Panel 2: Stage – Transcript

Nathan Joe

Renee Liang is a medical researcher and fiction writer. She has done visual arts, film, opera, music, theatreworks, she’s a dramaturg, taught creative writing and done community-based art initiatives. Her most recent work, “The Bone Feeder”, opera, opened at the Auckland Arts Festival in 2018.

And then we have our newbie Marianne, who recently wrote her first ever play.

Marianne Infante

I’m still writing it!

NJ 

Still writing, because we draft as we learn, it’s part of the process.

MI

It’s hard. I didn’t write a bio because I figured I was sick of talking about myself at my own event. But yeah, I won the Best Newcomer Award last year, so yeah, just throwing it in there… But no, I’m just humble to be here, because these are my mentors. I work with one, and I’m sick of her. Nah, let’s please start.

NJ 

I’d like to start off, because I think a perfect way to sort of bridge the previous conversation is: What to you guys is the fundamental difference between writing for or creating for screen versus creating for the stage?

Chye-Ling Huang

Less words. 

RL

There’s a really important part when you put a work onstage, which is the audience. Every night, the work changes because of who’s receiving it. How you make it as what you guys are doing now — you learn with a whole bunch of other people, you’re experiencing it together, you’re also experiencing it for yourself. But it’s not like in film, because the film, when you play it, it’s done. It will not change, ever, now. It will be on a screen, and it will play exactly the same every time. But every night, that play is different. It doesn’t matter if you’ve scripted it. Although sometimes it’s unintentional, as when two of my actors completely rewrote the play as they were doing it because they skipped five scenes and they had to go back and put it together. 

CH

I think what I meant when I said less words was — I’m writing a webseries that has been recently funded and is shooting in May, and it’s an eight-episode fifteen-minute webseries that I kind of want to be like Master of None and The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo if they had a baby. I feel like the arc of the story is just much longer and dramaturgically entirely different, because you’ve got eight mini arcs within a thing, you have to have your cliffhangers, you have to have your audience breaks and all of these are really strict dramaturgical things that you have to pay attention to — whether or not you want to break those rules or you want to go within the confines of what is normally done, which I do, being a fairly new writer for screen. That is fundamentally different to theatre, where I think you’re encouraged to break the form more. If you want to have your narrative in dramaturgical structure, that is a three-act play type vibe, then sure. But with screen I feel it’s different for whatever mode you’re doing, and I’m writing for a web platform, which also informs the work much more heavily. Whereas I feel like two plays that I write could be drastically dramaturgically different. I would probably feel more freedom to fill in those holes once I get in a room with the script, while for screen I’m probably more prescriptive because you can’t get there on the day and be like “Oh, I’m gonna change location, I’m gonna add another actor”, or “I’m gonna make this sequence last fifteen minutes instead of two” because that just won’t work, with time and money and production and everything. It feels less able to shift. 

NJ

When Chye-Ling uses the word “dramaturgy” or “dramaturgically”, I feel like that might be a term that some of the newer playwrights are not familiar with. What’s a succinct way to explain that?

RL 

It’s opening a can of worms! There’s quite a big difference between a writer dramaturg, whose job it is to work with a writer and shape the script. So the dramaturg serves the story, that’s the first thing. But a director dramaturg actually also serves the production and often the shaping of it is really different depending on whether you’re a director dramaturg or a writer dramaturg. Then there’s other dramaturgs as well, there’s academic dramaturgs who tend to view the work as part of a body of genres or ideas and write about it from that point of view, not necessarily with the agreement of the playwright. 

I think it does depend on your background, because a lot of different people can put their hands up and say “I’m a dramaturg”. I think you do have to pick your dramaturg or mentor or script advisor really well. Tagging onto that conversation in the previous session, I think that it’s one thing if you make sure that your story is the one you wanna tell — also make sure that the person that you have advising you on the story is the right fit for both yourself and your story. 

