Changing Masks: Writing for the Theatre


A couple of weeks ago I finished the current draft of a play, I Am A Lake, for the good people of Mudlark Theatre. The opportunity to write for the theatre is something I couldn’t pass up. I trained as a drama teacher (although I’ve mainly taught English) and so an attraction to the performing arts has long been in the blood. I dabble in acting here and there but will confess to having no significant talent in that field, beyond being perfectly happy to make a fool of myself on cue. And followers of this blog–yes, both of you–will know that I have recently been asked to write for Mudlark Theatre’s scintillating One Day project, which I’ve now done twice.

I am supposed to be writing a novel, of course, so switching masks to work on a play seemed a bit like cheating on a girlfriend…but I got over that.

One of the things I was interested in is what I would learn about fiction from working in a different domain. I was told at the outset that the processes, the ‘headspaces’, are not the same; and this is true up to a point.

The notion of The Audience is perhaps the most interesting issue. Some writers will tell you that they don’t give a crap about their audience, their readers. Others will tell you that if you don’t bring your readers along with you, you’re more or less wasting your time. One of the things I love about the theatre is its immediacy–everything is happening right there, in front of you. So there is a fairly clear need to involve the audience in what’s happening. This doesn’t mean that you have to explain everything, of course–you can imagine what sort of theatre that might create. But they have to find a connection with what is happening, they have to be carried along–they have to be engaged.

One of the most powerful forces–if not THE most powerful–in fiction is ambiguity. In simple terms, this means not spelling everything out. The best fiction relies on a reader doing some of the work, I think; I have heard reading described as a more creative act than writing for this reason. So it can be with viewing.

So in writing my play, I had to find a line between letting the audience do some of the work and being explicit, and this is possibly the single most difficult challenge. Even more of a challenge is trying to create the red herring; getting an audience (or readers) to think they might know what’s happening, and then surprising them. Effective writing, in any domain, is built on those surprises. Reading (and viewing) is, I suppose, a kind of conversation you have with the book or film or play.

Example: I recently saw Russell Crowe’s film The Water Diviner. Before viewing it I predicted on Facebook that because he had three sons, one of them would survive Gallipoli. And so it proved. So I wasn’t surprised–and left the film being very slightly disappointed because of it. The Turkish story is actually more interesting than Crowe’s, but we’re digressing.

The other interesting lesson for me was in writing dialogue. I love writing dialogue. In fiction, though, it’s only one tool you have among many–you can establish scenes, explain and examine relationships, describe action and so on without it. Plays have dialogue and only dialogue and everything (apart from some action, perhaps) must be channeled through it. It’s important to get it right, then, and not have vast expository speeches where characters fill the audience in on their background, their motives and so on. Finding subtle and interesting ways to use dialogue to advance action, reveal innermost desires, establish character and conflict and so on is probably the core challenge for someone wanting to write for performance.

Finally, the thing I probably enjoyed most about developing the script to its current stage (development is set to continue for another year or so, at least) is incorporating filmic elements–trying to create images within the parameters of what is possible in a theatre. These are things that aren’t as easy in fiction, where words are the only medium–again, you rely on the reader to visualise or connect with the world in your pages.

What I’m keen to see now is whether, when I return to working on my Novel in Progress, I bring elements of the theatrical to it. I’d like to think that a fairly heavy diet of cinema has given me some capacity to think visually, even within the narrative confines of fiction: so, we’ll see. Interesting times!

Thanks for reading.


Merciless Christos


For Christmas I treated myself to Merciless Gods, the first collection of short stories by Christos Tsiolkas. After The Slap and Barracuda, I was interested to see where he went with the short form; the answer is perhaps predictable but no less compelling for that.

If I felt like being a little bit unfair, I would characterise the general ethos of Tsiolkas’s writing–his aesthetic, if you like–very simply: everything is shit. There’s a lot of angst at work in his fiction, a lot of anger, a lot of darkness and resentment. Some of the adolescents I work with might pigeonhole Tsiolkas as an ’emo’. But this is, as I said, to be rather unfair. There’s a lot more going on in the worlds of his fiction than that.

