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.
It’s almost four years to the day since the first time I was in Los Angeles. I came for a week after my time at the International Emmys in 2015, took a bunch of meetings and left certain that my career was about to blow up (it wasn’t). I still remember so well standing on Hollywood Boulevard at sunset, watching the raucous and shambolic city life go by and making a silent promise to myself that I would be back soon.
Well, four years kind of counts as soon.
In some ways booking my ticket over again was an impulsive indulgence. My friends/regular collaborators Dan and Bryony from Pirate Size Productions had to fly over last minute to pitch a project to various heavy hitters and asked if I wanted to come. In truth, I probably didn’t need to but upon conferring with my agent I realised it was a great opportunity to meet the teams at Stampede and Vertigo, the two companies actively working to turn my upcoming novel The Hunted into a film, as well as a chance to take other meetings and pitch a few different projects to some big companies who might be interested. Plus, it meant returning to a city I really enjoyed visiting last time. So, a week out from the flight, I booked.
It made for a weird kind of whiplash; after a week working at my old school, the very next day I was getting on a plane to Los Angeles with Dan (Bryony flew in later). The flight was, as long flights always are, a special kind of misery, but after we’d escaped the plane and customs and security we finally arrived in Hollywood for a long day of basically killing time until we could check into our Air B&B. For context our flight landed around 5:30AM. We weren’t allowed to check in until 3PM. It was a long day, especially in overwhelming heat with luggage to drag around the place.
But after resigning ourselves to our fate the day took some cool turns. We decided to check out the rundown, dingy Hollywood Museum, which is home to a lot of cool props but, most awesomely of all, the actual asylum set from The Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon. Which meant Dan was forced to take about a thousand photos of me in every conceivable spot around Hannibal Lecter’s cell while putting up with my delighted squeals about seeing Dolarhyde’s actual toilet paper letter from Red Dragon. The whole reconstructed set is maintained to perfection, making you feel like you’re walking into the film itself.
After a few beers at a pub up the road that I remembered fondly from last time, we were finally able to check into our accommodation. A quick hour’s power nap left us not quite refreshed, but somewhere in the vicinity of alive, which meant we could head into town to watch Western Stars at the Chinese Theatre, something I was thrilled about and made for a great (and emotional) start to our week in LA.
The next day we went to Universal Studios. And while the whole endeavour was stupidly expensive (get ready to pay $22 AUD for a single beer if you want to drink at the Hogs Head), it was a huge amount of fun and an awesome way to spend the day that counted as my birthday in Australia if not LA. The rides were great; from the Harry Potter themed Forbidden Journey, which takes you on a partly animatronic, partly animated whirlwind tour of various locations from the movies complete with a violent Whomping Willow and a dragon breathing fire at you – to the Jurassic World ride, which featured several dinosaurs and ergo resulted in my grinning like an idiot for the duration.
Then there was the studio backlot tour, home to the Psycho House and the shark from Jaws. So yeah, I was having a pretty amazing time.
On Monday the whirlwind week began in earnest. I bounced around town from meeting to meeting, some with Dan and Bryony, others by myself. I tried and failed to traverse nine miles on a scooter (long and miserable story, don’t ask), enjoyed a lot of philosophical conversations with Uber drivers after realising the flaws in my scooter related plan, met face to face with some of the people who changed my life this year and got the opportunity to pitch new projects to several parties who hopefully haven’t since put a photo of my face with a giant cross through it next to their door. From boardrooms to exclusive clubs overlooking the city to Starbucks I feel like I’ve been in the best kind of pinball machine, one in which every wall you hit is more exciting than the last.
Look, they say you never have a bad meeting in LA and I know that for a fact. I mean, the last time I was here I walked out of every meeting sure that everything was about to blow up only for next to nothing to actually happen. But I dunno, this time feels different somehow, like I’m here with specific purposes and a newfound sense of how to navigate this city and the opportunities inherent to it. And maybe I’ll be proven wrong all over again, but even if I am I’ve just had an awesome time being back here. Even if it’s projected, there’s a certain magic to LA, to knowing that this is the place where things happen, where the careers you admire were made and where film legends begin, where a venerable history sits side by side with a promise of exciting futures in a city that somehow manages to feel glamorous despite being largely rundown and a bit smelly. But that’s that weird quality LA has, and that’s why despite all the heat and the scooters and the overpriced beers I’ve been walking from place to place with a big dumb smile on my face.
