I’m the first to admit that Bitten By Productions has a bit of a mixed record. As lovely as it would be to say that every show we’ve ever done was an unmitigated success, some of them were closer to mediocre and others outright sucked. Every year we’ve operated has yielded a variety of relative successes and failures; some sold every seat but weren’t great, others were fantastic shows but couldn’t find an audience, and the occasional lucky one managed both.
This year has not been perfect, but the flaws, for once, were more operational than with the quality of what we put on. At the start of the year I wrote a bit of a retrospective of our output so far, starting with Reunion and ending with The Critic. Rather than wait until we have the same number of shows as were covered in that first retrospective, I thought I’d look back over our 2017, a year that had its ups and downs but came out as by far the best year we’ve yet had as a company.
To be fair, I did touch on Springsteen in the last retrospective, but that was mid run and it was hard to be objective, or at least, as objective as I can be about something I wrote and directed. Which is to say, not very much.
Still, Springsteen was special, not least because it centred on a topic that means a huge amount to me. But it was so much more than that. The themes of the play were as personal as even a show like Regression, which I occasionally agonised over letting people see, and that odd mix of tribute and emotion made it a bit of an outlier in what we’ve done so far. But, in the hands of a pitch perfect cast, it worked. We had crowds of Springsteen fans coming to see it, we sold out multiple shows, some of which we needed to bring in twenty extra seats for and it went on to be adapted into a radio play that hit #3 on the iTunes performing arts charts, which received many reports of tears on Twitter to boot. It was a success on every level; with the critics, the audiences, and the ticket sales. That is a rare outcome.
But beyond that, it was just a wonderful, wonderful experience. Those rehearsals were raw and emotional, built around all of us exposing some pretty rough things in service of bringing these characters to life. I feel that it not only brought us together as artists, but as friends, and it’s hard to ask much more from any project than that. Springsteen was the kind of play that left the team behind it with a special, singular bond, the kind that only comes from having gone through hell to produce something we could all be immensely proud of.
It wasn’t perfect, of course. The venue was about as awful as any we’ve ever used, and the staging/set were pretty uninspired, which might be part of the reason the show translated so seamlessly to a radio play without losing much. Furthermore the use of live music didn’t work as well as the use of Springsteen’s own songs, another area where the radio play improved on its source.
But hey, in the end the show was rewarding and satisfying in a way few theatrical endeavours are. And to boot, I felt like I hadn’t fucked up telling the story of one of my idols, and that’s arguably the most important part.
Dracula: Last Voyage of the Demeter
I mentioned before that you can’t be objective about your own play, but it’s a little more complicated than that. Objectivity isn’t the only way to approach something; often, when we’re able to admit the failings of a personal project, we have a singular insight into why something worked and why it didn’t.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I can’t be as analytical about Dracula as I can the rest, because it wasn’t my play. As the first Bitten By Productions show that wasn’t written by myself, Dracula was a change of pace in a lot of ways, and I’m inclined to think it was a welcome and necessary one. Longer, with a new focus on set, costumes, and special effects, Dracula was our most visually striking show since Below Babylon, and audiences responded. It was also our most financially successful show, due to great reviews and the boost offered by name recognition, and it boasted a brilliant central performance from Greg Caine, who managed to make Dracula sympathetic, terrifying, hilarious and riveting – often all in the same scene.
Do I have reservations about it? Sure. Mainly with a few behind the scenes things that don’t need to be aired in public. But the truth is, as I also acted in this play, it’s pretty tough for me to view it with any kind of impartiality or personal analysis. I was involved enough to be too close, but not enough to really examine where it worked and didn’t. That’s a job for a writer or director, not an actor.
Following on so closely from Springsteen, Dracula completed a one-two punch of big hits, also going on to become a highly successful radio play. At this point it was hard not to feel on top of the world about where our company was. Which of course, is usually the moment a rude awakening comes along.
I hope that somewhat ominous previous sentence doesn’t imply I’m not proud of Heroes, or in any way ambivalent about it. Neither are the case. But Heroes’ success was of a different, more complicated kind to the two previous shows.
The production of Heroes started from a place of hubris, which is never a place to start anything from but then, to be fair, you only tend to recognise hubris in the aftermath. To understand this, you have to remember that The Critic, our last play of 2016, had also been very successful; not on the same level as a Springsteen or Dracula, but it had enjoyed healthy audiences and glowing reviews. This meant that Heroes came in the midst of what seemed like a wave of success, and as such I got cocky.
Reteaming with Dexter Bourke, who previously directed The Last Supper in 2015 was a no
brainer. I gave Dexter full autonomy, letting him handpick the cast he wanted and essentially handing the whole project to him while I focused on Dracula and the impending release of Boone Shepard’s American Adventure. Usually this wouldn’t be a problem, except all of this happened just a month and a half out from opening night.
Heroes isn’t a long or complicated play, but it is a two hander and that means that two actors have to learn a huge amount of dialogue. With only a limited amount of time to learn, explore, and develop their characters and the script, it’s hard to expect the best from anyone and when I came in to watch a rehearsal one week out from opening, what I saw was decidedly not the best. It was, frankly, panic inducing.