I’ve certainly worked with people in the past that I’ve really looked up to, but part way through that process, I’ve gotten over my excitement that I’m finally working with the person I’ve worshipped, and realised they don’t get me and they definitely don’t get the story. At that stage, sometimes you have to make a hard call. Either you just have to butt heads with them, fight for your characters and say “no, this is what I really want”, or you’re going to have to ask somebody else to help you.

NJ

Just to clarify, when Chye-Ling was referring to the dramaturgy of the webseries versus the stage, she’s referring to the architecture, the shape of it. The obstructions and the limitations with screen are a lot more specific than they are with theatre. I want to ask about what you think the best ways are to learn to write a play or learn to make theatre. What can a young playwright do to, I guess, find out the rules? With film, you can read screenplays very easily, you can watch films very easily. Theatre is a different beast. We don’t have the same accessibility to plays here, and theatre that we can see are at the Basement and Q. There isn’t a huge selection. I mean it’s great in Auckland, but it’s not everything.

Alice Canton 

It’s expensive, it’s not physically accessible and socially it’s not accessible. I think there’s merit in reading scripts, and you can be a member of Playmarket and you can access the plays digitally online, so I definitely recommend doing that. Salesi and the Playmarket team are really great at sending scripts out if you request them. Also, there are digital platforms where you can pay subscriptions online to watch the National Theatre and all sorts of things. Quite great for watching those kinds of fourth-wall realism plays. 

NJ

How did you learn to make theatre, Alice?

AC

I was a ballet kid, so I did dance. I already had kind of an access point to performance as a child, so I was very privileged in that respect. And then I played piano, like every person in this room probably. So music and orchestra and opera. I guess that was my entry point, and then drama or theatre … I guess I was born in a small town where drama was like pantomime, so I wasn’t interested in that as a child. Then accelerate that to spending time in Christchurch and then the Court Theatre which is kind of like ATC was the other spectrum of that and going, “Oh, so those are well-made plays.” And then I think there’s that bit in the middle where I did lots of improv and I went to art school and did a sculpture degree. Between all of those facets, I found theatre. I even tried to study theatre at university, and I didn’t like it because it was quite cerebral and academic — I remember we were studying Commedia, and they were like “We talked about the masks! Let’s talk about them some more! Then let’s look at the mask!” Like, what the actual fuck? Then I went to drama school and all of a sudden it was like, oh this is incredibly practical and there was no sense of theory because you just did stuff and learned on the floor. I think the misconception is that playwriting is a literary form, and I do disagree with that. I think it’s visual — theatre is a visual form? I don’t know. You write a play but then it exists in the third and fourth dimension, and the fourth dimension of time is so crucial. Duration is something that we cannot experience in a flat plane, you have to be inside a work. I just went to Malia Johnson’s Movement of the Human on the weekend. She’s a contemporary dancer, choreographer, look her up. I think she must make theatre thinking about what the sensation is behind an audience member’s head, because it was so surround … I knew she made that work with the back of my head in mind. So I don’t mean to knock the absolute craft that’s essential for playwriting, but I think of theatre-making more as a visual space.

NJ

I guess my input here would be that we’re kind of overlapping the venn diagram of playwriting and theatre-making a bit, but they are amorphous and they do overlap. I would always suggest that if you’re interested in playwriting, you should be interested in theatre-making as a whole. That includes occasionally going to contemporary dance, performance, poetry, because these things feed into each other. That would be my suggestion: Don’t cut yourself off to other supposed mediums.

MI

I think it would also be something to do with the taste, the gauge, of the work you want to create and the work that you respond to. If a lot of your work is toward social change, then you gotta be aware of those conversations, you gotta be out, you gotta be reading the news, watching the news, listening to the radio, talking to people. I think it’s one thing to create another world in your own space, but at the end of the day it is about the audience, the engagement that you’re wanting to seek from your work. My bridge with Alice’s coming to theatre-making or playwriting is that I also came from a very physical angle. I also didn’t want to consider myself a playwright, as a writer — because grammar, I hate it, dealing with so many languages — so the fear of labelling myself as a writer is really daunting. It feels like a title that I have to own and I have to be a good writer and I have to not be colloquial. I have to know how to formally write a funding report: I don’t! I’m a talker, I’m a mover. Before I committed to drama school I was a dancer, and that was my form of storytelling. I could feel things through that medium, and later on, when I expanded the ways I articulate the stories I want to share and put on the floor, I have to physically move it on to the space, and open it up to other people to collaborate on the work, and then the words happen for me. So I don’t think there’s any one way specifically for theatre. It could be a massive clusterfuck. It could be anything. It could turn itself into poetry, or it could be a Movement of the Human at the Town Hall shebang.