Merciless Gods–which I thoroughly recommend–collects stories going back to the mid-1990s–based on the ‘previously published’ list at the front of the book, the earliest story in this collection is ‘Civil War’, first published in 1995. The title story unravels the complex relationships of a group of dinner party guests who decide to play a game which ends with an especially shocking revelation; I think my favourite story is possibly ‘The Disco at the end of Communism’, which tells of Saverio and his conflicts in having to fly north and deal with the death of his brother. The two men could not have contrasted each other more sharply.

In an Overland interview in 2005, Tsiolkas said: “What I actually want from a novel I read, or a film I see, is to actually go into dark places and difficult places because that’s when I feel most alive and engaged by my interaction with the work.” (Overland 181, p.20.) I remember reading some criticism of The Slap when it first appeared, along the lines of no characters in that book being likeable and the overall situation being fairly grim and relentless. Barracuda is similar, although I think it’s a better novel for its dissection of the Australian obsession with sport.

It’s not my intention with this post to discuss whether or not characters should be likeable in fiction–feel free to chat about that amongst yourselves. I am much more interested, as a writer, in the honesty that Tsiolkas brings to his work. He does not flinch. Merciless Gods brings us all manner of copulations, ejaculations, sexual ambivalences, hatreds, drug uses, violence, self-loathings and doomed relationships. My second favourite story, I think, is ‘Sticks, Stones’ for its searing depiction of a mother who witnesses some very unpleasant behaviour by her son; her situation is tragic in a sense, wanting to hate the boy yet obligated by innate maternal desires. I don’t think any of the stories are wrapped up neatly with polite little happy endings; Tsiolkas is most definitely not a polite writer. I should also mention ‘Petals’, with its unique voice derived from having been written first in Greek and then translated by Tsiolkas; the effect is startling. If I wanted to be slightly unfair again, I might characterise Tsiolkas’ writing as ‘car crash fiction’–what you see is awful, but you can’t take your eyes off it.

Which I think is why I’m drawn to him. Some of my own writing is quite ‘dark’–my novella deals with a terminally ill father and the consequences of this for his son, ‘Catch Me’ dealt with parental grief, and the play I’ve just drafted for Mudlark Theatre features some fairly brutal violence, including a mother belting the living shit out of her daughter. I’m not necessarily a violent person; quick-tempered at times perhaps. So where does this stuff come from?

It comes, I hope, from that sense of honesty. I suspect much of Tsiolkas’s work comes from a similar instinct. You need to know that this stuff happens, Tsiolkas seems to tell us. Look at it. To deny it is to lie. Although I don’t feel as qualified to mention this, I also think that Tsiolkas writes homosexuality beautifully–he normalises it, in a society where marriage equality is still something of a long-term ambition and homophobic bigotry is never far from the Letters pages of our newspapers.

Finally, there are some interesting questions here about why we read. Don’t pick up a book by Christos Tsiolkas if you want a pleasant afternoon’s escape; you probably won’t like what you see in his mirror. But that mirror must be held up, and sooner or later we should all look. Humanity isn’t just about happy endings; it’s about Knowing. Perhaps, if we know, we can understand; and perhaps, if we understand, we can have empathy. Between you and me, I don’t think it’s possible to have too much empathy.

Thanks for reading.

Blog Hop: Terrible Titles


I was asked by the fabulous Kate Gordon to have a go at this, and I thought it would be a nice break from my usual ranting. The challenge is to scroll through my current work in progress and find some ‘terrible titles’ for it based on letting the cursor stop where it does.

My current work in progress is a play, thanks to the very supportive and wonderful people at Mudlark Theatre in Launceston. I’ll post more about this soon. Anyway, here goes:

Ocean Beach

Near the Fire

There Were No Other Sides

Only for One Person

Drawing Chalk Lines

Every Opportunity

A Lesson I’ve Clearly Failed to Deliver

Opening a Way

His Next Move

None of Them Give a Shit.

(I think I actually quite like that last one.)

