EMILIE COLLYER STATE OF PLAY
State of Play - guest essays from leading voices in Australian theatre.
AN ESSAY BY Emilie Collyer - October 2019
A beautiful muscularity
– the benefits of attending to an artform over many years
A few months ago I was at a party. I was chatting to a woman who learned I wrote plays and she asked: ‘Oh, which ones?’ I thought it an odd turn of phrase, because I assumed she wouldn’t know the plays I had written. It’s not as if I was going to answer: Hamlet or Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
I said: ‘Do you mean what are they called?’ ‘Yes,’ she answered. I named my last few plays. ‘Oh yes I think I heard about Dream Home,’ she offered. Kindly? Deluded? It had a two week season at Northcote Town Hall in May 2015. It was reviewed in The Age. It was nominated for a bunch of Green Room Awards. Sure. Maybe she had heard of it.
The party was being held by a couple, both of whom write novels. There were some literary heavyweights at the party, with varying degrees of award-winning and best-selling pedigrees.
I don’t know this for sure, but I’ve long had a suspicion that if you write a good novel, you have a good chance of getting it published. Not sure-fire, but reasonable. Whereas if you write a good play, the chances of it being produced by a fully funded theatre company are scant. With just two such companies in Melbourne, and neither dedicated to new writing (frankly ridiculous for a City of Literature), it is the norm to be a good playwright in this town and never be produced by ‘the majors’. I want to give props here to Red Stitch whose INK program has provided a steadfast commitment to developing playwrights and new work in recent years.
By crude measurements of success, such as money earned and number of mainstage productions, I – along with many playwrights – can’t claim the moniker. So why do it? Why plug away at a form that has so few rewards and rewards only the very few? If we take deep-seated unconscious drivers (to be loved, to re-visit rejection in order to learn about it) as a given, what of the cognitive, the collective and the creative?
At this mid-career moment (‘career’ is a problematic term but I use it as a way to frame working at something in a professional context over many years) where I have a body of work to look back on, what can I say about the benefits of twenty years attending to this mercurial, difficult, collaborative, expensive, sometimes marvellous artform?
You gradually develop a picture of how you like to work and realise how important this is
I had some early wins as a playwright. My first two plays won script awards and were produced as a result. The first was Argonauta via the St Martins Young Playwrights Award.
The second was Promise which won the George Fairfax Award and was produced at Castlemaine State Festival. I was fortunate to have two opportunities like this as an early-career playwright. It boosted my confidence and I also learned so much about how plays actually work by having those two plays produced. Promise was a baptism of fire, as a director and cast of actors I didn’t know pulled the script into production-ready state. My father died during the rehearsal period so I was less available than was ideal. My memory is of a slightly brutal process where they made cuts and changes in the room and I approved them. Ultimately they were a good team and they served the play.
In Castlemaine I met a director called Jude Anderson, a local who had been living in Europe for many years making theatre. She saw Promise and approached me afterwards to say she liked the poetry of my writing and would I be interested in collaborating. I was flattered, keen and terrified. How would I know what to do in a collaboration? What was poetic about my writing? Could I reproduce it if I didn’t know what it was?
The same year I got a 12 month residency with MTC to work with dramaturg Peter Matheson. I slogged away, listened attentively to Peter’s wisdom and tried my darndest to write my next award-winning play. I met other playwrights at industry events, one of whom eyed me off, saying oh yeah he’d heard of me, apparently I was ‘the next big thing’. The residency culminated in a reading, after which the artistic director Simon Phillips very politely said he could see why the play was important to me but he wasn’t sure why it would be important to an audience. I was stung. I suspected he was right. I didn’t know how to fix it. Some years later, the piece – Hover - would evolve into a radio play for ABC.
Meanwhile Jude and I had started working together. I was learning that there was a collaborative way of making theatre, based on dramaturgical investigation and linking language to form rather than a play with a three act structure. I was out of my depth. I kept going because I loved this new territory and Jude seemed to believe that I had something valuable to offer. We ended up working together for many years, creating half a dozen major works and I am still part of Punctum, the Live Arts company Jude created, of which I’m a founding member.
I was not the ‘next big thing’. I wasn’t even a medium-sized thing. Looking back at my (in)auspicious beginnings, I can see that I was lucky to have a few different paths present themselves at the same time. This multiplicity would become key. Developing numerous different ways of writing, making work and collaborating.