My last working day was Friday, populated by some awesome meetings and closed off with a trip to a really cool old cinema to watch Jojo Rabbit. Saturday, free and clear until our flight, was spent exploring Venice Beach and relaxing with beers on rooftops with stunning views of the whole sprawl of LA, the Hollywood sign faint and hazy in the sunny distance. Then it was back to the airport and on to the plane where I’m finishing off this blog. I’ll be home for a day after which I’m immediately flying to Brisbane for book related stuff. Things are a bit relentless, but as I’ve said a million times before and will say a million times again, busy is better than bored, and this is the best kind of busy.
Already I’m excited to come back. Hopefully this time it doesn’t take four years. But if it does, that’s cool too, because if this trip has proved anything it’s that LA and the potential it holds are worth the wait.
I’ve been called many things, but ‘Writer in Residence’ is definitely a new one. I don’t even 100% know what it means, but I do know that last week it was my job, as I was invited to return to Caulfield Grammar School to run a bunch of writing workshops with students across every year level.
It was an exciting and flattering offer that came about due to a chance run-in with Michael Knuppel, my old literature teacher and a staunch early supporter of my writing. After telling Michael about the stuff I’ve been up to of late he suggested a return to Caulfield on the other side of the classroom divide and I was more than happy to oblige. But, as seems to be the theme lately, things turned very busy and returning to my old school was immediately preceded by a week in Sydney working in writers rooms with only a single day off in between, so by the time I set foot on campus again I’d be lying if I said the residency was something I’d been thinking a lot about.
At first, being back was pleasant but a little weird. Walking into rooms I hadn’t seen in ten years prompted a bit of a deluge of long buried memories – places where fights, wide ranging conversations and romantic interludes had occurred over the course of the three years I spent there. But alongside this were the many ways in which the school had changed. It made for an oddly mismatched experience, one of mingled nostalgia and unfamiliarity that left me feeling at a bit of a remove from everything, like a half-forgotten ghost drifting through the halls, neither a total stranger nor completely belonging.
This feeling grew and came into focus over the following days. Understand; Caulfield was a huge part of my life. Leaving my hometown to board in the city precipitated everything that happened next. Boarding school was a massive change in my teenage life, a bittersweet uprooting from the home and friends I knew, undertaken in order to chase something ostensibly better. And while the ride was always bumpy, the school did exactly what it was supposed to, leading to lifelong friendships and opportunities that created the path I’ve been on ever since. And then there are the ideas that came from my time there. Without Caulfield there’s no Boone Shepard or Windmills. Without Caulfield I’m not convinced I would be the same person.
Boarding means that school becomes your life in a way it doesn’t for others, which means that leaving is more than just finishing your education; it’s leaving home all over again but this time stepping out into the world without the possibility of returning. Safety vanishes, your friends aren’t constantly around you anymore and so in a weird way I think my memories of Caulfield Grammar eventually become a sort of yearned for halcyon time precisely because there was never any chance of a homecoming or easier transition. Once I was out, I was out. Until, of course, last week.
But ten years is a long time and a school, even a boarding school, sees that mass exodus of part of the ecosystem every year. My goodbye was ten cycles ago, so any sense of re-establishing some past connection was always going to be a little one sided. That’s not to say that between classes I didn’t indulge in a little nostalgia wallowing. I wandered through the boarding house, went down into the drama studio, the walk to which remains lined with photos from plays I either saw or was in. I sat outside the school and did a bit of work on Windmills for the first time in over a year, almost in the same spot where I first started the book a decade ago. Sometimes, in those places, echoes of the past seemed to creep back; a familiar smell, a sight or detail I thought I’d forgotten, memories and names that I haven’t had occasion to think about in years prompted back by an unexpected association. A sense of disconnect and unfamiliarity persisted, but not all the time. Sometimes the past shone through.
