WHEN DID ART GET POSH?
I recall an anecdote concerning Toulouse Lautrec where Vincent Van Gogh has turned up completely uninvited at a breakfast on the footpath of a posh Parisian café. All the well-off Impressionists, including Renoir and Manet and, needless to say, Monet, are tucking into a slap-up-breakfast. They are a bit put-out to see this derelict Van Gogh dressed in rotting rags showing his charcoal sketches of other derelicts. Some, like Degas, start chuckling at the sight of him, but then Lautrec looks with due care at the drawings, gets out his purse and buys a few of them, to the surprise of certainly Van Gogh and the snobby group of wealthy artists who’ve never suffered or slept rough like Vincent Van Gogh did just about all the time.
Many artists have personally supported their friends, even acquaintances, but it seems rarer today, for kindness seems the precise opposite of success and patronage and recognition; it seems the exact opposite of culture, in fact – speculating what particular author is definitely someone ‘to watch’ and what other author is confidentially all finished up and nothing but a bore. If Vincent had sold a few night studies he would’ve eaten better, but the fact is he ate crow, the fowl of indignity. Imagine if he had his own following and was offered shows in trendy galleries instead of being shut out of them!
In our country the official costume of playwrights is posh; if you turn up at a theatre looking shabby, that shabbiness is confused with the play under your arm as though the new script is shabby also or even degenerate and instantly in poor taste, like poverty. The grinding remorselessness of poverty is rarely performed on stages here for chronic paranoia of uncommercial results at the box office. It is the age of the rictus smile of buoyant cheerfulness at all costs to offset overheads. Even plays about sorrow are buoyant and life-affirming and the cretinous verses about moggies by TS Eliot are translated into Cats that are even more gagging. If the young or ancient playwright invents a play that is as rare as it is truthful and beautiful, what theatre company will premiere it and budget it into their uptight season if the author is utterly unknown? Do you need to win midweek Tatts Lotto to get your new play on? I think you do!
It really seems the rarest thing on earth for someone to display the merest interest in anybody else; this doesn’t even relate to the creation of artworks or of plays, but just generally, since the whole lifestyle today is the complete art of selfishness. With T-shirt shops entitled ‘Egomania’ or ‘Psyche’ or ‘Psycho’, and modern consumers perfectly content to fork over a fortune for homes that fall over in the slightest breeze, or sports cars capable of accelerating from nought to a hundred in less than six seconds, modern life is plagued with indulgences.
I try to picture someone prepared to look at a drawing all the day and well into the night before buying it, but these days the drawing is displayed on Zoom or as a jigsaw puzzle or turned into a ceramic that doesn’t really look anything like the drawing anyway! There’s no patience anymore, which is perhaps why there is so much rage in society. If there were more patience around, then maybe theatre companies might treat practising playwrights with that uncanny thing called respect.
BEING OUT OF FASHION
It is a solemn fact that grimness fails to assist the buoyant writer of comedies and even farcical grimness spills the broth of words. Even unheard of and confidently invented new words suffer seizures and gorgeous speeches faint from particularly savage criticisms when sent to a reader or critic without fun in them. Fun is just as necessary for the satiric lung as breath is, the bon-mot-addicted tongue that writes alongside the giggling author who ever so dutifully and willingly sits on the sad daily desk and burns the midnight candle accompanied by gloomy gas bills and the receipts for the payment of an unroadworthy pair of battered shoes you may walk to hell in.
These days, scripts received are mostly rejected by email; there probably aren’t too many writers like me employing padded bags and bulldog clips to hold the moods intact until they get to the other end, but I believe in bulldog clips and staple guns and fluorescent notepaper with your own personal suggestions on it and your own sacred signature! Like the letters personally written to me as a young man all those years ago by John Sumner – who took time out to relate to me, as the hippies used to say in the late sixties. I still can’t relate to most theatre bureaucrats. To me, bureaucrats have taken over the world, particularly in the arts. There are no longer artistic directors reading Charles Baudelaire.
What I should give to attend a live reading of some of the old plays by playwriting friends of mine who’ve unfortunately died after decades of appalling and extreme poverty, even though, in many cases, their plays have been published. Since they have expired like a faulty parking meter in the city, nobody has given them the overdue respect of presenting a well-rehearsed public reading or even performing their work in professional theatres for the edification of the play-loving public. I mean, if you’re dead, does that mean you’re no good, or clichéd or plain couldn’t cut it?
So many of my dearest departed friends are completely ignored in favour of someone more contemporary, just as life is more fashionable than death, but hardly more interesting. All the local councils should present plays by people who truly had things to say, but the bureaucrats spend all their cash on publishing tracts on angle-parking or long-winded essays about the huge fines that accompany spitting in the street even if you happen to be deaf and blind. Why, if you happen to be deceased, cannot you be given a rehearsed public reading, I ask? It’s certainly not your fault if you have croaked it. Instead we get the millionth interpretation of Cats, which is obviously tried and true and will rake it in at the box office. Adapted from the work of a dead Pom, which is much better than a dead Australian, or even a live one.
