Assembly of Elephants just produced the AWGIE-nominated My Father’s Wars… as a digitally-captured full theatrical production.
My Father’s Wars began life as research through a QANZAC100 Fellowship in 2015/16. It came to life as a limited podcast series – a vivid and compelling exploration of a young man’s journey to adulthood in the crucible of war – and the intergenerational impact of that.
It’s possible I romanticised, a bit. Theatre is, of course, ‘show, don’t tell’ – but I implied rather than showing. That young man was my father, who died when I was young. I was trying to put together what happened to him ‘over there’ by reading the letters home and diaries of other young men who had fought with him – and, as you’d expect at the time, these young fellers didn’t tell their mothers and sisters everything. Somethings I had to learn elsewhere – what damage could be done by 18 pounders and whizz-bangs and Mills bombs, and gas (several kinds), I learned from the reports of the Infantry’s surgeons, or inferred from the casualty figures listed at the end of every unit war diary’s battle report.
And I have to admit, a part of my brain probably didn’t want to go there. It’s hard to think of your elderly father (he was late 60s when I was born) experiencing that.
Except it wasn’t.
In his 70s, my abiding memory of my father is one of strength. A cool head. Assessment. Selfish? Yes. But the kind of selfishness that is about staying alive – and keeping those around him alive. I could say that he was a ‘tough old bugger’ who had no patience for fools – and that would be right – but he loved his family and kept his friends close. And I think all of that – and his insistence on his children’s toughness – it all came down to 1917, and ‘the Front’. Given that, I’m pretty sure he came back with some degree of PTSD – ‘shell-shock’, then. But I think closer would be an older description of the condition – ‘soldier’s heart’.
For it seems to me – and I have no personal knowledge, I freely admit – but it seems to me, given how my Dad was, it seems to me that it is the loss that hits hardest. And that is about the heart.
As I developed the script during 2015/16, there were multiple Anzac Centenary requests from SLQ for public script readings, and a very humbling realisation that this story was one shared but many families. That the questions I had were the same questions many people had. People came up after a reading, talking about their family. And we all understood, again, how connected we are, regardless of continent or skin colour.
QPAC heard the podcasts and supported the development of the theatrical script, as did the Tivoli, Flipside Circus and Assembly of Elephants (my company).
Then, I received funding to stage the theatrical production. And the rest is where we are…
Not history, exactly, but history, memoir, drama, and so much respect. For all our fathers…
The project is supported by the Queensland Government, through Arts Queensland.
We have filmed the theatre show – thank god – and I wish we’d filmed the post-show conversation…
We have filmed My Father’s Wars.
We’re not nearly finished – editing is underway by our terrific videographer – but we have the footage done. Thank. God.
We digitally captured the theatre production over several days – forced to push up the schedule by the latest COVID scare – seeing a few dozen exposure sites spring up overnight on the Queensland Health website was terrifying… then all week, at 10 o’clock in the morning, half the cast/crew tuned into the news apps on their phones, listening to Annastacia and Jeannette… and honestly, we were gob-smacked at the lack of new cases – but thankful, my God, so thankful.
And so happy to finally do the show in front of a live audience on the Friday night. Also digitally captured.
Once again, that live experience with the audience was revealing. I had forgotten how responsive people are to this story – the need to know more about the early, secret life of a parent. Their life before you.
During the crazy COVID development last year, we worked with senior aerialist Aliya Abisheva who told me hearing this story made her wish she had asked her own grandfather more questions about a ‘box of precious things’ he kept. He had served in the Soviet Army during WW2 and now she really wanted to know what that was like for him.
And it wasn’t only people starting to wonder about that unknown, early life of their parents and grandparents. During one of many readings at SLQ a few years ago, a middle-aged man told me he had brought his teenaged children because he wanted them to have some idea of the experiences of their Vietnam veteran grandfather. The intergenerational transfer of memory and story, as well as trauma, perhaps.
The other thread that Friday’s post-show conversation shared with those earlier readings was the notion of the ‘the silence of the soldier’. When I mentioned that Dad never really spoke about the war, there were always people in each audience who came up and told us afterwards that I was describing their father – they all agreed – these men were ‘tough, old buggars’, intolerant of fools, plain-spoken – often men of few words but who rolled their sleeves up and got on with whatever needed to be done, deeply loyal to family and friends, and with a way of looking right through you, right to the other side of whatever was happening.
And every time we spoke with audiences, it was clear again – My Father’s Wars is not just my father’s story – but the story of so many of our fathers, down the years…
Some staff who knew me as I researched at SLQ years ago came to Friday night.
“…Hearing the real words of Queenslanders echoing down through time, broken down and shared through the dramatic medium, was a hauntingly human experience. Knowing the lines of (some characters) … were taken largely verbatim straight from their own letters was a striking experience and leant a real weight to the immersive experience…” – India
And another SLQ colleague –
“… It is one thing to read the hopes and fears of young soldiers in the letters they sent home to their loved ones, but it is quite something else to see and hear those experiences transformed for the stage. A more visceral and intimate experience altogether… the actors take you inside the heads and hearts of their characters and the production leaves you with a vivid sense of the impact of war and its ripple effect through time…” – Robyn
For all our fathers.
