Monday night’s live performance of The Lucas Betrayal and the simultaneous release of the radio play adaptation officially marked the 20th Bitten By Productions show. Seven years, twenty shows. Looking at the collage image I made yesterday of all our cast shots, it’s kind of staggering. It doesn’t feel that long ago that I was stumbling on stage, about to collapse with nervousness, to deliver the first line of our first production, Reunion. Which was, somewhat fittingly, ‘who the fuck thought this would be a good idea?’
Enough people to reach this point, apparently. And while not every show was an outright winner and the journey has been far from a smooth one, it’s hard not to feel a sense of pride at the milestone. Most independent theatre companies don’t get past one show. Some manage a couple before fizzling out. But I can say with absolute confidence that it’s the rare company on our small-scale level who, without any external funding, hit twenty shows.
There’s an argument to be made that the designation of twenty shows isn’t quite correct. After all, two of those shows were remounts of earlier productions, but I would rebut that the second iterations of both We Can Work It Out and The Critic were so vastly different to their previous incarnations that it would be doing the cast, directors and shows themselves a massive disservice to claim they were in any way the same production as the earlier one. Also The Lucas Betrayal, at least as it currently stands, is a staged reading and radio play – not a full season. But such has been the response to that show that we’re in the early stages of changing that, so very soon The Lucas Betrayal will absolutely have earned its place in that collage, if it hadn’t already.
So where does this leave us? An independent company, twenty shows and many more lessons in? In some ways, not much has changed. In other ways, the company couldn’t be more different to what it was in 2013. And while I’m not about to go through what worked and didn’t about each individual show (I’ve done that before), it’s worth considering how far we’ve come from humble beginnings.
When I wrote (and directed and produced and starred in) Reunion seven years ago, I wasn’t looking to start a company. I wasn’t looking to do anything other than tell a story that meant a lot to me. And with nobody seemingly taking that story very seriously, I figured I might as well take the experience I’d gained from my central involvement in two youth theatre companies and use it to produce a show all my own.
Understand; it really wasn’t a vanity thing. It couldn’t have been, given how cripplingly insecure I was about corralling friends into helping make something that I was pretty sure mattered only to me. I didn’t write Reunion as a star vehicle for my limited acting prowess. I performed in it because I couldn’t find anyone else to take that role. And even referring to myself as the director of the play feels a bit rich, given my ‘direction’ largely consisted of trying not to upset anyone and hoping that none of the cast hated the script that much.
I think the key moment in that production came towards the end. After one rehearsal Finn, who played my character’s sardonic best mate and who had the most professional theatre experience of any of us, flicked through the script and blithely asked me why anyone should care about our characters.
I think I literally answered ‘they shouldn’t’ because the question cut to the core of my worries about the play and I didn’t have a proper response. That worry stayed with me up until the week before we opened. Then, on a long train ride, I sat and I re-read the script. And as I did something weird happened. I remembered why I wanted to tell this story and why I thought it might matter to more than just me. This play, about a particular kind of painful, gnawing longing for a time when you thought you were happier, was not depicting an isolated experience. I believed that others would understand and so I told my cast exactly why I thought people should care. Because maybe they’d see themselves in the characters and maybe they’d know then they weren’t alone. And while that potential remained a maybe, to me it was reason enough to give it a shot.
Whether or not it worked, I don’t know. Reunion was no insightful masterpiece. The staging was clumsy, the dialogue was variable, the characters slight and the quality of the jokes mixed. But in the grand scheme of things none of that really matters. What matters is the feeling I had standing in the empty theatre after the final show. The feeling that we had managed to pull this off meaning it wasn’t so crazy to think about doing it again.
Over the following years, despite most of the shows being written by me, our output was fairly diverse. There was the post-apocalyptic noir of the Babylon Trilogy. There was the fast talking no-budget comedy stylings of We Can Work It Out, The Critic and The Lucas Conundrum – plays I considered a sort of thematic trilogy until I stuffed it all up by writing a direct sequel to Conundrum. There were outliers like the deeply melancholic (and deeply personal) Regression, the two-person psychological thriller Heroes, the fractured biopic Springsteen, the dark drama of The Commune, the philosophical back-and-forth of The Trial of Dorian Gray and our one and (so far) only musical Moonlite. Then of course there were the plays that weren’t mine, the ones that in some ways I’m the most proud of because they represent my dream for Bitten By; a company that can provide a platform for emerging writers to tell their stories with the help and support of an experienced team. I still hope that in time the likes of Dracula: Last Voyage of the Demeter, Dead Air and Eyes Wide Woke become the norm for us; interesting and diverse works by different writers.
And naturally there was A Good German, the catastrophic failure of an attempt to tell a story about The Holocaust that I won’t dwell on because I’ve written about it way too much, but bears mentioning because there it remains the work that I’ve learned the most from, precisely because of what an utter mess it was.
German remains indicative of a fundamental truth I’ve come to understand over the years of this company, which is that you always learn more from your failures than your successes. And while no other failure was as complete as that of A Good German, there were plenty of smaller ones that marred otherwise strong shows. Bad casting choices that caused problems both on and off stage. Scripts that needed more development to truly find their potential. Problematic venues that compromised shows for any number of reasons – from poor soundproofing to dodgy air conditioning to shocking organisation. Communication issues making things harder than they had to be.
I don’t need to trawl through specifics or dredge up past dramas but broadly speaking they matter because they become learning experiences that, hopefully, make it just a little easier to not do the same thing again. There has not been a single show of ours that didn’t have some kind of problem behind the scenes (or during them) but frankly that’s the nature of the beast. What I firmly believe is that with every passing show we’ve learned a little more and gotten a little better. Being twenty shows deep and still having incredible people wanting to work with us suggests that we’re not totally on the wrong track.
One of the really staggering things about looking at that collage was seeing in one place an indication of how many inspiring people we’ve worked with over the past seven years. And that photo can’t even encapsulate them all, because to make even the smallest play happen requires behind the scenes efforts that those cast photos just can’t capture. To think back to Reunion and then to consider the teams we’ve managed to assemble on plays since is discombobulating. I won’t name names because there are so many of them, and so many of them I want to celebrate but don’t have room for.
What I do have room for, though, is the people who make up our central committee. The people who are Bitten By Productions. It started with Justin Anderson and Ashley Tardy, back when we sank beers after a shift at the old theatre restaurant Dracula’s and mused aloud about starting a production company. The three of us used Reunion as a starting point before stumbling through a succession of shows that weren’t all great but allowed us to meet several wonderful people we’ve worked with every since. A few joined and left the committee in the intervening years, but Kashmir Sinnamon and Alicia Beckhurst stayed the distance, moving from appearing in our shows to helping see them realised, in the process bringing our company to a place where the term ‘well oiled machine’ wasn’t entirely off base. Together, the five of us have built this little idea into something that has lasted and looks to keep doing so, something that has entertained thousands and slowly established a reputation and a lasting place in the Melbourne theatre scene.
There will always be stuff to learn from and areas to improve. That much is inevitable, especially when you’re talking about a bunch of creatives trying to run something like a functioning business. But looking at The Lucas Betrayal the other night, performed in a swanky venue with a cast of four enviable actors and an audience who came out to have a laugh with us despite the constant current fearmongering surrounding a certain virus, it was hard not to think about how different everything is now to the nervous, uncertain days of Reunion. And, knowing what we’ve got up our sleeve for the next year and beyond, it’s hard not to imagine with excitement just how different things could look around the corner.
On February 17 2020, my Oma, Anna Bergmoser, turned 90. In many ways it snuck up on us. My grandparents, despite living on the other side of the world, were regular presences when we were growing up; their visits always the thing we looked forward to the most, their departures occupied by tears and begging for them to stay. They are lively, funny and loving people, and in my head they have always been the relatively energetic, sixty-something figures of my childhood.
My grandparents remain healthy and active. They walk every morning, they ride their bikes, they come for lunches and dinners with their family. But turning 90 makes the ticking clock that’s always been there a lot more obvious. And having not seen them in almost a decade, Oma’s 90th seemed the opportune time to go back to Austria. Understand, I’ve wanted to visit for years. But it’s only been recently that finances have allowed, and even once they did time quickly became a problem. I only booked this trip a month ago, capitalising on a three-week period between commitments. The only time I could fit it in, a time that happened to line up with Oma’s birthday.
