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Motherland has finished its premiere production. It played in Brisbane at Metro Arts from 30 October to 16 November 2013.

Flyer for Motherland

Sweeping through the Russian Revolution, World War II, and Brisbane history, Motherland is an epic new work of historical fiction, informed by actual events.

Nell and Kerensky in the production of Motherland

Kerith Atkinson as Nell and Peter Cossar as Kerensky in Motherland. Photo bby Al V Caeiro.

Three women, exiled from their homelands, find their lives are woven together across continents and decades. Nell Tritton, the Brisbane wife of a deposed Russian prime minister forms a close friendship with Nina Berberova, who is exiled in Paris. The woman who would tell their story is Alyona, a Russian curator whose dreams of a new Australian paradise are crushed by bankruptcy and the Fitzgerald Inquiry.

Rebecca Riggs in Motherland

Rebecca Riggs as Alyona, with Peter Cossar as Chris.

Shortlisted for the Patrick White Playwrights’ AwardMotherland is a tapestry of friendship, displacement, home, and identity – a finely-crafted story of the casualties of love, ambition, and politics.

PLAYWRIGHT Katherine Lyall-Watson
DIRECTOR Caroline Dunphy
CAST Kerith Atkinson, Peter Cossar, Barbara Lowing, Daniel Murphy And Rebecca Riggs.
SET DESIGNER Annie Robertson
LIGHTING DESIGNER David Walters
COMPOSER & SOUND DESIGNER Dane Alexander
DRAMATURG Kathryn Kelly
PRODUCER Danielle Shankey
ASSISTANT PRODUCER Madeline Römcke

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After four years of researching, writing, developing, rewriting, researching again and more developments, my play about Nelle Tritton, Alexander Kerensky, Nina Berberova and Vladislav Khodasevich is getting a showing at Metro Arts. Whoo hoo!

Motherland poster

Image designed by Warrick Fraser

I’m excited and terrified at the prospect.

The showing is a rehearsed reading at Metro Arts’ Free Range and I’ve been having nightmares where it all goes horribly wrong and the audience turns on me. (Kind of like those getting up to give a talk and realising you’re naked nightmares.) In the last one, a man in a wheelchair yelled at me for giving him the worst night of his life. I woke up in a cold sweat and realised that I might just be a control freak.

You see, creating theatre is an act of trust and collaboration. As the writer I can work alone for as many years as I choose, but to get the play staged I have to trust other people with my precious baby. I have to take a step back and let them choose how to dress her, what to feed her and which school she goes to. All I can do is hope and pray that she’ll come out okay.

While I keep her in my head and on a page, she is stillborn but perfect (in my imagination at any rate). When others take her and play with her, she has the chance to live and breathe and be complex, flawed and glorious. She also has the chance to stuff up and show all the genetic flaws I gave her.

The good news is that my baby is in wonderful hands. I respect and love all the people who are taking this next step with her. Now I just have to take a deep breath and trust that I’ve given her the bones, muscle and heart she needs to grow and be everything she can be.

If you’re in Brisbane on 22 and 23 June and would like to join me to see the birth of this long gestating baby, I’d love to see you there. (You can book tickets at this link.) I’ll be the anxiously pacing parent at the back of the theatre.

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Today just hammered me with a punch in the solar plexus. I had tried to prepare myself but, when you’re hoping against hope for something and it feels like all your future rides on it, it’s hard to stay positive when it all comes crashing down.

Cranky girl

My daughter - who would never let rejection get her down.

I got the phone call I’d been waiting for this morning but the news was not what I wanted to hear. Because I was in a shared office I did what any self respecting adult does: I hid in a toilet cubicle and cried. The tears were part sadness and part anger at myself: for thinking I’d stood a chance, for letting this thing be so important and for crying in a frigging toilet.

Now I’m trying to get myself together the only way I know how – by writing.