This project is supported by the Queensland Government through Arts Queensland.
It has also been supported by the State Library of Queensland through a QANZAC100 Fellowship, by the Queensland Performing Arts Centre and by the Tivoli – and by friends of the work – JV, KTAB, IW and SS, ML and RY, you know who you are.
Noel was born in Maclean, New South Wales in 1919; his father was a shire engineer. The family moved to Sydney when his father became the shire engineer for Glebe Council and Noel was educated at Watson’s Bay Primary and Marist Brothers College (intermediate), then, against his father’s wishes, he went to East Sydney Technical College to study art/drawing as he wanted to be a commercial artist/illustrator. Three years apprenticing in an artist’s studio and he was out of work at the end of the Depression (1937/8) until he gained his first job drawing for Consolidated Designs (posters and signs on buildings).
The war broke out, and late 1939/early 1940 saw Noel try for Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) air crew enlistment but without a leaving certificate that was problematic – no maths qualifications.
“My dad had always said: ‘you’ll end up on the pick and shovel’,” he recalled.
That would have been a hard thing for a young man to hear – and to remember.
He was called up for National Service, joined the ‘choccos’, Civilian Military Force (CMF), heard the stories of some of the boys back from Malaya and the Middle East, realised that whilst he trained with the Sydney University regiment on up-to-date equipment, these boys had been fighting using 18 pounders and 4.5 Howitzers left over from WW1. Unable to square that in himself, Noel transferred from the CMF to the country’s ‘real’ defence force, the Australian Infantry Force (AIF) and volunteered for the Independent Companies being formed.
That sense of how much more was being sacrificed by those serving overseas pervades every single first person account of WW2 that I have read.
So – he was selected, went for preliminary training at Wilson’s Promontory (Victoria) where he studied demolition and small craft navigation, as well as all the usual in-country work. Volunteering for action by the end of 1942, he and 19 others were told to get their gear, trucked back to Melbourne, put on a midnight train to Brisbane and went to Binna Burra in the MacPherson Ranges. Here, they formed D platoon of the 2/3rd Independent Company and jungle trained at O’Riley’s for two to three months, living in two-man tents on hard rations, climbing mountain peaks, and forced marching to Cavill Ave, Surfer’s Paradise, which was, as he said, “just a village then”. They moved to Pumicestone Passage, and trained for amphibious landings on Bribie Island using both collapsible canvas boats and abseiling down the sides of ships to the sea.
He was 21 years old – old for the unit. Most of the boys were 18, 19 years old – the 25 year olds were called granddad.
It was completely secret. There was no contact with home, there was no leave. There was only the Company and that was a very strong bond. According to Noel, the officers were fair, allowed the men input, but didn’t “put up with any rot”. They kept morale up – even though their language was “shocking.” On parade, one sergeant said: “You bastards listen to me now! I have two messages for you men! For Chrissake, read North-West bloody Passage – I’ve got twenty copies and I want all of you to have read it – because we’re going to make it look like a bloody Disney film! And write to your bloody mothers once a bloody week! Parade dismissed!”
The 2/3rd Independents, with the 2/5th, 2/6th, 2/7th Battalions and the 2/11th Battalion (editor: I may have mis-heard the Battalions – some of the tapes are 23 years old) re-took the airstrip at Wau after four/five days of bloody fighting and mopping up. The Independents then “mopped up the Japs as they retreated over the mountains,” Noel said.
At first there was no resistance, but they kept coming across Japanese sick or wounded lying beside the track. The retreating Japanese forces had simply abandoned any soldier who was immobilised. The Independents’ orders were: “no prisoners”.
“That’s when it became pretty horrific – we just had to kill anyone we came across,” Noel said.
And tactically, they were forbidden from “drawing the crabs” – making a noise – so they couldn’t shoot the wounded Japanese; they had to bayonet them.
After a pause, Noel continued, “you couldn’t forget their eyes and a lot of them were saying they were Chinese – Christians – coolies from Hong Kong and they spoke a little English… gradually it had a terrific influence on us”… Noel described it as a different attitude then – but he always felt that you did this to them, you had no redress if they did it to you.
This was January 1943 and he and the company were campaigning in the mountains, harassing and pursuing Japanese forces, until September of that year. No days off, no change of clothes, no return to a home base really – they couldn’t be relieved as they were “behind Jap lines”. It was five men to a tin of bully beef/day, and you each had a half a ground sheet and what you were wearing. You were always covered in leaches. Above the cloudline, it was freezing at night. You never took your boots off (if “the Japs attacked you were stuffed” if you had no boots on, he advised) and you never used the two-man tent – for fear you’d get jumped.
“You started to feel very ashamed that you were glad it was a mate that was killed and not (you)”, Noel said. There was a terrible realisation of guilt – “you felt pretty small in yerself.”
“You’d get irritated at the sound of the wounded – their cries and such,” Noel explained, “you wanted to tell them to shut up as the Japs would know your position from those cries.”