Once the tickets were actually booked, a vague, creeping fear started to set in. What if Oma and Opa weren’t how I remembered them? What if they were disappointed by my terrible German? I knew it was irrational; my grandparents, who don’t speak a word of English, have been tolerating the broken German of the Australian side of the family for years, and both my parents and brother had reported on how they remain more or less the same as ever. But ten years is the kind of time that creates a feeling of pressure, pressure that made me almost dread walking up the stairs of their home.
I had a good week to get ready, even once the trip had begun. With the HarperCollins Literary Bites launch taking place the night before we flew, Molly and I arranged to go from Sydney – the trip kicking off with the wonderful whirlwind of the launch then a day spent wandering the city, having a slightly boozy (technically business related) lunch with the inestimable Tony Cavanaugh and Louise Lee Mei from Beyond Armana and then finally heading to the airport for our late night flight. Bad sleep, plane food, a stopover in the eerie early morning version of Doha airport and then we were in Vienna.
We only had one full day there and grappling with jetlag it probably wasn’t enough to fully appreciate a famously beautiful city. We got lost and separated in the enormous Natural History Museum (I reached what I thought was the end after a couple of hours only to realise there was a whole second floor) before heading to the Belvedere Palace, now a gallery home to several famous pieces of art. By that point, however, I was starting to flag, and so we had the obligatory schnitzel dinner then went straight to bed.
I was confronted with the limitations of my fractured German as I tried to order food and coffee from the quickly frustrated lady running the bakery up the road from our AirBNB (“um… spreche sie English?” “No.”). Molly, however, turned out to be basically fluent, which didn’t exactly help the growing panic over to what degree I would be able to speak to my family.
From Vienna we got the train to Salzburg. If you’ve ever caught one of these long-haul European trains you’ll know how great they are – comfortable chairs, tables (like the one I’m writing this at now) and beer (like the one I’m drinking now). Not to mention the stunning scenery as, in our case, we crossed into the more striking, mountainous part of Austria.
Salzburg, if you’ve never been, is a strong contender for the world’s most beautiful city. Ancient buildings surround a long, winding river, cobblestoned alleys, strange little boutique-y stores, overflowing cafes, expansive public squares, towering cathedrals and overlooking it all a sprawling mountaintop castle, striking against the expanse of snow-caps. We had three days there, spent with Molly’s friend Lenya from Germany, before heading on to my family’s hometown of Frankenmarkt. So we explored. Molly and Lenya went hunting Sound of Music locations while I went hunting a great European bar to write in. In the centre of a touristy city this did not prove easy; my broken German and attempts to make a joke out of it were largely met with unimpressed silences that left me a little resentful towards compulsory tipping. Still, on our second afternoon there we had a drink up at the castle, and in that moment everything became beautiful; the clouds cleared and we looked out over the city expanse and gleam of snow capped mountains under a sunny sky that, to me, so perfectly encapsulates Austria.
It’s hard to be in a place like Salzburg without ending up pretty inspired. A book that was previously eluding me seemed to become instantly clear in those surrounds and despite the unfriendly bar staff I furiously tapped away in spare minutes, finding Alpine Austria weirdly conducive to writing a story set in rural Australia.
On our last night in Salzburg we went to a brewery recommended by my parents. I say brewery but I’m not sure what the right word for it is – I’m not sure there is a right word for this place. It’s like an old monastery and seems as much when you enter it; all statues of saints and an eerie silence. Then you go through a door, take a left turn and suddenly you’re met with a succession of packed out beer halls and deli type stores for you to get whatever Austrian food you want. This, followed by a dingy dive bar that was basically exactly the place I’d been looking for, capped off our Salzburg trip with a feeling of real authenticity and beyond that, a feeling that I really wanted to return as soon as possible and really get to know this city.
But the next morning it was time to head to Frankemarkt and see the family. My cousin Nico picked us up early and we were on the way. As we drove and I watched the green hills, smatterings of villages and towering churches out the window, that vague sense of fear sharpened. I felt shaky and too warm. Passing the sign that welcomed us to Frankemarkt, I could barely speak. Ten years since I’d last been here. Now I was back and I couldn’t shake this terrible false sense that maybe I’d come too late.
My family live about five minutes outside of the town of Frankenmarkt. If you’re ever in the area you’ll immediately know where they are from the spread of greenhouses on a hill overlooking the town itself. The family business, Blumen Bergmoser, is floristry, with my Dad being the only one of Oma and Opa’s children who did not go into working with flowers somehow. His older brother Dietmar now runs the business, and he lives there in a large house behind the greenhouses, directly across from Oma and Opa.
It is, in the most traditional sense, the family home. Outside of when I was too small to remember it, I had been there twice before; in 2010 and 2003. But of course it has always remained clear in my head, and as always there was no overwhelming sense of nostalgia upon pulling up there again, just a quiet feeling of ‘there it is.’ The moment I got out of the car I ran straight up the stairs to Oma and Opa’s house.
I should never have worried. My Oma remains astounding. Even seeing her then, the day of her 90th birthday, it really struck me how little she has changed. How little she ever does. She walks easily and without assistance, she laughs and jokes and waves her hands around when she gets excited. She overflows with love for all of her now huge family. Nico told me she was worried that she wouldn’t make it to ninety, that she would miss seeing everyone. Well I can tell you, if you met this woman you’d have no doubt whatsoever that she’ll make a hundred at a canter. When I told her she had not changed in ten years she laughed me off, before going into the next room and proudly reporting to Opa what I’d said.
Opa has maybe changed more. He’s always been the more active of the two and that remains so, but at 86 he’s a little quieter now, a little more withdrawn. But he remains a wry, warm, always smiling presence, a man of many hobbies and eccentricities. His study is absolutely coated in photos of the family from all times and places. He makes things with his hands, feathers on rocks creating little birds, Edelweiss flowers glued to stones that look like mountains. His Wintergarten boasts part of his massive collection of stones and gems, along with handmade murals of every branch of the Bergmoser family’s lives; homes, partners, pets, everything. In the centre of the Wintergarten is a huge, painted image of Australia, with photos of all of us attached to the places where we live. The pride in where we have all gone and what he have done permeates all of my grandparents’ home.
It’s always the way with these things that immediately it becomes as though you never left. And while my German isn’t great, it was enough. Walking with my Opa in the forest that fringes the family home, I was able to tell him about what I’ve done and what I’m working on, knowing from his small smiles that he understood. He showed me through the greenhouses, naming for me the different trees and flowers growing there. That fear might as well have never been present. All I felt, those first few days there, was an overwhelming sense of gratitude that I could be here now, that I could share these moments, that I had reached a place in my life where this was all possible.
Routine formed quickly. A walk in the forest every morning, followed by a couple of hours writing in the Wintergarten then lunch with Dietmar and his wife Gabi before, usually, an adventure of some kind in the afternoon. We’d go to neighbouring towns, walk the sides of lakes, and then go to either Dietmar’s or the nearby home of Sylvia, my aunt with whom my brother Tristan and his partner were staying while we were there. Inevitably, beers would be had along with a schnapps or two, then a lot of shared stories and big laughs, alternating between German and English. The sense that I was in the middle of the best holiday of my life began to grow in those times.
The big official lunch for Oma’s birthday was that Saturday, at a hilltop Gasthouse. Lots of Austrian food and a huge family photo against the backdrop of the surrounding mountains; a perfect celebration of why we were all there, and Oma humble and smiling at the centre of it all, matter of factly treating it like none of it was a big deal.
The next day Molly headed back to Australia, as she needed to be home for work a week before me, and so the last week was spent in relative laziness, maintaining this newfound routine with only a couple of breaks; the traditional Fasching carnival through the centre of Frankemarkt (a carnival characterised by floats throwing sweets and colourfully dressed people coming up and offering you schnapps that makes you feel as though your throat is on fire) and, on that last Tuesday, a day spent skiing.