This part of the story had a happy ending. The Heroes team, who were a dream to work with, immediately gauged my unease and asked what could be done. Then, to their unending credit, they did it. Heroes opened to well-deserved five-star reviews.
What it did not open to were good audiences. This is another area where hubris got me good. I figured that after Springsteen and Dracula people would flock to see our shows. That turned out to be untrue, especially when the show was a strange little thriller with no name recognition and two actors we had never used before coming only a month after our previous play. Heroes boasted the first time since Reunion that a Bitten By show performed to an audience of one, an embarrassing inevitability of indie theatre that I thought we were long past. And, while there were some decently populated shows in there, generally it was pretty sparsely attended. The audiences who saw it seemed to love it. There just weren’t that many who saw it.
But the overall ending for Heroes was still a happy one. Matt, one of the actors, suggested we take it on the one act play circuit, and it went on to win multiple awards for best actor, script, and production at various festivals. By the end of its run, thanks to the prize money, it had matched Dracula as Bitten By’s most financially successful show.
Mistakes were made and lessons were learned. But ultimately Heroes joined the first two shows of the year as a huge success, one that is a testament to the ability of Dexter, Matt and Blake to surpass the ridiculous schedule I imposed on them to put together something special, something that blew people away in theatres all over the state.
Around the time of Heroes cooler heads had prevailed regarding our schedule of plays. While I always loved the idea of having multiple shows in rehearsal at the same time, that creates an oversaturation that may in part answer for Heroes’ less than stellar theatrical run. At the start of the year The Commune, our first ever co-production (with Angelique Malcolm’s Class Act Theatre) had been scheduled for November and very swiftly all my ideas about having a show between Heroes’ May season and The Commune had been shut down. Instead we had time, time to think, plan and, most crucially, workshop.
For The Commune we did something new; a two day workshop over the course of which we took the script to task, refining, re-writing and tweaking until we had something rock solid, something we all had a little ownership in. With that done, rehearsals started in earnest and I took a step back.
I had fears about The Commune, fears that grew as opening night approached. With a made-up mythology centring around weird names and strange rituals, would it be met with laughter rather than discomfort? But, in the hands of arguably the best cast we’d ever assembled for a show, it was fine. Tension built beautifully from the first moments, and Ashley Tardy’s assured direction imbued the silences with menace, yearning and weighty implication. Reviews were great and several people who have frequented our shows said it was the best yet.
Whether that’s true or not, it’s hard to say. The Commune was possibly the most well executed of our plays, but I don’t think it ever really reached the same depth as something like Springsteen. Nonetheless, it engaged and thrilled audiences, and that’s all we could ever ask for.
But, like with Heroes, The Commune struggled to fill houses. I don’t really know why. Maybe the time of year, maybe the slightly higher ticket prices, maybe the subject matter. I will never be the type of person to guilt trip anybody over not ‘supporting the arts’ or whatever, because my attitude here has always been that we’re not asking for handouts, we’re providing a quality product that is worth your time and money. With The Commune that felt very much the case, it just didn’t seem to help very much. And short of being that annoying guy on Facebook clogging up your newsfeeds with endless plugs, there’s not a heap I can do about it.
But, like every show this year, lessons were learned. Namely that we need way better publicity (or any publicity) and maybe bigger, better venues where we won’t have to contend with the many limitations that faced us this year. What, to me, is indisputable, is that Bitten By Productions is now operating with a professionalism and consistency that we’ve never had before. It’s no longer just my whims steering this ship; with a full committee in place, the plays we choose and decisions we make are measured and well thought out. Now all we need to do is ensure that we are working at this standard across the board, in every aspect of a production.
But, mistakes and whatnot aside, 2017 was our biggest and best year yet, boasting four shows that I am fiercely proud of and the formation of a formidable team. Next year we’ll be working with new writers and new genres (musical), building on the foundation we have established to take this company to soaring new heights.
It’s been an awesome year. I don’t think I’m jinxing it to suspect that 2018 will be even better.
Being a writer is like a perpetual lesson in your own naivety. Every time you think you’ve wrapped your head around the industry, that you understand how it all works and are ready to take it on from your place of newfound wisdom, something comes along and slaps you in the face. When I got into Australia’s top screenwriting course I remember celebrating, thinking this was it, thinking from here on my success was just a technicality. When that course ended with no clear sign of impending fame or fortune or even anything, I started to get sad and despondent. Then I won the Ustinov, and suddenly I was ready to go, ready to take off into the stratosphere.
Well, you can probably sense where this story goes.
Perspective, I think, is important. I make my living entirely in the field of writing, and that makes me unquestionably one of the lucky ones in an industry that is famously brutal and rife with disappointment. But it doesn’t mean for a second that I’m where I want to be. I’ve learned to be optimistic in the face of all the setbacks, but sometimes too many come at once and it’s very, very hard to maintain any sense of positivity after a couple of days in a row made up of a succession of steel capped boots meeting your teeth.
Last week ended on a grim note, for various reasons. Several things I had taken for granted, some professional, some personal, fell apart in close succession, leaving me lying on the couch staring blank faced at the ceiling and wondering what the point was. I felt like Sisyphus at the top of the mountain, panting and out of breath and trying not to cry as he watches that boulder plummet back down. For the first time in a long time panic was setting in, an overriding feeling of ‘what the hell am I supposed to do now?’
