How-To Guide for Playwriting Mid-Pandemic

 

  • Every day, wake up at 7.30am because setting an alarm during an interminable lockdown is a good idea so you don’t sleep til 10.09am and then tell yourself that now is the Time You Are Going to Try to Write.

 

  • Do exactly 30 minutes of free writing because that’s what you set the alarm for, and setting the alarm, as outlined above, is the only way to get things done in an interminable lockdown where time is both thick and fast, and really, that phrase has not meant much to you before now, until now, but now it is just right.

 

  • Make weekends have meaning by making them Writing Days, which means TWO boxes of BBQ Shapes, FIVE cups of peppermint tea, ONE sleeve of Oreos, TWO cups of coffee, because any more means unbelievable reflux, ONE large sandwich that you type-eat, LOTS of Irish music because this play is set by a sea, and something about fiddles and breathy Gaelic lyrics makes you think of the wind-beaten coasts of Inis Oirr, which you have even visited, back when you could visit places.

 

  • Make a playlist specifically for a subplot of the play, which then sticks around, even when the subplot proves a red herring and not in a good way, but keep listening, because playlists based around songs about heroes are extremely confidence-boosting and highly recommended for plodding through an interminable lockdown and a evil pandemic.

 

  • Make your friend meet you for Sunday morning dramaturgy chats where you are both in your pyjamas, with a dog’s nose in the crook of one arm and a cat’s tail swishing in and out of the other frame, and if it took a pandemic to teach us that this is how all dramaturgy meetings should be? Then I still would not repeat this year not for anything, der.

 

  • Make your friends crowd into a Brady Bunch-and-cousins-level Zoom session to read out this play written for 16 teenage actors, and balloon quietly with joy when they laugh at a joke that you secretly worried was unfunny.

 

  • Find people in the arts who want to help other people write and make, even in times of crisis, and share the work with them, and see if this can help you keep swimming and keep grasping your little sweaty fingers onto that leaky pen, in amongst the rollicking waves of 2020.

 

 

And here we are. I’m very pleased that this somehow happened: a new play during a pandemic. You can read all about the process here. You can also buy copies here.

 

 

Making shows during an unprecedented global pandemic

A bunch of fabulous artists and I did a show during a global disaster! And it’s spicy AF!

 

I’m very pleased to share the website for Broth Bitch, a delectable new work by Michele Lee, made by a piquant team including Ming-Zhu Hii, Maia Thomas, Russell Goldsmith, and myself.

 

I worked as dramaturg for Michele, meaning we got to talk about food, the meaning of friendship, female entrepreneurs, vegan recipes, and the sum of a meaningful life. This is our second collaboration after we worked on What If?, an eerily prescient performance work about a pandemic striking Melbourne. Oops.

 

Visit this link to access 7 days of the podcast, for free. BYO soup thermos.

 

Photo by Ming-Zhu Hii

Project supported by Melbourne Fringe, Vitalstatistix and Australia Council for the Arts. Broth Bitch graphics by Tammy Winter.

Running

 

Reasons not to take up running:

  • Only runners run, and you are not a runner
  • You get puffed walking up that hill in Pascoe Vale; who do you think you are trying to run?
  • Why choose an exercise that prevents you dawdling over flowers? What’s wrong with you?
  • And also: why take up an activity that makes you breathe harder, in a dense city filled with paranoid people, during a pandemic spread by the respiratory system?

 

Reasons to begrudgingly try running:

  • When it’s just you and your neighbourhood, month after month, what’s there to dawdle over anymore? You’ve walked past the dahlias, you’ve seen the budding daffodils, you’ve sniffed the springing jasmine. You’ve done it. Run further. See more.
  • Gyms are closed, for ever and ever it feels, so there’s no treadmill to do a five minute burst of action, and no weights rack to feel strong and capable, and lifting the same kettle bell day in, day out, is not cutting the mustard this far into lockdown.
  • Running is the one activity you can do without a mask on. That’s right: delicious outdoor life, gulping in the air, unbarred.

 

Reasons to taper off your running:

  • Running is the one activity you can do without a mask on. You feel guilty. You ask yourself, “am I running too slow to be mask-less, really? Is this more of a jog, or even—shock, horror—a power-walk? Am I taking liberties, being a bad example, in a suburb that’s simply too packed with people, too close to clusters, to risk anything?
  • You hate the way that other runners huff past you, mask-less and without any distancing. It makes you suspicious of all people besmirched with the name ‘runner.’ Who wants to join that crew.
  • Running is an odd form of self-improvement, of attempting the impossible, of what Coach Bennett—for all the Nike Run Club fans out there—calls flying. Who wants a lofty, magical goal right now? Isn’t excitement reserved for a glimpse of sunlight in Sunday pressers, and a box of cake mail arriving at your door?

 

Reasons to try running again:

  • I mean, you’ve got a weekend to fill.
  • Also, the world needs good runners.