Tristan and I went with Sylvia, her husband Wolfgang and Nico. They commented several times on how bad the snow was, but for us it was perfect. Long runs that take half an hour to get to the bottom of, the constant view of all the surrounding mountains, the regular slope-side places to stop for a hot chocolate, a strudel, a beer or a schnitzel. My skiing experience in Australia looked very limited indeed after that.
Slowly, over the last couple of days, that vague fear began to creep back in a different way. Because the reality is this; for all that they remain healthy and independent, my grandparents are not getting any younger and they live on the other side of the world. And while I am now in a position where further trips to Austria relatively soon are not some far-flung pipe dream, it’s still a lot of money and a long way. At this stage, due to book stuff it looks like I will likely be able to come back in July but still. Time is moving on and I don’t know what things will look like a year, two, or three from now.
I grappled with this gnawing feeling for the last few days, somewhere between wanting to be sick and wanting to burst into tears. I told Oma and Opa several times I would see them in July, but I was just as much saying it to myself. And I did say it to myself; over and over as the end got near. I told myself not to get upset, not to treat this like the last time because it wouldn’t be the last time and after seeing them so healthy I had good reason to believe that.
How do you approach a goodbye that you don’t want to be a final goodbye, that likely won’t be a final goodbye, but might be? The truth, in the end, is that there is no right way to do this. As so as the hours crept towards the time I had to get in Dietmar’s car to head to the train station, I fluctuated between relaxed and smiling, on edge, and seconds from tears. And when the moment came, it went fast. I hugged my Opa, gripped his shoulder and, voice cracking, told him I would see him in July. I kissed my Oma on the cheek, told her how wonderful it was to see her, and that I would be back soon. And as I walked out of the house I caught the eyes of my family members; red rimmed because they knew.
Driving to the train station I played out those last exchanges in my head, over and over. I started to worry that it hadn’t been enough. I hadn’t wanted to draw it out, but at the same time – what if those brief goodbyes were the last time I saw them?
I messaged Tristan and Molly to share how I felt, and they told me exactly what I needed to hear. Tristan explained how the last time he’d been over, two years ago, he had been overwhelmed by the goodbye. But he realised that for Oma and Opa, quicker was better. There are so many family members and for every goodbye to be treated like it might be the last is just too much.
What Molly said followed on from this perfectly. That what mattered was not the goodbye, but the time spent. The mornings writing there while Oma made sure I had enough coffee and pastries. The afternoons on the couch with Opa, reading our respective books. The walks in the forest. The conversations, of which there were many, only slightly inhibited by my clumsy grasp of the language.
At this, I found myself thinking of a quote from Lord of the Rings, a quote that originated in a very different context, but summed up exactly what I felt.
“If this is to be our end, then I would have them make such an end, as to be worthy of remembrance.”
I believe I will see my grandparents again. I believe when I do it will be wonderful. But if I don’t, this was a time worthy of remembrance. A time I know with quiet certainty that I will treasure forever. A time I’m so glad I had.
Last January, in need of a creative boost, I impulsively decided to try and write seven short stories in seven days. I thought it might be a fun challenge but it ended up being precisely what I needed; a burst of spontaneous creativity that left me feeling reinvigorated after a pretty flat 2018. It worked so well, in fact, that I decided I would do the same every January going forward.
That… might have been ambitious.
This year I thought I was fully prepared for it. I designated a starting date, Tweeted about it a bunch and tried to get a few others on board with me. I was all ready to go but January 2020 looked a lot different to January 2019, in all the best ways. Namely, I have been inundated with writing work, meaning that when the starting date rolled around I had clean forgotten about the whole thing. Stress and a niggling sense that I was letting paid work and major commitments slip by the wayside provided a less-than-inspiring foundation for this year’s attempt, and very quickly the whole thing started to look a lot more like a chore than the total joy it had been last time. But I was determined to see it through, and so I did.
I think the results, comparative to the previous attempt, do indicate that my heart wasn’t in it in the same way. Additional to this there were some major setbacks; namely that the one story that I thought could be truly excellent was lost 2000 words in when my computer crashed and didn’t save it. I’d be lying if I said this didn’t lead to a bit of irrational resentment towards the whole thing.
All of that said, I don’t think it was a waste of time or that the stories are uniformly terrible. In 2019 I ended up with a couple of pieces (Last Call and Three Dollars) that I thought were as good as any short I’d ever written. This year I don’t think the same thing happened. I don’t know that any of these stories are really bad, but with the exception of The Yew Bow I can’t say I’m especially proud of any of them.
There’s some pretty good writing in there, I think. Like in 2019 I started with a basically autobiographical piece (The Girl and the Grey then, The Substitute now) that, while not exactly an example of sterling narrative craft, has some prose that I believe is super solid. Also reflecting last year, despite my attempts to make every story something totally new, one among them does feature a major character from a novel of mine – last year it was the adult version of Nelson from Nelson and the Gallagher (coming March 2021), this year it was Maggie from the The Hunted (May 18, pre-order now). In both cases I think the respective pieces ended up the weakest of the lot, maybe partly because they were both written at the point where I was running out of ideas and as a Hail Mary resorted to familiar ground.
In both instances of trying this experiment I ended up with a central theme, by accident more than anything else (although whatever subconsciously led to this, who can say). In 2019 every story was in some way about compromised human connection; The Girl and the Grey was about a brief fling that ends up meaning the world to the protagonist, Last Call is about a guy trying to come to terms with who his now dead best mate was, Fanboy Tears was about somebody trying to maintain perceived personal integrity in the face of a potential relationship that might require him to abandon it, Three Dollars was about a kid using an act of bare minimum compassion to impress a girl, Grandpa’s Attic was about a woman trying to reconcile the grandfather she loves with a terrible choice he made years ago, Ghosts in the Snow was about a guy whose current relationships don’t compare to those he formed one winter over a decade ago and The Crime Writer was about the deadly intersection of friendship, ambition and creativity. Every character in every story was driven by a kind of yearning for connection, every story about how they try to achieve it – or, in some cases, what they do about the fact that they can’t.
This year, every story was about something that happened in the past affecting the present of the character. I won’t go through them one by one; I’d rather let you discover them for yourselves (provided you still want to after this negativity). If I’m proud of one thing about this year’s attempt, it’s how the stories all provide a different angle on the same idea, creating a sort of thematic narrative that ties them all together.
Anyway, now that I’ve finally had the time to read through the seven stories, here they are for anyone who cares to check them out. Part of the crux of this exercise is that the stories are uploaded with only a cursory edit; raw and rough and more or less as they were upon being written, a kind of naked creativity. If you do want to give them a read, I hope you find something to enjoy in there. I should clarify; for all that I might seem down on this bunch, I’m still glad I went for it and remain happy to share them. Even when writing becomes as much of a full time job as it now is for me, it’s still really important to find the time to write just for the hell of it, to make something without worrying about whether it will be any good or not. For better or worse, that’s what I’ve tried to do here.
A couple of days ago Daniel Handler, the author better known to most as Lemony Snicket, posted a cryptic image on Twitter alluding to a top-secret upcoming project. Given the suggestion of mystery, most people, myself included, took this to be indicative of a new chapter of some description in his fictional universe that started with A Series of Unfortunate Events.
If I was to list my top five favourite fictional properties, the Snicketverse would absolutely be among them. I think A Series of Unfortunate Events is one of the greatest works of children’s literature ever. Its TV adaptation, while imperfect, complements and enriches the books in all kinds of immensely satisfying ways. The prequel series, All the Wrong Questions, manages to be both fan catnip and something that stands entirely on its own two feet. I love everything Unfortunate Events adjacent, treated the arrival of each new ATWQ book and season of the show as an essentially religious event and yet my main emotional reaction upon seeing this new post was more or less ‘oh cool, looking forward to that’.
It’s not that I got over the franchise. Far from it. It’s the rare long-running fictional property that doesn’t have any real disappointments to its name (I even like the 2004 film). But if I was to guess as to why I’m not overcome with giddy excitement in the same way I was when the TV show was first announced? I’d say it’s because, by and large, I’ve had my fill.