In those cases, trying to tackle anything head on, especially if, like me, you’re impatient and impulsive, is a thankless task. Approaching problems from a place of anger or desperation scarcely yields pleasant results. So, against every instinct in my body, I decided not to think about those problems. I got drunk at my girlfriend’s work Christmas party. I went and saw the final performance of The Commune then spent the next day hanging out with the cast, watching the edited two hour version of Breaking Bad and idly talking about all sorts of things. I spent Monday rehearsing Moonlite then had dinner with close friends and by this point everything seemed that much more manageable.
The thing about those times where everything seems to collapse at once is that the individual problems that make up that ‘everything’ are surmountable in isolation. It’s only together that they seem like the end of the world, and readdressing them a couple of days later makes that clear.
Today I got proactive. I made a long overdue dice roll and it wasn’t pleasant, but it was like ripping off a particularly stubborn band aid – once it was done I felt sore but overall better. And once the initial sting abated, I got to work making up for lost ground. I made phone calls, contacted some people, and quickly something came together, a sense of hope and burgeoning opportunity that I haven’t felt since, well, probably since I won the Ustinov.
This isn’t to suggest that I’m looking at a suddenly fertile garden of sure things. It’s just that today I was reminded that I have come a long way and that even when everything seems bleak, I do have options. The hours I’ve spent laying foundations in the last few years have made sure of that, and even if it means nothing in the long run, hope is a very important thing to have.
The day I found out I’d been shortlisted for the Ustinov, I told myself not to get my hopes up. There was no way I’d win. The chances were remote at best and there was no point in letting myself get excited only to be crushed by disappointment at the inevitable ‘thanks but no thanks’ email. But then, about halfway through that pragmatic internal monologue, something occurred to me.
I would only get to feel the hope I felt in that time once. Even if it was ultimately dashed, I would be able to take the hit, get up and try again, like I’ve been doing my whole life. I would, after all, feel the same disappointment even if I told myself daily I wouldn’t win, because of course, despite my best efforts I would still have that hope, I just wouldn’t let myself show it. And why deprive myself of hope when life is so much harder without it?
So I let myself hope that I would win, just like right now I’m letting myself hope that things go well. And maybe that is naive. Maybe this is just another tough lesson I’ll look back on with a wry chuckle. But I’ll take hopeful naivety over the alternative any day.
And aside from anything else, I came home today to a puppy. If that’s not optimism rewarded, then I don’t know what is.
I probably shouldn’t be writing this. I probably should be more professional. But I’m not going to be, so settle in for a big ol’ angry rant.
People who know me know that I used to be a theatre reviewer, a gig I walked away from after the realisation that being a playwright who wants to work with people in the Melbourne theatre scene doesn’t exactly sit well with regularly criticising said people’s output. But having a foot in both camps was a fascinating experience and taught me a huge amount about accepting opinions even when you disagree with them or find them hurtful. It also left me uniquely placed to comment on the practices of critics in this city.
By the way, I am not targeting any specific critic here and I am certainly not targeting anyone for writing a bad review of one of my plays. I strongly believe it is the prerogative of a critic to be honest about their opinion, even if that honesty isn’t what I want to hear. Inviting a critic to see a show is always a gamble, a gamble that should be based on your confidence that you have created a good product worth people’s time and money. But critics don’t have to share that confidence.
No, my issue here is something altogether different and altogether more irritating.
My latest play, The Commune, opened on Wednesday night. It’s been in pre-production for a long time and rehearsing for the last two months. As usual, before that process even started, I sent out the standard round of emails to all the Melbourne theatre blogs and publications, inviting reviewers. And as usual, there was pretty much no response.
I do get this. When I wrote for TheatrePeople and Australian Stage Online we were regularly forwarded any press releases for upcoming plays and the first reviewer to respond got to cover the show. But often I didn’t even read those emails, because hey, we all get busy and not every description that turns up in your inbox grabs your attention. There isn’t much the editors of those sites can do if nobody wants to review the show, so, while this is frustrating, I do get it.
But we persist, sending follow up emails once we have trailers and photos, and usually we manage to secure a few critics. In the case of The Commune we had three in for Wednesday’s preview show. It is now Saturday afternoon, and only one of those reviews has gone online (positive, by the way).
To understand why this is so rage inducing, you need to look at why we take the risk and invite critics to our shows. After all, there is no certainty whatsoever that the write-ups we get will be good. But it’s a risk that we absolutely must take because independent theatre is essentially a non-stop succession of rolling boulders up hills only to see them come back down again. Convincing people to part with their hard-earned to see a play is often a near impossible task, and with a limited budget our advertising campaigns can hardly be aggressive, or even fairly called advertising campaigns. As such, we strongly rely on reviews because a good one might be the difference between the actors getting paid or not.
That’s not to suggest that the masses closely follow theatre blogs (I don’t), but there are those that do and us sharing a review essentially is being able to show the public that it’s not just the biased opinion of the creatives insisting this show is worth their money. A good review has power and we usually see a spike in ticket sales once we can share one.