Sometimes, or even oftener than that, it can be a bit of a trick to separate writing from death, or invention from cliché, and it must be said that trying to be a popular playwright is nigh on impossible where there is literally no one prepared to abandon their ultra-precious time to read your play from top to bottom without deviation. No one to sit down in a cosy floral armchair, put on their enlargers, sip some sort of highly fashionable tea and read your play. Who on earth shall give up socialising and sit perfectly still and read every word of you? Who on earth is not just generous with their time but altruistic with their own personal reading?
But just as it is hateful to be ignored by the great and powerful, it is disastrous to receive foulness in the letterbox from someone you once loved and admired, who has now fallen off the perch and only delights in shit-canning an old mate! One used to luncheon with a much-admired poet who truly had you in tears and treated you to expensive champagnes and fresh-shucked rock oysters, until you got a literature board fellowship – then he treated you well beneath contempt!
There used to a cartoonist with the Bulletin named O’Neil. Bitterly, he depicted Brett Whitely as a syringe. That cruel drawing was published in the same issue where Robert Hughes, in his mean-spirited obituary, gave Brett a drubbing, calling him a dirty little junkie. Twenty years earlier Hughes had loved Brett greatly and passionately; they even shared a tiny studio in Sydney when they used to paint together, partying all around the Cross and anywhere else a boisterous laugh or two could be had, but when Brett overdosed Bob diligently washed his pinkies of him and wrote him off as nothing but a joke, or a fraud – whichever wounds the more! A tiny drop of affection would have done Brett a lot of good at the conclusion of his days. Many who once loved him gave him up, as Dylan Thomas once wrote in a poem, as ‘The heart gives up its dead’. I never bothered to read the Bulletin again.
But then, contempt in itself can be no bad thing, whether one is young or moribund. Cynicism and bad blood can stiffen your resolve – and suffering, for all its bad press, can galvanise you even further into never giving in.
What are you going to give in for when the morning, a miracle in itself, has turned up right on time? You’ve had a brief scrub-up, taken a peep in the conspiratorial mirror and seen that you appear almost human, for a playwright, that is. You turn on the op-shop computer, the play flickers onto the screen and as your bloodshot opticals perceive yesterday’s scene, you deign to read the drama aloud, being a not-bad actor. If you keep the pace up, it could perhaps be the finest theatre you’ve ever written, bar none! It is not the remembrance of plays past and the finite recollection of pleased faces in the theatres where you’ve played that keeps you going, but the ultra-excitement of this morning’s brand-new writing, even if you have had the dick socially. As you pick up the thread, each new sentence is realer and better than anything yet, so what you do, of course, is trust only your conscience, your spirit, the old friendship with your soul which is the joyous resolution of grammar and literature. Nobody else can write a scene like God; in fact you can better dear old God. And so you finish your play and hand it in to some acidic theatre company full of bossy people who have never talked to a worker in their lives. How can they be expected to understand a play devoted to the poor?
Years ago I worked at Channel 7 in South Melbourne as a junior set painter and honestly learned more there than in all my years since. This was because we had to paint the sets quicker than the paint dried. I remember our boss called Harald Vike said once in the dismal tea room that ‘To be an artist in Australia you need a hide as thick as a walrus!’ He was in fact referring to all the insults he’d received from morons on trains when he alighted out in the bush after devoting an entire day to one of his impressive landscapes. He wasn’t young then, around sixty-five, truanting from Channel 7 for the day. The boredom of painting puerile sets for trashy TV shows and the hurt in his old exhausted honest dial looked a bit like the flayed hide of Saint Bartholomew. The insults from the dick-brains on suburban trains were delivered with extra venom when Harald hopped on the city train to get home and, because cruelty is free as well as popular, he was assailed by poisonous remarks just because he was carting a great big stretcher he’d pinched from the loading bay at Channel 7. All the others on the carriage had never seen a landscape in their lives.
It is a historical fact that Henry Lawson, whilst working in London at the completion of the nineteenth century, one evening, because he felt anguished with anxiety mixed with deep depression, chucked his long lonely body into the foggy and murky Thames, clutching an old battered leather suitcase containing writing and a big bottle of brandy; down he sank like a rejection letter.
To his stupefaction an Aboriginal man who had been working in London too dived after him. After a bit of a struggle he got Henry by his boots and hauled him to the gasping surface; thus Lawson lived. I was told that tale by an old alcoholic Aboriginal guy in a hippie commune in 1970, so it must be true!