This is a hard thing to quantify, given that if we like something we tend to want more of it. I’ve definitely been as guilty of this as anyone. But often there are only so many places for a story to go, and sooner or later we start to realise that the stories we love have been to just about all of them. In the best (and rarest) case scenario, arriving at this place takes the shape of my current feelings towards the Lemony Snicket franchise – I still love the series, I’ve never been let down by it, but there’s just not that much more I could ask from it. Usually, however, it’s either not quite enough, or too much.
When I was a teenager my favourite book series was Koji Suzuki’s Ring series. I’d fallen in love with the American and Japanese film adaptations and, wanting more, read the novels. This is where I found the real paydirt and to this day I think it’s such a shame that the books aren’t more well regarded. Suzuki used the tale of a cursed videotape as the springboard for an immense apocalyptic sci-fi saga that remains surprising and affecting through various mutations that, in less sure hands, could have been straight up ridiculous. His initial trilogy, Ring, Spiral and Loop build on each other to arrive at one of the most touching and haunting ambiguous endings I’ve ever read, something that leaves you wanting more even though you know it’s great as it is. And because you’re left wanting more, that means that when there is more you grab at it. In Suzuki’s case, ‘more’ was initially the short story anthology Birthday that served as a kind of parallel epilogue (makes sense if you’ve read it, trust me) to his trilogy, culminating in a conclusion to Loop that, upon reading it, I found weirdly disappointing despite it providing exactly what I thought I wanted. It wasn’t bad, just unnecessary. It was as though by leaving room for more but not filling it, Suzuki invited us to imagine the final beats of the story ourselves and in doing so gave some kind of strange ownership to his audience. Providing that final puzzle piece himself ultimately left the series too complete, somehow. It is, now that I’m writing about it, basically how I felt about El Camino. I was so excited for another instalment in the Breaking Bad story until I saw it and realised that it had no reason to exist other than the fact that, due to the existence of couple of loose ends that weren’t really that loose, it could. Nothing essential was added to a story that was already great and consequently fulfilling a vague desire for more became detrimental. Not enormously so – neither was a Scrubs Season Nine scenario – but still somehow undermining the integrity of endings that hit hard because they weren’t as neat as they perhaps could have been.
Incidentally, Suzuki has since returned to the Ring saga twice more. When his fifth instalment, S, was released in English in 2018 I was so, so excited. More than a decade since Birthday, nostalgia had set in and while I wasn’t exactly desperate to return to the world the chance to do so was very welcome. Besides, I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe this new chapter would reignite that mysterious and singular power that the Ring books once had over me, whether Suzuki had found some exciting new corner of his world to play in. I bought the book, cleared a day to devote myself to it, and found it to be fine. It was, ultimately, another epilogue. There was nostalgia to it, but not much else. I saw some old favourite characters again, but I wasn’t left feeling like the story had been furthered or deepened in any crucial ways.
The closest comparison I can think of to this strange sensation of enjoying something but finding it still disappointing and hollow, is weirdly the feeling I got when I played Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories. I had a lot of nostalgia for the original Vice City and the chance for a new adventure in that very familiar setting was beyond enticing. Then I played it and, yeah, it was the same map, just like I remembered it. The buzz of warm recognition soon gave way to the realisation that I wasn’t getting a whole lot new out of the experience. Just re-treading old ground. Pleasant and comforting, but nothing else.
I’ve written before about how stories need endings to have any meaning whatsoever, but realistically that can never sate our desire for more of the thing we love, especially if the thing we love has left loose ends. Look at Watchmen; I was always keen to continue that story. The Before Watchmen comics offered the warm recognition of being back in the world I loved, but not much more. Then Damon Lindelof came along with his masterful sequel TV series and gave me everything I could have wanted in a Watchmen follow up and more. I loved every second of that show but when it ended (perfectly, I might add) there was no part of me crying out for another instalment. I’ll watch it if it comes, of course, but at the moment the notion prompts the same reaction as the thought of more Snicket – ‘oh, cool, I’d check that out’.
And that’s okay! Better than okay; it’s ideal, really. We’ve all seen so many properties we love driven into the ground by endless returns to increasingly dry wells. It’s never a one size fits all thing; Watchmen and Unfortunate Events retained vitality through finding new perspectives on their fictional worlds and events that honoured the past but offered a future. Hannibal the TV series re-interpreted and remixed its source material to create something both familiar and utterly original. Maybe the key is that in these cases the new offerings were less direct continuations, but satellite reinterpretations, jumping into new mediums with different voices or else offering new stories that stood on their own two feet without demanding to be seen as the logical extension of the original. What they all prove is that there are ways to make franchise extensions interesting and vital, but it’s not always as straightforward as just continuing a finished story and hoping for the best. Because to do so more often than not results in the dilution of everything that made the story special to begin with (cough Star Wars cough).
I guess ultimately I would love to end up in a similar place to where the first season of Hannibal took me. I wasn’t overwhelmed with excitement for the TV series when it was announced. I was mildly interested having long loved the books, but I had no reason to think the show would be anything special. The realisation that it was became a dizzying thrill that reinvigorated my love for the originals and consolidated my passionate fandom for years to come. I thought I’d had enough. Now, I still find myself yearning for more. And isn’t that just a dream come true?
By anyone’s estimation I write a lot and I write fast. I’m proud of this, and I became especially so after hearing a lot of people commenting on the fact. Over time however, I started to believe this weird internal narrative that I was only worthwhile if I wrote at least a thousand words every single day. If I failed to do so, I was somehow letting myself down, putting paid to the perception of how amazingly prolific I was. The blank page became increasingly worrying, an indication that I was a fraud, that maybe I wasn’t as overflowing with good ideas as I wanted the world to think I was. If I went a few days without writing, well, that was a bad sign.
There were other factors in this clearly stupid degree of self-expectation. Namely that I’m always happiest and most fulfilled when I’m working on some kind of story. It follows that if I’m always writing, I’ll always be happy, right?
That happiness comes only partly from the satisfaction of having written a large amount. In reality, it’s predominantly the thrill of working on something that excites you, something that you can’t stop thinking about, that you’re so keen to share with the world when it finally starts to look ready. And for a story to achieve that quality, to be the kind of thing that fixates and energises you, it needs time to be discovered.
Earlier this year I went through a stretch of not doing very much writing. So I did this dumb thing that I’ve done several times before and has never once worked; I started writing something that I had no clear conception of. I well and truly know by now how my process works, but at least once a year some stupid little voice in my brain says ‘hey why don’t we do things differently’ and so instead of spending time thinking about a story until I can actually feel it, I put fingers to keyboard, write about two or three thousand words of directionless waffle, and inevitably give up. Because hey, writing something is better than that blank page, right?
The story in question was Madison’s Masterpiece, my idea for a sequel to Nelson and the Gallagher that takes the perspective of a supporting character from the other book and makes her the centre of her own story. In this case, I knew enough about what I saw the book being to write 20,000 words. Which is far from nothing! Maybe, I thought, this time the change in process will actually work.
Then I read over what I had written. Or at least, I tried.
For context, writing Nelson and the Gallagher was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had as an author and it’s maybe my favourite thing I’ve ever written. It’s a deeply personal work of semi-autobiographical YA fiction that I’m so proud of, a feeling that only grew when HarperCollins picked it up for publication. I strongly feel that Nelson is very close to what I wanted it to be – a funny, wistful coming of age story about empathy and self-discovery. Note that key phrase – what I wanted it to be. I had at least a vague vision for the book before I started writing.
Then there’s Madison’s Masterpiece. In stark contrast, what I had written was not funny, not charming, not interesting; an ultimately pointless piece of writing. It wasn’t trying to say or be anything. It existed because I wanted to write something, not because I had something to write. I couldn’t even finish reading over the material I had.
With Nelson being signed for a two-book deal, I do need a follow up. But I started to think maybe Masterpiece wasn’t the right idea. I didn’t scrap it, but I put it on the backburner and began to toy with some of the other ideas I’d had that had ultimately fizzled out, concepts for more traditional sequels that followed Nelson in further semi-autobiographical exploits. None of them grabbed me. I didn’t want to write a series of fictionalised events from my own life (I did enough of that as a teenager). I wanted to use Nelson’s story as a platform for a series of novels set in a county high school that each take on a different character’s perspective. Basically, I wanted to write the YA version of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series.