You don’t have to be a big thing.
You can keep going with a craft even if you don’t get the high profile gigs.
Your trajectory will be surprising if you let it.
It will hurt at times.
It will have its own rewards.
You learn that people – even a small number - believe in you and this is transformative
I started life wanting to be an actor, in musical theatre no less. I threw myself into jazz ballet as a child. My dance teacher Vikki Anderson taught me about discipline and trying – no matter what your skill level (spoiler alert: mine wasn’t great). I learned about working in groups and being part of an ensemble. My singing was even worse than my dancing so that dream was quickly extinguished.
I auditioned and failed to gain entry to the elite acting schools (NIDA, VCA and WAAPA) but I did get accepted into the National Theatre Drama School in St Kilda. While I liked acting I was restless and discovered I didn’t love being directed. Amateur dance classes were one thing but I didn’t have the kind of quicksilver obedience you need to be a good actor. When I wrote a piece to perform at a cabaret event, it arrived with a glorious epiphany (Oh this! This is what I am meant to do!). I applied to the Professional Writing and Editing course at RMIT because someone recommended Peta Murray, who taught playwriting, and got in.
Peta is that rare beast who is both a brilliant practitioner and teacher. She saw something in my imaginative world, in the way I used language, in my kind of dreamy magical realism and she nurtured it. I don’t think I have ever taken good teachers and mentors for granted. But one thing time has taught me is that opportunities to connect with expert practitioners who have the generosity to share their knowledge with you, encourage you and make you better, are rare. Peta is still a peer and mentor I connect with regularly, it’s a crucial and deeply valued relationship.
My second brush with formal learning came when Raimondo Cortese spearheaded a new Masters in Writing for Performance at VCA. In 2012, as part of the first intake, I went back to school. Working with Raimondo expanded my horizons, deepened my commitment and honed my skills. The play I wrote – Dream Home – was a turning point in terms of my confidence as a playwright, dexterity with form, and clarity about the kind of work I wanted to be making.
I met a new generation of practitioners and collaborators who had a huge influence on me and became part of how I created a significant body of work over the next few years. In particular, directors Luke Kerridge, Prue Clark, Mark Wilson and Bridget Balodis and dramaturg Mark Pritchard. I must also mention the critical importance for independent playwrights of presenting and programming relationships. Beau McCafferty at Darebin Arts has been a vital supporter of my independent work in recent years.
I don’t know that I would have got to this point had I been more successful a decade earlier as ‘the next big thing’. If I’d slipped too early into the machinations of mainstage development and productions, my own instincts may have gotten lost in the maelstrom.
Nobody does it alone.
The people who believe in you are the people you keep going for.
Value those people rather than pine after people whose attention you can’t quite secure.
Become a person who believes in others.
It’s hard not to see peers as competitors but if you can re-frame this many joys unfold
We are all beholden to the great neo-liberal project, our humanity inherently tied to our dollar value. This means that a truly infinitesimal number of playwrights can be defined as ‘valuable’. Now and then I have secured monetary opportunities. But mostly not. Multiple brushes with the majors, rotated in as a person of interest and then out again. The common heartbreak of a play commissioned and then not programmed.
As you enter the playwriting arena you become aware that it’s a scarcity game. The environment favours a small number of individuals, demands that writers prove their worth (rather than their skills) constantly, and struggles to find a way to support the flourishing of many. Scraps are scant and if you want them you’ve got to take them from someone else.
What do we do with this? How do we navigate competitiveness and its twin, professional jealousy? The industrial and economic realities of it. The peculiarly personal and eminently universal terror that we – and our plays, our fragile, hopeful offerings - are not enough. I have felt the thick grip of comparison deficit when a peer gets an opportunity I missed out on or when I see another artist’s career take off and mine trundles along quietly, taxiing on the runway, looking for its wings. But two things longevity affords, if you let it, are perspective and generosity.
Perspective being: I can’t control the industry. There will be ebbs and flows and trends. There are not enough resources. I am fortunate to have had the opportunities I have. I am one small fish in a middle-sized pond. And generosity: My ideas are not the only ones that matter. I can value the beautiful, funny, angry, game-changing plays that my peers create and be pleased I am part of the ecology that helped make that work.