While I sobbed in the toilets I went through all the usual stages I go through when I get rejected. If I make it sound like this is a commonplace thing, it’s because it is. I was an actor for years and being an actor means facing rejection on an almost daily basis and receiving it nine times out of ten. Playwriting takes a lot longer so the rejections tend to be spaced a bit further apart. (Hmm, maybe that’s part of the problem: I’m out of practice.)

Now that I’m stepping out of my bruised chest and into my head, I’m starting to get some perspective on the whole thing.  (This is why I love writing.) I thought I’d share the processes I go through when dealing with rejection. There might be someone out there who’ll recognise themself in some of it and won’t feel quite as alone.

Four stages of rejection

1. Denial: It must be a mistake. Maybe I’m dreaming. Maybe this a parallel universe where everything goes wrong …
Physical symptoms: stomach churning, winded, light headed.

2. Acceptance: Oh God – it did happen.
Physical symptoms: Intense pain and tears.

3. Despair: I’m no good. I’ve never been any good. Everything good that’s happened has been a fluke or a mistake. I’m useless and I should do everyone a favour and give up now.
Physical symptoms: more tears, panic, nausea and a longing for escape.

4. Determination: I’ll show those bastards.
I don’t have physical symptoms for this one as I don’t tend to reach it. But I hear other people express things like this and always feel really impressed that their anger fuels them to keep going and to strive harder.

I think perhaps the reason I keep going is to get myself out of number three and so that I can stop hating myself. You see, when I was younger, I used to stay at number three for a long time. Sometimes a really long time. I would go into a dark place and it would be very hard to find my way back out again. Like a bear withdrawing to a cave to survive winter’s harshness, I would retreat, only to face the far harsher attacks of my own mind. The real world rejection was nothing compared to the hammering I’d inflict on my already bruised self.

Today I went into, and got out of, number three in the space of a few hours. That’s unheard of for me and I was feeling pretty damn proud of myself until I remembered the little pill that I take every morning…

Just over a year ago I was prescribed an anti-anxiety medication and I’ve been taking it every day since. It’s calmed my panic attacks and, while I think of it as an anti-anxiety medication, it’s actually an anti-depressant. So, perhaps my cave days were actually depression. And maybe the reason I’m coping better now is chemical.

I don’t know how to feel about that. Whether it makes my victory over the crying girl in the toilet a real victory or just a drug induced one. Have I learnt and grown or am I still as trapped in old habits as I ever was?

I don’t have any answers. But I know that today was awful and I’ve survived it better than I would have in the past. If that’s thanks to a pill, then I’m grateful help is so readily available.

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So, just because I don’t have enough on my plate already, I’ve decided to set myself a new challenge.

I want to read a play a day for a year. It’s something I’ve been thinking of doing for a few years and have kept putting off because of being too busy. But now I’ve decided it’s time.

I’ve set up a new blog, 365 plays, and I’m going to do a post every day with a brief overview of the play I’ve just read. I’m up to play 5 now – so only 360 more to go!

reading a play

Before you think I’ve gone crazy, there is some method to my madness. I read a quote recently from Van Badham saying that people who wanted to write plays should read them. She suggested reading a play a day. There are many days when I do just this, for uni or for pleasure. So now I’ve decided to get serious about it.

My hope is that the more I read, the better a playwright I will be. Some of the magic will be absorbed, but I will also become more discerning. I’ll learn from the dodgy lines as well as from the beautiful ones. Each new playwright I read, shows me another way of doing things. Another way of looking at the world and creating something new on stage.

I can already see the next stage for the project – reading a play a day and writing a page in the style of each play or inspired by each play to go alongside it. I’m not doing that yet. Right now I’m reading and reflecting. But maybe it will become a playwriting exercise as well.

I might not be posting here that much as this new project takes off. If you’re interested you can subscribe to the new blog and get an email each day with details of the latest play read. I could do with a cheer squad to keep me going so hope to see you over at 365 plays.

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Those of you who know me, know I am pretty much permanently attached to my laptop. I have two days at work where I leave it behind and sit in an office writing on a PC, but the rest of the time I’m on my faithful, old MacBook.