It’s for this reason that reviewers are offered free tickets, with the understanding that they will write about their experience of the show and, this is important, write it promptly. When I was a reviewer I always endeavoured put my take together the night of the show, whether good or bad. At worst I’d do it the morning after. But I knew, having been on the other side, that no matter what I ended up saying the creatives had not given up a ticket for me so that I could drag my feet and put my review together if and when I could be bothered.
Most reviews aren’t longer than 500 words. That takes, at most, fifteen minutes to put together. And while I appreciate that people are busy and most reviewers aren’t getting paid, how packed can your life be that you can’t take a tiny bit of time out of your day to hold up your end of the bargain? You got to see a show for free, a show that cost money, time and effort to put together. We’re not even asking you to say nice things about it. We’re just asking you to do what you promised to do when you replied to our email and agreed to come along.
This happens every time. I didn’t even bother to check the review sites on Thursday because I knew that nobody would have put anything up then. But when Friday came and went with only one review going up, I started to get angry. Because ticket sales haven’t been great for The Commune and at this stage we’re really holding out for anything that might help.
In the case of Dracula, which had the benefit of name recognition propelling it to a sell-out season, one reviewer didn’t post their write-up until over a week after seeing the show. Others took up to four days. In the case of The Critic and Regression some reviewers didn’t post anything until the season was over – at which time there is literally no point in you having bothered. Frankly it’s rude and it’s insulting. And by the way, in all the above cases the reviews were positive, so it’s not even as though the critic hated the show so much that they couldn’t bring themselves to write it. They were just lazy.
How do you justify that to yourselves? How do you watch the days go past and think ‘yeah, I might get around to writing something tomorrow or maybe the day after’? And while somebody on Twitter made the point that often publications have schedules that dictate when a review can go up, that’s just as shit. Most of these blogs wouldn’t have more than twenty regular readers; how is your feigned professionalism more important than posting a piece that could turn an obscure show into a success?
And lest you think I’m being unfair here, remember that I did this job and I am not holding anybody to a standard that I didn’t hold myself to. Even now when I write my reviews for Den of Geek, reviews of major TV shows where my opinion would make no difference, I get them in the day of watching. Because that’s the responsibility I have and I can’t very well call myself a critic if I don’t clear the time to do what is expected of me.
Back during the run of Dracula I got halfway through writing a similar angry blog post before getting cold feet. I thought it would make me look like a petulant child throwing a tantrum and not the professional I claim to be. But since then two more shows have proved to us that this is not an isolated issue. Being a critic is a rightly respected profession; people rely on you to know whether or not they should give up time and money to see something. It’s up to you to provide an articulate, engaging, well-argued and prompt answer to their question. If you can’t manage that, you’re in the wrong industry.
Basically, be better.
Last year, myself and most of my writing friends decided together to take on National Novel Writing Month. For those unfamiliar, it’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like; over the month of November writers everywhere challenge themselves to complete a 50,000 word novel. It’s not really as tough as it sounds; provided you average around 1600 words a day, you’ll hit your target easily.
I took some convincing before deciding to tackle it; to me the very idea of forcing creativity like that was tantamount to sacrilege and completely at odds with how I write, but at the last minute I let go of my pretentions and decided to join in. And I loved it; not only the competitive nature of it, but the fact that making yourself write a certain amount actually tends to foster more creativity and ideas – something I’ve found this year with all the freelance work I’ve been doing.
There was also this wonderful sense of community to it, the fact that we were all in it together, all facing the same struggles, insecurities, pitfalls and elations as we aimed for that impossible seeming target. And the fact that we all hit it in the end was cause for a long night of celebration tempered with immense pride. Some of us had never written novels before; to manage your first in the space of a month is no mean feat.
It was pretty much a given that we would do it again this year; after the success of our collective 2016 attempt, why wouldn’t we? I even had the perfect idea for it; having spent a lot of time over the last few months writing a new and (hopefully) definitive version of Windmills and reworking the sequel I wrote in 2015, my head was squarely in that world and NaNoWriMo felt like the perfect opportunity to write the prequel I’ve had in my head for years. When the day came I made a decent start, and at first things chipped along nicely.
A lot has changed between last year and now. Last year I still had a day job that wasn’t writing related, one that afforded me a lot of time to work on stories while in the office. Last year I wasn’t really a working writer. This year, 10,000 words into my NaNoWriMo story I had to stop to work on a 15,000 word freelance gig I’d been putting off for weeks. Then others came up. Then I found my mind wandering to Sunburnt Country, my novella for the Seasons of Fear anthology that I’ve been itching to write a sequel to. And I really need to be working on Boone Shepard 3. Plus there are a couple of plays I’m keen to work on. This year, I simply haven’t had the luxury of putting everything else aside for a month to rush a novel.
At the beginning of November 2016 we all gathered in my house to make a start on our novels together, fuelled by beer and coffee and snacks. This made it feel like a group effort. But in 2017 I wasn’t the only one who had other commitments, and so we all started separately without really sharing our ideas. And the same enthusiasm wasn’t there. From what I’ve gathered, Carney was thinking about writing a Dracula anthology for it, but hasn’t started. Tom changed his story half way through and, true to form, Damo is the only one who has diligently kept up with his own project.