It was hard “to remember days of peaceful co-existence.”
They harassed the retreating Japanese forces all the way to Salamaua.
“The Japanese had tunnels and fortress-type defences along the river. They had strung nets or webs of vines at about nine or ten foot high along the sides of the tracks. These made a V-shape that filtered you toward their pill-boxes and arc of fire. Some of these we took by force, some were abandoned….”
The whole 2/3rd Independent Company came together for the Salamaua attack. On the track, the Commanding Officer (C.O.) said to him: ’Look, son, smarten up. Wait ‘til you get to Salamaua. I know where all the grub is and all the money from the Commonwealth Bank. The Japs have a brewery there and a brothel and you blokes mightn’t even have to pay…”
But there were only two Japanese in Salamaua. And it didn’t sound as if there was much action at the brewery or the brothel. The 2/3rd took position on “Keller Hill” (sic) and saw Lae pounded prior to being taken by the 9th Division. They also watched US barges land US troops for over an hour there – and, then, watched them garner the souvenirs – “Japanese guns and swords, GIs walking around wearing kimonos, riding bicycles in the street,” he explained.
But the 2/3rd Independent Company “wasn’t even allowed in there”.
Instead they were put into barges and taken to Tambu Beach where they recouped for four or five days – and received “all the parcels from the last eight months”, including all of “the parcels of all the dead boys we’d lost”. It was very sad opening them, he remembered.
As an aside – Noel probably understates or has internalised the physical cost to the 2/3rd of this campaign. Reading about the 2/3rd’s Wau-Salamaua campaign on the Australian War memorial website, it became clear that only 34 of the original 300-odd company members made it through to Salamaua unscathed. Noel was one of them. In his recording he often spoke of how many officers and other ranks (OR) were killed, injured or ill. It weighed heavily on him.In his words, “they were really mighty men.”
Noel’s journey didn’t finish there. He remained with the 2/3 Independent Company (which was renamed the 2/3rd Commando Squadron shortly after that) and after five weeks in a convalescent camp on the Atherton Tablelands, was back in New Guinea by Christmas,1943 and continued to serve throughout 1944. He described being attached to US Landing Craft and thinking, as he watched those new troops go ashore – “Thank God it wasn’t us again!”
His final comments echo the sense that I have from all of my research into personal memoirs and stories: these wartime experiences become the formative architecture of soldiers’ lives. Noel said of his memory of the unit and the boys that it was “a permanent structure in yer thinking… like yer family… it’s like a generation gap. People your age who didn’t experience it don’t seem real to you…they don’t realise how you feel. It causes a terrific gap.”
But he also said you had to be careful about becoming “so one-eyed” and intolerant.
I was going to compare Noel’s experience as a young 21 year old commando to a different kind of wartime – that of a katakana interceptor in North Queensland and Pt Moresby. But I don’t think comparison is right, or appropriate. Both men served to the utmost of their ability in the field in which they clearly showed capacity and could make their best contribution. And that is what a desperate country was looking for, at the time.
So I’ll stay with Noel’s story…
He described one time, back in Australia (not sure when), driving past a gaggle of girls and pulling off a part of his leather bootstrap, scribbling his name and service number on a piece of paper and flinging it, via the attached bootstrap, to one of the young women – the girl in the blue dress.
He and the platoon were being taught to drive army vehicles – all of them – he had to “crash the gears”. He realised as he was driving, going around corners, that all of the fellows in the back of the truck were also throwing out notes on bootstraps to this group of girls. So he said to the instructing sergeant – “if I do this right, on the next time round, will you yell out the window to the girl in blue – only write to Noel – he’s a good bloke!”
I don’t know what happened then but Noel married the ‘girl in blue’.
This collection of oral histories is a truly valuable insight into the many experiences of World War 2. It includes the stories of bomber pilots, gunners and aircrew, merchant navy men, deserters court-martialled (experienced desert fighters disobeying an inexperienced officer’s order that would have got them killed), commandos, infantrymen, hospital units, seamen on HMAS Shropshire and HMS Ulster, female gunners (Searchlight Unit) and clerks in the RAAF, anti-tank units, troop carriers, radar technicians on HMAS Sydney, and more.
I’d like to thank Kevin Dixon for his sensitive and intelligent prompts throughout the histories, and all of the participants for a completely invaluable record of a time and place we can never know, apart from through your words.
This is an extraordinary resource for anyone wanting to understand the lives and language of other times at war. Thank you Kevin and Twin Towers RSL.
Go hard, writers and researchers – because I know you respect.
We had an extraordinary night on Friday past – the public showing of My Father’s Wars – the theatre production.
An audience of students, teachers, stakeholders and friends.
The final stage of a journey through different mediums, different conceptions, responding to different audiences and levels of access. And creating different futures for the work – digital and live, in schools, community centres, perhaps RSLs, aged care homes.
