This is the third instalment in an ongoing series examining the lessons learned from early works. Read Part One here and Part Two here.
It was from my early plays that I began to understand something too many writers nowadays overlook, especially in the theatre. If you want audiences to pay for your work and consequently allow you to make a living, then you have to give them more than just self-expression. Your work must be personal, but there’s no reason a stranger should care about that if they’re looking to be transported for a while. Entertain first, express-self second.
On this front I initially overcorrected. The next thing I wrote after Bitten By Productions’ 2013 debut Reunion was Below Babylon, a dystopian noir play about a former hitman in a rundown bar waiting for his old associates to come and kill him. I had ideas for Babylon; big ideas of something that merged elements of Cowboy Bebop, Red Dead Redemption, Blade Runner and all things Tarantino. I was energised writing it, feeling like I was breaking new ground, embracing genre conventions then twisting the hell out of them, putting together something cool, something that would blow up theatre by using the medium to tell the kind of story we never see on stage anymore.
In reality, Below Babylon was just a refined version of the stuff I wrote as a kid, a chaotic blend of disparate influences. It was more original than Phoenix, sure. It didn’t have that much more me in it, though. Nor did A Good German, the next play I wrote. I’ve spoken extensively about the lessons I learned on German, but recently I’ve started to look at it a little differently. The script had a willingness to explore difficult territory and questions that don’t have easy answers. In retrospect it was less brave than arrogant, but it certainly wasn’t hollow. The problem with German was that I was far too underdeveloped a writer to explore what I wanted to and was unable to recognise the fact, to my detriment.
But those plays were only the beginning of maybe my most prolific stretch as a writer. Being part of a production company meant that, between 2013 and 2017, I wrote a lot of plays.
During the production of Below Babylon I had an idea for a follow up about one of the surviving characters, which became the two-hander Beyond Babylon. Beyond has always, to me, seemed like a bit of an also-ran – it had more thematic bite than Below but was too talky and static to be much fun on stage. However thinking back now it’s clear to me that Beyond, the first thing I wrote while studying screenwriting at the Victorian College of the Arts, was in a lot of ways a prototype for the plays I’d spend the next few years writing. That is to say, it was a play focused squarely on one central question that it tried to interrogate from as many angles as possible. It’s a type of theatre that a later review of The Critic referred to as ‘a play of ideas’.
Beyond’s problem was that no amount of philosophical intention was going to make its extended, one-note conversation all that engaging for an audience. So when I wrote The Last Supper, the third Babylon play, I tried to merge the lessons of Below and Beyond. Supper had the action, violence and twists of the former but the central thematic cohesion of the latter, in this case an exploration of what makes good leadership. Supper was, consequently, a marked improvement on everything that had come before. But it still suffered in one major regard; like Beyond, its theme wasn’t anything that meant a lot to me personally.
Everything changed with my next play, We Can Work It Out. Not in a way that would be hugely obvious to any distant observer; I continued producing no-budget, one scene/one room shows in dingy Melbourne theatres. But to be in the audience the nights We Can Work It Out was performed was to see a marked difference in response.
We Can Work It Out had four things going for it, four things that only came together due to mistakes made, lessons learned and my time at the VCA. The first was that it was about the Beatles, meaning there would be a built-in appeal to a distinct audience. The second was that it was funny, giving it something tangible to offer in the way of entertainment. The third was that it had a central theme that mattered to me; namely, what the purpose of art should be. The fourth was that, written at a time when I deeply doubted myself as a writer, it was very, very personal. In its depictions of creative insecurity and fear of losing your passion, it came from a real place. Every time We Can Work It Out has been performed it has done well. And that’s because, I think, it works on several different levels. It completely changed the way I wrote plays going forward.
Like Beyond, We Can Work It Out was a ‘play of ideas’. The difference is that it was a good one. And that formula continued going forward. The Lucas Conundrum, The Critic, The Trial of Dorian Gray, The Lucas Betrayal, Heroes – for a few years there I kept writing plays that applied comedic techniques and story structure to explore something that I was deeply interested in, usually capped off with a big twist. And for the most part, they were well received. Coupled with the simultaneous development of the Boone Shepard Trilogy (we’ll get to that), I was starting to feel like for the first time I sort of knew what I was doing. Only sort of, but it was a big step in the right direction.
Writing words about writing words.