It’s where I’ve written a third of my PhD thesis and countless drafts of three plays. There are short stories I’ve never polished enough to send out, 100,000 words of a novel I plan one day to finish, and several ideas for plays, books and stories. My laptop is also where I keep all my correspondence, with special folders for everything relating to my uncle, whose life I have been researching for the last two years.

You’d think that someone with that much invested in a piece of technology, and with just a few brain cells firing, would back up their work. Surely?!

And that’s exactly why, in September last year, I went and bought myself some fancy, small duverlackie that you can plug into your laptop and store things on. I even managed to plug it in and copy stuff (not everything – I got too bored dragging individual folders and files and thought I’d cherry pick the most important ones. I’m sure there’s a way to backup everything, but  there wasn’t a manual and  I figured I’d work it out next time…). And then I put it safely in a drawer and forgot about it.

September is 10 months ago now.

My laptop crashed 5 days ago.

The hard drive has died. The technicians say they can’t retrieve anything and it’s 10 months since I last backed up – partially. ARGH!!!!!

I haven’t started grieving yet, or hitting myself around the head with the now useless piece of hardware. I’m still in denial. There has to be some way, some how, that I can retrieve the last 10 months of work.

I’ve read about putting the hard drive in the freezer in the hopes that it will exhale one last dying gasp. I’m going to ask the technicians to try it, but I don’t know if accredited stores will try such pirate-like methods.

The worst part is feeling like such an idiot.

My uncle would be smiling – he’d have a theory about it for sure. You see, for the last two weeks I’ve had this niggling thought that I should back up. But I’ve thought about it when I’ve been at uni or work, and far away from that slim little device in the drawer. By the time I’ve got home and caught up with the kids’ days, I’ve forgotten all about trivial little things like backing up.

I’m telling myself that the important stuff will be in my head. Starting from scratch is often a good thing to do creatively. But what about the email addresses and messages I’ve lost? What about all the books I’ve read and the hundreds of pages of notes, quotes and references?

What about the friend’s thesis I’ve been editing and haven’t sent back to her yet?

It’s too overwhelming. I’m going to bury my head in the sand for a bit longer and pretend it isn’t happening. Just call me ostrich.

ostrich with head in sand

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This week I spent two days in a creative development for The Kerensky Project. Creative developments can differ wildly in their efficacy and usefulness for a writer. Some are more for the director than the writer. There have been times as a writer when I’ve wondered what I’m doing in the room, and whether the others need me at all in the process. But this one was different.

This creative development has been structured so well and has already been so useful to me that I’d like to share my discoveries with you. Some may seem obvious, but I hope this might be useful to other writers/creative teams considering creative developments.

  1. Decide what you want to achieve from this development and communicate it to everyone involved. Sounds obvious but this is often overlooked. For instance, is this development to help the writer work on a draft of the script? Perhaps it’s for the director to trial some new ways of working with the script? Or perhaps it’s for a group to collaborate together to come up with a new script? All perfectly valid – as long as everyone involved has signed up for the same process.
  2. Don’t confuse a creative development with a showing or rehearsed reading. Too often, we tack these on the end of creative developments and end up spending more time preparing for the reading than doing the developmental work we all signed up for.
  3. If the development has the aim of helping a writer complete a draft of a play, then talk to the writer about the best ways of going about this.
  4. You might like to split the development over several weeks (as we’re doing this time) to enable the writer to write new scenes.
  5. Use some of the resources for the writer to work with the director/dramaturg before the workshops with actors begin.
  6. Don’t feel constrained to stay sitting down reading words from a page all day: Let the actors act.

On day two of our creative development, director Michael Futcher split the actors into pairs and gave them scenes from the first draft to explore. They decided what they thought the drama of each scene was and then improvised the heart of the scenes back to me, the writer. This was incredibly useful for me. It showed me that the essence of the scene could often be shown in three lines – it didn’t need the five pages I’d written. An actor lives and breathes life into your characters. You don’t have to labour points because a good actor will convey your message with the minimum words.

I’m taking the red pen to everything I’ve done so far. The three-hour opus I’ve written can easily be half the length.

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