BE NOT DISCOURAGED
It is very much an ad-libbing sort of life or existence being a professional playwright and in several respects the ups and downs can be quite shattering. But you simply cannot get bitter, otherwise your scripts are bitterer and bitterer by degrees and you might have to look at other professions such as mathematics or shadow-boxing, or a gourmet chef quite possibly! Resilience is good for you and the fruits outweigh the squashed grapes of wrath. There is simply nothing like a laughing theatre with moist eyes agreeably cheered up by the exact kind of language the crowd feels like, demonstrating that fact with much chuckling and a round of applause at the conclusion of the moment or the finale of the scene. It is then that the redeemed playwright returns home and realises his profession has blood.
It is not a faux-pas to slave away on a new play; it feels like redemption and has stars set in its many dazzling orbits. The new manuscript has meaning as long as there are some who want to read it; just that alone inspires faith in the new language. That is the impetus and feeling you need to hop into!
THE THEATRE COMMUNITY
When I remember those souls in the early 1970s who gave me doses of undiluted hope for The Theatre, who personally sat up late and studied the unwieldy scripts I handed to them, or rudely left under their door, or still had time for me after I earbashed them something shocking – they seem like miracle men or ladies out of a dream, and although overemotional and never performed and full of myself, they got back to me by pack mule or wonky public telephone and it was ‘Yes’ – the exact opposite of ‘No’.
At The Pram Factory Theatre in Carlton that existed for ten years there was an open court on scripts and an unbiased examination on the skills of those scripts; the dynamic aspect of The Pram Factory was that if the script, unsolicited or solicited, was liked or even adored by the Programming Committee and the play was voted yes, the collective itself put their whole heart and soul into its production and its opening-night festivities. It was completely unprejudiced and open at the Pram, which was why I worked there. It didn’t really matter if the Programming Committee liked you personally; all they wanted was an interesting play. It could be rewritten in the old building if you wished or you could slave away on it at home – if you had one!
All sorts of plays were put on at The Pram. They ranged from horrifying heroin dramas by Phil Motherwell to farces by Barry Oakley to musicals by unknown keyboard junkies. They held concerts of all kinds, supporting everything from saving whales to prison dramas with real live criminals in them. Early in their existence I got their programming committee sort-of interested in a comedy based on the removal of my own teeth at the Royal Melbourne Dental Hospital. In Emergency, on Christmas Day, their star technician yanked out in rapid-fire succession every single one of my rotted molars; halfway through pulling them out he dramatically ran out of morphine and had this great lump of a girl sit on me to keep me perfectly still and proceeded to complete his gruesome excavation. Believe me, I didn’t say a word! The play was called – and I still consider it my finest title – The Rotten Teeth Show and it was divided into two perfectly crazy halves, the first being the bloodthirsty extraction scene. After enough time for a drink, the second half came on, taking the form of a Supreme Court trial with me, the plaintiff, being charged with the serious crime of possessing teeth not mine, which of course fell under the Fraud Act of 1954! When I first penned that script, I had been devouring Brecht, who wrote emotionally and truthfully about teeth. He once said that ‘one cannot possibly defend oneself without one’s teeth because of course one can’t make a word of sense’. That will do me, Bertolt!
The play eventually went on the road to Adelaide with two of Phil Motherwell’s plays under the umbrella title of Give the Shadow a Run. It’s hard to imagine any theatre group these days unprejudiced enough to produce and present a play on dentistry, but this was late 1978, the plays were hits and all the actors – including me – made an astonishing two hundred bucks a week with accommodation thrown in!
It was a considerable encouragement to be cast in the pair of Motherwell plays even though the bizarre character I played was Doc Holliday, who dealt not in traditional medicines but specialised in smack. It was great to act in a friend’s scripts and play to good houses in a foreign state, which is where heroin always takes you … Not that I was on it.
THE GOOD YEARS: 1975-1980
In my mid-twenties I hitchhiked up to Sydney. It was 1975 (my favourite year) and under my right arm I held as though spot-welded there a gigantic cannister containing a reel-to-reel audio tape of a full-length radio comedy entitled The Fool’s Shoe Hotel, which was produced in an ancient church in Essendon Victoria by a chap named Peter Mumm. My friend Greg Leverson accompanied me up the Hume Highway and another chap named Marius Webb listened to it, chuckled and purchased it for rock station 2JJ (now 2JJJ).
Greg and I hitchhiked home to Melbourne and had more than enough for a giant burger and chips at Goulburn on the way. The excitement I felt back then as I politely handed over fifty bucks each to the Pram Factory actors who’d done the reading still sizzles deep in me, I tell you that for free! It was exciting that 2JJ broadcast my radio play – several times actually – but so much more thrilling was the deed of paying the performers fifty each with money from the ABC: that felt better even than writing it!
It was that boost in pride that Marius Webb paid to me that day, as though to say, ‘He’s not too bad and the play is completely mad but the music is very good, possibly avant-garde, so we shall purchase the idiotic script by Dickins!’ It is the profound difference between enjoying the Goons on the BBC and hearing your own personal language on the ABC via Double J! I think that Marius was the only staff-elected Commissioner at the ABC and I know he possessed five hundred vastly different T Shirts and possibly five hundred different girlfriends, for I met nearly all of them when later on I briefly lived with him in Balmain.