Some feedback suggested this might speak to young and old audiences – 16yo HALO players – and 70 year old Vietnam veterans and their families…
The last week has been ridiculous: manoeuvring through the suddenly changed COVID requirements on public performances, keeping an eye on news posts, printing off new checklists and signage, Plans C and D, ironing, speed runs, sugar hits from chocolate and cheese cakes; recording some of the Ed videos – “I’ll tell them to be quiet,” says Barb Lowing of the chatty off-stage cast – and God help them if she arrived as her alter-egos, ‘Trish’ or ‘Aunty Muriel’!… you’re caught between hysterical laughter or sphincter-clenching fear!
But then it was about the story…
And the storm – can you believe the fricking, thundering storm that hammered down, on cue, and was taken as SFX by half the audience – even though the actors suddenly increased their projection by 50%!
So, a huge thank-you to the company for the love, hard work, giggles, curries, burritos, cakes, and commitment.
Thanks to Yeronga SHS for their welcome and their fabulous students and staff.
Thanks to family and friends who have ferried, and graphically designed, and hosted and fed us and shopped, and those who advised, and dealt with somewhat frayed tempers and reminded us that it’s not brain surgery – no-one’s going to die…
My Father’s Wars has been supported by the Queensland Government through Arts Queensland. It has also been supported by the State Library of Queensland through the QANZAC 100 Fellowships, and, previously, by the Queensland Performing Arts Centre and the Tivoli.
My Father’s War is based on a mixture of my personal memories of Dad and the personal stories and reports of young men who slogged through the mud and blood of Flanders.
So, I have been thinking about the value of first-hand accounts. Given the vagaries, limits and intentional leanings of our personal memory, and the impact of the passage of time, how can they be trusted?
And yet, our memories are the matrix through which everything is filtered.
The child begets the adult.
So, given that we must accept that personal stories may not be absolutely factual, why give them value?
This is from Liddle and Richardson’s Voices from the Past –
“…By introducing new evidence from the underside, by shifting the focus and opening new areas of inquiry, by challenging some of the assumptions and accepted judgements of historians, by bringing recognition to substantial groups of people who had been ignored, a cumulative process of transformation is set in motion. The scope of historical writing itself is enlarged and enriched; and at the same time its social message changes. History becomes, to put it simply, more democratic. The chronicle of kings has taken into its concern the life experience of ordinary people…”
My dad was one of ten kids; the son of a builder’s labourer who grew up in Ganges St, West End.
The most formative experience of his life was serving on the Western Front in 1917/18. That shaped his every idea, every attitude and deeply-held belief, for the next 60 ears.
And our lives, because of that.
So, what happened there?
What events from so long ago shaped my childhood?
I’m actually finding that out as we go.
Seeing my family’s history come to life in a story that speaks to every family who has ever had someone in a war.
A friend and supporter,Taryn, heard one of the first readings and said she was ‘so moved’ by it. She really wanted it to be heard by high school students. The fabulous Russian-Australian acro trainer who worked on the development, Aliya Abisheva, told me that the story made her wish she had spoken to her grandfather about ‘a box of precious things’ that he kept from the war. He had been in the Soviet Army in WW2 and she now wondered what that was like for him.
“… Leaving aside for a moment the question of sheer weight of evidence pointing in this or that direction, the value of an individual recording… should never be dismissed. …(P)recise dating can be a problem… (For example), Brigadier F.P.Roe (Lieutenant,6th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment)…produced a fine tape-recorded account of being gassed at the Second Battle of Ypres, April-May 1915, but it would be extremely difficult to ascertain whether he was gassed on the famous first day, or during one of the subsidiary actions, as the Germans continued to gas throughout the month of May…The matter might or might not be cleared up by reference to war diaries… but this, in a sense, is missing the point, since the value of his recording lies not in its technical accuracy but in the nature of the experience as Roe described it, visually, physically, mentally:
“… It came like a thick yellow cloud. The sun turned an extraordinary mauve purple. The gas made us violently sick, it led to tears streaming down our faces, it deprived us completely of any appetite, and we had no idea whatever of what the nature of the gas was…”
(And of course, there were gases that disabled, and gases that eventually killed. Shredded a man’s lungs. I’ve used that very account in the play.)
And in the end, isn’t that what theatre does, on the most basic level? We tell each other our stories.
This project is supported by the Queensland Government through Arts Queensland, and has been supported by the Queensland Performing Arts Centre and the Tivoli, and also through the QANZAC 100 Fellowship Program run by State Library of Queensland.
This is very much a personal reflection by Elaine on this process.
The road to this podcast has been exhilarating, exasperating, depressing, funny, and disturbing. And exhausting.
I have re-learned to navigate space in my house – stepping over cable and around the corners of side tables set up as mobile recording surfaces. (NB, friends, I’m not good in small spaces – I bump things. Usually my elbow or my knee, which is not great – but now I could be bumping sound gear, some of which have component parts that are microns thick – and whilst I can record with a bung knee, I can’t record with a bung mic).