And there’s been another issue, one that actually makes letting NaNoWriMo lapse feel less like a failure and more like the right choice. Wolves, the novel I’ve been working on, feels really, really special. I can’t remember the last time I felt this invested in the journey of a character, feeling their emotions so keenly as they make the choices that will eventually damn them.
Of course, part of this has to do with the fact that the character in question is Dominic Ford, the crime lord villain from Windmills who I have been fascinated with since 2009, but the fact that this is a story that I’ve wanted to write for almost a decade is part of the reason that I’ve slowly realised NaNoWriMo probably isn’t the right way to tackle it. I want to take my time with Wolves, to feel it through and explore every beat and occurrence fully. Dominic Ford is probably one of my best characters, and as such I’m hardly going to rush his story to hit an arbitrary deadline. And I’m sure as hell not going to force it if other things are vying for my attention. Dominic has waited long enough to deserve my full focus.
I have a sneaking suspicion that Wolves, as the de-facto final part of what has become a loose Windmills trilogy, might well be the best of the three. It’s a Shakespearean saga of the slow moral erosion of a young man who starts off making the wrong choices for the right reasons and slowly turns into someone that even he can’t recognise. Naturally, having only written about 10,000 words, that suspicion may well change and there’s every chance I won’t even finish it. But if even part of me thinks that this could be great then the novel deserves every chance to reach its potential, and I’m not going to waste that potential just so I can gloat about another successful NaNoWriMo.
All that said, I haven’t entirely decided to give up yet. Inspiration may strike this week and I’ll quickly make up for lost time. But by letting myself off the hook now, I let the right ideas come to the forefront and can strike while the iron is hot, ensuring that my efforts are put where they are most useful. And Wolves isn’t going anywhere. It’s waited this long, it can wait a little longer.
Last year I wrote a gushing post about how great NaNoWriMo was, and I still stand by that. But if in 2016 I learned the lesson that sometimes forcing creativity is a good thing, in 2017 I learned that just because a certain approach works for one story doesn’t mean for a second it’ll work for the next.
I feel like the majority of my blog posts this year have opened with some kind of disclaimer about how busy I am, but it’s scarcely felt truer than the last couple of weeks. In trying to catch up with someone recently I checked my schedule for the next few days and it’s packed; so much is going on, which is awesome, but equally tiring.
Movie Maintenance feels like it’s slowly getting back to a point where we’re all happy with it. Last week on Cup Day we recorded five back to back episodes, and while I can only really comment on the ones I was in, it seems like they were all solid. With most of the cast being overseas recently we’ve been flying by the seat of our pants for a while now, only getting episodes ready the week of release, but we’re catching up again and having the luxury of several weeks of episodes in the bag means we have more time to craft stuff that we can be really proud of – the position we were in during the little hot streak we hit last year.
Then there’s Seasons of Fear, the horror anthology written by the cast of the show, which has been printed and will be available to purchase in the next couple of weeks. We got the books a few days ago and aside from them looking very sexy, it’s pretty awesome to hold in your hands something you’ve been thinking about for months on end. The physical release has roughly coincided with the audiobook version of my part, Sunburnt Country, coming out on Movie Maintenance Presents, and I’m already thinking about the future of that story – both a screen version and a sequel. Maggie, the protagonist, turned out to be one of those characters you kind of can’t stop thinking about, and I’m really keen to revisit her in a follow up story. I have this rough idea of her as a kind of Jack Reacher type character, a lone wolf wandering from town to town in her beat up old car with a shotgun and a cricket bat, solving problems and righting wrongs wherever she goes. Like a deadly, present day Mad Max.
I’ve also been trying to do National Novel Writing Month again, but it’s proved difficult time-wise. Friday was spent locked in a boardroom at the ACTF developing a certain television project that I am very, very excited about, and otherwise the time I’m not spending tutoring is spent finishing off various freelance projects that are a massive time sink but at least pay the bills. It’s a shame because I’ve been really excited about this NaNoWriMo project – for those familiar with Windmills, it’s intimately linked to that particular story, kind of a prequel about villainous drug lord Dominic Ford but very much its own novel at the same time. I’ve written about 10.000 words but finding the time to keep that up has been the problem.
Then there’s The Commune, my new play which opens this week. A dark thriller about a man who grew up in a hippy commune and has to return home when his mother dies, it features an amazing cast and the brilliant Ashley Tardy once again on directing duties, but I’ve barely had two seconds to think about it. Still, I suspect it’ll be a great show and can’t wait for the preview tomorrow night. Luckily, having only been involved from the writing standpoint, my involvement was hardly expected to be more than what it has been, which is honestly fortunate.
And then there’s the big one; Moonlite, the musical project I’ve been working on with Dan Nixon for over a year now. It opens January 17 for the Midsumma Festival and rehearsals have started in earnest. So far they’ve been excellent; it’s been really fun to start sculpting this story and with a cast predominantly made up of trained musical theatre professionals I’ve never worked with before it’s a new and very exciting experience. I’m mildly terrified of screwing it all up, but it’s running smoothly and if nothing else the songs sound great so you’ll probably find something to enjoy in there.
