Answers about Falling Petals (a few thoughts #11)

Falling Petals is easily my most produced play, and the experience of writing it as well as of the furore around its initial production at Playbox (now Malthouse) in Melbourne continues to provoke my thoughts around drama and dramaturgy.

After the play went on to New South Wales’s high school drama syllabus, I began to get quite a few questions by email from students with great internet search skills.

What follows below are a series of answers from 2012 to the kinds of questions I often receive. These questions came from young actors about to do a playreading of it in Geelong, and I’ve made small edits here and there in my replies for sense.

You’ll find musings on origin of plays, the process I used to prepare and write, nationality and dramaturgy. It’s a long post but there’s bits for anybody who thinks about making theatre and writing plays.

What inspired you to write Falling Petals?

Such a difficult question. I’ve been asked it before, and I keep changing the answer. There are a few parts to what brought it together.

First, I was reading a lot of news about what was happening in countries we don’t hear a lot about. In one piece of journalism about a province in Nepal, I read about a massacre in a small town, committed by a local but national garrison. On the same page, about the same nation, I read a description of blossom falling to the ground outside of the cities. I couldn’t separate the image of petals falling from that of a town being purged of life.

Second, to begin with, I wanted to write about teachers, mostly baby-boomer age, having to deal with a child-ridding disease, and never questioning whether or not they were the cause of it (but that’s what I would have wanted the audience to ask, of course).

After I pitched that idea to what was then the Playbox in Melbourne, Louise Gough, the literary manager, asked me to think about my own experiences growing up in a country town.

She asked, if it’s happening to young people, why not tell it from the point of view of the people it’s happening to?

It took me another two months to simply think about how I might do that.

Third, while I was doing that, I noticed that lots of people I had gone to Bairnsdale High School with had become harsher, more rigid, more mean, in their political outlook than when they were in year 12. Smart people who had been denied the chance to go to university (which is a long story in itself) by factors of geography, chance, expectations, had been hardened by low-paid work. The Marxism I’d learnt about in my history degree told me that these friends should have become more left-wing, more radical in their politics because of this. Instead, they’d gone towards Pauline Hanson.

Fourth, years before all of this, I remembered – perhaps incorrectly, perhaps with exaggeration – that my mother, a local journalist, was once really upset that she’d written a story about a very poor family in town who had a child with cancer; she quoted the mother saying something about not having the money to buy a new mattress for the obviously dying child.

Someone responded to that little bit in the news by burning an old mattress on the mother’s nature strip in the middle of the night. That sort of thing about ourselves I feel doesn’t get represented in most Australian drama – we’d prefer to think we help one another when times are tough, but my experiences told me that we also get scared and lash out.

I felt I needed to stick it to the myth, and burn, if you like, my own mattress on its nature strip.

What were the greatest challenges you faced in writing Falling Petals? And what kept you going through these challenges?

The toughest challenge – and it still is – was finding the time and money to write. I was lucky enough to win a bit of money from the first Patrick White prize with another play, which meant I could take three months’ unpaid leave from my bookshop job. I wasn’t sure whether I would go back, but I knew that I could.

I also had a small ‘seed’ commission to write the play from Playbox. The amount they paid was about a twelfth of what you ought to get for a proper bit of work.

But that’s basics, and that’s possibly not very interesting to talk about.

The big thing that kept holding the form and the story back was the question of the disease (or the syndrome) itself. I knew there was a disease. I knew that the disease only attacked the young. I knew that its cut-off date kept going up (a bit like waiting to turn 18 so you can have a legal drink, only to find they won’t serve anyone who looks under 21).

But what did the disease actually do? How did it affect the body?

Every day or so, I would go on very long walks around Carlton and the Melbourne CBD, usually ending up scavenging through the book department throwaway bins in Myer or Reader’s Feast.

I was lucky to find a book by John Cleese and his therapist, Robin Skinner, called “Life and How to Survive It”. I picked it and flicked to a page at a random. In it was the story of the tragedy of the Ik, a group of people in Africa who, rather than band together in poverty, had been studied as an example of what happens when it goes the other way.

The only times they laughed were when others got hurt. People hid the scarce food they found from other members of their family. Sick children were banished from tents and from shelter.