 

What does a dream run look like?

  • Nobody nearby, to breathe on, or breathe in.
  • The ground firm and solid, un-besmirched by Melbourne’s soggy spring.
  • Running free until you want a break,
  • Guiltlessly pausing to grab your breath,
  • Gustily drinking from a public bubbler,
  • Languishing on a park bench.
  • Slow stretching on your walk home.
  • Whipping out your phone for a triumphant post-run selfie: your chest thudding, blood drumming, and your smile visible and gleaming—a shard of unbroken light.

Other Lives

Before I moved to Melbourne, I used to regularly visit the city. I imagined what it would be like to live here. What would be the Melbourne equivalent of my Sydney suburb, Enmore? (The answer is: Thornbury. Also, Fitzroy is Surry Hills, Northcote is Newtown, and Preston is Marrickville. You’re welcome.)

This transposition of potential new lives is one of my favourite parts of travel. Could I be an English teacher in Tokyo? A Yeats scholar in Dublin? An ang mo in Singapore? What would my life be like? What would change, and what would be eerily, doppelganger-y similar?

What’s the vegan scene in this new world? Do they have a local theatre company which does new Australian work? Is there a walk I could do where I can avoid city skylines and feel a little bit deserted and free?

When we transpose, we find little nails sticking out, reminding us that no two cities are homogenous. Nothing overlaps consistently, ever.

Is there anywhere in the world that blends hipster and tradition, like Tiong Bahru? Is Sligo a harbour-city version of the Blue Mountains—stunning vistas and kooky locals, but a lapping river, too? Do city workers in Shibuya huff through the streets with the same purpose as finance workers in William St, but with better trains and packed lunches? How would I—would I at all—fit in that life?

I’ve stumbled upon a Manhattan coffee bar opened up by a Melbournite who just wanted a good soy latte. I browsed the earrings, socks, and stockings of a Chinese expat who set up the store that Newtown needed on King Street. For our anniversary, we ordered a platter of treats from Neko Neko Ramen—this business fuses authentic Tokyo recipes with Gertrude Street sensibilities to offer vegan ramen stock and yuzu-brewed ale.

What sort of expat, migratory fusions are ahead of us? And which have been curbed by 2020 events? Which will not transpire until borders reopen fully, perhaps in several years? Who else grew teary watching the first plane from New Zealand touch down—a silver fern, and the simple statement, “We’ve missed you?”

Until then, some memories will sustain us. Waking up early in a new city, before the city wakes up. Walking kilometres on end until your feet are rubbed raw. Bundling into a warm pub in a northern hemisphere winter, so your glasses fog up immediately. Rushing into the air con embrace of a mall or MRT, as equatorial sweat dries on your skin. Stopping to eat or drink, not because of appetite, but because sitting down makes a day of travel sustainable on your ever-creaking limbs.

Borders are slowly opening. Tomorrow, I am allowed to drive to the ocean, as far as Brighton. (Sydney equivalent: Mosman?) Soon—maybe even this year—I will be able to visit my parents, two states away. Next year, I might have a birthday party with friends in my actual house. And one day, eventually, I will sit in an overseas café or pub, sip something sustaining, and dream up futures: a small, simple joy expressing the world.

 

National Museum of Singapore

Melbourne in Colour

 

Hard lockdowns are full colour experiences. I didn’t expect that, until it became reality.

Before the coronavirus truly hit Victoria, I listened to news about the UK, Spain, and Italy. I tried to imagine what it would be like. Home, all the time, interminably home, except for the rare occasion to buy groceries, a jog around the neighbourhood, or a terse trip to an essential job.

When I closed my eyes tightly, and focused, I heard that life in silence, and I saw it in sepia. I imagined it was nothing like Australia’s first lockdown, when we could still go to Bunnings, buy chairs from Officeworks, and sip coffee while walking around the block with friends. I think, anyway. It was such a long time ago, in such a formless year.

Australia re-opened, and Victoria enjoyed a brief spell of indoor dining, evenings on friends’ couches, and road trips to the coast. Then we snapped back. Suddenly, we lived in that daily blear of what I had predicted would be sepia and silence. We were plunged into another country’s reality. Random safety musings—should I purchase a few masks, for when we reopen; is it a bad idea to drive a little further, to that wonderful health food shop—became law. And around us, hundreds of people we getting sick every day. Scores were dying.

We equipped ourselves with language to navigate this reality. We learnt about bubbles, clusters, and curfews. We understood ‘as the crow flies’ versus ‘by road.’ There was no random browsing in stores to distract ourselves. Dabbling in gardening—or other new hobbies—became an organised adventure, rather than a creative amble through aisles. Nobody sips and walks unless they’ve mastered the art of sticking a straw between mask and mouth, slurping coffee as your glasses fog up. We knew that these things were unnecessary, but they were distractions, when we had them.