But even a quite literal homecoming like this one ends up being a bit stunted. My time at Caulfield and the particular feelings I associate with it were made up of the irreducibly complex tapestry of so many impossible to recapture factors. The friends I had. The music I listened to. The teachers, most of whom are long gone. And above all, the person I was then; petulant, childish and so gloriously stupid about so many things.
At that school I felt more keenly than I have in years the presence of the dumb kid I used to be. With that comes sadness; that I’m not that openly emotional anymore, that the earth-shattering thrill of seeing your crush smiling at you or getting the lead role in a school play no longer has the immense power it once did, that I’m can’t as easily just be joyful. But the sadness sits hand in hand with pride. That I’m learning to move past the tunnel-vision selfishness, the back-stabbing cowardice, bad temper and arrogance that characterised my teenage self, traits I’ve figured out how to recognise and eschew wherever I can because they’re no longer indicative of the person I want to be.
I think I spent a lot of my early writing career exploring nostalgia and why it’s not ultimately a good thing (Reunion, Hometown, One Year Ago) largely because that was a lesson I was struggling to learn myself. A few years on, my perspective has changed a little. I don’t think nostalgia is inherently a good thing, but I also think that it’s healthy to remember and engage with where you came from, if only to remind yourself of how far you’ve come.
A few years ago I was listening to a radio interview with an author who said ‘I write because it’s cheaper than therapy’. At the time I laughed knowingly without giving any thought to what the statement actually meant. My feeling then was it spoke to the idea that we’re all sexy tormented artists grappling with the weight of the world. The truth is way more mundane than that. My personal theory is that writers write to try and make sense of things. Whether it’s a novel, a short story, a review or an article, just about all writing is a response to something experienced or witnessed, refracting reality through a worldview, narrative and sensibility that makes it all just a little more palatable.
To explore this a little further, I’m going to talk about Community.
I first got into the show in around 2012, because it was a cult favourite that a lot of my friends were watching. I followed suit and predictably loved the tribute/concept episodes and the dark humour, but there was plenty I didn’t appreciate. Like the occasional episodes that went dark and sad instead of funny. Or the fact that the show spoke endlessly about the importance of the central group’s connection without, for my money, actually doing the work to build that connection. I found the more conceptual third season a pretentious mess of half-baked ideas and I started to get frustrated at the ongoing media narrative suggesting Community was an underappreciated modern classic. So much so that I wrote a lengthy blog post about the fact. I think it might have been like, the second thing I posted here.
Reading that post again makes one thing abundantly clear; I really, really did not get Community. And I don’t think I could have, at the time. To explain what’s changed, let’s get personal.
I’ve spoken before about 2015 as a bit of a low point for me. There are several reasons for this, but I think the key one is that it was the first year where I started to realise I wasn’t the person I wanted to be. I’ve always gone through bouts of insecurity and uncertainty, but 2015 was something else because almost overnight my life changed in intangible ways that it took me a long time to wrap my head around. For a couple of years prior, I’d lived a carefree life of casual work, partying and writing. I had good friends all around me, a fun party house that was always full of life and collaborators helping me get my work on stage. Then things changed. I moved into a cramped, dingy apartment that had a constant sense of wrongness about it (I found out later somebody had been murdered there), the kind of place people didn’t really want to visit. My housemates weren’t around often, understandably preferring to spend time with their respective girlfriends. I started working a dull job in a distant, dodgy suburb that was a two hour commute each way, leaving me barely any time for anything other than work.
The newfound distance from everyone who had previously been such major figures in my life just underlined a growing sense of worthless isolation. Somewhere along the line I had taken a wrong turn and couldn’t seem to find my way back to the previously promising road I had been on. I was stuck somewhere between adolescent and adult, living a sad facsimile of my previous life all the while preoccupied by a sense that I needed to grow up but with no idea of how. I had reached the end of my Masters of Screenwriting with no clear path forward and started to realise that my hard-drinking lifestyle was no longer the norm. Excess is a lot less fun when you’re the only one indulging in it. In fact, up against the seemingly sudden maturation of those around you, your own behaviour can be cast in a new light that shakes your sense of self to the core and leaves you wondering what’s wrong with you.
I lost confidence in my writing. I lost confidence in myself. And through all this, during my lowest ebb, the sixth season of Community was coming out.
