Tiles are only half the story (a few thoughts #13)

As a playwright, screenwriter or novelist, are you more a sculptor or a tiler?

My maternal grandfather, Harry, worked as a master tiler. Tiling obsessed him. Even after he retired, he kept a collection from his working life of favourite tiles, in a separate shed.

Walking with Harry was to experience the world through a builder’s eye. Enter a shopping mall and he would stop at the entrance, look at the layout, inspect the grouting then marvel at the scale or difficulty of the floor.

He was the sort of man whose determined interests kept automatic doors from closing.

He drove past buildings in his home city of Geelong and pointed them out. “Did the floor of that one… did a bathroom there… that one, never really happy with the wall there.” These would be jobs completed up to fifty or sixty years previously. He felt horrible about having charged a customer full price when he felt that he’d made an error, probably one of the few tradespeople to argue against customers who wanted to pay the full rate. Often, the errors he worried about weren’t even noticeable if at all visible. But he knew… he knew…

When I was about 20, I tried to tell him that I wanted to be a playwright.

This worried me, because Harry sometimes fumed at the television when a scene finished in one location and then cut to another. He accepted cuts for the news, but in drama it confounded him. I worried that maybe drama confounded him, full-stop. So I wasn’t sure how he’d respond to my writing urge.

I did my best. Something about giving words to actors, directors and technicians so they could put on a show, or display something of the world as I saw it.

“Oh, right,” he said. He took me outside and lit a cigarette. (He’d smoked since he was 11.) “Right. So, playwriting is a lot like tiling.”

“How’s that, grandpa?”

“You have to make sure you build something solid so that other people can walk all over it.”

Many years later, I tried to remember what Harry did as a tiler, and learned to tile a kitchen floor. I had a sort of sense memory from watching him do things when I was really tiny, plus I had the internet.

But I wanted to prove I could do it, and in a weird way I suppose I wanted to see if tiling really was anything like playwriting.

When I first imagined tiling a floor, I thought, tile, trowel, adhesive, grouting – done.

But those actions, the application of tile to adhesive to floor, etc., while crucial take up the least amount of time.

There’s the planning, the choice of tiles – the formatting, if you like.

There’s also the setting up of the space before you place a tile.

And then once you mix the adhesive, you only have about half an hour to use it before it goes. Goes… not sure what the proper word for that is, but it’s even trickier to deal with than leaving out a tub of ice-cream.

Which means that, once you have done the work of putting down the things that people actually see and stand and walk upon, you spend about five times as long cleaning up tools and space, worried about errors large or small or unseen.

The words that a playwright lays down in the moment only take as long as they do to type. Obviously. And truly.

Before those moments, though, for me at least, come hours and weeks of thought and reconsideration. I tend to write my dialogue and stage directions fairly quickly – er, yeah, as quickly as it is to write or to type them – but that’s the apex of the work. The more thoroughly I prepare the less scared and more confident I am.

Afterwards, the cutting and finishing and fixing is only messy if I neglected something in the preparation.

Grandpa Harry never got to see a play of mine produced. He certainly never got to see the floor I tiled. And he was right. A play has to withstand human forces while supporting a parade of humanity to march on.

Sometimes, when I enter a theatre to see a show, I think of him, and look for the joins and reason in the work that builds itself through time and our presence as an audience. I’ll marvel at the scale and difficulty, I’ll feel guilty for mistakes I feel I’ve made in the past and try to remember that a master tiler is never jealous of other tilers’ jobs.

Photo by Robert Nelson on Unsplash

When Characters Sound Too Alike (a few thoughts #12)

One of the most common concerns among playwrights with a play between drafts is that some of their characters sound too alike.

There’s a kind of rule among some theatre literary managers that if you cover up the characters’ names on a page of dialogue, you should still be able to tell which character is which.

I’m not sure that’s a useful thing to tell a playwright working through the mechanics of their play. Clear differences in speech ought to be a side-effect of the work, rather than an aim of the work.

Why? Well, personally, when I try to concentrate on differences between characters’ speech patterns I unconsciously exaggerate. Lisps, weird dialects, finishing every utterance with ‘eh?’ signalling a bunch of stereotyped thinking rather than clear delineation.

So what to concentrate upon to avoid this problem?

There are many things you can do – here are three – and the last of these is the quickest fix and probably the most effective. Continue reading “When Characters Sound Too Alike (a few thoughts #12)”

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.
Continue reading “Answers about Falling Petals (a few thoughts #11)”

You’re Being Annoying (a few thoughts #10)

Back in my uni days, I once said to an English lecturer that I had a great idea for a story but that I just hadn’t finished it yet.

“Stop right there,” she said. “If you’re going to be a writer, remember this. An idea for a story only exists when it is finished. Everything else is a starting point.”