There were times, not that long ago, when life seemed to just shuffle along, a constant cycle of work, bills, uni and so on. The projects I had to occupy me were few and far between and rarely anything really good. But for a long time things have been different. If things continue the same way for the next couple of months then this will be officially the first year of my life that I got by completely doing work in my field, without a dreary day job helping to pay the bills, and the fact that it has worked so long is staggering to even think about, especially considering last year living this way seemed like a far off pipe dream at best. But what has made it all better is that 2017 has been characterised by a near constant stream of really exciting projects. I might have been spread thin, but it’s hard to take issue when I can look back at the last few months and, for the first time, feel little more than a strong sense of pride. And that gets one step better when you realise that the stuff that’s still to come looks even more exciting.
If a withering joke in BoJack Horseman is anything to go by, it’s a bit of a cliché that at some point young writers try to make a web series/sitcom based on their lives. A lot of these actually do get made and generally speaking they’re pretty awful. The problem with these kind of ‘personal’ stories is that your life is always going to be more interesting to you than anyone else, unless you have a mega unique life which, let’s face it, most of us don’t. I can’t tell you how many shitty trailers I’ve seen for shitty webseries all about being a struggling artist in Melbourne, getting by with a little help from your kooky friends. These shows are generally parodies of themselves which is why I’m half ashamed (but obviously not enough to disguise the fact) to say that last year I wrote my own.
The reason for the lack of shame here is that I actually thought We Are Adults was pretty good, and still do. The other night, after a few beers in Scotland, I had a read over the six episodes and was surprised by how much I liked them. I think some of my best writing is in there, and they actually have something to say that’s more than just ‘look at how funny/self deprecating I am’.
Obviously my take on it comes with a hefty dose of bias, but as I don’t really have any designs of pursuing the series any further, I think I can be reasonably clearheaded about it. At the time of writing my agent felt that it wasn’t unique enough the make it stand out on the Australian market, and I’m inclined to agree. But the realities of its non-existent place in the industry doesn’t take away from the merits of it as a piece of writing.
At its heart, We Are Adults is about the stark divide between who we are and who we believe we should be. This is something that I think is relatable to everyone, but it tends to be an especially strong feeling in your early twenties, when you’re trying to figure yourself out. Specifically, it’s based on a series of events from when I was about 21, the time I was single, working at Draculas, and just starting to dip my toe into writing theatre. It was a messy, sometimes ugly, transformative period in my life and I feel like We Are Adults does a pretty good (if exaggerated) job of capturing it. It’s an intensely personal piece of writing, that I think is also pretty funny.
Because it’s going nowhere and because I want to share it, I’ve decided to chuck the episodes up on my Patreon account for $5+ subscribers. And, to best emulate the feeling of watching a show, I’ll be releasing the scripts weekly. They’re not too long, and I think they’re probably worth a read. So check out the first two episodes if you want and let me know your thoughts.
When I first started on Movie Maintenance I was a tiny bit naïve. The podcast seemed to come out of nowhere during a particularly miserable year in which I was struggling to see any viable future for my writing, and I agreed to do it because hey, what else was I up to? I had no idea anybody was listening and less idea that anybody would like what we did.
Hearing the early snippets of praise for our work was a bit like a light turning on. Slowly I realised that not only were people enjoying my stuff, but it was quite a few people. The stuff in question might have been essentially pitching fan fiction sequels but at a time when I really needed to feel like I was good at what I did it was hard to care.
The first signs of dissatisfaction were pretty subtle. One or two people wanting more collaborating, less lengthy pitches. Someone thinking I talked too much, someone else wanting more rotation with who was pitching any given week. While, being a bit sensitive, I wasn’t thrilled with this, I saw their point and tried to adjust accordingly. But generally speaking I was too focused on all the positive feedback to pay much heed to the negative.
Then came the double whammy of the Mad Max and Jessica Jones episodes. In both I loudly denigrated hugely popular properties. One was an unplanned live show that I was called up for when I was already drunk, the other was literally recorded the day after I got back from America, when I was grumpy and jetlagged. While I stand by everything I said in those episodes, I wasn’t my best self for either of them and people noticed. For the first time I found myself on the receiving end of more hate than love and that was officially the end of my honeymoon period with Sanspants Radio. After that I either started getting a lot more vitriol or at least started noticing it more. While the good stuff very much outweighed the bad, from then on I was keenly aware of the fact that there was a large contingent of Sanspants listeners who, despite my best efforts really, really didn’t like me, and had no trouble expressing that, whether it be on Reddit, Twitter, Facebook or iTunes.
If you’re reading this, please note that this is neither a pity party or a search for praise. I used to be pretty sensitive to the bad stuff, now it’s generally white noise. It’s never nice to read anyone saying you ruined a show or are ‘everything that is wrong with the internet’, but the truth is that I’m fortunate enough to be paid for appearing on a podcast that has a listenership of more people than I can even imagine. That very simply would not be the case if we weren’t doing something right.
Of course, doing something right for one person does not mean it’s right for the next, and I think one mistake I’ve made with Movie Maintenance is trying to cater to the complainers, compromising what I enjoyed doing to make the show more in line with what I thought people wanted. So we toned down the amount of fan fiction pitches and amped up the fixes of recent, relevant films.