CH

The essence of theatre for me anyway is the meeting of all of those things. Like you talked about your collective experience with loads of different influences in your life that all revolved around performance or visual mediums or literary mediums — I think theatre is so satisfying for someone like me, and like all of us obviously, because it combines the love of all of those things into one place for two hours, or twelve hours, or thirty minutes, or however long your work happens to be. I haven’t written dance sequences into my latest work, but Marianne has, and she’s working with a movement choreographer and we’ll run workshops to facilitate that and the making of the play to see if it works, to see if it’s necessary.

MI

Or it doesn’t work.

CH

Or it doesn’t work. There are endless possibilities and you as a writer just have to be aware of what your taste is and what your angle is, what the performance will actually end up looking like, and just write those things in. For example, with Black Tree Bridge, when I had it read at the Auckland Arts Festival a few years ago, people were like um, is this a film, because how are you gonna do her diving down to the bottom of Lake Pupuke and getting tangled in the weeds, and this eel coming past and is like talking to her life? And I’m like, well, I can see it in my head because I have a puppetry background, I’ve seen Singaporean theatre which is really abstract and wild. I’ve had those experiences where I’m like, yes, anything is possible, and I’m gonna write that scene in and I’m not gonna change the scene description to say “It comes down on a pulley! A stick floats past —” No, if I was a director and I got this theatre script I would be like oh my god, this is candy, how am I gonna do this?

RL

I’ve thought of two more things where theatre is different to film, and one is budget. You can do crazy shit, like someone being swallowed up by a sea serpent, and you don’t have to spend a cent on CGI. It’s just like, hey, you guys are in my theatre, that means you as the audience have to believe anything. That’s the audience contract, you have to believe anything that I put onstage that I say is true for that time that we’re together.

NJ

If you earn it.

RL

You have to earn it, absolutely. But you can do it! You can do it with puppetry, you can do it with movement, you can actually just do it with someone speaking. The other sort of difference is page to stage. This is one of the other things that really gets me. Page to stage is short. My first page to stage was six months. Literally, my first play reading to the time it was fully produced onstage with lighting and an audience was six months. It’s now stretched out because I know better and I take more time to develop, my average page to stage is now two to three years. For you guys in film, I hear you’re doing really well if you do five, and ten is kind of pretty good as well sometimes. And that’s why I can do boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. Crazy years, I do three or four plays to stage. They’ve all been in development for much longer than that, but boom, three things in one year.

NJ

Just recently I did a Fringe show, and we did that in like two months. Honestly, wouldn’t recommend it, but it’s possible. If you want to create work and generate work, theatre is a much better platform for that. If you’re just looking for a creative outlet, and you’re not sure which one to do, I would recommend theatre!

RL

Also, as pertains to the previous conversation, you don’t have to convince shitty producers, because there’s no money in theatre producing, so no one’s gonna do it! So you don’t have to convince people that are holding the reins of the budget that actually think they know how to write a story but actually don’t know shit, and they definitely don’t know anything about your story or your culture. You don’t have to convince those people, because they don’t exist! You have to convince yourself and the people that you are collaborating with. And everybody is in there for love. We all know this. I’ve seen loads of people that have made theatre, we all do it for love, and for believing in the work. That’s what we do.

CH

Some people do it for a live CV though. I’ve definitely seen shows where I’m like, this is a live CV. You literally are putting on this show because you want people to hire you for other shows and you don’t care about the show that you’re producing. I’ve seen so many of these shows where I’m like, there is absolutely no reason, like, you don’t even like this play, you just thought you’d look good in 1950s London.

