When I think festival, I think sprawling green grass, a bright blue sky, and a sun to bake everything and everyone to perfection. For the NSW Writers’ Centre Playwriting Festival this weekend, the bureau of meteorology disagreed with me. And so it was that I drizzled through the door of the writers’ centre this Saturday, waterproofed iPad in hand for my twitter duties. But the rain was dampening no-one’s spirits. Guests were already arriving half and hour early, and by the time John McCallum stepped up to the mic to launch the day with his keynote address, the Patrick White room was bustling with Sydney theatre-makers.
McCallum’s keynote address set the tone perfectly for a day of robust discussion as he warned against reducing any issue to black and white. McCallum reflected on his earlier career, when artists would use descriptive terms such as “realist” as a dismissal of or insult against a work. We should never use descriptive terms to dismiss works out of hand, said McCallum, and he pointed to examples of where this is still happening, with phrases like “auteur director” and “radical reimagining of the classics” gaining negative connotations. When we blacklist stylistic features such as these, we stifle artistic diversity and experiment. McCallum’s speech gave everyone food for thought and made us open to new ideas as the day went on.
First panels off the rank were “The Changing Face of Australian Playwriting” and “On Women”; I sat in on the latter. Van Badham, Duncan Graham, Debra Oswald, Katherine Thomson, and festival director Kate Mulvany used local and world statistics in combination with their own experiences to highlight issues affecting female playwrights. Kate Mulvany spoke about her difficulties in finding further work after the massive success of her play The Seed at Belvoir. This was a point that was echoed by many of the other panelists: no matter how successful one of your plays is, female writers have difficulty being asked back by a company for a second show. This was also my first time seeing Van Badham speak, and her passion was heartening to witness.
In the next bracket of discussions I popped in and out of “Reviewers V The Reviewed” and “Dramaturgs and Directors – Getting Them to ‘Get’ You”. The latter was a helpful discussion of the role of and relationship between the writer, director and dramaturg, and focused on the art of dramaturgy. The former was a fun and heated debate featuring no less than eight panel members! Many of the writers on the panel agreed that they owed big turning points in their career to big reviews, but both online and in condensed print forms, concerns were raised regarding the tone and content of reviews. Lachlan Philpott suggested that many reviews simply recount the plot of the work, when really they should be critically deconstructing the whole production, including a detailed analysis of the writing.
The rain had eased a little in time for lunch, and discussions from the previous forums spilled out of the rooms and onto the verandah. But once shoulders had been rubbed and salads consumed, it was time to find out the answer to the question on everyone’s mind: “What the Hell Are Mainstage Companies Looking For Anyway?” Panelists from STC, Griffin, Belvoir, Ensemble and ATYP spoke about what kind of work they want to be supporting in the coming years, how their submissions processes work, and how to get your work into the hands of the right people. One point applied across the board and was agreed upon by panel leader Van Badham (former literary manager of the Finborough Theatre in London): know the work of the companies you’re applying to. Companies can tell if you’ve sent your work out to every theatre company in town, and it suggests that you haven’t put any research into which company would be best for you and your work. At this point I have to thank the wonderful Dan Prichard, who by this stage in the day had become my co-curator of the #playwrite12 hashtag, tweeting from whichever room I wasn’t in. Next door in “Handing Over the Baby” there seemed to be lots of indispensable advice about letting other people contribute to your vision without compromising the heart of your story.
The day’s penultimate sessions were “Fringe Benefits” and “I’m Not ‘Latest Thing’…”, regarding the ins and outs of fringe theatre and the crisis of the mid-career playwright respectively. The fringe theatre forum celebrated the role of independent theatre-making as distinct from the mainstage companies. A lot of the advice on offer was to do with strategies to avoid burnout – it’s a reality of the sector that many artists are working in multiple capacities on one production for little to no remuneration. Next door, many of the mid-career playwrights were talking about the other options available to playwrights whose work is no longer being hyped as “latest thing”. Apparently, playwrights are particularly appreciated in TV writing rooms for their command of their craft.
This brought us to the final panel: “What are our Favourite Playwrights’ Favourite Plays?” This was a great, low-key way to end the day, and the choices of the playwrights said a lot about what informs their work today. Each had to choose one classic and one Australian play as their favourite. At the end of the day the panel agreed – you can study craft and decide what makes a good play or a popular play ‘til the cows come home, but ultimately each person’s own favourite play is likely to appeal to them for very unique and personal reasons. It’s just about what makes you tick.
After the last panel, we all came out into the fresh air on the verandah for a post-festival drink. Though the discussions had been robust and thought provoking, the tone was convivial. As John McCallum had requested at the beginning of the day, no idea had been dismissed out-of-hand, and every issue had had its blacks and whites mixed into more shades of grey than the early-autumn clouds overhead.
A big thank you to all our panelists, to our fantastic festival director Kate Mulvany, and for everyone who came along and joined in.
The NSW Writers’ Centre presents three festivals throughout the year – each a celebration of writing that brings together emerging and established writers for an inspirational day of panels, discussions, workshops, readings, book signings and networking.
Our next festival for 2012 will be the Kids and Young Adult Literature Festival, curated by Susanne Gervay (I am Jack, That’s Why I Wrote This Song), will be held on 30 June followed by Melbourne’s Emerging Writers Festival returning to Sydney on 3 November.