Now, the sixth season is nobody’s favourite. Half the main cast have been replaced, the sharpness of the writing isn’t the same and there’s a sense of sadness to the whole thing that makes it feel dreary compared to the crackling wit of earlier years (ignoring, obviously, the Dan Harmon-less fourth one). And yet the more I watched the more I found myself developing a new perspective on Community and, in particular, on protagonist Jeff Winger.
I can’t imagine anyone is reading this without at least a basic knowledge of Community, but for context the series starts with Jeff losing his job as a lawyer when it is discovered that he never went to law school. In order to be reinstated as quickly and easily as possible he enrols at the highly dodgy Greendale Community College, to him a humiliating step down. He quickly gets drawn into the lives of a gang of misfits with whom he forms a study group and welcome to the plot of our sitcom.
What is unique about Community – apart from everything – is Jeff’s development. Naturally, his arc early on is the growth of genuine caring for his newfound community (geddit?). But as the series continues something kind of interesting happens. The show starts to call him to task, even outright suggesting in approximate series midpoint Remedial Chaos Theory that Jeff is holding the entire study group back from actual development. This subtext becomes text in season six when, necessitated by the many departures of main cast members, the show starts to centre on Jeff’s growing anxiety that he will be the last one left at Greendale – a fate his season one self would have seen as worse than death. The final season mines genuine (but still funny) pathos from his growing desperation to hold his found family together as the last remaining younger members start to look beyond college to what the next stage of their lives might look like, right as Jeff starts to realise that the next stage of his life is this.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see why 2015 me might have found the sixth season of Community so affecting. But honestly, at the time I just assumed that its new dour sensibilities suited my mood and didn’t examine the correlation any further. Understand, the moments were rare in which I could admit even to myself that my real anxiety was that I had been left behind by everyone I cared about.
Of course, insofar as stories in real life have endings my 2015 had a happy one – I got out of the murder apartment, won a screenwriting award that changed my life, reconnected with my friends and entered a period of renewed artistic passion that included a handful of genuine successes. But I still found myself thinking about Community’s ending, even divorced from the mindset that drew me to it.
As somebody who has always been obsessed with stories, I used to be troubled by the gap between the appealingly flawed but ultimately great lives and personalities of characters on screen and my own. I think I lived in fiction to such a degree that the messiness and ugly sides of my own nature became genuinely challenging to me, a kind of signifier that I was wrong somehow. Maybe that’s partly the reason that Mad Men always spoke to me so much; after all, the characters on that show are largely trying to come to terms with the fact that the perfect life they propagate is so vastly different to their realities.
In Community, every character is dealing with that divide. Jeff just takes the longest to realise it. Every single member of the study group has either let themselves down in some way, is not capable of dealing with the real world or both. The fact that Jeff and Britta are the last of the original study group remaining by the end might have been due to the increasingly difficult schedules of core cast members, but it also makes perfect sense that the two most initially self-assured characters were the two most deluded about who they really were.
The sadness of Community, then, was not unique to season six. On rewatch it slowly became clear to me that it had been there all along, that the through-line to the wacky adventures of the study group was a fundamental sense of failure that they all struggled to contend with. The reason they clung so desperately to each other (in increasingly pathological ways) was because they didn’t think anyone else would accept them. Other sitcoms might poke fun at their characters’ co-dependency, but would never ultimately explore the dark why of the fact. Community did, and that’s one of the reasons it was so bold and subversive. For all the kooky sitcom trappings, it reflected real life in a distinctly ugly way without losing sight of the bruised humanity at the heart of its characters.
This is why Community is, for all its flaws, so much better than Scrubs or How I Met Your Mother or any of the other sitcoms I spent my teens and twenties watching. It doesn’t stop at what’s easy or digestible. It pushes into the gaping chasm that exists in all of us between who we are and who we think we should be, and in that place finds something hopeful.
The best writing is a kind of therapy, but not just for the writer. The best writing reaches through the screen or page and tells the audience ‘I’ve been there too, and you’ll be okay’. And when you really need to hear that, there’s little as powerful.
As of September 2019, it’s been ten years since I discovered Bruce Springsteen.