NJ

What’s the thing that you’d love to see more in theatre? What’s that itch that you would love a writer or a maker to scratch?

Alice Canton

For the sector or for my own practice? 

NJ

For yourself!

AC

I would like — fuck — I want a lot of things. 

NJ

What are you hungry to see more of then?

AC

I’m hungry to see… I know what I want to see less of. I want to pass for a moment to collect my thoughts. 

NJ

Hell yeah.

MI

I think for me the shows I like, or would like to see more, are shows that don’t treat me like I’m an idiot — I mean, as an audience. As an actor, I like getting work that has the flexibility and fluidity for it to be bigger than what it is on the page. Let me feel it rather than see it. I think a lot of the experiences were robbing ourselves from just showcasing that and I think that also comes back with me as a writer. That was so beautiful, what i heard earlier, and yeah it’s exposition — like i don’t — some of the things like the language is  a big barrier for me but at the end of the day everything is language. Movement is language, breathing is language. We just have to break those down to the actual essence of what it is that’s in here and what you essentially want to put on stage to get someone else to rip their heart out and have that moment of connection. I think at the end of the day, as a human being, that’s all I look for: connection. The seeking not only for validation, but for love. The breaking of love, the loss of love, the coming together of love. I think that’s what makes humans human. That was deeper than I thought it was going to be.

NJ

I thought that was lovely. 

RL

It’s already happening here, right beside me. New and diverse voices. The more the better. When I first started I actually got my break because I was one of the few people that was actually of this look — that was writing for theatre at the time. So people just came. My writing was quite shit but I still got the audiences. They didn’t necessarily get it but they still came. And now things have changed. Sometimes they still don’t get it but I think that there’s lots of new voices and that’s a win for the audiences to find something to click on to. I love how we all flow between film and TV and theatre and performance and other expressive forms. I think that’s really healthy and I like that people are just saying, “Hey look I’m gonna have a go at telling my story.” And that is to be encouraged. 

The other thing is we’ve got a big brains trust here so we’re now growing an ecosystem where there’speople that have a few years’ more experience than I’ve done and other people are looking down and going “Hey! You look like you’re keen, do you wanna have a coffee? Do you want to come to a workshop? I’m setting up this thing where people meet each other like this.” All those things are great and people are actually taking advantage of them which just means we’re going to grow more and more stories. And we are going to be stronger for it because basically all those — we haven’t talked about it but like the stuff written from a white perspective. That stuff is going to be swept away because we’re making too much of our own stuff, and we’re now going to be in control of it more and that’s what’s going to happen. So that’s what I think particularly for theatre but also for everything else we make. 

MI

Just adding to that, with adding more people to our team — don’t be afraid to ask for help or to ask, “Yo, I actually don’t know how to write my next page number two.” People are so generous because we’re such a small community and we’re also eager to let it grow. Send that Facebook message saying, “Hey I’m having a massive mind blank moment. How do you write?” Just ask rather than smacking yourself with your laptop; that’s not gonna do it. So there were so many people, like these humans here, who will probably even pay for your coffee. And then a year from that you can take them out for a coffee. You know? It’s a give and take. I definitely wouldn’t be here if I didn’t schmooze my way to Chye-Ling. Literally that is it — you have to surround yourself with the people who want to do the mahi you want to do. And surround yourself with the people that will inspire you and motivate you cause if you surround yourself with a bunch of people that also don’t know what the fuck they’re doing with their lives, you’re going to be in the same hole. So surround yourself with powerhouses, with kickass people. That’s my experience, that’s all. I’m just really sick of people wanting to do something but not necessarily doing something about it. 

RL

It does take guts but I think you guys wouldn’t all be here if you hadn’t already said, “Hey, I’m gonna put my hand up and i’m gonna do it.” 

NJ

How about you Chye-Ling?