In that identical year – 1975 – I got a script on at la Mama Theatre because the artistic director Betty Burstall read it and put it on halfway through the year; it was called Ghosts – I was so completely naïve that I was not aware that Henrik Ibsen had written a play of the same name. My old friend Peter Green directed it; it was an ensemble play with me as a drunk – I was into the Method back then, but otherwise so unsophisticated. I literally did not know what a blackout was. Green told me in front of everyone it was when you couldn’t see anything.
I was so impoverished after the bump-out of my first play that I dropped in on Liz Jones, who ran La Mama with Betty Burstall, and beseeched her for my share of the door. It had to have been a trifle embarrassment for her as she was lactating at the time and grumpily handed over a few bob covered in her new baby’s milk. I think I went and bought myself a beer with it and drank it on a street bench feeling pretty good about everything.
Back then I was slim as a banknote and wore hair down to my waist, so I got a part in a strange alternative play. The opening night was something of a fizzer with nary a laugh all night long. After opening night the frazzled director gave me my notes and said, ‘You weren’t happening!’ This critical rebuke was not very helpful, but going by the way he glared at me, as well as noticing the impact it had on my fellow alternative actors, I decided it had to be helpful in respect of my acting career. I decided to ‘happen’ the next night.
One naturally wishes hippie plays were on again for the weird costumes wedded to the unfollowable stoned dialogue and the inebriated commentary from the audience. They would be dressed in blinding turbans and pants manufactured from real panther hide, the girls’ dresses were made presumably from gentlemen’s silken ties stitched together, blowing all minds. It is overdue to witness heavily heightened non-sequiturs and blithering parables that only a drugged young couple could not only understand but naturally memorise because strange things to say do come in handy at perpetual parties.
The cult musical Hair is beyond understanding fifty years after it became a smash hit all over the universe. The values of today are more disastrous than ever, with the spirit of free love about as popular as former President Trump! It is impossible to picture someone that you’ve never met moving in with you and falling in love, not just with you, but all the lonely fellow members of your family. I recall long ago the Nimrod (now the Griffin Theatre) put on a production of The Brady Bunch that I saw and very nearly suffered a seizure due to the extreme oddness of it! I remember when I was about twenty, I made an appointment with a senior public servant at the old Commonwealth Employment Service to get a job. The guy walked up to me at reception looking just like an immaculate air-conditioned senior hippie and said to me in an undertone, ‘How’s it happening, man?’ He got me a job instantly, carting lucerne up the bush!
In 1980 a couple of refreshing publishers called Diana Gribble and Hilary McPhee bought me some drinks at our local pub called Stewarts and after a table-full commissioned me to write my young life story in a sort of illiterate rough-as-guts way. Hilary and Di both said, ‘You can do it. Just be yourself and don’t imitate anybody!’ I showed no initiative and wrote straight from the heart as instructed; their advice worked just great in fact! Their faith in me paid off and, although that was forty years ago, I remember laughing as I wrote it, particularly the sad sections which were written like soulful letters to absent friends. It wrote itself, actually – a chronicle of rich embarrassments, poverty-stricken youthful excess and bitter lonesomeness. Within all of these rich faux-pas I was able to include awkward court appearances and the unexpected death of the family dog. It ended up being called The Gift of The Gab. A writer named Helen Daniel called it ‘illuminating and inspiring’; it became my first hit book.
At thirty I literally had no idea how fame and fortune worked and was just pleased to go on The Clive James Show in Sydney, joking and laughing a great deal with Clive and his friend Barry Humphries. But when I got home to Melbourne, the work that came in was more than gratifying – it was unreal. Because of the exposure and publicity I was given residencies at posh schools, broadcasts of my own poems on the ABC and commissions to write musicals as effortlessly as sipping water out of the tap. Some of my plays were presented at the old Playbox Theatre with the great concept of a complimentary copy of the play given at the box office to the patron purchasing a ticket, so you used to see them reading or flicking through the play at interval which is a handy method of educating them at least and very gratifying for the author to physically visualise the perusal of the new play.
THE GOOD YEARS: 1984-1985
Discouragement is much simpler to give than all of the reasons to proceed with your script, so it is rather marvellous to find someone with flair and forbearance who – once they detect its unique style, since it really is style that sets it apart from clichéd bullshit – will gladly study your original writing. You realise the moment you start to read something that it falls into one of two categories, which are obviously wondrous or mindless. The audience that loves the theatre always longs for brilliance of literature, so the durance of the performance hurtles by in what seems like a single second, as opposed to a long night of yawns, much fidgeting, looking at one’s wristwatch and eyeing off the exit signs.