I’ve spoken before about my longstanding and passionate love for Jonathan Tropper’s novel The Book of Joe, which I read in high school and immediately connected to. The Book of Joe tells the story of a successful author who became famous for writing an unflattering book based on his hometown, who is then forced to return to said town after his estranged father has a stroke. It’s not a perfect novel – it’s overwritten with a few unnecessary narrative diversions – but it’s so deeply felt and nakedly emotional that, as a small-town kid with aspirations of a writing career, it was close to revelatory for my sixteen year old self.
It also is packed full of Springsteen references. The first time I read it, it was with a vague sense of ‘huh, maybe I should check that guy’s music out’. When I read it again a year later in 2009 I realised I would have to look up the songs to fully understand what the book was talking about. I started with Backstreets, a track that is a very particular motif in The Book of Joe. It was a pretty immediate sell; Backstreets is a passionate, mournful roar of a song – I remember at the time thinking it sounded like a voice on fire. I had to hear more.
At the time, I had been asked by a friend to take part in a play of hers out in Warburton. Given that I was about a month out from my Year Twelve exams the worst possible thing I could have done was say yes. I said yes. And without getting bogged down in specifics, it was one of the best decisions I ever made, something that led to lifelong friendships, my current relationship, my first plays being performed and piles of valuable life lessons. But more immediately, it led to one of those dreamlike phases of passionate, hedonistic perfection that you only really get when you’re a teenager; nights of drinking around campfires, writing songs together and swearing lifelong devotion to each other. It was, at the time, like I was living two different lives; during the week I fretted about exams and rigidly followed the rules of my old-fashioned private school, but on weekends I entered a whole other world, one where normal rules didn’t apply and everything might as well have been taken from a sweetly nostalgic coming of age film, except it was real and better than any of those films could ever be.
I remember one morning waking up on a couch outside, looking out over the misty hills and the trees. I sat there alone listening to Thunder Road and in that strange and magical way that music can sometimes achieve, my very particular emotional state was reflected back at me. From there the Born to Run album became the soundtrack to my life; all those songs of passion and escape, of getting out of your town full of losers, of locking up the house and stepping out into the night to see what was waiting for you, of soft infested summers and girls you agonised over.
Did the songs make the time or did the time make me susceptible to the songs? It’s hard to say. But Born to Run will always be synonymous with a phase of my life that I’ll always hold dear. That alone would be enough for me to forever love Bruce Springsteen. Except Bruce has a habit of giving you far more than you could have hoped for or expected.
In Wrecking Ball Springsteen tells us that ‘hard times come and hard times go; just to come again.’ And while I appreciate that in the context of his songs such messages tend to refer to the economic difficulties of the working class, it’s also reflective of something I’ve learnt more and more is true; that no matter who you are, happiness never lasts but nor does the darkness and that’s the way it should be. You need the bad to appreciate the good, and both will come and go.
The idyllic time in my life that I’ll forever link with Born to Run ended, because of course it did. Secret romances and perceived betrayals left the friendships we swore would last forever in tatters and while reconciliations came it was never the same. In retrospect, the fact that the songs on Born to Run so perfectly reflected that time stands to reason, because Born to Run is very much about the end of innocence, about the last gasp of childhood idealism before the realities of the world set in. And for that reason, I still can’t finish a full listen of Born to Run without diving straight into Darkness on the Edge of Town, the starkly different follow up album that, for my money, serves as one of the most perfect sequels ever.
2010 was a very different year to its predecessor. I was broke and alone in the world, at a uni I hated without any of my former friends, working shitty jobs to make exorbitant rent and trying to wrap my head around the fact that all of my beautiful shining dreams about what early adulthood would be would not come true. It’s not that I had it especially hard, but no matter your circumstances the realisation that your life is not going the way you expected will never not be a challenge. Darkness, then, became the soundtrack to a different portion of my life. I would walk around the streets at night listening to Badlands or The Promised Land as a kind of defiant middle finger to a world that wasn’t giving me what I wanted. It was like Bruce was telling me to get back up despite the disappointments and the traps I seemed to be surrounded by; ‘you wake up in the night with a fear so real, you spend your life waiting for a moment that just don’t come; well don’t waste your time waiting.’ Later that year, when I finally hatched a plan to change my circumstances, to get into a job, university and house that I would be happy with, I clung to a different, far later Springsteen song. I played Working on a Dream over and over again as a kind of mantra. Every time my unpleasant circumstances threatened to get me down I whispered the chorus to myself; ‘I’m working on a dream.’ By the end of that year, I’d achieved what I set out to. I worked at Dracula’s (at the time a dream come true), I lived in a cool apartment in the middle of the city, and I had transferred to the best uni in the country. With Bruce as my guide I fought to change my circumstances and while in the grand scheme of things the victory was minor, it was real and it was mine.
