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"It’s a tumblr with a plot"

"I was half expecting it to fail. And why not? Most plays do." Writer David Finnigan on lessons learned in Griffin's production of Kill Climate Deniers.

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Staging the unstageable

Date: 22 May 2018

A few weeks ago in Sydney, the Griffin Theatre Company busted out the first full-scale production of Kill Climate Deniers. Forty-five shows. A massive undertaking.

I arrived in Sydney in mid-February, near the end of rehearsals – about ten days before the first preview. I hung out at rehearsals, had good chats with the Griffin folk, and attended the show five times. This was quite a special experience. I don’t know how to describe it, but it was exciting and humbling and very gratifying.

Now that the season has concluded and the dust has settled somewhat, I want to write a little about one aspect of the experience: what it was like, as the playwright, to see Griffin’s production of Kill Climate Deniers take flight.

KCD won the Griffin Award for new scripts last year, which was incredibly generous of them (and also, ahhhh, how many brilliant playscripts were in the mix for that award and I got lucky? there are too few opportunities like this for new writing, hey).

The award was a lovely acknowledgement of the work, and I’d’ve been happy with that, but then Griffin doubled down and programmed it for  2018, first show of the season, with Lee Lewis directing.

I’d never met Lee before this, though I know of her work, and I’d seen her production of The Bleeding Tree. We had our first meetings over skype mid-last year, while I was working in England. Good chats, but you know what skype is like – hard to organise, and always too brief.

I was overseas again when rehearsals started – this time in Singapore for a month developing a new Boho work at Nanyang Technological University. I arrived in Sydney in mid-Feb, 10 days before the first preview, but I was completely absent for the first few weeks of rehearsals. This is the brief window when the playwright can actually be useful, doing script fixes and rewrites as the play goes on the floor for the first time.

Instead, Lee, the cast, the designers, and the company were left with the responsibility to make the show work, and to figure out how to stage this unstageable play.

I’m gonna go on a brief tangent about the craft of playwriting here, to help me articulate what I mean by ‘unstageable’:

One of the first lessons you learn when you start writing plays, is that as the writer, your job is not to be dazzlingly clever.

Your job is not to impress the audience by showing off your writing skills or getting fancy with form.

Your job is to provide your fellow theatre-makers with the material they need so that they can impress the audience.

Some writers – novelists, essayists and poets, for example – are more or less writing directly to their audience. The words you write will eventually be picked up and read by your readers. It’s a kind of direct transmission from author to reader – the art exists in the words you are transmitting to the reader, through the medium of paper and ink or what have you.

For scriptwriters, it’s a little different. Under normal circumstances, your audience will never read your work. The script that you’re labouring over isn’t intended to for a wide audience, and in most cases it will never be publicly released.

In theatre, the crucial moment is the performance itself. It all comes down to that moment of exchange between the audience and the performers. Either the play connects with its audience, or it doesn’t. By that time, as the playwright, it’s well out of your hands.

The script is not the art. The script is a blueprint that a group of other artists (directors, designers, actors) will use to create the art.

A playscript is a working document – more like a map than a novel.

A script isn’t necessarily supposed to be a fun experience to read on the page – it’s a functional device, a tool for a group of professionals to use as a common reference during the creation of the play.

With that in mind, when you write a script, your readers are not the general public who will one day see the show, but your colleagues, fellow artists and professionals who will be building that show. Everything you write will be mediated through them – so your aim is to give them useful material they can work with effectively.

‘Useful’ here doesn’t mean detailed exhaustive instructions. In theatre, whatever your role is – writer, actor, designer, whatever – you’re expected to understand enough about the other roles that you know what they need, and you can communicate with each other.

As a scriptwriter, you need to include enough information that your colleagues can do their job, but you don’t tell them how to do it.

You don’t tell a lighting designer which colours to use when they’re lighting a scene – you tell them what the mood is supposed to be, and leave the rest to them.

You don’t tell an actor where to look or how long to pause – you write good dialogue and strong characters that they can work with, and they make those decisions.

This is why they tell young playwrights to avoid stage directions as much as possible. If the scene is strong and engaging, the director and cast can figure out the rest on their own. If it’s not working, no amount of stage directions will help. (And they’ll ignore them if they don’t like them, and it’s your fault.)

That’s a scary loss of control, and a lot of playwrights can’t hack it. But on the other hand, as a writer, there’s something really freeing about letting go of the responsibility of making all the decisions about the work you’re making.

You realise that you don’t need to worry about how these characters will get from A to B – the actors will solve that for you. You don’t need to describe the scene in beautiful prose – just explain what mood you want and the director and designer will figure out how to evoke it.

When you accept that you’re not the expert on how to actually produce the effects that your script calls for, you start to leave more decisions in the hands of your colleagues. You can be less prescriptive, more ambiguous, let your fellow artists decide how to solve this particular puzzle.

At some point in my practice, I took this lesson and ran with it. I was working a lot with director barb barnett of serious theatre, and I was continually blown away by her creative solutions to the challenges posed by my scripts. I would write scenes that I couldn’t even visualise on stage as I wrote them, but I knew that she would always pull something out of the bag.

I started to throw deliberate challenges into my scripts, little playful problems that I didn’t know how to solve myself, just to see whether barb could figure something out. And she always did – and interestingly, her creative solutions to my script challenges were often the most interesting and exciting parts of the show.

By the time I wrote Oceans All Boiled Into Sky, which barb directed for serious theatre in 2008, I was deliberately pushing her – trying to come up with impossible tasks, unsolvable problems.