Keep the pen moving everyone! Until next time.

Last post sequel: Turing and the Truth


I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. So, given that this is my third post in just over two days, you might think I have resolved to post more, but that’s not the case. Inspiration has met opportunity.

Since my last post, on the film The Imitation Game and the parallels between Alan Turing and Oscar Wilde, I have participated in a somewhat feisty exchange of views on Facebook with a military historian. Perhaps arguing on Facebook is fairly pointless; nevertheless, it provided me with an interesting diversion from some otherwise mundane tasks. For a little while.

My historian friend took exception with The Imitation Game for several reasons and I won’t bore you with them here–suffice to say that he does not consider the film to be an accurate historical record. Now, he has a point there and I am happy to concede it. Five minutes on the internet will probably reveal a more precise account of the events of Bletchley Park and Mr Turing.

I consider his vehemence interesting for a couple of reasons and I thought I would explain them here. Firstly, I made it clear in our exchange that the film is An Entertainment. I even used capital letters to reinforce the importance of this. It tells A Story–and a very engaging, challenging, well crafted one at that. And I use the word ‘crafted’ deliberately. I don’t deny that facts are important but I will argue that facts and the truth are not one and the same. My Facebook quarry and I saw the same film, but have taken very different truths from it.

So then I arrive at this issue: what obligation do films that are ‘based on a true story’ have to a commonly accepted, reasonably accurate version of the truth? If the makers of The Imitation Game had attempted to stay close to actual events, they would have made a very different film–one that, perhaps, I would not have enjoyed nearly as much. We all know how World War Two ended–countless films, of very mixed quality, have revisited this era. Turing’s work (and that of his team) shortened it by approximately two years. Turing was a homosexual when this was illegal. On their own, aren’t these facts a little bit bland?

But in the hands of the film makers, and of Benedict Cumberbatch, they become something tragic, compelling, provocative, enduring. I go to the movies for those truths–not an ocean of facts. It is entirely feasible that someone will see The Imitation Game and be inspired to learn more, and then the film will have done its job.

Finally, films manipulate us. Lots of texts manipulate us. We can choose whether or not we want to be manipulated but part of the joy of cinema for me is opening up to that experience–saying, I want to be moved by this story! I want to laugh and cry and think about this film again in a week!

Everyone is of course entitled to their opinion. Everyone is entitled to judge a film according to their whims. But when it comes to a good story, it is absolutely necessary at times to dispense with facts if they get in the way. If people know how to think critically, they will ask all the right questions in response.

For another film recommendation that will get you thinking and arguing, please see Gone Girl. I have not read the novel but I have finally decided that the film is very good. It took me a while.

Thanks for reading.

Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing and the Ridiculous Gift of Genius


I never saw a man who looked / So wistfully at the day…

(Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol)

So I think I managed to miss an entire year on the Frog, apart from dealing with some rather indecorous comments. Apparently some people don’t like it when you decide that a book is crap after the first five pages. And here I am now, posting twice on the same day. It’s no coincidence that I have the next few weeks off on Summer holidays.

Yesterday I had the privilege of watching a film called The Imitation Game.  Spoiler Alert!  If you aren’t aware, it deals with Alan Turing’s efforts to crack the German Enigma code during World War 2, housed in a former radio factory at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire. Turing is played beautifully by Benedict Cumberbatch, in one of those performances where the actor disappears completely, as arguably an actor always should. Turing, as portrayed in the film, was quite the eccentric; today he would no doubt be considered autistic (“on the spectrum”, in the parlance of the teaching fraternity). He was a gifted mathematician with a very limited capacity to make or sustain friendships; one of the funniest scenes in the film is one in which he attempts to become friends with the other members of his team at Bletchley, most of whom despise him. This attempt involves giving them all an apple, and then telling a joke rather badly.

The most moving scene is perhaps the one that occurs the morning after they manage to crack the Enigma code. Their jubilation at doing so is quickly contrasted by the realisation that they can’t tell anyone, or else the Germans would know and they would reset Enigma and years of work would be wasted. And so, with their full knowledge, lives will continue to be lost.

