Why I wrote Oil Babies

In the lead up to the season of Oil Babies at Northcote Town Hall as part of the Darebin SpeakEasy Program below are my writers notes for the production.

The idea of children – having them, not having them had been rolling around my head for years. I never had that deep urge – that sense that my life would be incomplete without them. Then, I got pregnant quite unexpectedly and it threw my world into a spin. Unfortunately that pregnancy was unsuccessful – but what it did, was get me thinking in a whole different way about the world in which we live, our legacy, how the choices we make every day impact our internal and external worlds.

At that time everywhere I looked on social media, podcasts, radio and newspapers, the same message was being reported  – the world was ending (or the world as we knew it was ending). Science was being interrogated in a public arena, it was contributing to government policy, it was helping win and lose elections - all because humans were having a catastrophic impact on the planet. Everyone was talking about how perilous our situation was but nobody seemed to be doing anything. Babies were everywhere. We were in the midst of another baby boom. These two things seemed weirdly incongruous.

Changing our behaviour is difficult, especially when the impact of what we do is not immediate. Behaviour change is made even harder when the structures around us support the comfortable and easy lifestyle we have created for ourselves. We do not need to walk 10km for water every morning. We do not need to stoke a fire in the for warmth. When it gets hot we turn on our air conditioning, we go to a movie – we leave the discomfort, which is usually an agitator for change. So in the developed world, is change of the scale required even possible?

Then, I unexpectedly got pregnant again. Now, I was another one of the billions creating thousands of extra tonnes of waste and CO2. Logically, rationally it was a no-brainer – but that idea was not even entered in to. This human was wanted. This human wanted to be in the world and I felt helpless and small in the wake of being so informed and at the same time so beholden to my biology. So, I listened to a lot of Radiolab. In the dreaming space that happens when I listen to the stories around science, I was inspired to let these thoughts and feelings about babies, our extinction, birth, betrayal, women’s bodies and legacy take form.

So, it is no accident that women power this play, literally and figuratively – they are driven forward by external events, they continue to cycle because of internal events. And all the while these women are under pressure – this pressure is self-inflicted, societal and environmental - it is written on their bodies; bodies that generate the energy for the play and bear the promise of the next generation. Oil Babies is about legacy. It is an attempt at agency in the face of an impossible situation.

 

 

Why Mutual Respect Allows us to make better art

Why Mutual Respect allows us to make better art.

A fun, playful, safe space to fail gloriously yields the riskiest and most exciting work in the arts. It is a hard space to create. As artists we put ourselves on the line, making ourselves vulnerable, open to be judged and it can be scary. In addition to that the way arts funding is structured, and the lack of opportunities can create a space of competition, which only increases this feeling of vulnerability. And problematically, when negativity and fear encroach in the creative space the work is never as good, the conversation is poorer and the potential of the work is harder to realise.

Early in my career I had a terrible experience. I was engaged as a dramaturg with two incredible writers. They had been commissioned to write a play. The process was challenging from day one. The commissioning company were difficult. Ego and fear made conversation and constructive criticism impossible. I felt it was my job to protect the writers from the incessant negativity about their work and their ideas. It was an untenable position to be in. In advocating for the work of the writers I was eviscerated by this room of egos. I was one person speaking to the quality and potential of the work in a room that had decided they did not like it, were not interested in it and it held no value. The sad thing was, I think much of what this company had to say was actually good feedback – but they went about it in the worst possible way. I felt bullied and what I had to say carried very little weight. The lack of skill in being able to talk to the work, the attack on the artists and myself, got in the way of what could have been a really exciting constructive conversation. I have thick skin. I want robust conversation about work. I can count on one hand in a career of almost 20 years, the number of times I’ve left a working room, cried and had to re-compose myself. This was such a formative experience for me. It went on to inform the way I approached all my subsequent work.

I now go out of my way to make sure that all artists feel safe, supported and of value. In whatever capacity I am employed. I spent years working in an improvisational theatre company and the values of trusting your fellow creatives, thinking the best of them, saying “yes and”, and ‘making them look good’ are fundamental to my process. I do not always get it right. There have been some spectacular failures. However, I know now, that this space of trust, generosity and thinking the best of your peers, your fellow artists, creates the potential for yielding extraordinary results. Artists do their best work when they feel confident to play, when they feel they are not being judged, when they are spoken to with respect.