And I thought, that’s the disease, and that’s the way the Australia I know seems to be heading – only in an extreme way. If the parts of a body were trying to serve only themselves rather than the whole body, it’d go. It’d take a while, but it would go – the heart doesn’t work if it only pumps blood to other bits of the heart.

So going on long walks was one way of dealing with the challenges.

Also, I knew that if I wrote a play that required lots of actors, it would never be produced. There was never a promise of it being produced, and I didn’t believe it would get a season until I saw the tickets actually go on sale.

Thing was, I was creating a world where I had notes on about 40 to 50 characters who all made impacts on one another. I didn’t want more than 5 actors. I wanted 3 to play the final year students, which meant that I had to think about ways to show the town via 2 ‘adult’ roles. Again, quite luckily, I had the chance to work on a play called 360 Positions in a One Night Stand for a small-companies slot in the Sydney Festival, but with four other playwrights. 360 Positions was based on Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde or Reigen, which only has two characters – a man and a woman – on stage at any one time but ten in total, and the play kind of daisy-chains different characters, who all have sex with each other in the scene. A meets B and they have sex, and B meets C in the next, C meets D, and so on until it rounds back to A.  You don’t just get a lot of sex, I learned, but you get to know a lot about the whole society and its links. This gave me the inspiration for dealing with the adults in the world of Hollow. I wasn’t as strict as Schnitzler, but I had 5 actors instead of 2. All of a sudden that seemed infinitely massive and easier.

How long did it take you to write Falling Petals?

From when I got the first image of blossom falling to the ground and what that might mean, to feeling that it was ready for the stage, about three years. But if you were focusing on the first draft, and simply putting the dialogue and stage directions down, you would say it was two weeks.

Thing is, the pre-writing filled up about 300 pages of notes, and there were many changes before I ever wrote a line of dialogue. I wrote very detailed outlines (‘scenarios’) after having constructed very rough scenarios.One thing that happened just before I wrote the dialogue first draft was that the MV Tampa got boarded and the attacks on the States of September 11 happened. People went a bit nuts and I felt like I wasn’t even in the nation (let alone the countryside) that I grew up in anymore.

Everybody seemed to be hardening; everybody seemed to want to hurt. I changed my ending and the tone of that time made its way through the dialogue from around September 17 to September 28.

How did this play change the course of your career?

When Falling Petals won the Wal Cherry award, I felt surprised. I’d just had a small and very unsuccessful production of Post Felicity at Playbox, and wondered whether that was it for my playwriting career. (One critic wrote about that show that everything I’d written ought to be burnt.)

So it felt like a bit of oxygen. The reading at the Arts Centre Fairfax Studio that goes with the award’s presentation was completely packed. Apparently, it was the response of the audience to that reading that convinced Aubrey Mellor to programme it for the following Playbox season. (He also said that he hadn’t fully understood its effect from reading it on the page, and finally got it from the reading on stage.)The reading panel at New Dramatists in New York selected Falling Petals for the Playwriting Exchange, which meant that all of a sudden in 2003 I was going to have a full mainstage production and a trip as a playwright to live and work in New York for a month.

The buzz about the play also meant that Sydney Theatre Company commissioned a new work, to be based on Australian attitudes to asylum-seekers and detention camps, to go on late that year.

The critical response to Falling Petals when it premiered that year was a bit nuts. I thought I’d been harshly treated for Post Felicity, but some of it was worse: there were reviewers who didn’t want to believe in the possibilities of the world of the play, which made it impossible for them to review.

There used to be pinboards outside Playbox productions, where you could jot your response to a show on an index card and stick it up. You usually got about 20 cards over a production for any Playbox show. It was a bit embarrassing really.

Unusually for this production, they needed another board after a week; they counted 300 comments. Most were praise, but the 2 or 3% that hated the show wrote in bigger letters and sometimes said I should be dead.

It’s the hate and threats that you notice first.  Two strangers who disagreed over the show – one loving, one hating – had a fist fight in the foyer one night.

Then a couple of praiseworthy reviews came out and I thought I might be able to keep going financially for a bit longer.

Since then, Falling Petals has gone on to the New South Wales HSC drama syllabus, been produced about 15-20 times around the world, including twice in New York and once in Phoenix, Arizona. Twice in New Zealand and the rest have been all around Australia – every capital city bar Hobart and Canberra, although there have been readings of the work there.