Day after day I’d go for walks and let the different sequel concepts cycle through my head. And always, Madison’s Masterpiece floated to the top. There was something there, I just hadn’t let myself find it before I started writing. I knew what the plot of the story was. I even knew some of the themes. What I didn’t know was the soul of the thing.
So, coming home to Mansfield for Christmas, I decided to focus on Madison’s Masterpiece. But not to write – to think. To go for long walks past the locations that inspired parts of the story and let it all play out in my head, to consider characters and ideas and plot points then see if, through it all, something clear would emerge. Something that would give me a foundation to work from, that would make me love writing this as much as I loved its predecessor.
I don’t believe you can create a story from scratch. There has to be something there to start from; an emotion, a thought, an idea that you’re itching to explore. So I went over the moments that always popped into my head when I thought about the book, the scenes I could see with at least some clarity. And from them, something started to build. Mental dominoes fell and obvious solutions that had previously eluded me appeared with ease. Finally, yesterday, I had a run at a rough chapter outline. And as I did, I felt the flicker of something warm and urging in my chest that always accompanies the stories I really want to tell. I thought about Madison’s Masterpiece as a follow up to Nelson and the Gallagher and for the first time I saw them as potential equals.
It wasn’t, in the end, that I made any massive changes to the plot I already had. It was that I took the time to discover the little things that would give the books its heart and soul. And when, yesterday, I decided to try writing the first chapter, it flowed with ease.
That’s not to say it’s all smooth sailing from here, or that I’m totally in synch with what the book has to be. It’s more that breathing room has given me a lot more confidence that this is the story I want to tell next, that there is something emotionally real at the heart of it that can have the same importance to me as Nelson did, even if it’s not as directly based on personal experience.
The time you spend thinking about a story is just as valuable – occasionally more so – than the time you actually spend writing it. Because without those hours of what ultimately amounts to daydreaming, how can you be sure this is worth your time? And more to the point, the time of readers?
Apart from an annual retrospective of what my theatre company has been up to, I don’t tend to write yearly summaries here. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever done it before. Partly because I’ve never thought to and partly due to a vague superstition that announcing the glowing quality of the preceding twelve months of your life will consign the next twelve to grim mediocrity (don’t ask me why, it’s dumb). But given everything that’s happened in 2019, given the massive change in my life that it has signified, I wanted to write something about what this year has meant. Largely so I can arrange my own thoughts on it.
Last year, a comment on one of my blog posts pointed out a recent pattern in my writing that I’d had no idea was there. This person suggested that with short stories like Stars or Empty Orchestra I’d been writing a lot about false success, about characters who delude themselves into believing that they’ve achieved a lifelong dream in order to stave off the grim reality that they’re not even close.
I tend to think I have a pretty good handle on the themes I explore in my stories, by which I mean that I’m able to identify and develop them, but those short stories were clear cases of my having no idea until it was pointed out to me. And when it was, I didn’t know how to react. I wanted to argue. But the twisting feeling in my gut made it very clear that this person was right. I was writing about false success because on some level that was how I saw myself.
For my age, I had done a lot worth being proud of. Three published novels, plays produced interstate and overseas, several years of heading up a reasonably popular podcast, a major screenwriting award. And I was proud. I used those achievements to secure confidence in myself that I was doing well, that my writing career was well underway and I could see myself as a relative success.
But there was a needling undercurrent of feeling like an absolute failure. I couldn’t make any film or TV production companies take notice of me. The Boone Shepard books were doing okay-ish, but they hadn’t blown up in a way that would allow me to really see myself as a working author. Even the best of my plays still struggled to find audiences. I made money writing, but doing so meant taking on so many depressing freelance gigs for such a pittance that honestly, I might have been better off bartending again. I would have dreams about the shining success and validation I’d always wanted then wake up to the reality; I was barely getting by financially and my creative projects, when they didn’t stall outright, more often than not were met with a shrug.
I’m aware I’ve said a lot of this before, but I wanted to reiterate at least briefly to underline just how massive the change in circumstances this year was.
Again, I’ve spoken more extensively in other blogs about this. But at the start of this year there was no way I could have imagined the extent of what was about to happen. In January The Trial of Dorian Gray became my most successful play ever; selling out, extending, then selling out again. Four of my books sold to HarperCollins, two adult thrillers, two YA dramedies. Translation rights to The Hunted sold in multiple overseas territories. Film rights were acquired by a major LA company now actively developing with a view to shoot scarily soon. I was lucky enough to write the screenplay. I was flown to Sydney for several paid writer’s rooms. I’ve been commissioned to write the pilot for an in-development horror show that could (provided I haven’t screwed it up) be really awesome. I went to LA for a week of meetings and pitches leading to several ongoing discussions. Any one of these things could have been life changing alone. Any one could have turned 2019 into the most exciting year of my life.
Most of the time, none of it feels real. I mean, I know it is. I’m getting the flights, taking the meetings and for the first time in my adult life I’m financially stable. I’m currently looking at the beautiful first advance copies of The Hunted, complete with the little HarperCollins insignia on the spine. But how can you possibly adjust your mindset to a new reality that looks a lot like every single one of your long-held dreams is coming true? In rare moments that reality hits home and I find myself bursting into uncontrollable giggles. But the majority of the time I remain consumed by the same old anxieties, doubts and insecurities I’d always had. What if it all falls apart? What if everyone responsible for what’s happened realises they’ve made a mistake? What if, what if, what if.
What if it all works out?
The other day I was having a drink with an actor friend of mine who told me that, for the first time in his life, he’s started to enjoy auditions. I asked him why and he said that it’s simply because he’s learned to be content with knowing that he’s done the best job he could. He no longer questions every decision and interrogates where he’s messed up. He goes in, does his best, and leaves knowing that if he doesn’t get the part, it’s not because he screwed up somehow. If he’s right for it, it will work.
Creatives tend to capitulate to the inner critic way too much, that nagging voice whispering those what ifs and perpetually prodding you with doubts about how you handled any given situation or opportunity. But if you know you tried, really tried, then that inner critic has nothing of value to contribute. You can’t do any more than what you can.
I don’t know what will happen next, or what 2020 looks like. I hope for the best, of course, but I can’t really expect or anticipate beyond knowing that I’ll continue to work as hard as I can to keep this train on the tracks.
What I know is this; I worked hard to get here. Really fucking hard. I stumbled and I failed and I screwed up. I worked dreary hospitality and sales jobs for nearly a decade while writing in my spare time. I put every bit of writing I could out in the world and when they didn’t do well, I interrogated why and changed my approach. And what 2019 proves, beyond doubt, is that it was possible all along. That I wasn’t deluded. It took me a decade; more, really. But I got here.
See you in 2020.
Sequels are rare in theatre, and for good reason. In film, it’s not uncommon for a first instalment that didn’t do well to get a follow up because people discovered it later via home media. In theatre, unless you’re a big fan of grainy recordings with bad sound, that option isn’t really there. Short of your play being a genuinely massive hit, there’s probably not much point doing a part two.
I learned this with the Babylon Trilogy – an ambitious but very flawed early project from the fledgling Bitten By Productions. Over 2014 and 2015 we produced three sequential plays; Below Babylon, Beyond Babylon and The Last Supper, all crime stories set in a post-apocalyptic future exploring the gradual collapse of an empire from the inside, utilising recurring characters and rippling consequences across the three plays. I was aware at the time that we couldn’t expect any audience members to have seen the preceding instalments and ergo each play had to be both a standalone and a single chapter in a grander story. My fix was to include lengthy recapping monologues in the second and third plays that bogged both down with exposition.
The sweet spot to theatre sequels is to aim for works that complement but aren’t beholden to each other. Think Martin McDonagh’s Leenane Trilogy; three separate stories set in the same town packed with subtle references and set-ups but never relying on the audience having seen the other shows. Together they create a melancholy portrait of a decaying town where desperation and resentment curdles into violence. Separately, each play is a funny, sad, shocking gothic drama in its own right.
I was trying to achieve something similar with Babylon (at the time McDonagh was unquestionably my idol) but every play was directly informed by the one beforehand and I struggled to get around this in an elegant way. The Babylon Trilogy was a massive learning curve, but I’m the first to admit it was too big too early.