It is the quick and lively literary judgement that gives the impetus. Back in 1984 I wrote a long letter to John Sumner, who ran the Melbourne Theatre Company, pointing out that I had been engaged in the art of writing a series of dramatic and comic sketches for a new play called Reservoir by Night. He wrote back to my parents’ home in the actual Reservoir in Melbourne and arranged a cup of hot cocoa at his theatre workshop. I caught the train in and we enjoyed very much that gorgeous hot cocoa in the tea room together. He told me how much he’d enjoyed my monologues at La Mama and The Pram Factory, which I found extremely gratifying indeed. He treated me to a bun with butter in it, then sliced that in two.
By degrees John Summer suggested that I ought to write a first draft of the play on Reservoir, promising then to study it to check it was any good or not; I shook his hand and left his tea room feeling elated. I got to it and invented many scenes set in my hometown that were acute and extra light-hearted. Complete with songs that were wistful or melodramatic, and patriotic or sarcastic, the whole batch became the first draft. We saw one another again when I dropped in the script, politely shaking hands. A month later he once more wrote to me at my parents’ address and said he’d like to produce it next year at the old Russell Street Theatre. I was so overexcited that I cried.
The play went on as promised midway through 1985; it was a hit. I gleefully remember audiences singing along with blasphemous songs satirising the Reservoir Baptist Church and stomping to other songs mocking just about everything under the sun. I sat next to Mr Sumner, who sang along with some of the songs too and did a whole lot of extra foot-tapping and got dewy-eyed sometimes during plaintive sequences. I wrote it for my friend Graeme Blundell, who acted as the narrator but also played swags of character parts. Most impressive of Blundell’s roles was a demented Baptist minister named Laurie Throttle, who sang insane moral speeches from a mock lecture downstage centre to the delight of the four hundred in the crowd.
That show was the second highest earner at the box office, only beaten by the latest Williamson. What I recall most is the way we initially wrote polite letters to one another in order to get the idea shifted from writing to live theatre that would prove popular with devoted theatre lovers of which there are thousands in each city.
And yet in the same year, 1985, the South Australian Theatre Company put on my play Beautland. My happy wife and happy self flew across the country to attend the opening night in a vast theatre filled with excited people. Judging by the rounds of enthusiastic clapping and foot-stomping, it went exceedingly well. The next day when the citric critiques came out, my wife hurled a sour copy of the Adelaide Advertiser at me, smiled and said, ‘If you can keep writing after this review, then in my opinion you’ll write forever!’ It was sourer than the unmistakable flavour of the gall our poor lord sipped upon the cross.
I vanished at once into the hotel loo and studied the foul review in there, for it seemed a suitable venue in which to read it. After going through the copy several times, I tore it up in sheer disgust. This wasn’t simply a crook review but a hatchet job. Amongst other criticisms the reviewers said that I was a charlatan, although it is true to say I didn’t feel like one – just a wronged Melbourne playwright being punished for having the barefaced cheek to be performed in Adelaide.
My wife and I dined somewhere upmarket on lobster and champagne and booked an earlier flight to Melbourne. We flew home as flat as pancakes.
The disaster I believe was due to its director Keith Gallasch. At the season’s launch he sent up the media, calling them ‘lowbrow’, which wasn’t a fantastic idea. I could just tell by the tone that my show would be king hit, and so it was. Payback time absolutely! A year’s work it was to write that play. It was the gentlest writing I ever put to paper and because the director had satirised the newspaper critics and the radio reviewers, they canned it, destroyed it, fixed it up! Currency Press published Beautland and it had another production years later at Melbourne Grammar that went over just as happily as the South Australian premiere. Whenever I read it now in its published form, it seems just as light-hearted, jolly and ultra-whimsical, but also absolutely contaminated due to its critical abuse and annihilation.
It always gives you a jolt to be put down like that, but for all the sighing and shrugging you endure you just have to keep on or you could be in danger of making a catastrophic mistake, which would be an agreement in your soul to cease playwriting. What may you do with a jolt? How on earth do you show your plays around after a put-down? The poet Bruce Dawe once wrote, ‘Love is the art of being broken’, but I don’t go with that. Love is the art of never giving in. After a put-down that you should never forget, you need to take up the cudgels and plonk yourself in a public library where it is legal and permissible to write without experiencing a frontal-lobe seizure from the enormous pressure of loneliness. You get hold of a biro or pencil, a lump of ruled notepaper and just sit there in a perfect trance, committing your thoughts to the printed word, doing that play that has been planted in your brain for some years now. You’re not going to be interrupted or booted out, and after six or so solid hours you shall bear witness to those midnight scenes that you dreamt in your overstimulated single bed. Before your amazed eyes the midnight oil segues to biroed and penciled scenes. You commence to develop the old ideas of last night, and when nobody is looking you might even read lines back to yourself that are transformations from deeply felt night-time memories. After six more you have created many scenes and believable or unbelievable characters, you take an overdue break. Perching yourself in a park after midnight you read the whole section back to yourself in company of the simple stars and confiding constellations; you give the dear moon a prompt copy!