I’ve been driven mad by a persistent crackle in the recording – despite checking cable, unkinking and uncoiling, turning off every electrical implement in the house – including the fridge (that was nearly a disaster), asking people downstairs to keep the ceiling fan off as it vibrates up through the floor, in mid-summer, with the air-con off, closing all doors and windows so the sounds of assorted birdlife, train arrivals, heavy truck traffic from the Cross River Rail groundworks, doesn’t impinge on what should be a police interview room in 1944 Brisbane!
And, having swapped out every element in the recording journey of a voice – the mic, the cable, the sound card/interface (including swapping every input channel), the laptop – and ports on the laptop – in every possible configuration, that crackle persisted, to a greater or lesser degree, until last week.
It was twofold. It was the mic – which was away for repair for nearly 4 weeks – an XLR connection and some grubs that needed tightening (I don’t know what grubs are, but I’m glad they got tightened!)
AND it was the port in my laptop. I’m left-handed and automatically use the left-hand side ports on the laptop… so they’ve been heavily worked – whereas the right-hand side ports are pristine – as if new… and when I connected the sound interface using them – blissful silence.
I think the universe is taking the piss out of the newbie, actually.
It forced me to push out beyond what I was comfortable doing.
It meant I had conversations with unexpected people, who turned out to be professionally adept in this and happy to help.
It made me listen, intently. Yes, there are still issues, but I can hear them now.
It forced me to think about extending my community, and my contacts within that. I’m quite a reserved person in many respects. Not shy, exactly, but a happy introvert. And learning the difference between starting a conversation that may benefit both sides – and asking for a favour – that has taken me a very long time.
So, this recording is the beginning of another kind of creative life, I think. There’s still recording and editing to do – but we’re getting there.
Thanks to all my unexpected aiders: Connor Arthur; thanks, Chrissi Theodosiou at SLQ; thanks, Greg, Chris and the DJ Manny staff; thanks, Hanlon Innocent, Liam Head, Josh Bull, Liz Ball and Liam Wallis; thanks, Dr Anastasia Dukova; and thanks, Guy Webster, Shaun Charles, Fin O’Donnell and Nicholas O’Donnell…
The Reid Thorpe Files is supported by the Queensland Government, though Arts Queensland.
Here’s a small video that will give you an idea of the stories the podcast covers…
The thing that happens to everyone. But more so than ever in the COVID-19 Epoque.
So here I am in hotel isolation – splendid isolation –? With hotel issue sheets and towels and soap and tea. Real coffee – in bean form! – sent by a miraculous friend, plus a grinder, plus a French press, plus chocolate, plus a book about angels and a USB containing some cinematic gems. Mingled thoughts and feelings. Separated still from my family and yet conscious of my great good luck – the splendid isolation for which I actually long, so hard to attain, and, simultaneously, the singular frustration in my utter lack of agency. And yet, I can create here, I can record here, I can think here without interruption. And it’s very strange that this is what I invoked.
It’s a very strange thing to wish for connection and simultaneously to wish for disconnection. I actually think that this is what the writer craves and dreads all the time. The writer wants the space, the isolation, the lack of interruption, and also maybe? Dreads it?
Here I am in the city I don’t feel an affiliation for and yet I feel a connection to; that I am not drawn to however I am frequently drawn by other things, and I am reminded of why I am writing this piece. It’s about articulating that separation, not only from this place but from the world at large, and how my juxtaposition with this place throws that into sharp relief. The blogging/vlogging allows me to unwrap, unpeel the process for myself. When I hit a roadblock – and that is generally a fear of starting – I have to push myself to the point where I actually start, and only then something starts to happen. It’s a recognition that, a bit like acting, if you get in the way, you’re the roadblock. And you just have to proceed as if none of that white noise was happening. You literally have to stick your fingers in your ears and go La La La while you are listening to another kind of music.
And then your own music starts to manifest. The best moments are those where you’re scrambling through the rubble, trying to form ideas and link themes, and then you suddenly burst through and the water gushes out of the pipe and a bunch of stuff pours out. As if by magic. You will no doubt go back and revise – and actually, this is where I am now, having written multiple “portions” – but there’s something in letting that pipe unblock, the feeling of that release and flow that tells you you’re on the right track. And then the work is about going back and re-structuring those outpourings. But you have to do the unexpurgated, unedited, unjudged outpouring first before you can analyse, edit, reconstruct, trawl through your research, rediscover the bits that are relevant and the bits that don’t create the picture. Nicolazzo‘s direction and notes help me invaluably – he will see what I’ve written, understand what works theatrically, what is mired in history, stuck in the factual, what is actually just research, and that will drive him to the place where he then says, now think about place, think about the things that surround you, the events, the actual retelling of the events, and bring those to life, bring the story into the present. This is what great collaboration means. How lucky am I to have it!
I will put the link to the concluding blog up in a couple of hours.