I think this way of working starts best from the inside out. If we can believe that we are of value, that we have something to offer and resist putting ourselves in competition with our peers, then we can create an industry where people do not exploit power imbalance. Where common courtesy and respect mean you can be direct and constructive. Where collaboration and consultation and consideration are pillars on which the work is made. Robust conversation about work can then happen in a meaningful way. We can give constructive criticism that is not received as a personal attack. People will feel it possible to stand up when someone oversteps, they will be listened to when they make a complaint about harassment.  I think it starts with all of us taking responsibility. If we have been bullies, if we have let fear, competition and ego get in the way of treating people with respect - then step into the space, say sorry. Acknowledge that what we do is hard and sometimes we say or do things out of fear rather than compassion.

I want to work in an industry where we expect the highest quality work from our artists. This can only happen when we respect and value what each other has to offer. Sometimes that means leaving space, getting out of the way and letting other voices speak. Sometimes it means stepping in and saying “I think you’re great – I don’t think this work is the greatest.” In a world of quick quips on social media, calculated trolling, and a lack of greater political and community support for the arts and what we do, let’s strengthen this community by treating each other with respect. The work will be better because of it.

Hungry Ghosts Intro

Jean Tong's Play - Hungry Ghosts

“How long is a piece of string if you tie one end to your home country and the other to your heart?”

Jean Tong is a fiercely intelligent playwright with something to say. We first met when she was studying Arts at Melbourne University. I had been brought on as director’s mentor on a short play she had written. What struck me about her writing was its rage and immediacy. Although at the time she wasn’t yet in control of her craft, the text had a pulsing intensity and a desire to communicate something angry. Fast-forward five years, Jean has honed her craft and all those qualities endure – that rage has not abated one bit.

Hungry Ghosts deftly weaves together the Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 disaster, Malaysia’s billion-dollar 1MDB scandal and the story of a Queer-Chinese-Malaysian Australian trying to find her place in the world. By intersecting these three narrative threads, Tong insistently interrogates ideas of absence and identity, finding tension between desire and greed, family and nationhood. Sitting underneath is a pulsing rage for a country where corruption is endemic, an identity that cannot be fully expressed, a longing that will never be sated.

The longing is most explicitly represented by the MH370 disaster. Malaysia Airlines flight 370 was an international passenger flight that disappeared on March 8, 2014. The flight was scheduled to fly from Kuala Lumpur International Airport to Beijing Capital International Airport. It was carrying 12 Malaysian crew and 227 passengers from all over the world. While flying over the South China Sea the aircraft disappeared from air traffic control systems and military radar. Despite the most expensive multinational search in aviation history, the aircraft was never recovered.  Two hundred and thirty nine souls lost, families unable to gain closure, Facebook and Twitter awash with ‘thoughts and prayers’. In January 2017, almost four years later, the search was suspended with no conclusive findings. These souls are lost, forever searching, most likely victims of foul play. The idea of the searching lost soul is integral to the diasporic experience that Tong interrogates. It no accident that the play is titled Hungry Ghosts.

In Chinese Buddhism, hungry ghosts are beings driven by intense emotional needs and only manifest from tragedy or ‘evil deeds’. Interestingly, if we go further back, in very early Chinese and Vietnamese mythology, hungry ghosts are those who have been false, deceitful, greedy people and their karma is an insatiable hunger. Tong’s Hungry Ghosts are seekers but they also exist in and embody corruption, another central tenet of the work.

“How many planes do you have to lose before people forget about the money you lost?”