The consequence of that decision? Our downloads went down.
Of course the instinctive reaction to this is to go into damage control, to try and work out what people want from the show and tweak it to fit with that. But then you remember that doing that is what got you into this position in the first place. And then you realise that you enjoyed the show a lot more when you were doing what you wanted to do instead of what some faceless Reddit commenter wanted. Because doing what we want gives us ownership and ownership allows for passion.
Here’s my theory; our passion for Movie Maintenance is what let others be passionate about the show in turn, because it couldn’t help but shine through in everything we did. The problem with passion is that it can divide people. If someone expresses a strong opinion that is contrary to your own, it’s only natural to get defensive. If you’re listening to Movie Maintenance it’s probably a safe assumption that you love film and when you love something it’s never pleasant to hear it ripped to shreds. But in the same way I had to learn that all the hate coming my way was just a few people’s opinions, those who disagree with us need to realise the same. We’re not right about the films we criticise. We’re just expressing an opinion. Often loudly and angrily because hey, that’s how passionate people are. But that doesn’t change the fact that our opinions are no more or less important than anyone else’s.
I tried to tone myself down in response to the critics. I tried to change Movie Maintenance to make it into what I thought they wanted. Because at the end of the day I’m only human and I want to be liked. But conversely one thing I know for sure is that we can only ever be the people we are and trying to be otherwise is a pointless and depressing endeavour.
I’m always going to click on the bad reviews and snarky Reddit threads. I can’t help myself. But I’ve realised that the benefit of this only goes so far. Being able to hear criticism is healthy, but being able to raise an eyebrow at personal attacks is healthier. Because in the end, your only real option is to do what makes you happy. To paraphrase a pertinent song, you can never please everyone so you might as well please yourself and hope that the rest follows.
So in a few short hours my UK trip will be at an end. It’s weird; I feel like it’s gone both mega quickly and slowly, due to having done a hell of a lot in a very limited amount of time.
After leaving Loch Ness we spent another night in Edinburgh, although not doing anything especially interesting (unless you count sinking pints as interesting). Then, the next afternoon, we were off to Ireland. This was part of the trip I was especially excited for; anyone who knows me knows how much I love Irish culture; from music to writing and the rest, so I was really pumped to see the country for the first time. We were staying with some friends of Molly’s, Paula and Jon, who apart from being excellent hosts have also proved to be great company and many hours have been spent talking over a few beers. In fact, I feel like these conversations will probably be one of the things I miss the most about the trip.
Our first full day here was spent in Dublin, doing all of not very much. We wandered around, saw some sights, went to some shops and whiled away an afternoon drinking Guinness in a pub where the singer seemed to have a singular skill for singing songs that we both love (Landslide, Town I Loved So Well, Grace, Fields of Athenry, Take me Home Country Roads) before going and watching Kingsman: The Golden Circle, which I still love despite the critics. The next day we pretty much did the same thing because apparently we’re shit tourists.
On our third day however, we went full tourist and did a bus tour out to Galway and Connemara. The reasoning behind this was twofold; we wanted to see some of the landscape and I really wanted to visit the town of Leenane, which was allegedly one of the stops on the tour. For those who don’t know, Leenane is the setting of Martin McDonagh’s Leenane Trilogy, a series of plays comprising The Beauty Queen of Leenane, A Skull in Connemara, and The Lonesome West, which together comprise some of my favourite writing of all time. The tour was exciting because I had kind of hoped to visit the town but figured actually doing so from Dublin would be impractical. This trip seemed a good way to do it.
And look, it was definitely worth it, save for one little niggle; we didn’t actually stop in Leenane. We did a boat tour in sight of it, and we shortly after drove through it, but we didn’t get to stop and really see the place the way I’d hoped which, after spending the bus ride reading the three plays in preparation, was pretty disappointing. That said, considering I had thought I wouldn’t get the chance to see the town at all, I can’t really complain, and the Connemara landscape was stunning regardless.
Today we went for a walk up on the nearby cliffs with Paula and Jon, then after lunch Molly and I headed to a highly recommended pub around the corner, where I am currently typing this. Shortly we have to head back to pack the last of our stuff, then it’s off to the airport and back to Australia.
The end of any trip is always a bit weird; on the one hand I don’t really want to return to real life, on the other, I’m definitely ready to get back to work, and with Moonlite, The Commune and Seasons of Fear waiting back home I’ve got no shortage of things to be getting on with. But the trip has just been so bloody good; I visited places I’ve always wanted to go to, I saw Nessie (shut up, I did), I met some wonderful people and spent some time with my pretty alright girlfriend, who still doesn’t seem to hate me at the end of this.
So yeah, in short it’s been awesome.
Arriving at Loch Ness was weird. I think when there are places we always dream of going we can build them up in our heads, so much so that when we finally do go they can only ever be anticlimactic. This was how I felt about going to Rome and Venice years ago; while there was a lot I loved about those places, they could never quite match up to the magic in my head.
I’m not really sure why Loch Ness was different. Maybe it was because I hadn’t been building it up in my head; I knew I was going and that I was excited, but I wasn’t spending every day feverishly anticipating it. So when the water first came into view and Molly told me that was it, I think the emotion surprised me. There was no build up or over intellectualising, just the sudden realisation that I was really here at the place I read about and obsessed over so much as a kid. I could barely keep the grin from my face.