And yet, amongst all of this crisis, it’s not sepia. It’s not silent. We fill what should be quiet with all sorts of things: The chatter with neighbours, who become friends. Long walks along Merri Creek, where the creek continues burbling, and birds fill the air with their calls. Stopping to greet neighbourhood cats, favourite flowers, and fence palings worthy of discussion.

We say hello to more people than ever. We learn the names of almost everyone on our street. We look out for patterns in the neighbourhood: Oh, that magenta magnolia has a few weeks left. Oh, the jonquils are done for the year. Oh, thick, green leaves now replace cherry blossoms, as spring creeps ever-so-joyfully closer.

And, oh, we appreciate Spring. We melted, a little, when the weather warmed up. When playgrounds and skate parks reopened, the chatter that followed filled more of that cold, frightened, bobbing stasis. We can hear children giggling now, skateboards going ‘kerplunk,’ hoons fanging it in hotted-up cars, and gaggles of picnics, where all of us crow in delight on a day where the barometer rises above 20 degrees.

When I look back, on what almost 7 months of stasis will do to you, I think to Yeats, because I always do: “A terrible beauty is born.” A time of craving hugs, and sprouting, climbing jasmine. Of existential panic, and children paddling tricycles up and down the skate dip. Of an increasingly black-and-white, regimented, proscribed daily life, but the scents and sounds of spring wafting in amongst it. Softening the edges. Life will always burst through. Even a formless year can have blotches of colour.

“Habits”

For as long as I can remember, I have had “habits”. Let’s call them “habits” in the lack of a more official name for them. We could also call them compulsions or obsessions! Tomayto, tomato. 

These habits have distinguished the key years of my juvenilia and young adulthood! If someone were ever to write the story of my childhood, they’d have an easy categorisation method, a bit like Yeats’ ‘catching butterflies’ years versus his ‘deciding to stop riding my red pony and instead daydream by a river’ years. You know…those years!

The habits probably kicked off with the “saying things in three” years. This involved any instruction to have “sweet dreams” at bedtime to be delivered in groups of threes. “Sweet dreams, sweet dreams and sweet dreams” my parents would dutifully say. If they accidentally stumbled into the linguistic minefield of wishing me one more dose of sweet dreams when exiting my bedroom? They had to repeat it another 6 times. Because it was in groups of 3. So, if you went over 9? It went to 27. I think I had just learnt about squared and cubed, and I liked to apply my schooling to all areas of life. A generalist. 

Then there came the “saying things backwards” habit. You could tell me any word, and a little countdown clock would light up on the stage inside my forehead. I knew the whole family’s quick backwards monikers off by heart. The Ymalleb family, consisting of Allen, Dnomsed, Dnilasor and Acissej sounded like characters from a fantasy novel; the sort I would never read, because I had enough strange superstitions easily accessible in the recesses of my imagination. 

Saying things backwards was then replaced by the counting-letter years. I would demand a complex word from anyone lucky enough to be stuck in my company, and quickly pasted up the word on the forehead stage mentioned above. Little birds or bugs, similar to Disney helpers, would hover above the one long word, and draw webs between easy groupings; of 2, 3, or 4. The groupings would spread out and define themselves, and I would quickly add them together. 

Dinosaur? 4 and 4 is 8! Appease! 3 and 4 is 7! Ostentatious? The rare (exciting) 5 coupled with a 3 and 4. We have a 12, ladies and gentlemen! Where’s my applause? 

 

Habits have always been there, but part of growing older is that you get a little less exclamatory about them. You want to be proficient at more tangible skills, like catching things, throwing things, public speaking or understanding how barcodes work. It’s not really that impressive to declare the extent to which you order your life in groupings of 3, or the way you roll clumps of sounds around your mouth.

Of course, habits take just as much as they offer. I hate many of my adult habits. I hate the habit of checking that all four burners and the oven are turned off. I hate the little ditty I use to check my front door is locked: “click, push push, tap tap”. I hate the times I get into the car, only to run back to the front door and check that I’ve really locked it. 

But I also know where all these “habits” come from. They come from a beautiful place; a desire to keep my home and my cats safe while I’m at work. An interest in language and numbers, and how these building blocks make up systems and languages we use to connect with each other. Growing up in an unknowable world, why wouldn’t we create systems of coping and comfort, in lieu of any belief in an interventionist God and their protection?

I was walking home today, and observed a man across the street with a habit of his own. Every time he passed a fence post, a bollard, a wall, he would touch it with the corner of his jacket. He barely paused for this moment of fabric grazing. It was such a natural and practised movement, he didn’t need to. 

I had a moment of relief: at least my habits have never extended to that. But then also: who cares if mine have? What if, in a world full of syllables and building blocks and thrumming molecules, those objects are saying, “thank you for noticing I’m here. Thank you for making my existence a small part of your life. Thank you for turning the everyday into a system of belief, a personal god, a respite and a coping strategy. Carry on down the road, now, carefully, ever-counting. Carry on, and try not to step on the cracks.”