As of last week, I’ve tried again. Of all the scripts I could write a sequel to, The Lucas Conundrum (now available from Australian Plays) isn’t an obvious one. Produced in 2016, it was neither a massive hit (critically or commercially) or based on a known quantity that might justify a return to the well. It was a vicious, foul mouthed satire of blockbuster filmmaking written as a way to essentially comment on the state of Star Wars. It wasn’t my best work and would have been largely forgotten even by me if the cast and crew hadn’t done such an exemplary job bringing it to life.
It’s rare that I see a production of one of my scripts and am genuinely surprised. Conundrum was one of those cases. Ashley Tardy and her cast of four – Greg Caine, Alicia Beckhurst, Chris Grant and Angelique Malcolm – took a mean and immature text and imbued it with layers of pathos, warmth and heart that utterly elevated the material. To this day, both my parents still say it’s their favourite of all my shows. Most people who bring it up do so with a smile and a fond chuckle. It wasn’t a huge hit, but it was well liked and that was entirely down to the team who brought it to life. Thanks to them, it staked an unexpected claim in my heart.
Over the few years since that show, the blockbuster landscape has become more embattled and to me, more interesting. We’ve seen so many classic franchises brought back; sometimes with fanfare, sometimes with a shrug, and sometimes to be met with incandescent outrage from ‘fans’ who insist that the thing they love has been damaged beyond repair. The era of toxic fandoms and nostalgia fuelled reboots seemed ripe for a theatrical exploration, and the world and characters established in The Lucas Conundrum felt appropriate to provide the basis for the work. The idea started to percolate. Then, upon realising at the start of last week that I’d met all my deadlines and had a rare stretch of actual days off, I thought I might give it a go. I started writing on Tuesday. I finished Thursday afternoon. And I ended up with something I was really happy with.
The premise, essentially, is an imagined conversation between George Lucas and J.J. Abrams in a dive bar. What would they say to each other? Would the Lucas analogue have any respect for the man who took over his story? Would there be resentment that Abrams’ film was, at least initially, far better received than Lucas’ prequels? How would the Abrams analogue respond to the withering contempt of the man he once idolised? Then what happens if Rian Johnson joins the party?
Obviously the play is not about those real directors or, technically, Star Wars. To tell a story that I can’t get sued for I used Robert Stone, the vainglorious but deeply insecure protagonist of The Lucas Conundrum and his fake franchise to play out this little ‘what if’. Like Conundrum, it centres on a somewhat philosophical debate about artistic integrity and legacy, all building to a twist that pivots the story and leads to a chaotic (and hopefully funny) finale.
It’s very much its own story, with only one vague reference to the events of Conundrum. That said, for all that it stands alone I think it does further the themes of Conundrum and Robert’s journey, leaving him in a place that, to me, feels like the logical conclusion to an arc that began in the previous play. If you watched both back to back you’d get more out of them than if you watched them in isolation, but I don’t think Betrayal would suffer from a lack of familiarity with Conundrum. Realistically, it can’t. For it to work as a play that can find its own audience, its status as a sequel has to be incidental at most.
Writing it was a lot of fun. It struck me as I neared the end that it’s actually the first play I’ve written all year; things having escalated pretty drastically in 2019 means that I’ve had less time to write something just because I wanted to. And that, I think, is my favourite thing about Betrayal. It gave me the energising chance to write something purely for the fun of it.
I don’t entirely know what I’ll do with it yet. It’s a niche story and Bitten By’s slate for next year looks pretty busy already. My feeling is that it might be best suited to be developed and produced exclusively as a radio play, something that could be done fairly quickly and neither disrupt our planned shows for 2020 or force The Lucas Betrayal to wait for a time when its topics might lack the relevance they do now.
Whatever happens, I’m so glad I wrote it and I hope it will come to life one way or another.
As somebody who still regularly buys Blu-rays predominantly for the collectability factor, I’m a little picky about which editions I splash out for. Take Star Wars – I’d been meaning to get a box set of the saga for years, but there was a particular version I was after, a version I was only able to find second hand. You’ve probably seen it; a light orange box depicting a painting of the Lars farm with the figure of little boy Anakin walking away beside the ghostly shape of adult Luke returning, all illuminated by the twin suns. It speaks of a story coming full circle, the son completing the work his father failed, a reckoning with the past. The fact that it’s a painting adds a somewhat mythic feeling to it. For better or worse you look at that box set and you see the representation of the complete vision George Lucas sought to bring to the screen.
You can technically still get the six film ‘Complete Saga’ set, but the painting has been replaced with an ugly, generic picture of Darth Vader against a grey background that feels strikingly less significant. Given that this repackaging emerged shortly after Disney purchased Lucasfilm, it’s hard not to read into it a deliberate de-legitimising of the concept that Star Wars was done at six episodes in order to pre-empt a later release of a nine film set that will suggest you don’t get the full story until you’ve seen Disney’s sequel trilogy as well.
Lending credence to this half-baked conspiracy theory is the marketing surrounding The Rise of Skywalker. With a faint whiff of desperation it has tried to convince us that what will hit screens in December is the long awaited conclusion to a beloved story, the keystone that will tie everything together, the ending we’ve been waiting for. JJ Abrams has talked extensively in interviews about how this film will bring all the threads of the preceding eight instalments together in a way that feels satisfying and inevitable, how this is what the entire franchise has been building towards since 1977. Which would all seem very exciting if the story hadn’t ended in 1983.
Naturally I’m aware that Lucas occasionally alluded to a possible sequel trilogy over the years, but you can’t look at Return of the Jedi and not see it as a conclusion, just like you can’t look at The Force Awakens and not see a somewhat depressing undoing of everything the original trilogy resolved. By merit of its very existence the sequel trilogy shatters the assumed significance of the events of the original three films, forcing a scenario in which we need The Rise of Skywalker to succeed in order to give the whole story meaning.
If, that is, we take the Disney films as canon.
To clarify; I don’t think Disney Star Wars has been inherently bad. I’m an ardent defender of The Last Jedi and I think the Star Wars universe can sustain new stories from new creators – decades of the much beloved Expanded Universe proved as much. But I also believe that the original creator told the story he wanted to tell and anything additional will only ever be an addendum.
But the legitimacy of Disney’s instalments has already been challenged by the existence of the Expanded Universe, which in its time had just as strong of a claim to significance and just as little support from George Lucas. So which of the two variations of ongoing Star Wars adventures is the real one? And does the lack of involvement from the man who created this story mean that neither can be seen as valid?
Lucas, of course, sold Star Wars so there’s a decent argument that his approval or lack thereof isn’t important. But of course Star Wars is far from the only property with this question of canon hanging over it. The recent Watchmen TV series, serving as a present-day sequel to the seminal graphic novel, is probably the best new show I’ve seen in years. It’s also something Alan Moore, the original writer, remains vehemently opposed to. It’s also not the only ongoing sequel to Watchmen, with the comic book limited series Doomsday Clock offering an entirely different version of what happened next.
So which is the real sequel to Watchmen? Both are high profile projects in their respective mediums, both have been well received, and both are detested by Moore.
It’s easy enough to write them off on Moore’s say-so. But as a longstanding Watchmen fan I absolutely adore the TV show, which pays tribute to the original while charting a path entirely its own – the first adaptation I’ve seen since Hannibal that pulls this off with such evident ease and confidence. And maybe this is partly do with the attitude of the creators; Bryan Fuller (Hannibal) and Damon Lindelof (Watchmen) as showrunners have both proudly and openly designated their respective series as ‘fan fiction’, casting themselves as the pupil paying tribute to the master who inspired them rather than a new genius picking up the mantle. Lindelof in particular has been very thoughtful and even handed in interviews regarding how to approach his show when Moore, a man he reveres, spits on its very existence.
Although it’s worth noting that Alan Moore, writer of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, is in no position to complain about people adapting other writers’ properties without their permission. The guy turned Harry Potter into the antichrist.