It isn’t rot, it isn’t rubbish, it’s a new play, possibly the best you’ve ever done in more than fifty years of literate experimentation and just so fulfilling! If you’ve the cash, get the biro and pencil miraculous draft printed up by some friendly typist and then have the unreal sensation of actually reading it properly on your boarding-house kitchen table; then feel free to laugh like anything at how witty and superbly clever it is. Have six copies photocopied for a semi-professional reading over the identical table by mostly out-of-work actors, bung a tape on the table to faithfully record it for posterity or radio for the blind, who broadcast excellent dramatic and comic audio tapes to an eager listenership.
It’s so simple, almost insulting, to say ‘take up the cudgels’ after suffering more put-downs than dear Jesus accumulated in his brief tenure, writing what you would have to call revolutionary manuscripts. The way back into writing after a colossal drubbing by a company that didn’t even read the play but dismissed it since they had never heard of its creator is, to say the least, difficult. But the truth is they didn’t understand the script, in fact they didn’t understand you or listen to you in their iceberg offices; nor did they even offer you a reviving coffee when you were in there ever so briefly, ever so hurtfully, ever so remotely. It was early in the morning, they got your name wrong anyway and couldn’t wait to see the back of you, and in fact greatly cheered up when you let yourself out without a goodbye! You need to have the sun on your shoulders to write, so you quit their superior gloom and head back to some sort of impromptu desk where you are dreadfully free to sit and finish the script. The way back is never to mind the rejection and hoe into it despite the bitterness you surely feel. Then, faithfully read it back just to yourself because you don’t need to flatter anyone or out-think any of them. The justification for the second draft is your faith in the characterisations and moods and your longing to see it come on in public once you’ve bettered it. You can only do that if you’re liberated from that old dead bureaucracy. When you see once again that your writing gets to audiences, whether on the published page or delivered directly from the stage by actors committed to those passionately penned speeches, you understand that theatre is eternally yours like a faithful lover.
THE POWER OF YES … AND NO
If you dare to lift up the soon-to-be-disconnected phone in order to telephone the dreadfully powerful and crucially important theatre company about your play, then of course you simply do not know what to feel. If it is yes, that is a word or phrase or quality of light you’ve never seen before, so you faint and aren’t fit for commentary for several days or practically a calendar month at the very least. You surface eventually and think of the quantitative leap betwixt yes and no. In the end you agree with your soul that joy is possible on this planet and it is made of reading, since those that matter read your play and voted for it to go on.
When it is no, you simply chuck it in the drawer and sip tea for a year without any friendly company because you have decidedly become the very epitome of unsociable; the nice self is utterly no more. Writing for the stage is just simply too tough and any further literature is out of the equation; you couldn’t very well write your own name anymore and you even stop going to see shows, since they are never yours. When it’s always no, your style freezes into negativity, you put a stop-payment on your chuckling and become as if dead; indeed, you are dead and what’s left of your friends fail to recognise you or your work anymore because theatres would rather put on anyone but you.
THE SEASON OF MEANNESS
A few years ago The Melbourne Theatre Company were again reading a script of mine. I was telephoned one day to hear the news that it was very much liked, I had to promise to be at my phone about a week later at three in the afternoon and that I would get some good news. This in my view could only be that they were going to put it on – that it would oxygenate my humble passbook with the dear old NAB. At four o’clock (not three) the chap, who was their literary manager, rang and said that the good news was that the artistic director had liked the script very much. That could be construed as on the record, but the bad news was that the characters were seen as degenerate since they were so bleak and downtrodden. I said they were based on my family!
This was the exact opposite of encouragement and now that I review it, the sensation is of an immoral judgement. To wait all morning like that for what purported to be good news, sitting tight through a whole extra hour, for a deity to then tell me that my characters were degenerate even though they were my living blood, was not only insulting but stupid and cruel. What can you do after treatment such as this except take it on the chin, if you’ve got one!
This abuse is ageless and of course perfectly destructive, as it takes guts to get over a setback like that. Even though I have had popular dramas and comedies on with the MTC, the effect of being duped like that is not so much demoralising, as it is completely enraging and nauseating because one knows how good one is. It has been proven over and over by box-office receipts as well as powerful applause that one hears in one’s ear canals, not to mention remembrances of a lifetime writing for our country’s theatres, big and tiny. It is the season of meanness sometimes, even often, when everything goes to the blackest form of black. But then the other times arrive and the same style of writing is very eagerly desired and you just can’t lose really and all the companies lust for you in their fashion!