The 1MDB Scandal (1 Malaysia Development Berhad), is a complicated, corrupt and bloody web of financial dealings involving Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, that spans the globe. In short, Razak had been accused of channeling close to US$700 million from 1MDB, a government-run strategic development company, to his personal bank accounts. 1MDB was created to boost Malaysia’s economy. Razak denied allegations that he funneled public funds to his personal account, claiming instead they were large donations from undisclosed sources. The highest profile aspect of the 1MDB scandal is the financing of the box-office hit The Wolf of Wall Street, which was funded by Red Granite Pictures, a production company owned by Riza Aziz, Razak’s stepson. It is alleged that millions of dollars was diverted from 1MDB to fund the film. No-one is left untouched by this corrupting element in the play. Even the audience becomes complicit, as consumers of the film and unwitting participants in a fraudulent system. The murder of Shaariibuugiin Altantuyaa – a Mongolian National who worked for Razak – is at the epicentre of this corruption thread in Hungry Ghosts. Altantuyaa was employed as a translator for then Defence Minister, Abdul Rasak Baginda, and they became romantically involved. It is reported that Altantuyaa discovered one of the parties involved in negotiations to purchase submarines from France for the Malaysian government paid out commissions of €114 million, which were subsequently credited in the accounts of Baginda. A letter written by Altantuyaa (found after her death) shows that she had been blackmailing Baginda to remain silent about her knowledge of the deal. The Malaysian police found fragments of bone (later verified as belonging to Altantuyaa) in the Malaysian forest. She had been shot twice before C4 explosives blew up her remains. Just like the lost souls from flight MH370, Altantuyaa is lost (her DNA literally obliterated) and Malaysia itself lost in a quagmire of scandal and corruption.  

In an interview with Melbourne Theatre Company, Tong expressed how the three narratives clicked for her when she realised:

“The nature of grasping at straws during a tragedy, the scale of the financial operations and volume of assets, my physical distance from home and inability to fully contribute to the discussions that were unfolding about the country’s socio-politics – it fell into place so suddenly. I noticed that the common thread seemed to be a sense of loss, or an inability to speak due to either the suppression or lack of knowledge, or the wistful melancholy for something missing.”

Formally, Hungry Ghosts is a collection of scenes, events and monologues using multiple languages, modes and tones, which all refract and relate to its central idea of what it is to be unexplained, forgotten, to exist in the liminal – to be ‘ghosts’. The lack of traditional narrative allows the audience to make their own meaning from the disconnected scenes and moments. The specificity of material does not push its audience away – quite remarkably it grounds the work and makes it relatable on so many levels.

In the first scene of the play, ‘Animal Kingdom’, Tong uses the metaphor of pistol shrimp to unpack the idea of how one small lone voice, although lost in a vacuum, can have a large impact on the world around it. The pistol shrimp is a small crustacean that creates a bubble of nothingness, a void, when it snaps its claw shut. This tiny bubble is suspended in the middle of the ocean until it explodes and the ocean crashes back in to fill the void. The noise that colonies of these shrimp make is so loud that it interrupts military and scientific sonar. A lone voice then asks:

“I wonder what it’s like in that bubble. In that absolute quiet, in the silence of a million waves, billions of networks of oceanic activity. Imagine that peace. It stretches on forever, a silence where anything can happen. I could be anyone. Do anything. I could hide in that silence. I could become something in that silence. I could weaponise myself, kill a king. I could make myself the greatest, most invisible danger of the big blue sea wrapped in a tiny, tiny, shrimp body. And then the moment passes, and the great crushing weight of the ocean whooshes back in.”

Tong proposed, when introducing Hungry Ghosts to the Melbourne Theatre Company subscribers at the 2018 launch that:

“People are increasingly discovering highly specific ways of identifying themselves and figuring out how to talk about the way they experience the world. I’m really interested in the outliers of these categories – when and why do these labels fail, and what other expectations come with those new identities or categories? Language is intoxicatingly powerful, but incredibly slippery: who are we with it, and who are we without it? I hope that my writing opens up some spaces on all of those levels.”

Tong opens up a quantum space in this first scene to tackle the biggest mystery, our own existence – Who are we? What is our true nature? In the realm of quantum physics there is no matter. What we think of as matter are tiny particles that are waves of potential – different potential outcomes of reality with infinite possibilities. Space and time exist within (rather than without) the quantum space. Hungry Ghosts exists in this quantum space, underneath the waves, inside the bubble, in the absolute quiet, where anything can happen. It is at once a love/hate letter to Malaysia and a meditation on who we are, in the silence. 

