At present I’m working on a play that’s been selected as a finalist for the Queensland Premier’s Drama Award (QPDA). I thought this might be a reasonable time to look in to how this play, The Holidays, came into being.
Rather than get bogged down in the specifics of what it’s about, I’ll try to focus on the things I did, as writer, so far to bring the play in to being. This involved idea generation and realization in a range of art forms; gradually building the work through solo creative development, into a proposal with integrity in content and form; writing (and rewriting) failed submissions, and writing.
I answered a call for proposals from one of the world’s most successful and innovative children’s television production companies to ‘create a magical kingdom’ in 500 words or less. Unbelievably this got to the second stage and they asked for a more detailed treatment about this place and its inhabitants, which I’d situated by the sea.
At the same time I was working follow-ups to my picture book The Empty City. One of these was a short story about a family holiday by the seaside that’s blighted by bad weather and the flu, playing with the zombie tropes in a family setting.
I brought these two ideas together into a rough one-pager of scene ideas and titles and didn’t do anything else with it, at least nothing I can find on file. In these notes a protagonist from one story interacted with the world I’d created in another, but I left it there. I was busy with other things, including adapting The Empty City for the stage with a team of other artists. That script was also a finalist in the QPDA.
The Text Prize for Young Adult & Children’s Writing was a new scheme that offered publication to the best manuscript of 20, 000 words or more, so I wrote the story of these combined worlds as a novel. It was a pretty terrible novel, but it was a good opportunity to build symbols and narrative. This work saw the development of the family upon whom the story came to be centered, the themes and world of the story, the ‘voice’ of the protagonist and the logic and poetry of the magic realist elements. In retrospect the exercise also made me cheerfully face my inadequacies as a writer and further appreciate the art of literary fiction.
All this application writing, all these ‘opportunities’ ask questions of the emerging work which serve to clarify what it is you think you’re doing, and build your capacity communicate it to the uninitiated, and potentially uninterested reader. You have to write around the work.
Each artist will have their own motivations for creation, be they extrinsic, intrinsic, or connective. For me, these applications also provide useful deadlines for my creative research, but what gets me sitting down to write is intrinsic. There’s a kind of doublethink going on in which you convince yourself the labour of creative work is its own reward, yet are working to someone else’s deadline.
The best moments are when the artwork starts telling you how it wants to be written, rather than the other way around. These moments are a great relief, in fact, when you’re not servicing a structure that’s completely predetermined.
I wrote the first third of the piece, alongside a new rationale and entered it into a few different playwriting competition/development opportunities. It was shortlisted for the Rodney Seaborn Playwright’s Award. Each time I had to write about why I was writing the play, and how it worked I took the opportunity to sharpen and focus the language I used to describe it, cutting away extraneous material. The more I do this kind of work, the more I think that the writing around a piece of art is almost as important as the writing in it.
I researched the themes, setting and certain cultural and visual elements so I had a bank of background knowledge to draw on in my own process. I used sketching to clarify the symbolic order of the piece, and when the structure felt like it was getting unwieldy I wrote each scene as a single (low quality) haiku, and reordered them with a physical cut and paste.
I used music in my work. I created an audio piece of spoken word poetry and music that captured a key moment. It wasn’t very good. I brought conventions of ‘performance’ to theatre, and (being usually bored or frustrated when watching shows) tried to write something I thought would be interesting to be part of, for artists and audiences. I worked with mixed results to ensure the scenes transcended their origin as text-rendered images and became more action-oriented. I considered working with a dramaturg but couldn’t afford it.
I’m no expert in the other art-forms I played with but it’s useful to imagine the emerging play in other domains and anyway, when in creative development mode, it makes sense to be creative about how you’re developing your work.
I had an informal reading of the script, as it stood, at uni with a group of interested students. Dramaturg Kathryn Kelly offered to have a look at it and made some suggestions. Then I wrote the rest of it, and entered it into several other things, including the QPDA. The play was then on a longlist of 11 out of 93 entries.
The QPDA is fairly unique as a playwriting award for its focus on development. As such, writers or projects on the longlist have to pitch the work to a panel from Queensland Theatre. For this private meeting, I chose to create a slideshow of still images, set to a piece of music I’d used while writing. Over this I spoke an introduction to the play, ‘as spoken’ by the protagonist. Though none of these elements appear in the script, I framed this as an introduction to the world of the play. A conversation with the panel followed. The work was selected as one of three finalists.
This has entailed consultations with the company to strategize the best way of developing the script, towards a public reading on June 30. There are resources to pay me to write, and others to respond to the script in three cycles of creative development, which to a large extent I’ve had the freedom to design. I’ve been able to do more research, which has included conversations with people with expertise in some of the themes, to work with a dramaturg who assesses the script in light of what I’m trying to do with it and formulating ways of doing it better in the next draft, as well as consultations with an AV designer to discuss ways of refining the vision. I might express my response diagramatically, but it must finally be transformed into text for a vision that others may collaborate to realise.
With the assistance of the company I able to have a private reading of the work with actors and others I’d involved in the project, to hear the entire script performed by real-live voices for the first time. Critical conversations around the work, and my responses to them, strengthen it. The other two finalists in the QPDA have had similar opportunities which I imagine have helped them as much as the last couple of months promises to help my script. So everyone’s a winner, really. Eventually the true winner should be the audience of the piece that’s selected for production.
I’ve been a finalist in the QPDA and its predecessor the George Landen Dann award before, and I’ve found it very different each time.
The idea of artistic competitions is rather weird, but if it helps make new art that’s good better, and stimulates artists and audiences to engage more with works that are fresh rather than stale or reconstituted, than that’s a good thing. Work continues on The Holidays.
Read part 2 here