THE ORIGINS OF TANGERINE JACKET: 2015
I remember clear as a bell how my play about Juanita Neilson went over in that small theatre in Kings Cross a few months ago with all the great work that Nick Parsons put into it. The play began in 2015, based on dreams of the vanishing of Juanita Nielson. Juanita was the hero of Darlinghurst who fought the developers to a standstill but perished despite her incredible efforts to expose the criminal element that was shaking Kings Cross to pieces. Despite the publicity surrounding her murder back in 1975, she has never been seen since. I was writer in residence at Melbourne University’s Footscray Campus. I wrote and studied the case around my writing classes until I had the script in a draft that I could show people up in Sydney. One of them was Nick Parsons at Currency Press, who became the dramaturg, and I became Currency’s first Writer in Residence. When I went up to Sydney in order to revise the play, I was made very welcome and given a lovely desk upon which to invent some new scenes. I was even presented with a gorgeous, mouth-watering salad roll! Salad rolls in themselves are encouragement! Over the course of a couple of years – three or four, actually – the script became as polished as the Welcome Stranger gold nugget, except it was made of words – it seemed millions of them.
One inspiration for the Juanita story was a photo I saw in a book about her that showed a couple of New South Wales detectives examining her trendy tangerine jacket by the side of a freeway. She had perhaps hurled that fashionable jacket out of the car that she was abducted in to display her whereabouts. As a result I called my new play The Lost Tangerine Jacket. There was one particular day in one of the small offices at Currency Press in Redfern when Nick Parsons got onto the big whiteboard with a marker and completely reordered every single scene and vignette and monologue in a wild Jackson Pollock kind of way. In a magic fury of rapid swirls and coal-blue Texta flourishes, Nick rejigged the play until it was unrecognisable but dynamic, and much better!
It must have taken six or so hours and tornado speed, but when I read it back over, all the explosions of speech and reiterated one-liners, and this change to that change, and this put here and that put there, turned the old conventional script into a Rolls Royce, with a convertible roof already! It was the most insane experience of my playwriting life! When I went back to my motel that night, I lay on the sofa a Renaissance man! The amendments and high-speed-rearrangements breathed crimson blood into it! It was the weirdest change in my life, since Nick never altered a word of the original play but invigorated it, oxygenated it, high-speeded it and modernised it, much-bettered it!
The long night after all that brilliant correction, it wasn’t all that possible to get to sleep in any way, so I sipped gallons of motel tea, walked around the block a great deal and purchased some extra-strength Panadol. I tried to read the paper or a book I had fetched up from Melbourne, but it was no use since the whole dramaturg experience had been so overstimulating, and terribly new and exciting.
This dramaturgy thing had been encouragement in its uncut form, but a year or so later there was a reading of Juanita at the Parramatta Riverside Theatre, which was produced by Robert Love, the artistic director of that venue. I was flown up and met by Mr Love, who cheerfully installed me in a posh hotel and shouted a tasty meal. The next day at eight p.m. the revitalised script was given a passionate live reading by Sydney’s finest actors. The crowd were given wine or coffees or soft drink or could enjoy a smoke outside, then I was invited by Robert Love to give a talk and there were in the audience a couple of women who’d known the real-life Juanita Neilson. This was more encouragement and gave me more passion to see the new play put on in Kings Cross, which occurred in early December last year.
The reading was produced by Tony Llewellyn-Jones, who also played several key parts brilliantly and hilariously, including a particular gangster that he did as a stroke victim, which only made him more horrifying. Tony picked me up at Sydney Airport, organised my accommodation and lent me fifty bucks for expenses such as human eating, as I was, as usual, broke. Aarne Neeme himself directed it despite the restrictions of COVID at a tiny morose-looking theatre directly underneath Kings Cross underground. The small audience could hear with amazing fidelity hundreds of subway trains interrupting but enhancing the mood of the play, which is set in Kings Cross anyway; there are many screams in the script but the underground express screams only amplified each of them.
Tangerine Jacket has come a long way from the first biro draft penned whilst teaching at Melbourne University’s Footscray Campus. It has been five long years of conducting many interviews, including one with a guy who had been in the nightclub where Juanita vanished, and marrying facts with real-life dreams, which were, in some cases, actual hauntings where Juanita was in my room with me. It has a large ensemble of actors, which perhaps is why some of the larger Sydney companies have given me rave reviews but hedged putting it on, so to say. It has been a close phenomenon, but Currency Press has oxygenated it.
MUSTERING THE COURAGE
When you are dismissed by a so-called-better, a professional who trades in fashionable scripts and whose posh office is bedecked with signed photos of Harold Pinter, it’s usually the experience that a young writer must believe the negative and hurtful judgement. How could you possibly top him? His modern office boasts a high-end-desk on which sit recent plays from the West End and Broadway and a show-off library choked with classy and glossy recently-published plays by those that matter, so what could you ever possibly matter?
The smart words confuse and fell you in one fell blow, the atmosphere of the room is very heady and lofty, so you can’t really breathe, and he’s banging on about the box office incessantly, so much that you begin to imagine cash exceeds the flourish of the word. He gets your name right at least, that’s to your advantage. He actually turned up on discovery night at your old school and thoroughly enjoyed himself, saying to David Williamson that he wants to remember you, but in the end you are out in the street waiting for the bus to anonymity with your crumpled pensioner concession card, tears forming in your battered eyes that frankly embarrass and belittle you.
