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Bloody hell, I’m about to do something I’ve never done before.

Starting at 2pm tomorrow, I will be spending two weeks straight at The Street Theatre in Canberra undertaking a creative development of my new full-length play with songs, which has the working title THE STORY OF THE OARS.

What does this mean?

Professional actors reading the text as it currently stands. A director and dramaturge analysing every scene, sentence, and word. Body explorations. A music consultant investigating opportunities and challenges. Me passing out from the thrill – and glorious work – of it all.

Due to COVID-19, it will be happening online. Pictured is my set up at home. Complete with angel and (hint of) bull talisman.

Frighteningly, at 5pm (AEST) on Friday 15 May the ‘doors’ will open and you can experience a professional reading of the play. And get to give me and the creative team feedback.

Shit.

Tickets, which are free but limited, can be found here.

I have been through this process before. The song cycle for which I wrote the libretto, THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT, also went through a First Seen creative development. However, because that work was already at a fairly developed stage, it was a much shorter process – 2 days. Also, we already had a full score, by the wonderful James Humberstone. This time around, we’re developing the project in a much more incremental way, aiming to get the text as finished as it can be before we move into the music-collaboration stage. That’s not to say this will be a better process, just a different process for different projects.

So what is THE STORY OF THE OARS actually about?

Summer somewhere on the east coast of Australia, 1987: three teenage brothers drown on a large ephemeral lake. Thirty years later, with the lake now dry, four strangers unburden themselves of the truth. Their lives will never be the same. A play with songs, THE STORY OF THE OARS is about the repercussions of childhood, and how facts have their way of revealing themselves. It’s also an exploration of class, privilege, and the power of place to enchant, repel, and mend.

Of course, massive thanks to the unstoppable folk at The Street Theatre, and Create NSW for supporting an earlier development.

Now, where’s a crate-load of whiskey…

Snowfalls. Orange skies. Face-masks. Raging flames. Ash on the letterbox. Hail the size of apples. Half a billion animals gone. Dead trees. Lives lost. Floods.

It was the Summer from Hell in Australia.

And now the daffodils are coming up. In March. As they say in polite society: what the fuck?

Still, writing manages to happen.

Firstly, I was chuffed to have been asked to write a piece for the special Australian Issue of the CHICAGO QUARTERLY REVIEW, which is now out. I wrote about my childhood in the Blue Mountains, Patrick White, and one of the worst mistakes I’ve ever made.

The opening paragraph:

I stood on the edge of the lane and stared at the black house, at the old concrete water tank, at the lawn stones that might have been foundations. Some minutes later, after deciding that as it was midweek and the house likely a weekender, I took a step, then another— until I was standing in the garden, in the very place where my bedroom had once been. I stretched out my arms as if to touch the missing walls and said, “This is where it happened.”

Such an honour to share the pages with writers such as Claire G Coleman, Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Krissy Kneen, Ali Cobby Eckermann, Behrouz Boochani, Van Badham, David Malouf, Kim Mahood, Simon Cleary, Quinn Eades, and Inga Simpson among many others.

While writing for the page continues to be my focus, writing for the stage is something I’m doing more and more, even though I never intended to go in this direction. Ah, the twists and turns in the writing life.

So, it was rather exciting to be informed recently that three of my songs from THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT will be performed in November this year at Carnegie Hall’s Recital Hall in New York by international baritone David Wakeham.

To be frank, this is rather special: the song cycle, the score for which was written by the amazing James Humberstone, is about a high-raking Australian soldier who returns from his latest tour of Afghanistan with a dark secret; all he wants to do is heal on his family’s grazing property on the Southern Tablelands – what he doesn’t know is that his family have a dark secret of their own.

To have elements of the work performed in the US? Mind-blowing.

Finally, earlier this month I spent two days at The Street Theatre in Canberra. Three songs from THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT may well be off to New York, but I have a new work for the stage in the very early phase of development i.e. crappy words on bits of paper.

Is it another song cycle? Perhaps it’s more of a play with songs?

Thanks to some lovely funding from Create NSW, I was able to spend two days with Wollongong-based dramaturge Anne-Louise Rentell. Together we talked about big ideas and then we tore the draft into small pieces and started putting it back together.

Not all the words are coming together yet, but here are a few:

A boat, I see

an empty boat blown by the wind

to the shore

 

of a lake filled to the brim

with life-giving water

that’s no more, like three boys

 

They drowned, they said,

and I believed them

Is the script in a better shape now? Yes. What’s the next step? Who knows. But I do love being in the creative space, both physically and mentally.

Thanks again to Create NSW for the opportunity, The Street Theatre for hosting these preliminary creative-development sessions, Anne-Louise Rentell for pushing me into some uncomfortable terrain (almost literally), David Sharpe for joining the dots, and Paul Scott-Williams from the Hume Conservatorium, who, by commissioning me all those years ago to write the libretto for what became THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT, sent me in this exciting direction.

Perhaps if humanity survives long enough there might be a new work on the stage before long?

Quite honestly, who knows.

Who knows.

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