Here at the Centre we’re a little bit excited about our August edition of Spotlight On because we’ve decided to do something a little different. This month we are focusing on not just one, but two members! Meet Roger Vickery and James Balian, two members who have co-written a new play Nest of Skunks. Produced by Collaboration Theatre Group, the play is set to run at The Depot Theatre in Marrickville from the 3rd to the 13th of August. In keeping with the spirit of collaboration, we jumped at the opportunity to speak with both of them about their work.
Roger has been a member of The Centre since 2002 and writes short stories, poetry and plays. He has won over 60 awards including the WB Yeats Poetry Prize (2003) and the Banjo Patterson Open Poetry Prize (2003) and the Land Short Story Competition (2014). Roger has also been a legal writer since 1995 and has written a textbook on Australian Business Law. He also teaches Corporations Law and Business Law at Curtain University of Technology in Sydney.
James has been writing for stage and screen for over 20 years. His credits include a feature length film Saturday Night, his stage play The Night After the Day Before, and a short film titled Spiderwoman. James has also written for Home and Away and worked as a director and writer in both Sydney Fringe Festival and Short and Sweet Festival.
To celebrate their new collaborative work we asked James and Roger about their respective backgrounds and what they each brought to the writing process.
Tell us a little about your new play Nest of Skunks?
It’s the near future. Two asylum seekers (skunks) pass the night in an unsafe house. Some of their protectors have hidden motives and plans. The skunks’ story may not be true. By morning, the lives of the skunks and their handlers have been blown apart. A revelation in the closing minutes should make audience members reconsider everything they’ve seen. The noir thriller structure of the play explores one of the most complex issues of our time using strong characters and a disruptive narrative.
Roger, since the 90’s you’ve worked as a legal writer – does that experience complement or clash with your creative work?
My creative writing experience, and love of plain English, informs my legal writing. I’ve produced numerous textbooks and a TV series, which try to explain the law in a clear, lively voice. Business law is about money and power with justice struggling to catch up. So it shouldn’t be boring to read. Cases are stories with a moral: who won and why? I made good money from legal writing. But I wish I’d slammed the door on the Mephistophelean publisher who persuaded me to enter that world. I’m an obsessive re-writer and when I looked up from the last edition of my textbook 25 years had gone by.
While the nature of theatre involves a process of collaboration, writing is usually a solitary pursuit. What was your experience of writing collaboratively like?
Roger: The play is based on a short story of mine. I’ve written a lot about refugees, mostly speculative fiction. I went to high school in Albury. The stories and silences of the people arriving from Bonegilla migrant camp deeply affected me. About 70% of the story was dialogue so I asked James if it could become a play. He was the ideal sounding board. I admired his plays and films, and as an Armenian Christian whose family left Baghdad in 1969 to flee Sadam Husain he had a personal and collective experience of being a stranger in an uncertain land.
James: I loved the story, and how the ending forced me to recalibrate my assumptions. I knew it could make a great play. Roger said if we collaborated there had to be one ‘one lead dog’ and I was to have the casting bark. Luckily, I’ve never had to exercise that right. I did the initial structural draft, about 40 pages, which included a longer narrative
storyline with twists and turns. Then we worked on the next 15 drafts to produce a full-length play. In the process I became an advocate of what Roger calls Cage Fighter Love; Forget praise, tell me what doesn’t work.
Seeing your writing come to life on stage is an experience often reserved for playwrights. How has the performative aspect of this current work informed your overall process as a poet and short story writer? What lessons (if any) have you learned?
James: In May, 2015 our 8th draft had a read through with some actors and Travis Green, the director which confirmed the play was working well but identified many instances where dialogue or scene placements needed sharpening, deleting or re-positioning. That work appeared to pay off when the 10th draft came equal runner up for best script in all categories in the 2015 FAW National Literary Awards.
Roger: After writing something I read it aloud. I’m always searching for a rhythm, and a voice powered by the wind and tide of the work in front of me. Poetry, above all, should be performed in a way that catches the attention of the
drunk in the corner.
James you’ve written for stage and screen. While both are performative mediums, what are some differences between the two in terms of writing?
For both, the end product arises from genuine collaboration between the writer, director and cast and crew. Writing for theatre is more immediate and requires a different kind of imagination. You’re restricted to a set, real or imaginary, and you need to tell the story in ways that take full advantage of those restrictions. Ultimately, you’ll use whatever technique supports the style of the tale you’re telling.
With film, you can open up the storytelling through scene changes, locations, action, camera shots and so on. It demands a different kind of economy in the writing.
Roger you have stated a preference for competition circuits for your creative writing rather than submitting to publishers and magazines and you have won over 60 awards. Does this avenue provide with more creative freedom?
Yes. Most competitions have open themes, submissions are anonymous so who you are or who you know isn’t relevant, and I mainly choose ones where the judges are good writers. A prize from them means something. I have the freedom to perfect a piece until it wins recognition or I’m satisfied with it. Then I might submit it for publication. Once it appears it is ineligible for any competition or further publication.
James, is it difficult to hand over the reins to a director or production company once you have invested so much personal time and energy into a script and its story?
I’m the founder of Collaborations Theatre Group, so it behoves me to live up to that name. Collaboration requires trust. I trust Travis Green, our director. I handed him my last play, My Brother Daniel and he did a very good job with a very demanding script. I was worried that being so close to it may have affected my judgement as a director. I’m very pleased with the creative input of the rehearsals. Travis and the cast are making some changes to the script with our consent, which are delivering some powerful moments.
What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve been given?
James: Write and rewrite and rewrite again… and ‘kill your darlings’. Sometimes you hold on to a line or a scene at the expense of the bigger story. If that happens, be ruthless.
Roger: ‘Write about what you’re afraid of, where you sense danger…’ Paddy Reilly. I don’t practice it enough.
Do you have any advice for emerging writers (playwrights or otherwise)?
James: Read books, watch movies, television and plays that stretch you. Be wary of writing about the worlds we see in movies. Engage critically with culture and politics – local and international. Nothing happens in a vacuum.
Roger: Write about something that won’t let you go. Produce as much you can. Then go looking for good critics and ask them for Cage Fighter Love. You don’t have to follow their hard words but you must hearken to them.
What are you reading at the moment?
James: Raymond Carver’s collected stories The Narrow Road To The Deep North and I’ve just reread Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.
Roger: Media contacts to promote the play. Blogs by Martin J. Harrison, founding father of British Speculative Fiction. Poetry by Jennifer Compton and Miroslav Holub.
You can purchase tickets to Nest of Skunks here.