There is an old show business joke commonly told about actors but no less applicable to playwrights: What are the five stages of a career?
- Who is (insert name here)?
- Get me (insert name here)
- Get me a young (insert name here)
- Get me a (insert name here) type
- Who is (insert name here)?
This vicious circle of a theatre career mirrors the five stages in the circle of life:
- Birth and Infancy
How do these rites of passage apply to the life of a playwright? How do you graduate from “Who is (insert name here)?” Is it worth the toil for one moment of professional glory i.e. “Get me (insert name here)”? And why even bother when you’re only going to finish where you started?
- Birth and Infancy
This nascent stage in the playwright’s evolution is when your parents’ pay for you to see the work of major theatre companies and you emerge afterwards, convinced you will never scale such lofty heights; it’s when you gush at the boundless talent in the spotlight. The dream is born. The world of theatre is magical. The foyer is an exotic party that you have gatecrashed. Your baby-faced innocence charms venerable industry stalwarts, who in turn, offer you the professional equivalent of “kootchi kootchi koo”.
This is the stage when you marvel at, and mimic, that which has gone before; when you encounter starkly different works from the canon – Eugene O’Neill’s ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’, a play forged by the writer’s bitter personal experience, and conversely, Eugène Ionesco’s ‘Rhinoceros’, a creation of the imagination1. As an embryonic playwright, you wonder if one modus operandi is more valid than the other. You also wonder whether you need to change your name to Eugene.
1Footnote: I have not researched this particular point (or indeed any subsequent points). It is quite possible that Ionesco grew up in a French provincial town genuinely beset by the phenomenon of inhabitants transmogrifying into stampeding rhinoceros.
Subconsciously, you are drawn towards the writing style that speaks to you. If the inherent and incendiary drama of O’Neill’s family upbringing is absent from your own then you may steer away from naturalism and gravitate towards Ionesco’s absurdism2.
2Footnote: In my anodyne suburban childhood I recall a seminal instance of high drama when a fierce family argument erupted over which brand of VCR we should buy: Beta or VHS? Surprisingly I am yet to turn this memory into a searing stage classic.
At this point, you commit your first rudimentary attempts to the page. It’s when you rather artlessly overreach while endeavouring to capture something extraordinary from what you secretly fear is ordinary.
Years later your first play will become, courtesy of curriculum vitae revisionism, a work whose existence you vehemently deny (although this mistakenly implies it was even remotely memorable). The-Play-That-Dare-Not-Speak-Its-Name will be staged in a fringe venue for an audience almost exclusively consisting of dutiful family and friends. On reflection, this venture will seem akin to entering the Tour de France with training wheels.
This callow stage is when you pay to see the work of major theatre companies and emerge utterly convinced of their ineptitude; when you pour unremitting scorn on the rampantly untalented, unworthy, so-called professionals impeding your God-given birthright to dominate the spotlight. The dream is experiencing growing pains. The world of theatre is someone else’s lie. The foyer is one of your parents’ tragic costume parties. Your gawky arrogance amuses and infuriates venerable industry stalwarts who don’t really understand your newfangled ways.
The ignominy of childish beginnings is replaced with a zealous and insolent belief that you are the saviour theatre has been waiting for. It’s when you start to write plays whose existence you intend to acknowledge in future. While they will be substantially rewritten to submerge the guileless pastiche of influences, you feel like you are starting to discover your own territory.
Passion, idealism and – best of all – blissful ignorance, fuel these audacious plays. And they take you from being “Who is (insert name here)?” to “Who is this (insert name here)?” It is a small but significant step. You are on the threshold of being referred to as ‘an emerging playwright’3.
3Footnote: I have been ‘an emerging playwright’ for over 10 years now. Presumably this emergence is from obscurity. I am not sure how much longer I will be emerging before I might graduate to the status of ‘an apparent playwright’. On my deathbed I hope to have fully emerged.
This is the stage when your ‘voice’ changes; when between humiliating croaks and squeaks you find a deeper, resonant and authoritative voice. It is the equivalent of answering the telephone as a teenager and your voice being momentarily confused with your father’s. Critics, dramaturges and literary managers begin to compare your writing to that of famous playwrights. The intent is part encouragement, part putting you in your place and part covering for the unlikely possibility you become famous, at which point they can claim to have discovered you.
This is the stage when you first put ‘playwright’ under occupation on your international arrival card but fully expect the customs officer at the airport to set the dogs on you for lying.
This is the stage when you ‘ascend’ from the fringe to have your first professional production and naively feel that this step is entirely overdue, only to realise years later that it was probably premature.
