It was about a year and a half ago now that Dan Nixon and I first sat down for drinks at the Grace Darling and discussed the prospect of a gay bushranger musical. Dan had invited me to grab a beer with him so he could pitch me a project, and the moment he said the words ‘Captain Moonlite’ I got excited – after all, it had only been a couple of months earlier that I had first learned about his story on an episode of Shut Up A Second and had started thinking of how to get it out there. The idea of a musical theatre show seemed more fitting than most.
After a few beers and a lot of excited ideas being thrown around, Dan said something to the effect of ‘it’s a little odd though, two straight guys writing this play’.
At the time we laughed it off, but the words stuck with me. Back at VCA we had often been asked about our scripts ‘why is this a story that only you can tell?’ Usually the answer was something to do with personal experience, but it becomes a harder thing to justify when you are writing something that is miles divorced from your own life.
This very discussion starts getting into thorny territory, the question of what themes, ideas and situations a writer has the right to explore, whether it is inherently arrogant to delve into experiences that aren’t your own, but personally I think doing so sits at the core of being a storyteller. In his play The Pillowman Martin McDonagh suggests that ‘people only write what they know because they’re too fucking lazy to make something up’, and while I don’t necessarily agree I think there’s something to that. After all, if people only wrote what they knew we never would have gotten Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter. Furthermore we never would have gotten some of the great dramas or crime films written and directed by people who never experienced anything close to those events. In general, the problem with writing ‘personal’ stories is that in most cases the only person who finds your life interesting is you and it’s arrogant to assume that anybody else will.
So if it’s arrogant to write outside of your experience and arrogant to write within it, what are you supposed to do?
My theory has long been that it’s not what you write, it’s how you write it. Whether two straight men writing a musical about a gay bushranger is wrong comes down to how it’s done. Likewise even the most mundane life can take on significance and pathos if it’s presented in a way that is engaging and interesting. I believe that writers of all backgrounds have the right to explore whatever the hell they want, but crucially they have a responsibility to do it well, especially when it’s engaging with a real experience that isn’t their own.
Of course, saying that is a lot easier than doing it.
In 2013 I wrote a play about a Nazi officer in a concentration camp falling in love with a Jewish inmate. It was an idea I had had since high school, one I believed was challenging, compelling, powerful and all those other adjectives you apply to historical dramas exploring sensitive territory. The problem was that none of those adjectives were true; my assumption at the time was that purely by writing about this subject matter I was doing something somehow brave or with inherent artistic value. Consequently, when the play came out a year later, we were rightly eviscerated in our first review. A Good German remains a source of shame and motivation for me, a constant reminder of what not to do.
The mistake I made, one born of pure arrogance, was never really interrogating why I wanted to tell that story. I think the premise is strong and, in the hands of someone more equipped to explore it, could have made for an amazing play. But one of the biggest lessons I learned from A Good German is that just because you have an idea doesn’t mean you’re the right person to realise it.
While A Good German proved that this isn’t always the case, usually an idea that is your own will have more personal meaning than one someone brings you, and so before I could write Moonlite I had to find my angle. Outside of it being a great story, I had to ask myself why I personally wanted to tell it. What could I bring to the table that someone else couldn’t, someone else whose life closer matched that of the subject?
In the end it’s a matter of theme. What is your story about? What are you trying to say? In the case of A Good German the answer to that question was some vague guff about grey areas of morality, and as such I needed something stronger for Moonlite. After all, if this play didn’t have something to say beyond ‘hey check out how zany this story is’ then it would fall flat.
As I researched I kept this question in the back of my head. I looked for the parts of Captain Moonlite’s life I related to, the actions he took that I understood, the moments that moved me, and then I interrogated why that was. Through this process, I found the story I wanted to tell, the angle I would approach from and the theme that would unify the show. My Moonlite is not about his sexuality, although that is a big part of it, but rather about the divide between legend and fact, the question of whether the truth is more important than the story when the story is what people remember. It’s a theme that has always fascinated me, one I have explored in other pieces of writing, and one that, as such, I feel I am qualified to tackle. Furthermore it’s one that suited the story of Captain Moonlite.
It’s for this reason that I have no qualms about my being the right person to tackle this version of the story, partly because I know for a fact that other people will have their own interpretations and they are no less valid than mine. There is no definitive take on a real person’s life.
Every story has, in one way or another, been told. Originality or individuality, to me, comes from the telling of the story rather than the subject. As such the first question any writer should ask of any project they’re working on is whether they are the right person for this story, and if so, why? You might find that it saves you from working on the pieces that don’t mean that much to you and lets you focus only on the ones that do.
All that said, Moonlite is yet to open so for all I know it could be a massive failure that leaves me singularly unqualified to write this blog. Time will tell.
Writing words about writing words.