….a melancholy mood in the latter part of the day. It was a cold morning – bright, but not encouraging me to spring from my bed. And besides, I was luxuriating in the freedom stretching before me, after a long, intense, physically and spiritually demanding day at work. In gaol. Fending off attacks, orchestrating violence, bribing authority figures… you know how it is. I was looking forward to a day of leisurely and yet industrious autonomy. To read (Jill Soloway, but more of them later)… to partake in an online Pilates class (de rigeur in these days of closed gyms – a brief visit in the window of non-lockdown was like attending a crime scene, so much hazard tape wound around forbidden areas and fitness objects)… to stroll to a local coffee haunt (for takeaway, natch)… to drink it on a favourite log near an expanse of green (and thwarted because the area, like so many, was “temporarily closed”, COVID style)…to record some children’s books for the Debney Meadows Story Time group (the kids in the “infamous” police-guarded-lockdown, no longer able to have stories read to them in person by visiting narrators, so one of my glorious big-hearted work colleagues dreamt up the Vimeo alternative).
I did all of these. But…all with slightly leaden metaphorical feet. Not sure what it is – the continually high numbers and the threat of more stringent restrictions. Don’t misunderstand – I will do whatever it takes in compliance with regulations and measures taken to do battle with COVID19. I am enormously impressed with our state leader’s grace, patience and daily deliverance of horrifying statistics in a calm and continually ameliorative manner. He never succumbs to petty politicking or responding in kind to snarly jibes. It’s just … the ominous nature of this COVID cloud. Its in-our-pores, in-our-minds presence.
Jill Soloway (Transparent, see earlier) inspired me this morning. In “She Wants It”, they talk about writing and blocking scenes in terms of motivation. Really, superobjective. In terms I understand. What does this character want? Need? What are they doing to get what they want/need? And beats, and how change in beats shifts the action, advances it. Stanislavskian stuff.
And from that, I started asking myself the question, how do the arms – of all the small rough creations/critters I’ve fashioned – how do these little arms link and create a bridge in space as they float out of the space capsule into the unknown?
I have written. This blog, for instance. And last weekend I created two pieces of the puzzle. They still look like bits of sky or lawn (you know, those bits that you know belong but, which bit of sky? Which bit of green? Upside down or lengthways?) The pieces concerned, specifically, 1) a brazen pirate queen and 2) the sexual beings we are as children, adolescents, young humans. How discovery leads to seeking more, to that adventure, that teetering into space, floating tinglingly in the unknown.
And I’m writing more this weekend. I know this, because I’ve scheduled it. Set aside time. I will sit on my green ottoman close to a big picture window and feel like I’m outside while I’m inside. And I’ll do some puzzle arrangement. Stretch out the little arms and see if I can get the fingers to touch. Maybe even hold hands.
Am I mixing metaphors, or just mixing?
AoE: Jen and I emailed after her blog – I was suggesting (small) edits -and thought I was helpfully assisting with clarity of the idea. That exchange developed into a questioning of what kind of writer you (people) might be…
It was a terrific and affirmative exchange of words and ideas – as creatives usually do (not always, as can sometimes happen)… very unfiltered; thoughts off the tops of our heads; things from the heart…
and we’ll put it up in a week or so. Because it moves the process on so clearly.
(JV is a fabulous actor and singer – and now, a writer. She has written before, of course, just now is the time to focus on the craft)
I have made so many things in the last weeks. I have stripped (multiple times), scrubbed, wire brushed, sanded, etched and then repainted my balcony. Then, having at last understood what furniture I needed to have, I ordered that. I built it. I put little protective rubber soles on its little wooden feet and put it out there, on the newly teal-coloured, softly glowing balcony, to fend for itself. I constructed my hardware cabinet, in my favourite green, surrounding myself with that beloved, nurturing, creativity-inspiring colour. I packed everything neatly into it, clearing away all evidence of my stripping, scrubbing, brushing, sanding, etching, painting behaviours, in preparation for the great creative tsunami that was sure to hit me. I removed the old caulking from around my kitchen sink (it’s a two day job if you’ve never done it before, I’m telling you now, pulling out the old stuff is the hard bit) and then re-caulked. Not only did I recaulk, I filled, sanded, painted and then re-caulked on something that will, like as not, end up on the scrapheap. But at least it’s holding my sink together…. and I still haven’t written the next bit of my piece-of-theatre work…. which is likely to have an outing at TheatreWorks in the early part of next year. If I ever write it.
I do want, very much, to write it. I have written, already, fragments. Bones, heart, skin. It’s been curled up inside me for a while.
I want it to touch, intrigue, fire, resonate. It will be a tale. Of me and of the world. Of sex and suits of armour. Of human identity quests, the allure – and threat – they carry. Of rage. Of triumph. And green. Lots of green.
My terror of getting it wrong, or not finding any creativity, or sitting blankly in front of a screen is ultimately enormously productive…..productive in terms of manual labour. The process of writing is fraught, fraught enough to make me go in an entirely different direction. Namely, DIY.
when I start to do it, to actually let the thoughts come, it’s enormously satisfying and then sometimes another tsunami occurs and the floodgates open and suddenly there’s a piece in front of me and of course it’s going to need honing and I will send it to my favourite director to garner his opinion but suddenly, there is Something There. So. Let’s get started.
There will be song. There will be stories. There will be swords. Some purple. And green. Lots of green.