Playwrights, on the whole, are a lively and generous bunch. While often the introvert in the room when it comes to theatre families, we generally like people. We have an affinity with each other akin to the kids in the playground who traverse a zone between the mean girls and the total outsiders. We can have feet in both camps.
I can’t possibly name check all the playwriting peers who have bolstered me personally and professionally over the years, I would leave too many out. But I will mention three people because for me they represent what I mean about longevity, perspective and generosity.
I did a Melbourne Writers Festival event many moons ago with Patricia Cornelius. I of course knew of Patricia and was quietly thrilled when she took an interest in my work. She took me seriously. Over the years we have connected and talked about the industry, our work, what we’re writing. To have someone like Patricia as a kind of informal mentor and staunch peer keeps you keeping on. Because she has. With fire and integrity.
About as many moons ago I met Jane Harrison at a writing workshop run by Noëlle Janaczewska. We hit it off and started brainstorming a few ideas. We never made a work together but have been in each other’s orbit ever since. Jane’s output as a playwright is stellar and her recent role as artistic director of the Blak and Bright First Nations literary festival speaks to generosity in spades. The way Jane creates space for others is a powerful antidote to that ringside mentality of the industry.
Michele Lee and I met doing the Besen Writers Program at Malthouse in 2014. This relationship has been fortifying as we have both navigated encounters with the funded companies and our unique pathways as independent artists. We have collaborated on a few playwriting-related projects and Michele (who read a draft of this essay – thank you!) has been generous enough to invite me in as dramaturg on two of her recent plays. Being able to turn my playwriting skills to this other discipline is a gift. By virtue of writing a lot and seeing a ton of plays over the past twenty years I now have knowledge I can share with others.
Peers are on your side.
Pay attention to others and learn from them.
Gallows humour is strong among playwrights.
Your peers can give you paid work and unexpected opportunities.
Honing a craft over a long time has its own rewards
My plays tend to a verge where poetic existentialism meets socio-political wrestling. The way I develop work varies a little, depending on timelines and who else is involved. But generally for me an idea will start with a moment. I liken it to Roland Barthe’s ‘punctum’ in a photograph – a notion Jude introduced me to. That thing which draws your eye, disturbing the image. I’m keeping an ear out mostly for an aural punctum, but it might be visual, or human, or elemental.
For example, Dream Home was born from two ‘punctums’. The phrase: ‘We’re going up,’ that struck a deliciously discordant note for me in terms of the culture of self-improvement, thwarted ambition and dark dreaming that the play would be about. And the image of a (real) colony of bees we discovered in the back wall of our house.
Once I have the starting point, I generate text around and from and through that. It may be scenes between people or it may be pieces of monologue. I build these up in volume until I have enough to see the potential for a whole piece and then I take time to think about what structure will best serve the play.
With The Good Girl – an examination of the violence of certain types of heterosexual dyamics - I knew immediately it would be a play in five sections, mirroring the progression of a relationship, and I had the title for each section before I started writing. Contest emerged slowly into a poetic and theatrical unpicking about the tender difficulty of being with each other’s difficulties. The play took much exploration and testing to settle on the four part structure of the final work. I only had the skills to persevere thanks to years spent building the tools in my arsenal.
A bit like Dream Home, this play had its brief moment and was gone. But I have never had so many personal, written responses from people – particularly women – saying how moved they were by the play, how it articulated something that they had never experienced in theatre before. And similarly, the bond formed among the all-female team, and our passionate commitment to creating an inclusive rehearsal space for our cast of both able-bodied and disabled performers, was deeply nourishing.
This year I was fortunate to be part of Campaign and After Plays - eight of us writing a play each day leading up to and after the Australian federal election - led by Ben Ellis. It was challenging and thrilling. I loved flexing my playwriting muscle, writing quickly and responsively in contrast with the years-long development that most plays demand.
From a broader sector perspective, we lose this nurturing and strengthening of artform when we lose people due to the frustrations of obstacles of sustainability. Longevity benefits the development of the craft and the industry.
Plays are like all of the metaphors: recipes, blueprints, skeletons, frameworks, and experimenting with what holds and what doesn’t is very satisfying.
There is pleasure in attending to practice and process.
You don’t always know who your work has value for – it may not, in fact hopefully won’t, just be you.