It’s no secret that we’re living in an age where every popular property is being rebooted with or without the original creator on board, some with more success than others. Just ask the Terminator franchise. Since the high point of T2 in the nineties we have been given no less than four different continuities that continue from it. The most recent, Dark Fate, tried to stake its claim by bringing back Linda Blair and re-involving James Cameron to provide some story ideas along with an endorsement. Except he also endorsed the much loathed Genisys, stating – as he since has with Dark Fate – that it should be seen as the real third instalment. When even the creator seems to change his mind regarding what is canon, it’s hard to know why we should take any of this especially seriously.
Do I see Dark Fate, Disney’s Star Wars or Lindelof’s Watchmen as canon to the originals? Honestly, no. I don’t think that thirty years after Adrian Veidt dropped his squid Alan Moore foresaw his plot having far reaching consequences in Tulsa, Oklahoma. But that doesn’t mean I enjoy the show any less or that I don’t think it has inherent worth. Since the dawn of time writers have been stealing from and adding to the stories that inspired them. If Homer and Shakespeare had been worried about canon or ownership then a lot of western literature simply wouldn’t have existed. That’s not to say that we should endeavour to steal or that we should value fan fiction over original stories, but a new creator playing in a sandpit built by somebody else doesn’t need to be a bad thing.
One of the reasons I so strongly defend The Last Jedi even though I recognise its flaws is that, unlike so many other recent blockbusters, it feels like somebody’s vision. In its big swings for the fences, its attempts to tackle difficult themes and its willingness to look a bit silly in the process it feels like the work of a creator passionate about the world he’s been invited to explore but trying to tell his own story.
It’s suggestive of the possibilities that franchises could offer; a world in which exciting new storytellers can put their own stamp on the worlds and characters that inspired them. And maybe it’s for the best to take a leaf out of Lindelof’s book and state outright that a property should be seen as fan fiction rather than rigidly canon. Some of the most beloved comics, after all, have featured characters like Batman or Superman in parallel universes that don’t impact the main storyline. Films like Logan or Joker, which adopt a similar ethos, demonstrate how this is possible within the film industry as well. It just remains to be seen whether this willingness to embrace a story’s outlier status can apply to franchises not based on comics to begin with.
Of course these questions will be debated forever. Is Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, not written by JK Rowling, canon? What about the Fantastic Beasts films, which are? Is Halloween 2, H20 or last year’s Halloween the true sequel to John Carpenter’s original classic when they all claim that status?
Or, as George RR Martin loves to say, how many children did Scarlett O’Hara have? The book says one thing, the film says another and neither really matters because it’s all made up anyway. Questions of ownership are important but let’s be real; if George Lucas ever was planning his own Star Wars sequel trilogy then the reason it never happened is because most ‘fans’ loudly and persistently told him he’d ruined his own stories. And he’s far from the only once-beloved creator to later be accused of screwing it all up. Most consumers, in the end, don’t really care who’s telling a story or whether it’s been given some ersatz stamp of approval as long as they’re being told a good one.
The notion of canon is an arbitrary construct that only matters if, like me, you spend way too much time worrying about the mechanics of stuff that never happened rather than how much enjoyment said stuff is bringing you.
It’s that time of year again, in which I go through the output of Bitten By Productions in the last twelve months and evaluate what went wrong, what went right, what we’ve learnt and what’s coming next. I’ve done this three times already; looking back at our first ten plays before a breakdown of our shows in 2017 and 2018 respectively. The value of these little pieces is really more for me than anyone else – I think it’s good to arrange your thoughts on the year gone before diving into the next – but if you are interested in the ongoing challenges inherent in running an independent theatre company, then read on.
It’s no secret that 2019 has been an incredible year for me, revolutionary in how rapidly and thoroughly my life changed. As such I’d be lying if I said that the two of my plays produced by Bitten By are really at the forefront of my thoughts as we reach the tail end, but both came with lessons both inspiring and sobering that are worth unpacking.
So, lets kick off with the play that in retrospect indicated the degree to which everything was about to change.
The Trial of Dorian Gray
The Trial of Dorian Gray is not my best script. I think on a text level it has a lot going for it; deeper and more thought provoking themes than most of my previous works, a take on a classic that I personally think is quite fresh and a twist that likely counts among my best. But it has problems too. Structurally it might have benefited from bigger, clearer turning points and the dialogue probably verged on repetitive and didactic. In development, it continued in the tradition of two handers I’d written like Heroes and Beyond Babylon; battles of wits between two characters building to a devastating final reveal. But two handers are difficult and while Heroes (a contender for the best play I’ve ever written) moves fast and regularly shifts the stakes and the audience’s understanding of what is going on, Dorian sat a little closer to Beyond Babylon, at times playing out largely as a lengthy philosophical debate that probably came off to some (or more) as pretentious. Hopefully engaging, but rarely surprising.
What’s not in dispute is that director Peter Blackburn and his team did an incredible job, in the process delivering Bitten By Productions’ most successful show ever.
I knew from the start that Pete was the right person to tackle this piece. From our first meeting his understanding of the text was evident. We hit it off brilliantly and so began one of the most gratifying development processes I’ve ever gone through. Lengthy phone conversations excitedly talking through ideas populated the months leading up to the show, as Pete and his incredible hand picked cast turned a talky script into something layered and sexually charged, employing projection to make the play both visually striking and utterly haunting.
Pete’s reputation in the Melbourne theatre scene also drew eyes. Major theatre and film figures came to see the show based purely on his involvement. Tickets sold fast and before we even opened our two-week run was sold out. We extended the show by another week only to sell out again. Word seemed to be spreading, despite the Midsumma season and faulty air conditioning meaning that audiences were contending with some truly oppressive heat. The riveting performances by James Biasetto and Ratidzo Mambo got huge amounts of well-deserved attention. Reviews weren’t uniformly positive, but the critics that loved it really loved it – and a lukewarm but ultimately favorable review from a famously harsh critic for The Age marked the first time in my career – and Bitten By’s – that a major newspaper had paid attention. That was a bit of a milestone.
‘Milestone’ feels like the right word for what Dorian ultimately represented. There was a sense that we’d moved up somehow, that we had put on a show that could and did contend with the best the Melbourne scene could offer. The fact that The Age didn’t tear us to shreds was in many ways testament to this. Beyond which, the lengthy philosophical debates the followed every performance and the generally excited responses indicated that this show had landed in a way we couldn’t have anticipated.
Coming at the very start of 2019, after a preceding year that creatively and personally had been a bit grim for me, Dorian felt somehow pre-emptive of things to come, a great start to a great year and, thanks to the work of Pete and his team, a new and glowing standard for Bitten By Productions that we would have to strive to match going forward.
Internally, we’ve had issues at Bitten By regarding planning ahead. The argument has been made that we should have every year’s season mapped out well in advance, with venues, dates and directors locked. In a perfect world this would be the case, but the world of independent theatre is far from perfect. People’s circumstances can change fast and drastically and it’s difficult to lock in a team a year in advance of a low-paying indie production. So, while we started the year thinking that it would be closed out with my Ned Kelly play Wild Colonial Boys and Kath Atkins’ comedy Eyes Wide Woke (more on this shortly), a few issues cropped up that changed the plan. I knew, for all that I was proud of Colonial Boys, there was something missing (that something being that it was a story more suited to the page than the stage) and Woke started to look more and more like a better fit for Midsumma than for Fringe, where we had looked at placing it.
So, instead we decided to follow 2018’s model of reviving a well-received earlier show of ours for a Fringe season at The Butterfly Club before following it with a regional tour. We Can Work It Out had hit big in both 2015 and 2018, so bringing The Critic back made sense.
The thing about indie theatre is that often you’ll have a small show that you’re really proud of but doesn’t get seen by that many people. As such, while I don’t love repeating myself, there’s something nice about giving a well-liked but underseen show a second chance. After the success of Dorian and We Can Work It Out, we were confident that a new production of The Critic could be a big success.
We didn’t quite follow the same model as WCWIO 2.0. For that show we had largely carried over the same cast as the 2015 iteration, but with a new director it quickly became evident that it was a whole new take on the material rather than a belated extension. So for The Critic we shed early any pretense that this was a straight revival. We approached Rose Flanagan, who had stolen the show as an actor in 2016, to direct and the decision was made to cast again from scratch.