CH

I think everything’s perfect.. [laughter] Nah, I think we already know what is shit about the landscape. So I’m just preaching to the choir. These forums are great for that kind of thing but then you can talk about that for hours. I think in terms of our own practice, I’d really like to see more, especially for myself included. When I went overseas with Alice, we were on a performing arts tour across four countries in Asia. We take our privilege for granted, and I think that it was a huge turning point. Writing the script, I was going to have a love story in like ’70s Christchurch and there were some neo-Nazis and some crazy drug heists and it was all a little bit of fun and I was like, “Yeah I can really see this being the next big Kiwi Asian explosion. I want to do a big show that’s going to get funding! It’s fun and you’ve got a male Asian in a romantic leading role. It’s ’70s costumes. It’s gonna be fun. It’s gonna be great music!” Then I went on this tour and the amount of restrictions that are placed on people in terms of censorship in places like Singapore, Thailand, and China — which were all the places we went to — it’s ridiculous. But then you go and see the work that the people are making in kinda like the grassroots level and non-commercial sectors. And even people who are working in those centres just trying to make a living and do their side projects. They have found inventive ways to tell political, arresting stories are absolutely necessary for new generations of gay Asians for whom it’s illegal to be in love with each other. Or political climates where people are being censored right and left. All of that stuff which they put on and develop at their own risk — but they’ve found languages in theatre to put it above-board. We are talking about people who their government will send officials to their shows and make sure nothing is being said about them. They still put on the works which are highly political and can be read by the everyday Joe and that are saying to their people, “We’re here, we hear you, don’t stop fighting.” 

All of that stuff that I came back to New Zealand and was like, “What the fuck am I doing?” Look at us. We have so much privilege, it makes me wanna puke. Even as minority voices within New Zealand — I mean, we’re still of an immigrant background. Unless you’re Māori, we’ve got privilege, and especially with the way our government runs. I mean I could make a show called “Fuck the Government” and have an effigy… 

AC

“Fuck Jacinda Arden The Prime Minister of New Zealand”, a play by Chye-Ling. And she would probably come. She would actually come. 

CH

That’s actually a really good title. You should write it.

AC

I think I did actually “Fuck You John Key” as a play. 

CH

But I would like to see more people taking risks of that same ilk, I guess. My thing is talking about sexual taboos and sexual stereotypes, which is scary for me as an Asian practitioner in terms of family and culture and all that kind of stuff. But I think it’s an important conversation and I intend to do more of that with my work so that’s my personal challenge for myself.  

AC

Now I know what I want to say. I think every time I travel I have a frustration with sometimes being in New Zealand, as we all do. As we’re such an island, it means we can innovate — and I’m talking more broadly now — we can innovate but we can also do shit that people overseas were doing like 20 years ago. Especially for those who have the privilege to travel overseas, you can go and see theatre, especially contemporary theatre. It sounds classic, but going to New York and seeing what was happening over there and being like okay, whoa, oh shit. When people were saying to me, like friends that come to New Zealand, they’re like, “Wow that work was great, but it was so ’90s.” I’m like, “What do you mean?” It’s not just the play; it’s the form, the content, the casting, the direction. It is pastiche. So I would like to see us taking — and I think it’s because we are politically quite comfortable and I’m again talking broadly — the stakes of our lives are quite low and we lower them. I feel like the New Zealand way is to lower stakes to make people feel easeful and so our drama is either a terrible melodrama because we’re turning the heat up on like a domestic situation or its a bit boring and nothing happens and then there’s a dead baby twist in the third act. I can name like ten New Zealand plays that do that.

CH

Dead baby plays!

AC

It’s totally a thing, right? So I would like to see, to tautoko what Chye-Ling was saying. People, be brave and bold and not just in content and form. That’s a big one. Don’t just think, “I want to put on a play.” Think: what is the purpose of what I’m trying to say and how can I communicate that to the audience? What is the best vehicle to deliver that? The fourth-wall play is a great vehicle to suspend your beliefs or disbelief, and drama is interesting if it takes place over 50 minutes, but there are other possibilities. We are so smart now cause we could be on our phones, listening to podcasts and then we can be watching Netflix. That’s three different types of media coming in. Then you go into like a theatre and it’s just like one thing. And so our audience is smart especially young people, they’re so smart, they can be on their phones and watching their show and eat at the same time. Or be like texting and talking to someone you know. I think we need to evolve theatre practice cause otherwise we’ll just get left behind. It’s brain draining when we have these really great artists that leave this country because they need to go somewhere they can keep evolving the craft. 