Why did he give you half an hour anyway; whatever was the point? No doubt you are an anecdote at some future office party and maybe a scene in somebody else’s script that they are actually interested in? It really does take guts to impersonate a phoenix, rise from the ashes of disillusionment and go into your second draft.
Sometimes it is the fact that your play is really liked by a wealthy company but you are unknown and a threat to their kudos. You have the cheek to write well but you look bad with a defeated expression and rotten or completely missing teeth or your dentures slip from your mouth when you are addressing, albeit briefly, the CEO. So, although you are no doubt a practising genius, you stink and are shown the door and are swiftly outside in the street comingling with your fellow deadbeats. This isn’t quite where in fact you belong. Your play belongs to the ages, but you cannot possibly get it on until someone of major influence bothers to peruse its florid and many pages of hieroglyphic splendour.
If you’re divorced then it’s even more difficult as you have nobody to read it to. Most writers are dreadful readers-aloud anyway, you tend to read aggressively and with irritability right in the way. If a man has a friendly wife who is perhaps a decent writer as well, then it’s nothing but a pleasure to share the work with her. Here I am being old fashioned – more women write than men today. Still, the same phenomenon applies and no matter what gender, it is really a treat if you can read the book to your loved one; I hate the word partner!
Being an old-fashioned play writer suffering the horror and shame of being born a boy, you are struggling somewhat to hold a reading just about anywhere and settle with possibly reading it back to yourself to see if it’s any good or not; but it is a lonesome thing to do actually and you look a bit of a drongo reading out loud a play that is good, even fantastic, on a grubby railway station platform with only the crows to applaud or boo you! Whereas if a professional theatre likes your play then you attend a polished public reading with a full house laughing and sniffing at the sad bits, and a question and answer after, and possibly delectable hot scones with jam and cream, and a glass of wine that isn’t cheap. Moreover, nice people compliment you on your play and ask how they can get a copy. You mention your publisher and the whole notion of working as a playwright has meaning and depth and your face has found its grin again at long last!
It is the exact same work of art, it’s just that you have been treated differently, that’s all, really! Imagine some astute literary manager reading a couple of scenes back to you with the right emphasis and exact right mood, just to check how it feels when the work has been read with bright passion around the office and at your rare meeting you are treated with not just respect but more like enlightenment, dare I say love, too! There is nothing as exciting as being included in a season with the advance that permits things like happiness, and new shoes, and comfortable pants, and jocks instead of collapsed thongs that have circumnavigated Sydney just about on their own for years.
The rare-as-diamonds advance if one is married catches up with the monthly rental and fixes the car and your family eat better. Not that there is anything the matter with a whole year of baked beans rinsed back with cheap tea; one day it will be Earl Grey!
THE JOY OF WRITING
I happen to be seventy-one at the moment of this essay’s formal composition and have written in just about every conceivable genre since I left high school. I failed metalwork but scored a hundred out of a possible hundred for French – possibly because I was in love utterly and completely with our French Teacher Miss Taushinskis who was the most divine woman I ever met in my life; mind you I was only twelve at the time. Since I left high school at fifteen I have devoted my wits to theatre mostly but also to fiction, memoir and many books of interview. My latest, One Punch, published last year by Hardie Grant, is a series of interviews with mothers who have lost a son to a particular kind of blow that is delivered randomly and usually lethally.
I have had as many flops as hits but have no intention of ever stopping what to me is the greatest aspect of the mind: the creative employment of words and the feelings they provoke – theatre. It is never the recollection of plays that went over well that motivates and inspires, but the new invention and the new pages of comic or dramatic dialogue that no one’s seen before or heard before when it is read out with passionate subtlety or just plain outrage as in the play about the disappearance in 1975 of Juanita Neilson. Aarne Neeme directed that reading at Kings Cross with devoted actors who couldn’t be paid a single cent but went in it because they liked the writing. When I found out from Tony Lewellen Jones that they even shouted me an airline ticket from Melbourne, I gulped.
All I know really is that personally for me after fifty odd years of plays performed all over the country, there is no feeling like breezes of unprompted laughter and silences like Beethoven filling the aisles derived from your skill with pathos. When your script works, as they say, it is the greatest emotional force short of falling in love with someone. The joy you feel is manifest in everything from breathing to showering; it is a delicious rinse in ecstasy to know that you can both lift and dismay people with solemn stories or bright jokes that have never been heard before, not once! The sixty- or one-hundred-odd pages morphs into collapsed eyelids, blinking eyelids or merry eyelids, depending upon what particular mood you are transmitting to them. That is the power of a really novel thought or sterling sentence or paralysing rhyme. After the show, chatting with the spilling audiences, you feel vindicated. You could have worked cutting down trees or bending over a lot to read gas meters or driven the school bus with screaming kids on it at seven each morning, but writing for the theatre was for you; that and nothing-but was your calling and profession! It is hard and it is lonely, but once it has worked and you have pleased people you don’t know, there is nothing like it!