Writers On Writing / Hilary Bell

‘I’m a strong believer in the stimulating qualities of limitations: the more constraints you have to work within, the more creative you have to be; the less room you have to overthink, the better.’

Writers on Writing is our regular conversation with a writer or industry professional about the writing craft, industry insights, and their own practice. This week, we spoke to Hilary Bell about the art of playwriting. Hilary shares some insights and tells us a few of her favourite plays.

In your many years of experience, what have you found the most rewarding about playwriting?

There are many gifts playwriting has given me. Because I’m either researching, writing, or in rehearsals, every day is a new adventure. I love being my own boss, and am very happy working in solitude much of the time. And the very act of creating, where something exists by evening that in the morning wasn’t there, is satisfying. But what I’m most grateful for is the community playwriting has given me, the other theatre artists with whom I collaborate, party, walk the dog, whinge, and travel along beside.

How do you think understanding the theoretical side of plays as a form supports creativity?

I think knowledge of how things are made can only ever enhance one’s respect for the end product, whether that’s writing a symphony or growing your own vegetables. And I’m a strong believer in the stimulating qualities of limitations: the more constraints you have to work within, the more creative you have to be; the less room you have to overthink, the better.

Do you actively marry music with text during your writing process? Or do you consider audio production only after writing?

I often include songs in my plays – usually original; sometimes existing – and currently am working on two musicals, for which I am writing the lyrics as well as the book (script). Regarding these, I’m working very much in tandem with the composer, and am always aware of how music will be working with the text. We don’t begin writing songs until we know exactly what dramatic function they need to serve, and then there’s a lengthy refining process.

Any recommended plays? Either ones you’ve enjoyed recently or ones you’d recommend for people just dipping their toes in the genre.

Among the plays that I love to read on a regular basis are Pinter’s ‘Betrayal’, Dürrenmatt’s ‘The Visit’, and Richard Bean’s ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’ – and anything at all by Caryl Churchill. Respectively, Pinter’s is thrilling in its use of subtext, Dürrenmatt’s for its building and inexorable sense of horror, and Bean’s for its joyous fun. Perhaps my favourite of Churchill’s is ‘The Skriker’, for its sheer ambition, strangeness, and challenge to a director.

Hilary Bell’s plays have been produced nationally by Griffin, Sydney Theatre Company, Black Swan, the Sydney Opera House, Arts Centre Melbourne, Deckchair, La Boite, State Theatre Company of South Australia, NORPA, Darlinghurst Theatre Company, National Theatre of Parramatta and Vitalstatistix; in the US by Atlantic and Steppenwolf; in the UK by the National Theatre. These include Wolf Lullaby, Fortune, The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Ruysch, The Falls, Memmie Le Blanc, The Mysteries: Genesis, The Red Balloon, The White Divers of Broome, Splinter, Victim Sidekick Boyfriend Me, The Red Tree, Starstruck (with Mitchell Butel), Angela’s Kitchen (with Paul Capsis), and adaptations of The Seagull, The Comedy of Errors and The Hypochondriac. She writes libretti for opera and musicals, and lyrics for song cycles, and has written audio-scripts for the Museum of Contemporary Art and NSW State Library.

The recipient of awards including the Philip Parsons, a Helpmann and two AWGIES, Hilary is co-creator of several picture books, including ‘Numerical Street’, ‘Summer Time’ and bestseller ‘Alphabetical Sydney’ with Antonia Pesenti. She is a member of 7-On Playwrights and a graduate of the Juilliard Playwrights’ Program, NIDA and AFTRS. She was the Tennessee Williams Fellow 2003-04 and the 2012 Patrick White Playwrights’ Fellow at the STC.

Join Hilary’s course A Play in Two Days, Saturday 3 and Sunday 4 June, 10am-4pm at Writing NSW. Enrol here>>

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