It’s weird to think we’re leaving tomorrow. This was meant to be the long, lazy part of the trip, spent languidly Nessie hunting and writing in pubs. And yeah, there was a fair amount of both, but probably not the endless hours I’d anticipated. Five days in a part of the world as beautiful as this isn’t much and the fact is you want to see whatever you can while you’re here.
We spent our first night here having dinner in a small pub two doors up from our cottage, before settling in to watch Loch Ness at Loch Ness. The next day was fairly lazy; I did some writing, Molly did some drawing, we ate some food and that was about it. The next morning we went out on the Loch; the views were spectacular but I won’t lie, my eyes were predominantly glued to the water. After that we went to a Nessie exhibition, which was interesting if way too sceptical for my taste. Luckily, about a hundred metres down the road from there was a second Nessie exhibition, which was far tackier and way more determined to convince you there was a monster, which suited my tastes just fine.
On the third day we went to check out the beautiful national park of Glen Affric, and on the fourth day we went and looked at Urquhart Castle before heading up to Fort Augusta and having a horrible meal in a bizzare little restaurant right on the Loch where the two staff members pointedly avoided catching your eye when you wanted to order, didn’t seem to talk, and served burgers that contained nothing but a single dry broken in half patty. Each afternoon I headed to a pub around the corner (the closer one wore out its welcome due to high drink prices and a suspicious tendency to shut half an hour after I arrived, no matter how early it was) before coming home for dinner and lazy movie watching. In general the days unfolded with plenty to occupy us but lots of pleasant downtime as well, which was pretty much perfect.
The plan for today was to head out to the Isle of Skye, which was a reasonable drive. We left fairly early in the morning and as we rounded the bend near Urquhart Castle I saw something in the water. At first I thought it was a wave or the trail from a boat or something, but there was no boat in sight. It was long and grey, just slightly under the surface, moving deeper into the Loch before it submerged. It took me a few seconds to process it and when I did any attempt at reason flew out the window.
The weird thing that I hadn’t really said out loud was that, as we first arrived at the Loch I had this feeling that I was going to see something. It wasn’t much beyond that; I wouldn’t even go as far as to say it was a hope. Just this… sense, I guess. And then, this morning, there it was.
Of course, what ‘it’ was is the question here, and maybe there is a reasonable explanation. Maybe I imagined it or something. But I don’t think I did. And I’m not going to invite more scorn by putting my foot down and swearing blind I saw the monster, because I honestly don’t know what I saw; it was there for a few seconds and gone before I got a good look at it. But I saw something.
And hey, something is enough for me because it’s a damn sight more than nothing. And since I didn’t get a longer look and since there’s no way to reliably quantify it, you can probably guess what I’m gonna choose to believe I saw.
Writing a story is often a bit like a relationship. Especially when the project is a big one you find yourself at a bit of a loss when it ends. You might read over it again and again, find any excuse to look at your favourite passages or moments you’re especially proud of in what essentially amounts to drunk dialling your ex. You might decide it isn’t over and try to come up with a sequel, prequel or addendum that you hadn’t previously planned for. Or you might forcibly decide to move on by rebounding with a new story that isn’t ready to be written yet. But, like the end of a relationship, the end of a story is something that it takes time to come to terms with, even if you spend that time wishing you could either go back to before or else speed up this odd grieving process.
I’m kind of in that weird stage at the moment. As I’ve written a lot about recently, I’ve spent the last year buried in a new re-write of Windmills, which I think is probably the best the story has ever been or will ever be. Consequently this means that finishing this novel wasn’t just the end of another major project, but rather the end of an ongoing process that started in 2009. And so trying to work out what to do next has been tricky.
I’ve got no shortage of ideas. I want to adapt Heroes into a novel and Sunburnt Country into a screenplay. I was to write a Boone Shepard play. I have a bunch of film screenplay ideas; a coming of age drama, a quirky university set romantic comedy and, as of today, a family film about the discovery of the Loch Ness Monster. Every one of these pursuits could represent something new and exciting for me; every one could be the next thing that electrifies my imagination and becomes a lasting obsession. And yet I’m finding it hard to invest in any of them because I still have the lingering taste of Windmills. I’m still thinking about that world and those characters and consequently I’m finding my time in Scotland characterised by an inability to knuckle down and work on one new project, which is something I really wanted to do while here.
Molly and I spoke about this the other day, about feeling like a place should be inspiring you and getting your creativity going. I think Scotland is having that effect; I’ve come up with at least five new stories ideas while here, but making myself sit down and actually write is proving to be the problem, thanks to that nasty little Windmills hangover. That’s the main reason that I’m sitting in a Loch Ness pub right now bemoaning this feeling in text instead of working on something new.
But then I guess that old bit of advice for writing is to apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair and just do it; if I sit around waiting for something to capture my mind the same way Windmills did then I’m probably going to be waiting a long time. So, capitalising on something that has been on my mind a fair bit recently, I think I’m going to take a run at that Heroes novel and see what happens. Otherwise I’ll be back to the blog before long.
Just some thoughts.