Jean Tong is part of a new wave of writers and performance makers finding their way to our main stages. Over the past few years, I have had the privilege of directing a number of works written by artists from diverse backgrounds. These works all share an investigation around identity and belonging in relationship to the dominant culture. They have all used multiple languages as a tool to expose their audiences to ways of seeing, feeling and interpreting fluid identities. These perspectives on our stages allow some audience members a new lens through which to see the world, and affirm and celebrate the experience of previously ignored audiences. I can only hope that with the inclusion of stories like these (and many others around the country) on our main stages, we will increasingly see more diversity embedded in the dominant cultural narrative. Tong’s work is an important voice in this growing conversation.

From the rehearsal room... at MTC

The thing I love most about being a director is no one day is the same. The skills I use in week one are completely different to the ones I use in our final rehearsals. Yesterday was slightly more charged as we were doing a run of the play for the first time and we had some guests watching. It is the most vulnerable time as a director (except maybe for opening night) when the play is unfinished and actors are still finding their feet in the work, to put all the pieces together. Invariably (because there’s still a few weeks to go) actors performances are patchy - they are trying to remember where to stand, what to say, who they’re saying it to and what happens next - the play runs too long, the sound design is all over the place, the wheels of the play feel a little rickety, and someone broke an essential part of the set. Nobody feels particular good after a first run. This time I think I heard, “Well, I’m glad that’s over". The thing is, it is only after the first run, that the play really begins to make sense. This day was no different. The actors looked spent and vulnerable. The observers left the room having thanked me for watching - but I could tell they were nervous; "Is she going to be able to pull it together? They’ve only got 8 more days of rehearsal. What if, it’s a disaster?” Ok, so that might be what’s actually going on in my head. The thing is, after that awful, uncomfortable, vulnerable first pass at the show, things begin to get really exciting. Conversations from week one begin to inform moments in the most nuanced of ways. The idea that we thought was brilliant is thrown out the window to replaced by something far better. Most exciting of all is that, the first run seems to provide cast and creatives with a focus. It might be wobbly, uneven and some parts may not work at all - but everyone has a sense of what we are working towards. Until then it has been an amorphus unknown. Now it has shape. We all have direction. We all take a big breath and I say “Well done everyone. I have notes." I am so often humbled by the people that I work with and their dedication to delivering a high quality product on time. I don’t think as theatre-makers we celebrate that fact enough. There are so many variables that we are working with, much can and does go wrong - but the people who bring it to you are working so hard to realise the work and find a way to share it with you in the most impactful way. That is what keeps me coming back again and again. 

And the great thing is, I know, tomorrow will hold something completely different.

Union House Theatre Launch

I recently gave this speech at the launch of the Second Semester Season of Work at Union House Theatre at Melbourne University. 

I am so excited about this semester and the 23 productions we have.

I am most excited about amount of new and Australain works that are being presented by student theatre groups. 

We also have lots of other comedies and revues happening this Semester with Medley’s (the Med Revue) and MUDCRABS (Melb Uni Comedy Revue Board) and the Melbourne Uni Law Revue are returning to the Union Theatre for the first time in many years. They open tomorrow night in the Union Theatre 

As it is the year of celebrating Shakespeare’s Death – Shakespeare 400 – we also have Midsummer Nights Dream – currently playing in the Guild, Twelfth Night by MUSC in week 11 and 12 and UHT’s own production Macbeth + MacDeath: A coda

This semester sees almost record-breaking presentation of Australian work and new work by students. I can’t tell you how proud and happy this makes me.

In addition to the revues we have:

Open Body’s performative movement piece – Unknown Show Unknown Location tonight, tomorrow and Saturday not to mention THE BOX by Amy Spurgeon and Hanna O’Keeffe performed in week 4.

Lally Katz play – Apocalypse Bear presented by Periscope in week 3.

Nick Enright’s play – Blackrock presented by International House in week 6.

Barry Dickens - Remember Ronald Ryan – presented by Queens College in week 7

Tastings in week 7 with new work by your peers in the Guild

Whose Afraid of the Working Class presented by Four letter Word in week 10.

Turning Back Time Presented by the Chinese Music Group in Week 10.

Raffles on Capris  – a new Music Theatre work presented by Balloon Head in week 11

Contemporary Australian work by Nude in Week 12.

And also in week 12 a new Dance Work by Flare.

Additionally this year – MUSC are presenting Shake It Up - a series of radical adaptations of/departures from Shakespeare texts,

I am so excited that the offering this year from Student Theatre Groups is so Australian Focused and includes so much new work -  devised, written and created by Students.