In The Book of Joe, the main character semi-jokingly says ‘there’s a Springsteen song for every occasion’. Over the years I learned the truth of that, in times both good and bad. In 2012, after my first serious breakup, We Are Alive became the anthem of hope and comfort that kept my head above water. As I entered a new period of creative and personal fruitfulness in 2013, I listened to the celebratory exuberance of Thundercrack on repeat day after day with a big smile on my face and spirits lifted every time. When I finished my Masters in 2015 and found myself with no clear path forward, personally or professionally, the mournful tracks on Tunnel of Love were like a gentle reminder that I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. And while so many of those albums and songs will always be linked to particular times, places and people, none of them were ever just a reminder of something past. I came back to them again and again, seeing new layers on every visitation.
In 2016, as I entered a place in my life and career where I started to slowly shift out of the ‘aspiring’ category when it came to calling myself a writer, Springsteen’s autobiography became a kind of holy text for me, a beautifully written book that reminded me when I needed to hear it the most that while art and creative success are brilliant, they’re not everything. This sentiment led me to finally write a play about Bruce’s life, my own attempt at a kind of tribute to him, and a work I remain very proud of.
At a certain point my appreciation, love and respect grew to encompass the man as well as the music. Springsteen’s philosophies, his honesty, his decency and his never ending drive and passion to continue experimenting and taking risks while at a place in his career where he has nothing left to prove became a perpetual source of inspiration, the ideal of what an artist could, and perhaps should be.
Even as he nears seventy he keeps on giving. Next month two Springsteen films are hitting Australian screens. Western Stars, a sort of concert film/mood piece adaptation of his latest album, and Blinded By The Light, a movie that by all accounts captures exactly what it is to be seventeen and discovering Bruce Springsteen for the first time. In the trailer, we see the protagonist prowling the late-night streets, leaning against walls overcome with emotion as The Promised Land and Dancing in the Dark blare in his ears articulating all the things he struggles to say himself. Watching that hit me so hard because of the sheer specificity of that very familiar moment.
There are other musicians I love, other careers I’ve followed closely and other songs that have provided a way to express the inexpressible. But Bruce Springsteen, for a decade of my life now, has pulled off the same trick again and again, providing an ongoing collection of reminders that no matter how bad things might seem, you’re not alone. Joy, love, pain, regret, defiance and hope; Springsteen expresses them all with a power and honesty that is singular. Art, at its best, makes whatever loads we all might be carrying lighter; whether offering an escape or a necessary reflection, making everything just that little bit easier to digest and deal with.
Once I had a dream that I met Bruce. In fact I’m lying, I’ve had several of those dreams. But the one I’ll always remember is the one that rang the truest. I saw him, shook his hand, and said ‘thank you’. Then I left. Because after everything, what else could I ever say or do to convey how much his work has meant to me?
The past decade of my life, representing the slow construction of a career and the slower growth into an approximation of adulthood, has been a messy, bumpy, sometimes ugly time. I haven’t always been the person I wanted to be. I’ve hurt people and let them down. I’ve embarrassed myself and been a pathetic, childish failure; a mix of arrogance and insecurity that sometimes makes me marvel at the fact that anybody has stayed my friend for more than a day. But beside the darkness sits the light. The wonderful people I’ve shared the journey with, the times I’ve had that I’ll remember and love forever, and the hard-won successes that were all the sweeter because I know I earned them. But the consistent voice that guided me through all of it belongs to Bruce Springsteen. And I can say, without hyperbole or self-consciousness, that none of it would have been the same without him.
Thank you Boss. Here’s to the next ten.
Writing words about writing words.