Do you have an earlier draft or a series of drafts of one particular scene that shows the process you went through in redrafting that scene? Are you able to comment on your process and changes and decisions you made in rewriting that scene?

I’ll get the example of this to you very soon, providing I can find it! [I never did -oops. Would you like it as another blog post? Let me know.]

There’s two scenes from an early draft towards the play’s beginning that I needed to condense into one scene.

Condensing work is an important decision to make, but a tough one.

Usually I try to work out those decisions before I write any dialogue – I’ll have a list of scenes and on that list I’ll note who’s there, where, what time of day, etc., but I also try to explain what happens and how it advances the story and characters’ relationships.

Before I write dialogue, I’ll scan it for similarities between scenes, and if I see too many, then I’ll try to press two or three into one. That stage is actually more important sometimes than the dialogue, because for me once the dialogue is there, rewriting (as opposed to editing) can feel like trying to uncook spaghetti, or unbake a cake back into dough.

Editing and cutting, though, that’s fun.

I’d also be interested to know a bit about you currently as well; what it’s like being an Australian writer abroad, how/if  your voice has changed for a new audience, more/less opportunities for you now… whatever you feel like talking about, really.

The weird thing is that I’ve lived for over 6 years in London now and I only now feel as if I’m beginning to make work at the level I used to in Australia. As an Australian writer, you kind of don’t count. You have to begin all over.

Theatrically, the big difference between here and Australia is that the UK concentrates on drama in its new writing, whereas Australia seems  a bit more on the performance art side of theatre. It can seem a subtle difference, but it’s actually massive – or is at least a massive one for me, and I’ve had to pull apart and re-learn my trade.

Strangely enough, that’s brought me back to the style or the urge that’s in Falling Petals rather than, say, in These People.

In the UK, they think they know Australia already: few want to know what you think.  Neighbours and Home & Away are on every day here, Kylie Minogue is still huge.

So the question you always get asked is an incredulous, “why are you here?” as if sunshine should be the main reason for living anywhere in the world.

Yet I think the question, “why are you here?” also haunts Australians living in Australia. It’s the shadow always creeping up on you.

Recently, I’ve worked with one of the UK’s most exciting theatre companies, Headlong, on their investigation of the legacy of 9/11, DECADE. It’s been a bit of a rush because my work has been included alongside some very big names, Pulitzer-Prize winners like Lynn Nottage and John Logan, as well as wonderful well-produced playwrights like Simon Adamson, Christopher Shinn, Mike Bartlett, Ella Hickson and Alexandra Wood.I’ve been involved in more multi-author works and productions than I would necessarily like, but the thing is, some of the projects have been quite cool and got me free tickets to big festivals, like Latitude.

The lucky thing is that on the fringe, a lot of people involved in much bigger companies come in and out, so this piece is being produced by Lucy Skilbeck, who regularly directs on the West End.The unlucky thing is, once again, you put your work and your reputation out there and there’s no cash and sometimes absolutely no kudos.

I’m not sure about whether my voice has changed. I know that my accent softened. People visiting from Sydney and Brisbane think I’m from the UK.In terms of writing for the stage, I think that the voice you adopt is the one that you need to join a kind of conversation of drama – for example, I think Ross Mueller’s dramatic voice speaks to a conversation that includes Caryl Churchill and David Mamet as much as it would ever include Stephen Sewell.

I’m influenced by Georg Buchner and Tony Kushner, and recently got into Brecht. Of course, there are certain words that you have to stop taking for granted in the UK – ‘pants’ means ‘underpants’ here, ‘doona’ means nothing, and ‘wog’ is a word that you must never use because in a UK context it’s used in the same way as and worse than ‘n****r’.

People also swear with less flourish than Australians do. These sorts of things you need to know to negotiate how you could bring an audience into the world of your play, but the way you construct and animate your drama is an intimate thing, not a nationalistic one, even if it can be heard that way.

I’m hoping to write about English-language ex-pats in the Middle East (as in Dubai and Qatar) soon. There’s a play for NIDA to be written about communists in 1951 Australia. There’s lots to do.


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