Presenting work that uses our own voice and investigates our own culture is so important. To quote David Williamson (he makes a very valid point) the “Social and political realities of the moment – what’s going right or wrong with our society and why. It’s a hugely important source of information about ourselves and if we kill it off by using stories from other cultures and other times, then we are killing of possibly the most exciting and penetrating truths about ourselves. Truths that we sorely need."

Many of you are relishing your time in student theatre to and are using every opportunity to positively exploit your unique and privileged situation. You are perfectly placed to do what the rest of the arts industry finds impossible – never again in your lives as theatre makers, producers, writers, composers, designers, musicians will you have the freedom, support and finance to develop your own voice, find your tribe - experiment with them and have the support and mentorship to be able to do it. History tells us – just look at our extraordinary student theatre Alumni - that many of you are future leaders in the arts industry – sure you wont all do theatre, but your time here shapes you and it is here that you really begin to define your adult identity. I believe each and everyone of you will go on to be a leader in some way shape or form and as leaders, potential leaders and reluctant leaders I want you to think about this…

What stories are you telling both on stage and off – and how is that narrative shaping you and the world around you? Is this a story that you want to be a part of? Does it align with what you want to say about the world? If it doesn’t how do you change it?

Is the theatre that you are a part of or leading representative of the diversity you see in lectures every day? If not – why not? As leaders in your creative endeavours you have a choice to actively change and challenge the status quo. I have had the pleasure of having a little bit to do with Richard Frankland, who is is one of Australia’s most experienced Aboriginal singer/songwriters, authors and film makers. He is also the Head of Curriculum of Programs at the Willin Centre at the VCA – he speaks about changing the shape of the door. That it is the responsibility of the dominant culture to change the shape of the door so other cultural groups can actually access the dominant culture. I think this is a really simple way of articulating a complex idea. It is our responsibility as the leaders of a project to make our work accessible. Expanding the metaphor, It is arrogant to assume those of other cultures will know how to knock. And shifting the shapeof that door, may be as simple as posting an audition advertisement in a different place, it may be a simple as stating on your audition notice that this is something that people from all cultures and experience levels are free to audition. I can attest that when I have engaged in this way, my work has immediately become more rich, my conversations about the work and the world that we live in more complex and the world I represent on stage more like the one I see every day on the train. As leaders – and you are all leaders – what are you doing to change the shape of the door? What are you doing to broaden the scope of what defines our dominant culture. With political fear mongering at it’s height it is incumbent on all of us to be inclusive, to challenge ourselves and to change the shape of the door.  Who is not at the table?

Failure and Critique

Failure

 she was regarded as a failure: loser, underachiever, ne'er-do-well, disappointment; informal, no-hoper, dead loss, dud, write-off.

Sir Ken Robinson, the internationally recognised leader in education, creativity and innovation at a TED talk in 2006, said:

“Kids will take a chance. If they don't know, they'll have a go. Am I right? They're not frightened of being wrong. Now, I don't mean to say that being wrong is the same thing as being creative. What we do know is, if you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original -- … And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong."

Ok, so I'm over it. I have read one too many unforgiving, harsh and downright offensive reviews! 

I feel to be an artist you need a fair amount of sensitivity. But this sensitivity is an absolute liability when reviews come out. I have witnessed (and have experienced myself) the embarrassment, shame and humiliation after a ‘shocking’ review. I am more than happy for people not to like my work – to not get it – to find it difficult, confronting, meh or just plain boring – they have every right to their opinion. And all power to them. I am putting my work out there for them to receive however they will. I do believe however that a reviewer has a responsibility – not only to the audience they are writing for but to the artist whose work they are trashing. I am not suggesting a review cannot be negative or critical but I am suggesting that respect for the integrity behind the art making and a contextual understanding of the work inform the critique.

    I am haunted by my failures. Haunted by the mistakes I have made and the public humiliation I have felt from “bad reviews”.  However the shame and guilt I feel about these failures is always countered by the knowledge that I have learnt the most from these moments of debacle, collapse and disaster. Failure has sent me down a rabbit hole of investigation. I have asked myself some really hard questions and come out the other side a better theatre-maker for it.  And on reflection I recognise the learning happens in the doing. - in the preparedness to fail, in the risk-taking and the simple act of actually staging something.