Let’s take, for today’s starting point, the concept of beginning with characters. Continue reading “You’re Being Annoying (a few thoughts #10)”

5 Things I Learned from Andrew Bovell’s Putting Words in Their Mouths

Andrew Bovell’s Platform Paper, Putting Words in their Mouths: the playwright and screenwriter at work, was published in August this year, and I’ve finally made the time to read it. Andrew is one of Australia’s finest dramatists, and is as generous, thoughtful and intelligent a person as you would hope to meet.

His essay on his work and his life at work reflects these qualities. There is so much to love in the 74 pages published by Currency House, but here are five of my responses. Continue reading “5 Things I Learned from Andrew Bovell’s Putting Words in Their Mouths”

Getting your worst ideas out of the way (a few thoughts #9)

Between writing projects, sometimes I feel as if I will never write another thing. Or I come up with one idea, get absolutely excited about it, then when it comes to the sitting down and doing it part freeze, paralysed by the pressure I put on myself.

Every writer feels these things. To continue as a writer, you learn how to accept or to deal with these feelings. Here’s a small technique I would encourage anybody to try when they find themselves stuck or paralysed before starting work on a new play. 

Continue reading “Getting your worst ideas out of the way (a few thoughts #9)”

Comparing Trees to Plays (a few thoughts #8)

I’m a dual citizen of Australia and the allegedly United Kingdom. However, for the time being I’m back in Melbourne with my young family after over a decade in London, and I’m returning to the idea that I am, for better or worse and wherever I reside, an Australian playwright. This is where I was born and became established as a writer. I learned an incredible amount being – and remaining, I hope – in London’s industry, but wandering around what is now my local park has got me thinking about how our environments might shape our attitudes to the most basic of things without our consciously knowing it.

For I have to say, some plays that fly for audiences in Australia seem to be impenetrable for audiences in the UK. In my time reading for UK theatre companies, I listened to other readers express their incomprehension at some writing from Australia that I loved (and knew that others in Australia also valued). There’s a book by the drama critic most important to the New Wave of 1970s Australian drama, Katharine Brisbane, that goes by the name, Not Wrong Just Different, the title taken from one of her reviews where she celebrated a newly-emerging and self-conscious difference in Australian drama. What contributes to this difference?

And, so, my tiny hypothesis is to do with trees.

That’s right. Trees. But why? Continue reading “Comparing Trees to Plays (a few thoughts #8)”

Three Easy Ways to Improve Your Playwriting (a few thoughts #7)

Okay, there’s no easy way to improve apart from working at writing drama, but I’ll give you a few practical ideas in this post.

1. Concentrate on writing scenes, not lines or structure

First things first: great plays are made up of scenes, one great scene followed by another. Individual lines need not be wonderful examples of prose. Lines are there for actors to act rather than appreciate. Continue reading “Three Easy Ways to Improve Your Playwriting (a few thoughts #7)”

In support of Make It Australian campaign

All nations need to promote and protect the ability of their storytellers to share stories and to create new dreams.

Today, the Australian Writers Guild is holding a national day of action in the fight to keep Australian film and television production safe from a free trade deal that would only help those pushing cheap content already produced in other countries. The deal would also lead to the end of kids’ TV quotas, which have helped to spur on the production – and to international acclaim – of kids’ Australian TV classics such as Bananas in Pyjamas, The Wiggles and Round the Twist.

The AWG President, Jan Sardi, says:

‘As many of you will know, the right to tell our own stories from our own perspective and in our own voice is not something that just happened, it’s a battle that was fought by the Guild and the industry in the Make It Australian campaign of the 1970s. The battle was won, but the war to keep it Australian has never ended and it’s now entering a new, critical phase. Commercial TV broadcasters want to walk away from any requirement to create children’s content and are lobbying the government to abolish local content quotas. New players like Netflix, YouTube, Stan, ISPs and Telcos are making billions of dollars from the Australian market with no obligation to create local, original content for the Australian audiences it exploits.

If we let this happen there will be no more scripted drama, no kids’ TV and our screens will be flooded with foreign content and reality shows. We will lose our jobs, our unique Australian voice and our culture and because of the Free Trade Agreement, once it is gone, it is lost forever.

The time has come to fight again!’

Obviously, I agree with him.

I hope you have the time to support the campaign here.

 

Kill Your Exposition, then Hide the Body (thoughts on playwriting craft #6)

Playwrights who have taken any of my classes in the last two years may have this commandment scribbled somewhere on a notepad:

Any information that no character has fought to get or tried desperately to hide does not belong in your play.

There you go. It’s a pretty simple injunction, but if you follow it you’ll write – and rewrite – stronger plays.  Continue reading “Kill Your Exposition, then Hide the Body (thoughts on playwriting craft #6)”