ticket at Griffin, and saw Lally Katz's little gem of a play, Smashed. I very much like Katz's use of magic and time travel in other pieces of hers I've seen/read, so was eager to see this show. I was a little taken aback when I heard that the play only ran for 45 minutes, but it turned out to be a full experience that did not need to be any longer than it was. I was completely charmed by the whole production.
DAY 35 (25 September) - DIVING FOR PEARLS by Katherine Thomson
This is a play from the early 90s that looks at the lives of workers in a factory town (Wollongong) that is going through a period of radical cutbacks. Workers who have no other skills, because they've worked on the line their whole lives, face uncertain and disappointing futures. The two main characters face their realities in different ways, but both struggle to make sense of the financial and psychological effect of a new reality. It is particular to that time in Wollongong's history, but in our current economic climate, I can't help but think that these human stories remain very real, and are continually repeated throughout the industrialised world today, and into the future.
DAY 34 (24 September) - HONEY SPOT by Jack Davis
Davis's name has come up frequently as I have been working on this project, because he was one of the most influential Indigenous playwrights in Australian theatre history. Honey Spot is a story about a young Aboriginal boy who befriends a white forest ranger's daughter. The plot is very simple, and it is clear that the real highlight of this play is the dance and music. I would much rather have seen this piece than read it; I feel certain that you can't get the essence o the play off the page. I am definitely going to read more of Davis's work as the project continues.
DAY 33 (23 September) - THE SERPENT'S TEETH by Daniel Keene
I've been wanting to return to Daniel Keene since I read The Nightwatchman awhile back. The Serpent's Teeth is the script of his that had been recommended most often. It is two plays in one event; the first is vignettes about Palestinian citizens going through the ordinary (yet profound) movements of their day. The second follows families waiting for the return of their fallen servicemen. I found the writing difficult, in the way that makes you want to think further, rather than dismissing your own discomfort. The work is poetic, melancholic, and honest, but I wondered if it was theatrical. I am still sitting with it.
DAY 32 (22 September) - THE GOLDBERG VARIATIONS by Ron Elisha
I found this play to be very similar in aesthetic to a style of popular contemporary Jewish-American plays I am well acquainted with. This one is a bit overly-sweet for my taste, but I can also see how it would find an appreciative audience.
DAY 31 (21 September) - AWAY by Michael Gow
I don't always like plays that sit squarely in a sense of melancholy, as I feel this play did, because the action can sometimes become stagnant. However, some well-placed surrealism and very distinctly drawn characters held my interest in this piece about three Australian families on Christmas holidays in 1968. My favorite part of the play were the Shakespearean references, which gave poetry to the characters' journeys.
DAY 30 (20 September) - NORM AND AHMED by Alex Buzo
Alexander Buzo's one act play, Norm and Ahmed was recommended to me by a few people, at least partially due to the furor it caused when it was first produced (including obsenity charges for the actors). It's a tightly knit little piece full of frightening subtext beneath the surface of the dialogue. Though I did feel I could see the "surprise" end coming, that didn't diminish my experience with this concise and charged play.
DAY 29 (19 September) - COSI by Louis Nowra
Cosi by Louis Nowra: A charming comedy that centers around an uncomplicated story about a young director staging Cosi Fan Tutte in a mental institution. Inoffensive as the story is, it does not veer into sentimentally sweet territory. I found it hard not to like the "oh-so-cooky" characters and physical humor. Nowra is laughing with the institutionalized characters, not at them.
DAY 28 (18 September) - DON PARTIES ON by David Williamson
After reading Don's Party, I was interested to follow up with the recent sequel, Don Parties On. Though I hadn't heard terribly strong reviews of the play, I was curious because I could not think of another example of a sequel like this one in the theatre. Having just read the original, I did find the exposition heavy handed, and the modern political climate may be different, but the characters still have a penchant for reckless behaviour. I can't say I'd have wanted to be a guest at Don's party.
DAY 27 (17 September) - DON'S PARTY by David Williamson
One of my goals is to read the crop of plays that I hear frequently mentioned in Australian theatre lore, and David Williamson's Don's Party must be the play I've heard the most about. It was sometimes a fun read, and sometimes infuriating. At this point, I found it something of a historical document of an era and way of life that has gone by, but a cultural reference point that I feel I needed to have.