    So whether you are reviewing, tweeting, posting, commenting, consider: 

    • The months (often years) invested to stage a piece of work.
    • The nature of collaboration – the fact that this product is the result of hours of input from a whole host of unseen creatives.
    • The compromises the team may have had to make, willingly and unwillingly on independent and main stages.
    • That most of the creative probably aren’t being paid very much.
    • That each creative has gone into the process with the best intentions, with integrity and above all to communicate something to you.
    • The ephemeral nature of theatre and the fact that documentation of it is exceedingly difficult – a reviewer’s words are the written legacy of that work for history to judge.

    Theatre is not always good. The conflicting influences of collaboration, space, time and a weird alchemy, means sometimes it works and sometimes doesn’t. And sometimes all the pieces independently are ‘right’ – but the thing just doesn’t work. Sometimes you don't agree with what the piece is 'saying'. But that is no reason to humiliate the artists involved. Talk to the ideas. Talk to what you liked and what you didn't like. Write about the productions failures, where it missed the mark. Personal attacks just aren't fair.

     The mere fact that Melbourne’s stages are so full of such strong creative output is testament to the strength and resilience of its artists in spite of the unpredictable, moody and spiteful critique they receive.

    I’m not reading any more reviews  (my own or those of others). I’m not going to let myself continue to be exhausted and disheartened and afraid of the judgement and ridicule from short form critique. I am going to continue to embrace my failures (or my opening for future learning” – Balies, S.J, Performance Theatre and the Poetics of Failure) and by doing so create something. It might not be wholly successful - but at least I can take comfort in the fact that I have set myself the goal of stumbling across something truly original – and that can only be found by being prepared to fail.

     “….ask yourself this question: What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail? If you really ask yourself this question, you can't help but feel uncomfortable... Because when you ask it, you begin to understand how the fear of failure constrains you, how it keeps us from attempting great things, and life gets dull, amazing things stop happening. Sure, good things happen, but amazing things stop happening... The path to truly new, never-been-done-before things always has failure along the way. We're tested. And in part, that testing feels an appropriate part of achieving something great. Clemenceau said, "Life gets interesting when we fail, because it's a sign that we've surpassed ourselves."

    Dugan, R. (2012, March) Glider to humming bird drone [video file] Retrieved from

    http://www.ted.com/talks/regina_dugan_from_mach_20_glider_to_humming_bird_drone.html?quote=1440

     

    From the rehearsal room...

    As I write, I’m sitting in the rehearsal room for Macbeth at Sydney Theatre Company - the actors are on break. We are halfway through week four and this incredible play is still revealing its secrets, posing challenges and making everyone work very hard. But as I have been watching, I’ve been thinking about the privilege of assistant directing. To be able to sit in on another directors rehearsals, to watch them work, watch them sort out problems, to (if you’re lucky and have a director who is generous) make suggestions. Actors get to watch each other work all the time and so much is learnt from watching fellow artists and reflecting on their practice and ways of coming at things. It is no different with directing, we just get to watch each other less often. So what is this rehearsal room like? Well, the director is open and generous, but he is also very softly spoken – so the room has a quiet, throbbing intensity. He is incredibly detailed, very precise and each moment is thoroughly interrogated. It’s very exciting to be a part of - and if I’m completely honest, combined with a creative team par excellence, a little intimidating. Especially in my first week - I don’t think I said two sentences.

    People often talk about alchemy when creating theatre – the right ingredients, the right time, the right place and an ‘intangibleness’ which makes everything cohere in surprising and profound ways. Alchemy seems an entirely apt word for this production. A world of prophecy, ambition and murder - of double-speak and a cold and murky hell. I don’t want to say too much for fear of ruining a wonderful surprise … but I leave you with what I just wrote down in my notebook…

    Not only is the configuration of the theatre literally reversing the order of things, this play will literally appear, a phantasmagoria - and we won’t be entirely sure how we arrived there – and as quickly as it appears it will be gone again and we will be left with Macbeth exposed, alone and completely detached. The magic of this production exists in its staging.

    ......

    Blog entries coming soon....