This sagacious4 stage is when you receive free tickets to see the work of major theatre companies and emerge generously diplomatic in the hope that your own work will be programmed; when you offer excuses for the failures you have just witnessed because they were committed by peers and, besides, you will rely heavily upon their munificence when your play has its turn in the spotlight. The dream has become bloated and comfortable. The world of theatre feels pragmatic. The foyer veers between a New Year’s Eve party and a school reunion. Your waning courage is masked by an increasingly insecure ambition that threatens venerable industry stalwarts.
4Footnote: having acquired acute mental discernment and a keen practical sense, pretentious adjectives such as this sprout into text with increasing regularity.
This is the stage when your plays almost exclusively receive productions with professional companies; when artistic directors demonstrate a degree of faith towards your next project on the basis of a perceived proven track record. This is when you compromise; unconsciously catering for what you imagine to be mainstream tastes, diluting your original intent, second-guessing and homogenising. Having stridently asserted in your overweening youth that you would never succumb to the temptation of profile casting, you now dismiss such Utopianism as being solely borne of the fact that you previously had no choice.
Sadly, it is at this juncture that you encounter the audience member who falls asleep. In fringe theatre you proudly believed the uncompromising nature of your work attracted ravenous, idiosyncratic and edgy audiences. In the plush comfort of mellow mainstream theatre you are faced with the elderly subscriber snoring during what you thought was your masterpiece5. You consider the distinct possibility that in the fringe the audience was only on the edge of their seat because it was so uncomfortable.
5Footnote: My play, MAN THE BALLOON, staged by Melbourne Theatre Company (2001), is an absurd comedy about people randomly and literally bursting. At the end of Act One the elderly audience member beside me flinched, shrieked and inadvertently struck me in reaction to an unexpected pyrotechnic explosion accompanying a character’s demise. I was chuffed that the audience member was so involved. As the house lights came up for interval she apologised and, having no idea I was the playwright, said “I got a fright being woken up so suddenly like that.”
This is the stage when you relish and then become complacent about the privilege of reaching a wider audience; when you thrill to the mainstream production scale, even though the fringe’s low or no budget set designs gave your earlier work a raw immediacy, and demanded invention and imagination. Where once you had an emblematic kitchen sink in a black void, you now have a sterile, fully fitted kitchen on stage. You secretly know that these big-budget sets resemble display rooms at Ikea or Freedom and are inherently un-theatrical.
The day is fast approaching when one of your plays will be produced on a revolving stage, the very thing you pilloried in your ‘adolescence’, decrying it as ‘Microwave Theatre’, where scene transitions resemble watching a TV dinner being reheated.
With the benefit of experience your plays are becoming more substantial, refined and crafted but cracks are appearing: the pressure of expectation, spreading yourself across too many projects because you’re afraid to say ‘no’, the misguided ambition to write the elusive ‘hit’ play, the creeping terror that you are starting to churn out each new work as opposed to feeling the giddy rush of youthful inspiration.
This is the stage when, among your ‘chattering and quaffing’ opening night guests, you overhear the dreaded phrase “I prefer his early work”.
This decrepit stage is when, after scanning the obituaries for colleagues, you flick through the newspaper’s arts pages to see what the major theatre companies are producing; when you bemoan the plays enjoying current favour ahead of your own last-gasp attempts which are now considered, in tone and form, prehistoric throwbacks. The dream is distant and desiccated. The world of theatre feels patronising. The foyer is a depressing wake. You are now a venerable industry stalwart, who casts curmudgeonly judgement on the up-and-coming Turks.
This is the stage when you pray you wrote at least one play that acquired some sort of classic status whereby it will be produced for anniversary purposes or as ‘museum theatre’, and you will be paraded about on opening night as a doddery legend providing quaint and nostalgic entertainment for the upstarts to feel smugly superior towards.
This is the stage when you become that audience member who snores loudly during other people’s plays.
This defunct stage is when major theatre companies dispatch semi-prominent representatives to your funeral to say pleasant things about your life’s work; when the final curtain has been rung down; when your plays, like their author, have reached their unequivocal final draft. The dream is a decomposing memory. The world of theatre is a fading round of applause. The foyer is a windswept cemetery. You are now an occasional amusing anecdote trotted out by venerable industry stalwarts.
This is the stage when a young maverick avant-garde director rediscovers your plays, especially the early fire-in-the-belly ones, and radically reinterprets them for a hungry new audience. Some may say you still speak to them, perhaps even that you were ahead of your time.
It is enough that your voice is heard from beyond the grave and – completing the circle in some small, humble, noble and enduring way – you are born again.
This article reproduced by kind permission of ‘State of the Arts’ magazine, where it first appeared.