DAY 26 (16 September) - TOO YOUNG FOR GHOSTS by Jane Balodis
Too Young for Ghosts by Jane Balodis was recommended to me by a couple of different people. The structure is out of the ordinary, moving all over time and space, and it took me a little while to get my bearings, but there was an excellent payoff for hanging in with it. I think that the title relates to the country of Australia, and whether it is 'too young for ghosts.' Two stories from the country's immigrant history intersect, and, to me, were the stories of who some of our more recent 'ghosts' may be.
DAY 25 (15 September) - THESE PEOPLE by Ben Ellis
I read the second of two plays that Ben Ellis kindly sent me. In These People a middle class family metaphorically collides with an Australian refugee detention centre. And, penguins. It is sad that this play was staged in 2003, but the events and sentiments remain completely relevant to today.
DAY 24 (14 September) - THE CALL by Patricia Cornelius
The Call by Patricia Cornelius. I read some of Patricia Cornelius's work a few months ago in preparation for interviewing her, but hadn't gotten to this one. I am quite a fan of her writing, and love the way that she gives voice to people in society who are underrepresented and often misunderstood. She's not afraid to dig deeply into uncomfortable corners of the human psyche. I think she's so deserving of all her recent awards and accolades.
DAY 23 (13 September) - FALLING PETALS by Ben Ellis
Ben Ellis kindly sent me a couple of his plays to read for this project, the first of which is Falling Petals. A dark satire with a sci-fi element about three teens in a rural Australian town. The writing is bold and the story moves into some controversial territory as the kids' prospects get increasingly worse. It pulls none of its punches. I must say that this play made me ever more glad that I never had to take the HSC!
DAY 22 (12 September) - NIGHT ON BALD MOUNTAIN by Patrick White
Finishing up with the Patrick White collection I've been reading, today's script was Night on Bald Mountain. This one was much more sombre and naturalistic than the others in the collection, so something of a surprise with the stylistic difference. The story is solid, but for my taste, I think I prefer the more theatrical and expressionistic of his plays that I read over the past few days. Overall, it has been such a joy to work my way through these four Patrick White plays. What a marvelously creative and insightful writer he was.
DAY 21 (11 September) - A CHEERY SOUL by Patrick White
I continue to work my way through a Patrick White anthology, so today I read A Cheery Soul. The main character is (to paraphrase another character) 'militantly virtuous.' She is deliciously aggravating, and we follow the destruction she leaves in the wake of her do-goodery. Great social commentary. I did find this plotline to be more rambling than the previous two plays by White I have just read, but still decidedly a gem.
DAY 20 (10 September) - THE SEASON AT SARSAPARILLA by Patrick White
Continuing on with the Patrick White collection, I read The Season at Sarsaparilla, a huge cast, ambitious suburban drama with elements of the surreal. I think it's quite hard for playwrights to craft such sprawling works today, and more's the pity. This is some of the best theatrical writing I have ever read.
DAY 19 (9 September) - THE HAM FUNERAL by Patrick White
There are a handful of Australian authors whose work I consider crucial to my education during this project, and Patrick White is one of the primary writers on that list. Knowing little about his work, other than its legendary status, I picked up a collection of four of his plays at my local library. I started with The Ham Funeral, and it was certainly different than anything I could have begun to expect. I found it to be reminiscent of a German expressionist play, but with a thick Aussie accent. I loved the imagination and magic of this play, and plan to work my way through the rest of the collection.
DAY 18 (8 September) - HOTEL SORRENTO by Hannie Rayson
Reading a lot of Australian 'classics' is one of my goals for this project, and Hotel Sorrento by Hannie Rayson has come up quite a bit in lists of suggested plays. As an expat, I found myself especially interested in the play's themes of home and its questions about how one's perception of the motherland, and even the childhood home, changes after some distance and immersion in another culture.
DAY 17 (7 September) - WICKED SISTERS by Alma De Groen
A dramaturg colleague in the States mentioned to me once having worked on a production of a play by Alma De Groen, so I wanted to read something of hers. I picked up a copy of Wicked Sisters at my local library, and proceeded to read it in a flash. It's a crackling drama and a scientific mystery. Wendy Wasserstein collides with Tom Stoppard is the closest approximation I've arrived at.