Oceans is a sci-fi road trip / coming of age story that takes place in Canberra in the earth’s deep past – during the Hadean Epoch, before the Earth’s crust had cooled enough to allow liquid water to settle. Massive clouds of steam and water vapour circled the earth, occasionally falling in huge rainstorms that would instantly boil back into steam as soon as they touched the burning rock.

Oceans tells the story of a Canberra teen attempting to do his driving test in this ancient landscape. The play takes place in the old Mitsubishi Starwagon which is driving over the semi-molten rocks through clouds of sentient steam.

I had no idea how barb would go about manifesting this environment. I wasn’t sure it was possible.

Just to be sure, though, I inserted a scene in which a giant prehistoric spider (one of the Megarachne that used to run the world during the Carboniferous period) breaks into the car’s engine and wreaks havoc, until it is subdued by a ghost. Utterly unstageable.

I handed barb the script, sat back and waited for her to admit defeat.

barb’s solution was one of my all-time favourite creative theatrical choices: rather than trying to stage these insane scenes directly, she decided to present the whole performance as a live radio play – in the style of a classic radio serial.

The actors, in costumes evoking 1950s radio professionals, stood in a row on stage behind five microphones, and performed the whole play without moving.

Meanwhile live music and foley conjured up the sonic setting, Jack Lloyd’s glitch-flavoured video projection told its own parts of the story, and Gillian Schwab created an eerie backdrop for the performance with strange dioramas and atmospheric lights evoking the ruined remnants of Canberra’s Black Mountain Tower.

The lesson I took from this: obstacles and challenges within a script are an opportunity for creative problem-solving by the company, and that’s where a lot of the most interesting stuff happens.

But there’s obstacles, and then there’s unstageable.

And for better or worse, Kill Climate Deniers – the script – is unstageable. It’s not a blueprint for a show or a map of how to get to one – it’s more like a loosely organised bundle of vignettes, challenges, factoids and contradictions. It’s a tumblr with a plot. Or if you prefer, it’s like a version of Sei Shonagan’s Pillow Book, but for Australian politics.

It’s not a script with obstacles – it’s all obstacle. It’s a series of impossible challenges, stapled together with a paper-thin plot that is half-mixtape, half-helpless enthusiasm. (I wrote a piece for the Griffin blog about this play-as-mixtape factor too, if you’re curious.)

There is no way to simply pick this script up and stage it as written. A director tackling this work basically needs their own vision of how and what they want to put on stage, and then they curate their own selection of content from the script to fulfil that vision.

That’s a lot to ask of a theatre company, especially one you’ve never worked with before. There was a very good chance that the show wouldn’t work. Not because the material is bad, per se, but the chaotic energy that worked on the page (enough to convince the Griffin Award judges to give it the prize) doesn’t necessarily translate to live performance.

I was half expecting it to fail. And why not? Most plays do.

When I arrived in Sydney, a fortnight out from opening, I sat in on a few rehearsals, got excited watching the performers vibing off each other with this heated crackle, was blown away by Steve Toulmin’s soundtrack, and Toby Knyvett’s video elements. It’s always pleasure watching a group of first-class artists working at the top of their game. I was so excited!

But I still wasn’t sure it was going to work.

Watching the rehearsals, there were a couple of sequences that weren’t clicking. They were slowing the show down, draining energy, and the material wasn’t necessary. I nudged Lee to cut them.

She refused, and told me to wait and see. Wait and see.

Production week was intense and slow moving – so much tech to install and set up. Eighteen speakers, four projectors, two TVs, additional lights … the biggest concern was that there simply wasn’t enough electricity in the building to power all of this equipment, so they had to be careful to not switch everything on at once.

Complex tech setups mean less time for actually running the show, so the first preview performance was also the first full run of the show (which apparently hasn’t happened at Griffin for at least the last five years). So watching the first preview, the real fear was that the show would literally break midway through, something would catch on fire or collapse and the actors would have to pause the play or restart from the top

That didn’t happen. They made it all the way through to the end. It was a rough show, in comparison to how tight it became over the course of the run – the pace was lagging and there were weird pauses and slumps.

But watching it that night, seeing all the different elements together for the first time, I finally got it. I saw the shape of the show that Lee had been envisioning, and I realised that it was going to work.

The sequences I’d wanted to cut, that had felt flabby and unnecessary in rehearsals, turned out to be hinge points in the performance, crucial moments of stillness amidst the chaos.

There’s an interesting moment for a playwright that happens during any new production: the point where you are no longer the expert on your own play. You dreamed it, wrote it, edited it, lived and breathed it for months or years. But at some point, you realise that you’re no longer the authority.

The actors know the lines better than you.

The designers understand the reality of what you’ve been imagining better than you.

And the director has a better sense of the big picture, the shape of the show, than you ever have or will.

It’s a weird moment, but a lovely one. It turns out Lee had a clearer understanding of what Kill Climate Deniers is than I did. Possibly she always did.

And I can’t overstate how much of a colossal achievement it was for the company – Lee, the cast, the design team, the production crew – to find a performance form that could deliver on the possibilities within that script.

The playwright gets to claim a lot of the credit when the show is a success. It’s your name on the poster, etc, etc. But I truly had no idea how to make this play work. I was pretty sure it couldn’t.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is: Khym Scott, Lee Lewis, Bec Massey, Lucia Mastrantone, Emily Havea, Eden Falk, Sheridan Harbridge, Toby Knyvett, Trent Suidgeest, Kirby Brierty, Jonathan Hindmarsh, Steve Toulmin, Dino Dimitriadis, Will Harvey, Estelle Conley, Phil Spencer, Griffin Theatre Company: you win.

You motherfuckers, you win.

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