Alan Turing lived with a secret during all of this: he was homosexual. This was eventually discovered in the early 1950s and he was charged with indecency and chemically castrated (as an alternative to spending two years in prison, an option Cumberbatch’s Turing could not entertain). Eventually he committed suicide in 1954 and the film is not subtle in suggesting that the drugs used to castrate him also gave him something like Parkinson’s Disease, affecting (among other things) his highly cherished mental acuity.

So I couldn’t help but think of poor old Oscar Wilde, who suffered a similar fate (although he served his time in Reading Gaol; the chemical option perhaps wasn’t  available at the turn of the twentieth century). From memory, Oscar chose to defend himself and arguably he had a fool for a client. It’s also interesting to consider how relatively recently we’ve abandoned our Judeo-Christian distaste for The Love that Dare not Speak Its Name and that now the argument rages (in my little corner of the world at least) over whether or not men and women in same-sex relationships should be allowed to marry.

There are very few direct comparisons between Wilde and Turing; they were both eccentric in different ways, and homosexual, but that’s probably about it. They also possessed singular gifts which have contributed significantly to the world since their respective deaths. Wilde’s incarceration even inspired one of his famous poems, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, passages of which I memorised in Years 11 and 12. “Each man kills the thing he loves / yet each man does not die. / He does not die a death of shame / on a day of dark disgrace…”

Some subtitles at the end of the film reveal that cracking Enigma possibly shortened World War Two by up to two years, saving countless lives; yet it remained a secret for the next fifty years. And in 2013, Turing was posthumously awarded a Royal Pardon by Queen Elizabeth II, in recognition of his enormous contribution to the war effort. With Oscar we have the enduring legacy of his work–the sublime comedy of his plays, his wit, his embrace of aestheticism. With both men, we have a reminder that genius often has a price. People who don’t fit the pattern are difficult, perhaps–to work with, to live with, to endure. But endure them we should. Almost certainly, they will have something to offer us that is beyond our immediate understanding. I’ll leave the last word to Oscar, and The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Thanks for reading.

And strange it was to see him look
  So wistfully at the day,
And strange it was to think that he
  Had such a debt to pay.

2014 in Verse


Commissioned by the ABC and read on ABC Local Radio in national syndication, Thursday January 1 2015.


And again we approach the revolving door
Step out of one year with another before
Relaxing with promises to be made or broken
Wondering what each sunrise has in store;

And at this time we should pause for a tick
And ponder the rigours of poor old St Nick.
The most popular item under trees last year
Was that insidious device, the selfie stick.

And we were all appointed to Team Australia
Though without uniforms or much regalia.
And despite what I’m sure we’re his best intentions,
The captain has so far been rather a failure.

While I’m here, I must take a punt.
Our erstwhile leader is kind of a … runt.
There’s no better question in evidence of this –
Than, when is a shirtfront not a shirtfront?

But lovers of words received god sends.
Additions to language knew no ends;
(And Flanagan became our new laureate!)
He’d love the (pain in the) assonance of “efficiency dividends”.

Reconciliation is on the agenda
Though Tony might have to return it to sender
Until he realises, by truth or by toil,
That white men were not the first on this soil.

And science continued to take great leaps,
Landing cameras on comets and sending back beeps
Penises will soon be grown in a lab
An upstanding contribution, though it gives me the creeps…

There’s no science in Canberra, I’m sorry to say
And very few women at the end of the day
And if budget cuts keep showing scientists the door
We may have to outsource science to the poor.

Our national curriculum was thoroughly reviewed
With the intellectual rigour of a dwarf in the nude
The results were sadly unsurprising
But rightly, to his exit, Barry Spurr was booed.

So what lies ahead, we breathlessly ask?
And whatever it is, are we up to the task?
Can we keep our optimism afloat?
Can we continue to hold up our mask?

It’s easy these days to start feeling blue;
You don’t know where to stand about what you can do
But simple messages are the most profound:
So if it’s ever necessary, # I’ll ride with you.