Last Friday, I drove down MacArthur Ave along the Hamilton reach of the Brisbane River – past the cruise terminal and Northshore’s tower blocks and residences, past Flipside Circus’s cavernous storage shed on the left there and Flipside’s pop-up circus centre being constructed on the right – to the Northshore Hamilton Playground. Beside the river, tree-ringed, slides and climbing frames at one end, and an open grassy space in the middle.
And in the middle of that grassy space, lolling about as they had just finished training, were the Dogs in the Schoolyard. (Well, some of them are birds in the show, but never mind!)
Putting a shopping bag full of snickers, caramello koalas, snakes, party mix, kool mints and Shapes in the middle of the troupe, I got a lot of Hellos! Yep – it’s a Pavlovian response – if I appear, they know there’s sugar somewhere.
It was wonderful to see these fabulously talented, hard-working young performers who do things at 9, 12, 15 years of age that astound me. Rob Kronk, Flipside CEO, told me that circus is a vocation, and it is. There are 9 year olds learning flying trapeze, 12 year olds who are professional trampoliners – just gobsmackingly gifted. And they are dealing with narrative in this story beautifully. The idea of a world of dog children going to school and having all those young child experiences – making friends, joining a group, being excluded from a group, group dynamics, finding your place and learning to value yourself – they absolutely got the idea that a pack of young dogs and pups was the perfect metaphor for this story.
We started rehearsals for Dogs in the Schoolyard in February this year. One of my favourite things was to watch the catch-a-bird game – where the dogs had to try to catch one of the birds, pull them over the ‘safe’ line – and the birds teased and teased those pooches rabid – the dogs were literally leaping off hands and knees, barking, and snarling – and, honestly, when they finally got a bird, I thought they’d eat her!… as well as tumbles, acro, runs, towers, banq-ing (yes, you say it like ‘bonking’) and so much else I can’t name.
Then Corona virus.
Then WHO declared a global pandemic.
Then lock-down and self-isolation. Theatres closed. Toilet paper disappeared from the shops, along with manners. Work from home. Online schooling. One solo exercise session per day. No rehearsal.
And no show in May/June for the Out of the Box Festival.
Talk about this Elephant diving head first into mud in frustration.
But Flipside’s motto is ‘Unthink the Impossible’. And Qpac are big believers. And one of the first shows they wanted to re-schedule was the Dogs. We were tentatively booked in to the Cremorne Theatre for the first two weeks of November – and, so, last, Friday I drove over to the Northshore Hamilton Playground with a shopping bag of sugar for the first troupe meet-up…
But now – Melbourne’s in lock-down, and borders are closed to Victoria. There are regional Vic hotspots and one pub in western Sydney is now like some kind of creeping vine…
And we are waiting to hear about November, waiting to see if it’s confirmed. We’ll know next week. Keep your fingers crossed – but Rob and I already know – this year or next, the Dogs will be woofing and climbing and stalking and tumbling, and creating havoc and howling at the moon.
Update 2– 22 July 2020
We heard from Qpac yesterday. The dogs in the schoolyard will not be woofing and wagging across the Cremorne stage in November. They will, in the future, just not in November of this year. It will happen – there are a couple of possibilities… and there’s a fabulous rowdy dog pack straining at the leash, and the most beautiful aerial birds, and a gobsmacking tree, courtesy of Josh McIntosh – there’s a world already made. Get ready to come see.
My Father’s Wars began life as research at State Library of Queensland (SLQ) –
Then became the audio doco-drama podcast series of that name –
Then became the live read of the adapted podcast scripts – My Father’s Wars, the live read, which the actors and I read at a variety of different events in 2017 and 2018 – SLQ Anzac Centenary events, history symposiums, ‘find your soldier’ workshops, GLAM events…
People kept coming up to speak with us afterwards. Our wonderful actors, Barb Lowing, Zac Boulton, Will Kelly, kept saying this has legs – people want to engage with this story. It’s their story, they feel it’s their family’s story.
And now there’s interest in the story as live performance…
So, Assembly of Elephants is developing the podcast scripts for live performance – a 45 minute show for 3 actors with almost no technical requirements.
We have Arts Queensland funding for a 2 week creative development after Easter – thank you QASP!
It could go to schools, it could go to community centres. I would love it to go to aged care homes…
In fact, if a performance could gather together our youngest and oldest Australians to engage with the story of the ANZACs –
not only as a symbol of national pride –
but as a universal story of comradeship, and loyalty,
of courage and fear,
of loss and sacrifice by ordinary men and women –
a story that is common to the planet, to every country experiencing conflict
and every family trying to find a way through that, a way home to each other –
that would be the best thing I could imagine.
The creative development of My Father’s Wars, as I found them… is supported by the Queensland Government, through Arts Queensland. My Father’s Wars was originally funded by QANZAC 100: Memories for a New Generation, a project proudly supported by the Queensland Government and State Library of Queensland.