Drilling into one form can tap veins that lead to a flourishing of other writing
Nobody else is asking you to write plays so you need to ask it of yourself. What about this project needs to be written as a play or performance work? How is it situated within work that has recently been made and produced in the independent sector, the mainstage, internationally? Being in a position of questioning leads to reflections on your practice, your politics, your desires, your voice.
Working as a playwright has led me to other areas of writing practice. That word ‘poetic’ as a twenty-something writer encouraged me to explore poetry both as a reader and writer and opened up a whole new world. In parallel with this I developed a fiction and prose writing practice and each form has intersected with the other in illuminating ways.
In 2018 I wrote an essay for Overland journal about the particular challenges facing mid-career artists. A political piece, informed by my artistic practice, the essay has become part of my larger body of non-fiction work. Some plays stay within themselves and the theatre world and others fan out and become part of a larger conversation. In this way, attending to the artform over a long time brings about an engagement with public space and debates.
I’ve just applied to do a PhD in cross-form writing. I spent a weekend recently at a gaming hackathon because a video game designer I met was interested in collaborating with a playwright and I am ever keen to expand my skills to another milieu.
Discovering I was a writer with a broad suite of skills was not something I could have imagined when I started out. And it only happened because of time, circumstances and being open to the unexpected.
Things lead to other things.
We can be multi-faceted.
Playwrights have really good, transferable (see: neo-liberal project) skills.
Being soft and open with form creates opportunities.
Having one vision of what a playwright should be is limiting.
The world is a tough place and an imaginative life is one of the best tools you can have
Careers and success or otherwise, and the cold hard question of making a living aside, to engage regularly and deeply with the imagination is an essential part of being human.
A ‘take-down’ piece published in The Daily Telegraph mocked my Overland essay. The gist of the article and string of applauding comments was ‘get over yourself, you self-entitled wanker’. Of course I felt the particular body blow that online trolling delivers. But what I felt even more palpably was a chasm of lost creative potential. I’m probably projecting vigorously here, but my sense was of a whole lot of people whose own creative spirit had been so crushed out of them that they couldn’t bear to see it manifested in someone else. I couldn’t help but wonder – at what point in your life did someone make fun of your idea or belittle your talent, and who had done the same to that person and so on and so forth?
This made me examine the notion of entitlement and come to the conclusion that in fact, yes, we are entitled. We are all entitled to live full, rich lives where imagination and creativity are honoured. That some people have limited access to this right, due to a multitude of intersecting oppressions and circumstances, is something to notice and act to change.
Engaging with a creative act or nurturing craft over many years provides sustenance, comfort and connection. It helps you navigate the world by trying to put a shape around various pockets of experience. It is extremely difficult. There are no guarantees as to what your work will be like or how it will be received. It is all of these things at once. A complex marrow of a life well-lived.
In the big picture of the industry there are big problems. There isn’t enough money. There must be more theatres dedicated to new writing. The old guard need to take a long, hard look at themselves and the values they uphold and perpetuate. Arts must take up a larger space in our public conversations. I will fight on for all of these things.
Tend with care to your imaginative pockets.
Resist the tendency towards the familiar.
Amplify other voices where you can.
Keep expanding and shifting who is telling and curating our stories.
The wonder of being around long enough to meet a new generation
The last few years has seen me take up more mentoring positions, both formal and informal. I taught creative writing for many years but this notion of being a mentor feels different. It is about taking seriously the mantle of responsibility. Others supported me and it’s now my turn to do the same. I think of younger writing peers I am so fortunate to learn from and admire, for both their craft and their engagement with community. Writers like Rachel Perks, Jean Tong, Emma Hall, Kim Ho and Natesha Somasundaram (same caveat as before, too many stellar people to mention).
It’s also really, bloody joyful. To see the ideas of other people blossom and bloom. To be part of that early phase of exploration and excitement. To see new ways of writing and theatre-making take shape. To be a bolster for someone else when they get stuck on one of those early obstacles. When the ‘why’ transforms from just your own craft and development into being part of a larger legacy of creative endeavour and activism, it’s powerful.
Be happy for the privilege of still being around.
Keep building the muscle.
Step off the ladder from time to time and build more ladders. Or slides. Or elevators. Solar-powered. With cushions.
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State of Play - guest essays from leading voices in Australian theatre.