Rose took to direction immediately and brilliantly. I was able to take a step back and let her handle just about everything. She assembled her cast, booked rehearsals and shaped the play in her own image, pulling it together with skill and confidence. It didn’t take long for all of us to get really excited about the potential of what this could be.
There were big, big limitations that only fully became clear as the season neared. The first was the 5:30 timeslot The Butterfly Club had given us. It hadn’t seemed a problem, until we looked at ticket sales and realised that, despite our best efforts, they weren’t inspiring. The play ran over predominantly weeknights and half an hour to get from work to the theatre is tight.
Then, of course, there was the Fringe factor. Festivals are always competitive and Fringe especially so, but every previous festival show of ours had been based on a known quantity (Moonlite, WCWIO, Dorian), allowing it to stand out. The Critic, despite a premise that had the potential to appeal to an audience of predominantly artists, didn’t quite have the built-in audience of a show about the Beatles.
So, despite the play itself being fantastic and getting heaps of laughs, audiences were slim. We did our best to plug and promote, but given the circumstances there was only so much we could do. Resignation to The Critic being another excellent but underseen production set in.
Then, proving that Dorian had elevated us to a new level, The Age reviewed us again. This time, it was unquestionably positive. And audiences for the last three shows ballooned. It wasn’t Moonlite or Dorian numbers, but it made a huge difference.
Further vindicating was the regional tour that followed our Fringe season. While audiences were still a little sparse, they actually increased from We Can Work It Out and the show was totally embraced by those who saw it. The regional tour took The Critic from breaking even to profit, which despite the challenges meant that it was no disappointment. Which is a relief because the work Rose and her cast put in absolutely deserved to be seen.
Still, it eradicated whatever hubris I’d carried over from Dorian. One play being a massive hit doesn’t mean the next will, especially when the former is based on a known quantity and the latter is not. It taught me that if we are going to tackle Fringe again, it will be with another property people know and recognise, or else some other factor to really make it stand out among the crowd. Because the Fringe crowd is really bloody big and even the best shows will battle to be seen.
For a few reasons 2018 marked our quietest year since 2015, with only two productions and only one of them being a new work. This in and of itself wasn’t the worst thing in the world; it gave both shows plenty of breathing room and avoided the mistakes of 2017, the year in which we packed three shows in before June then added a fourth near the end of the year when everybody was getting ready for the holidays, meaning that Springsteen and Dracula (known quantities) hit while Heroes and The Commune floundered. The Critic, thankfully, wasn’t in competition with any of our other plays, something that probably would have spread us too thin and killed it.
But I am hoping next year sees more than two shows take the stage. First up is Eyes Wide Woke, directed by 2019 MVP Kashmir Sinnamon (whose work as producer of The Critic kept that ship steady to the last). The first play from my former Movie Maintenance co-host Kath, it’s a very, very funny piece that will likely hit a bit too close to home for some in the audience. Already it seems to be making ears prick up, and I’m really excited to see how it goes.
Unconfirmed but likely following it around July or August is Three Eulogies For Tyson Miller, one of the most personal plays I’ve ever written and one that, availability permitting, will hopefully see me reteaming with Peter Blackburn. But Pete is rightfully very in demand, so we’ll see how we go.
Even more unconfirmed is another Fringe show. At the moment it’s looking like we will have a new play by a new writer based on a known quantity that, all going well, will take that spot. It’s a concept that is very cool and will absolutely appeal to a big audience, but it’s a long way from a sure thing.
Obviously plans are hard to make and harder to keep in a constantly shifting scene, but if this does end up being our slate then I think it’s a pretty exciting one. Kath’s work on Eyes Wide Woke and the ways in which it has energised our whole team is just proof of why we need to be constantly bringing in fresh voices and steering into uncharted territory wherever possible. 2019, thanks to the stellar input of new blood like Pete and Rose, made new horizons all the more possible and by the looks of it 2020 will see us vaulting them with ease.
Recently I was talking to a writer friend about a potential career opportunity that I thought he’d be perfect for. In order to pursue it he had to provide a few writing samples that illustrated his best work, so I asked; what’s your calling card? What, for you, is that one piece of writing that you’ll always automatically put forward as evidence of what you can do?
Most emerging writers, I think, have that piece. When we’re starting out our body of work tends to be a mix of the things we’re proud of and the things that we wish would just disappear. But usually there’s one story that stands out. Whether because we have a great feeling about it, because it’s the one that people most strongly respond to or, in many cases, because it achieved enough genuine industry attention for us to believe it’s good even if we don’t know why.
For a long time, that piece for me was Windmills, and the reason is a mix of all of the above. Windmills, in its first version written in high school, was the first story of mine that seemed to get great feedback from even outside my immediate friends circle. I knew pretty much from the moment of putting fingers to keys that there was something different about it, that it was, somehow, special. And over the years enough evidence crept along to maintain that belief; interest from agents and publishers and, of course, its award win in screenplay form.
Understand that for the most part writers don’t actually know if what they’re writing is any good. I mean, time and experience hopefully gives us a decent ability to gauge if something is working the way we want it too, but we’re always too close to know for sure. That cuts both ways; things that we’re sure are brilliant can be roundly rejected, things that we don’t think much of can be snapped up and celebrated. It’s discombobulating and can result in a strong sense of imposter syndrome. If you have no idea which of your stories has merit, then how can you possibly make a viable career?
Windmills, however, was the rare case of internal and external belief lining up. Because I’d worked on it for so long in so many different versions, and because the initial act of writing it was a genuine game changer for me, I had long been convinced that it was the one; the project of mine that was special and would make my career. So any time anyone important asked to see some of my writing it was the Windmills pilot that I gave them without a second thought.
And sure, that approach made perfect sense. Putting your best foot forward is only logical, especially when you’re not sure how to replicate what it was about that best foot that made it work. As the classic saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t supersede it with a different calling card. In the meantime, the vindication of seeing Windmills do so seemingly well provided an excuse for almost all of my attention to go into seeing it realised.
When, last year, both the novel and TV versions of Windmills were rejected by heavy hitters I’d been trying to get it to for a long time, I was gutted. It left me totally unsure of how to proceed, wondering where I’d went wrong. I had been so sure that Windmills was finally ready. But here was a strange new issue; because I’d never totally understood what worked about Windmills, I had no clear insight into what didn’t. The project, after a decade of work, had turned into a big, ungainly mess that I couldn’t see clearly anymore. My calling card, my destined big success, whatever; Windmills might have advanced my career and my abilities as a writer but my conviction of its worth had also held me back. It wasn’t that I hadn’t written other things in the time I was working on Windmills, but everything else was secondary to it. And that had to change. If I was going to create a career, I needed to write something new, something that could be just as much of a calling card but, crucially, would not be my only calling card.
It’s still staggering to me how quickly The Hunted both came together and found a home. The first version of the story had been rattling around since mid-2017 (back when it was a short horror novella called Sunburnt Country), but the actual process of turning it into a novel only took about a month. When I sent it to my now agent she suggested a few rewrites, I did them, she sent it out and within a month the book and film deals were both secured. It was the most painless and rapid development and acquisition process, something that seems increasingly insane when I remember that The Hunted was a total gamble; I wrote it at least in part to prove I could do something different but I had no idea how it would be received. I certainly didn’t anticipate it would garner the response it has, but here we are.
In the end, all it took was letting go of Windmills. That’s not to say that I’ll never revisit it or that Windmills won’t eventually be realised in one way or another, but that the key to my career reaching a new level was to finally take the plunge and put aside the project that had dominated my life for far too long.
I’m still proud of the Windmills pilot and it’s still something I’m happy to give prospective employers as proof of what I can do. But, crucially, it’s no longer the only thing I have. In diversifying my slate I now approach every meeting or discussion about writing stuff differently. Windmills isn’t for you? Try The Hunted. Or Nelson and the Gallagher. Or Boone Shepard. Or Below Babylon. Or Three Eulogies for Tyson Miller. Or We Can Work It Out. I’m proud of them all and yet none of them have anything in common with each other.
Calling cards are important. But don’t put all your eggs in one project. Take risks, stretch your creative muscles and see what you end up with. Because the great thing about not being able to see every story clearly is that you never know which one might change your life.
Writing words about writing words.