The photo of an Anzac carrying his wounded mate is found here:
And the dogs are out! Someone let them out – who let the dogs out? (yuuuk…yuk-yuk!) I have been watching the Flipside troupe practice skills – jumping, leaping, rolling, springing, cartwheeling – but these aren’t adequate descriptions of what these performers do…
They climb up each other – 2, 3 people high, they backward leap out of headstands, they run – side-ways – and rotate in a complete circle, mid-air, before landing in a crouch, head up, ears pricked, eyes laser-beaming to the birds… on the floor… the prey, right there…
And the birds – they are up a tissu all the time – Sam, one bird, had little do on Thursday last week after warm-up, skills and training – and so – in her regular day clothes, she simply started working on a Chinese pole. This is the pole that has abrasive strips allowing it to be climbed by circus performers with courage, strength and ok sneakers!… I watched this young performer practice her bird skills on pole – and her jeans develop long smears of black along her inside thighs – I’m so sorry, Sam’s mum!
There is going to be so much more washing with this show.
Right now, my job is to remind these young performers of their dog-ness. We play hunt stuff – and I yell – crouch! Slink! Creep! Hackle! (or I will on Tuesday…)
There were individual dogs in the troupe last year during the development at the Judy and my job is to re-find those dogs now. There’s a friendly dog who slung a leg over an audience member and licked a face… There’s a yappy dog, who tried to herd the audience… There’s a happy dog who bounded along the front row, licking any hand they could reach… A bossy dog – who called them all to school… A big dog named Sumo who scares people…
Rob (Dogs director) set me a challenge for the beginning of the circus rehearsal – the story in 10 pages… a scene a page.
It didn’t quite work out that way – some of my scenes had 3 pages attached…
But this is the process with circus. And these circus people, right here, are now adapting to a strong narrative – and, perhaps, more linear than they have worked before.
So, this isn’t the regular ‘blogs check-in’ with developments, really.
I think they are going great. I just hope they think they’re going great, as well…
I’m an effing writer… Why did I ever think I could draw?
“Drawing is the honesty of the art. There is no possibility of cheating. It is either good or bad.”
I can’t draw. But in the last 3 or 4 weeks I have been drawing a lot – I have had to draw.
And yes, “it is either good or bad.”
So, I have sought further inspiration from brilliant artists –
“Lose your inhibitions about drawing and just do it.”
Chris Riddell, UK Children’s Laureate
That’s him at the end…
So, I did.
And after multiple tries – it is still “either good or bad”!
But I have to do it. It has to happen because I can’t just ‘write’ this work.
(Interestingly, I came across the words of Marjane Satrapi, the graphic novelist and director: “The first writing of the human being was drawing, not writing.” I would say the first story-telling of any kind was with the voice but – okay – we’re talking about making marks, about telling stories when we are not personally there to say the words or make the sounds or actions…)
So, having digressed, why do I have to effing draw? Why can’t I just write this work?
Second half of last year I was working with the glorious, happy, nervous, honest, uncluttered, somewhat injured, ever-so-slightly-worried-and-wondering-but-always-marvellous Flipside Circus performance troupe. Roughly 7 – 16 years of age and completely in love with circus. And, of course, there’s been Rob Kronk (Flipside AD) as dramaturg, and Davey and Aliya and other fantastic trainers all in the mix.
We were developing the language for a concept I took to Flipside in 2017 – a pack of young dog-children in a schoolyard – the pack dynamic allowing an exploration of all of the things that mark, for good or ill, our young primary kids’ experience these days – friendship, rivalry and comparisons, self-valuing, bullying, inclusion and exclusion from the tribe – the pack.
On the floor we’ve been melding and mixing up, fooling around with circus lazzi, a bit of physical theatre, mime, some words (but not many), song, dog sounds, generally expressive sounds, the sounds of the natural world … there’s a rich substrate to draw from in the upcoming creative development at the Judith Wright Centre in May and June.
But, of course, the best use of that development will come from having a script to explore – pursue, ditch, whatever.
But this script has to be a bit like a storybook, and a bit like a storyboard, and sometimes written as if we’re speaking with 7 year-olds – and also written to convey meaning and information to theatre and circus professionals.
So, I’m faced with ‘writing’ things that aren’t generally ‘written’ – for a whole bunch of different readers who don’t usually read scripts.
“Drawing is putting a line (a)round an idea.”
Yes. Simple. Brilliant.
That gave me such hope. I loved that idea. It took the pressure off my performance and put the focus of the work back on the ideas to be conveyed.
But on a bad drawing day for me, I felt I’d failed everything – the work, the Flipsiders, my ability to speak coherently about the idea…
So I found this:
“Learning to draw is really a matter of learning to see… “
I had never learnt to see in this way.
And then I found:
“Drawing is the artist’s most spontaneous expression, a species of writing…”
Drawing is an artist’s basic syllabus, his/her writing. My shit. Perhaps I could try again. So I did. And it’s still not good – but it’s clearer, fuller. There actually is something about doing it for 4 weeks. You do get better. Because you keep going, keep doing.
“…it is only by drawing often, drawing everything, drawing incessantly, that one fine day you discover, to your surprise, that you have rendered something in its true character.”
I can’t draw. But I am starting to see differently.
Can’t wait to get it all in the space. That’s a different seeing, again.