Extinction of the Learned Response is a strange play long in the making.
Over the years, the sprawling ideas, styles and themes have boiled and condensed and distilled into a sharper, leaner and – hopefully – more honest version of itself.
Though I’d previously written two other plays that have never – and, thankfully, will never – see the light of day, Extinction was the first play that stuck with me for several years. It was the first play I ever did more than one draft of, received dramaturgical advice on, and the first play I ever heard workshopped by actors in full.
The way it’s changed over the years reflects the ways I’ve changed as a writer, and all the incredible support and mentorship I’ve received.
Extinction of the Learned Response opens in a spotless room.
Present are two scientists, Duncan and Marlow, and their subjects, Rachel and Wells, who can almost pass for human. But Wells is growing stronger and Rachel is learning faster than predicted, and Duncan and Marlow’s hold on them – and on power – is proving more fragile than expected. What began as a carefully controlled experiment begins to twist into something far stranger, and far more obscure …
It’s a first play, and as I’ve returned to it, I’ve tried to adjust it while still remaining true to the weirdness, essence, ambitions and ideas of the original.
I hope that it’s shifted from a play that tap dances with ideas and form to distract itself from its own hidden preoccupations into a play that does a little dancing – but also lets us see what’s really there.
Something that I’ve recognised in my writing over the last few years is that for me, the process of writing the play is often the play itself. And unfortunately for my early drafts, a lot of my plays seem to be about people who are inarticulate, avoidant and use every tactic and idea they can think of to distract themselves from what they’re actually frightened of.
For me, the process of finding the play often is figuring out what I’m trying to say.
Way back in my undergraduate degree, I studied The Island of Dr Moreau by H. G. Wells, a story about a man who thought he was a god; and who inflicted suffering on animals in order to raise himself up and transcend his own body.
I also studied Derrida’s theory of carnophallogocentrism, which further emphasised the book’s ideas about power, pain, language and oppression. The ideas collided, I couldn’t stop thinking about them. I knew I wanted to write a play about it. I didn’t know how.
A few years later, whilst doing my Masters in Writing at NIDA, I decided to take the plunge.
Three days and nights of very intense and dramatic writing in my little grey cubicle in the writers room later (where I filled up the walls with bizarre quotes and notes and got to know the night-time security guard), I finished it. I staggered straight to my mentor Stephen Sewell, who told me I looked like I’d been hit by a bus. A bus of inspiration? Sadly not. The draft was not good.
After a few months of thinking, reading, reflecting and encouragement from Stephen, I wrote another draft – and there was something there: scientists and subjects; a domestic kitchen; ideas about history and love, and an exploration of involuntary responses and involuntary feelings.
A reading and feedback session with some incredible actors, and the drafts continued. Likewise, the play continued to shed big gestures and fold inwards – getting closer and closer to what it was really trying to explore.
In 2017, I was incredibly lucky to have Extinction of the Learned Response shortlisted for both the Griffin Award and the Patrick White Award. In 2018 it was also shortlisted for the UK’s Theatre 503’s Playwrighting Award. This support and encouragement was affirming, generous and told me that I was nearly there. So, for a few years it sat in my desk drawer as I wrote other plays, learned more and worked with incredible people.
Finally, a spot was offered for Extinction in Belvoir’s 25a 2019 season, and I knew that I’d have to go back and figure out: once and for all, what it was trying to say.
Thanks to the wonderful dramaturgical advice of my mentors and friends – and particularly of Extinction’s director, Carissa Licciardello – I think I’ve gotten closer than ever before, and strangely, despite all my pruning, the ideas in the script now are the same as they were at the start.
It’s fitting that, as a script that keeps shifting and changing, Extinction of the Learned Response is about things that can’t be precisely named and labelled, and things that can’t be suppressed or controlled.