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Storytellers Festival

"Writers are competing to tell our stories"

Storytellers Festival lets the light pour on on all those 'bottom drawer' projects, writes Joanna Erskine.

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Waiting for Permission

Date: 16 Aug 2018

Those pages in the ‘bottom drawer.’

That play you wrote five years ago that still hasn’t been picked up.

That monologue you loved that got cut a week before the production because it didn’t propel the story forward.

Killed darlings.

Buds never blossomed.

Every writer has them, tucked away, whether just starting out or a veteran of the stage: Fragments of stories that didn’t make it, or haven’t made it yet; fragments that won’t exist if they are not seen or heard.

That’s the peculiarity of being a playwright. While an artist can put paint to canvas and see the finished product before them, playwrights can spend years working on a script that may never reach a stage.

The beauty and the frustration of playwriting is that it’s only when actors, directors, designers, crew, and audience come together, that the blueprint becomes a finished product.

And in the current industry, it is becoming increasingly hard to turn blueprint to play. There is a surplus of plays to Sydney stages. The number of submissions against available slots for independent seasons (read ‘unpaid’) is frightening.

Playwriting awards are seen as somewhat of a curse, given the low rate of any actually reaching production.

Writers are competing to tell our stories. Some playwrights get to tell many stories, and the majority of voices are simply never heard.

Many of us will reach a devastating realisation that we may be one of the ones who will not ‘make it.’ And how do you even tell if you are meant to make it?

The current guidelines for Playwriting Australia dictate that you can never resubmit a play for any initiative, if it is not successful the first time. Despite the fact that one place might have been available against one hundred submissions. Despite the fact that you might have been number two on the list. Your play had one chance and now you must submit a new work. There is a real enthusiasm that these processes will be revised now that Lachlan Philpott, a playwright, is at the PWA helm.

A few years ago, I had written a play that, after many unsuccessful rounds of submissions, I deemed worthy of the bottom drawer. My excitement for the piece was steadily depleted as rejection after rejection appeared to confirm it was unfounded.

Then it got selected for a reading and development. Then it won an award. Then I was approached by producers wanting to stage the work. That play had not changed, but the feelings around it suddenly had. Now I am back to shopping it around for production, shortlist after shortlist but never a resounding ‘yes.’ This wax and wane without any particular input, is rife throughout the theatre industry.

Being your own champion is something that all theatre artists must do, though as a playwright, it is particularly demoralising.

We work on one project for years at a time, and then one day, feel ready to shop our ‘baby’ around. A ‘no’ means waiting another year for the next season. And then another year. And then another.

And then you start submitting another play. And then it is double the rejections.

We have to keep many pots on the boil. There are no audition opportunities to keep hopes alive and options open. We just have that one thing that has taken us years to craft. Staying power as a writer in this industry is tough.

Before my play AIR was presented this year at the Old 505 Theatre, I last had work on in 2011 at The Old Fitz. It has been a long time between drinks, not for lack of trying. I have had three plays ready for production, and have been stuck in the rejection cycle. That horrible place where you wait for permission to make work. That green light you seek.

Some writers refuse to take no for an answer. Some writers are very good at ‘foyers.’ But the majority of us are writers for a reason. We don’t feel comfortable in the spotlight, we don’t speak up. Even for our own work, and no one else will do it for us. The thing that keeps us going is the unflinching belief in the work.

I pitched AIR with my friend, Eloise Snape, who played the central role. We tried to engage a producer but the stars didn’t align. In the end, we decided to just produce it ourselves. It was no mean feat. I was feeding a newborn in the rehearsal room while rewriting the script and juggling producer role.

Eloise was learning a role which did not allow her to leave the stage and only had one page of script where she wasn’t required to speak. But we did it, and we did it on our own terms, in our own way, and it was the best decision. I wish I had done it years earlier. I learnt the value of taking charge, rather than waiting for permission to create.

So when an opportunity came up one month ago at KXT, I suggested a playwriting festival of unproduced work. And not just full-length plays, but fragments, monologues, scenes, anything that has never been and may never be heard. Suzanne Millar, John Harrison and the KXT/bAKEHOUSE team voiced a resounding ‘yes’.

Storytellers Festival was born after a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gestation.

I put the call out to writers at all stages of their career. I was only able to give people a window of 10 days to submit. And I received over 70 submissions, from all across the industry. I read them all. I designed everything from the submissions process up, based on what I would want as a writer.

It has been a fascinating process, being an artist receiving, curating, and having to decline work. For the first time, I am getting that glimpse into programming, and seeing that good writing sometimes just doesn’t ‘fit’.

The theatre community has rallied in earnest, and at speed, behind this new work. Writers, actors, director all coming together for a rough and ready, two-week, pop-up festival.

People contacting me to put their hand up, passionate about being part of the process.

Stalwarts of the theatre industry are working alongside artists still training. Networks are being created like wildfire. There isn’t time to overthink it.

Rehearsals happen the day or hours before work is on stage.

It is fast and it is fun and it is magnificent to see just what we can all accomplish within no time at all.

We are showcasing almost 30 writers across two weeks. Writers with well-established names, mid-career writers, under-appreciated and under-produced writers, and those just starting out. We are hearing work from writers audiences have never heard of. First plays and first scribblings.

We have regional Australian writers, city playwrights, and local playwrights who are currently overseas Skyping in to hear their words aloud. There is excitement, for what really should be standard practice in sharing new work.

All works will be ‘tested’ with an audience.

Some will be picked up for production.

Some will be developed further and in new ways.

And some of these works will be heard for the first and maybe last time.

But they will be heard, rather than die a lonely death in a drawer.

Storytellers Festival runs until 25 August 2018, at KXT. All tickets $10.

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