DAY 16 (6 September) - NOWHERE by Dorothy Hewett
I admire the three richly drawn main characters, who forge a life outside of society. To me, this play was a reminder that life is inherently harder for some people. I liked this ragtag band of outcasts.
DAY 15 (5 September) - AUSTRALIAN GOTHIC by Mary Rachel Brown
I was particularly interested in the use of the physical space in this play, particularly the stage directions of characters ascending and descending from/to the gods. It would be a feat to see this staged as written, one I'd be most intrigued to see.
DAY 14 (4 September) - STRANGE ATTRACTOR by Sue Smith
Focuses on workers in a remote Western Australian mining camp. It has an interesting non-linear narrative, which really heightens the mystery at the centre of the story.
DAY 13 (3 September) - ALIWA! by Dallas Winmar
Based on a true story of an Aboriginal family's struggle to stay together, despite family and societal hardships. Textually, I found it a bit on the thin side, but it is full of theatrical possibilities. It would be fun to see with the music and dancing.
Van Badham was kind enough to send me a selection of her plays to choose from, so rather than just reading one, I sampled three of her shorter plays. Kitchen and An Anarchist at Dinner both take the 'upwardly mobile' class to task in a boisterous way, while The Bull is a frightening and lovely allegory. It's nice to have the chance to read a bit of a range of a writer's work.
DAY 11 (1 September) - THE TOUCH OF SILK by Betty Roland
Yesterday, I asked the Twitterverse for suggestions on what might be on an Australian Theatre History syllabus, and so decided to read The Touch of Silk. It was compelling, and holds up very well for and older play. Also, Wikipedia tells me that the playwright, Betty Roland, had a fascinating life.
DAY 10 (31 August) - THE REMOVALISTS by David Williamson
I went way back in time, and read The Removalists by David Williamson. I know it’s one of those classic Nimrod Theatre era plays, so wanted to get familiar with it. Rough stuff!
DAY 9 (30 August) - THE TABLE OF KNOWLEDGE by Version 1.0
Took a bit of a field trip for today’s play. I trained out to Wollongong for The Table of Knowledge by Version One Point Zero because I have been wanting to see their work. It was an awesome example of how powerful and provocative theatre that is locally oriented can be.
DAY 8 (29 August) - CONCUSSION by Ross Mueller
This is the fourth one of his plays I've read, and I’m struck by how different they all are. I don’t know if I’ve ever encountered a writer who seems so unattached to a particular style. I love that he seems to let the story dictate form.
DAY 7 (28 August) - THE SEED by Kate Mulvany
The story is quite exciting, with a lot of twists and turns. I really dug this one.
DAY 6 (27 August) - THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE HUMAN HEART by Ross Mueller
DAY 5 (26 August) - THE NIGHTWATCHMAN by Daniel Keene
I’m told that Daniel Keene is a must-read, so I picked out The Nightwatchman. Sparse, intimate, and poetic, almost like a fugue.
DAY 4 (25 August) - THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES by Joanna Murray-Smith
I do like farce, but this one was not tightly wound enough for my taste, and it frustrated me. Not my favorite.
DAY 3 (24 August) - HERETIC by David Williamson
Living in Australia for a year, it’s about time I finally read some David Williamson. I had a copy of Heretic on my shelf that I think I picked up at a Salvos, and so at last, I have finally tackled Le Williamson.
DAY 2 (23 August) - A BEAUTIFUL GESTURE by Ross Mueller
DAY 1 (22 August) - AND NO MORE SHALL WE PART by Tom Holloway
I’m starting off with a live performance. I snagged a Monday night rush ticket at Griffin ($15 – is there a better deal in town?) to And No More Shall We Part by Tom Holloway. I’m glad I was warned to bring tissues to this one. I wish I’d skipped the mascara.
Cristin Kelly is a dramaturg and hails from the United States. She holds an MFA in Dramaturgy/Theatre Criticism from the City University of New York and a BFA in Arts Administration from Brenau University. She most recently served as the Literary Manager of Florida Studio Theatre. She has also worked in the literary offices of the Alliance Theatre (Atlanta) and MCC Theater (Off-Broadway). Cristin spent three years as an adjunct professor at Ringling College of Art and Design and has taught playwriting to students in middle and high schools across the state of Florida.
Cristin currently runs The Australian Theatre Writers Project website, on which she publishes interviews with Australian playwrights.
Find out more here: www.australiantheatrewriters.com