NJ

I mean I would like to say as someone whose more of a play write than a theatre-maker — there is nothing wrong with writing a fourth wall play, especially when you’re starting off, but I guess it’s to challenge yourself as if to go is this story best served in the format of a fourth wall play. When I say that the audience has got to acknowledge in that the story takes place in a usually linear or in real time or —

RL

Film! It’s like film.

NJ

If your play looks like and sounds like a film — is that the best way to tell that story? If it is, then it is. But really challenge yourself and ask yourself, is there a better way? Because there probably is, or there is a way to at least subvert the form you are using. Or surprise us or do something that form hasn’t done before. In a way simply placing people that you’ve never seen onstage in that form might be enough.

MI

I also just want to ask: Who of you guys have gone out to the Fringe Festival? That is great. There’s a lot that happens at Fringe Festival. If you haven’t had the chance to go this year — It’s still going — Make time for it! I think seeing theatre, and seeing the different forms from the dancers to the poets to your classical traditional playwriters, or the people who write on the spot, or does those one-audience shows, where there’s just one person watching the show. Go see those shows, broaden your language of what a form is, if there’s even a form. I think it’s important. And then, if you think that’s still not enough, then the whole Berlin hunger happens and going overseas happens. But it’s just that thing, why would you be so hungry to seek it outside Auckland when you haven’t tapped into what is here first. 

NJ

Let’s do a Q and A, and that includes the remaining people from the screen panel. 

CH

For those who are still here, do you want to come up?

AC

Who is interested in dabbling in theatre but hasn’t really gone in? It was mentioned in the previous panel that with film, it’s coded but there’s a clear way forward and even though Renee said that if you wanted to put on a play, just put it on, theatre in some ways is a lot harder to put on too because you need a venue, you need people. Film is hard too, but the structures and the systems are a lot more clear whereas with theatre it’s not so clear so I just want to put it out there that if you’re writing a play and you want to put it on, you’re probably going to have to find a director or if you direct it yourself, you’re going to have to find people to be in your play. And then once you’ve got those people together you could probably work as a little team but then you have to find a venue to put it on which might be your backyard or you it might be TAPAC. You have to apply to put it on which means applying to a programme or a venue manager and usually they’re programmed a year in advance. 

RL

But not Basement. Basement is programmed 3-4 months before, and BATS is programmed 6-12 weeks in advance.

AC

It is but I would say that if you are wanting to put on a play, especially your first play, and it’s 3 months away, you should work to a 12 week timeline from long leads — which is media engagement — to when you open. So if you’re applying to do a play in 3 months’ time and you haven’t applied yet, you probably shouldn’t put it on in 3 months’ time. I just want to put it out there because often people are like “Oh great, I’ll put on a play” only to realise that it’s real hard. 

RL

I think film is way harder. The barriers of making a film — it depends, you can be one person with a camera and an idea — there are people that do that and you can be a theatre maker like that too.

NJ

I guess the hierarchy is that when we think of something like putting on a Silo or ATC thing that’s like putting on a film equivalent to a film festival versus shooting your own independent documentary or short film with your friends, which is closer to a backyard or site-specific piece. There are comparative points in this film versus theatre difficulty. 

MI

Are there any other questions?

Audience member

When can I know that my play is ready? 

RL

It’s an age-old question. To be honest, I’d say at this table, we don’t know if our play is ready until after opening night when you have an audience reaction. That’s the first test of it, in reality. On the other hand, if you’re talking about a script ready to go into a production and rehearsal process, I think you test your script by trying to get your team together. So if you can get a good director to say, “Yes, I see potential in this script and I want to make this with you”, then you know your script is probably not ready, but your script has enough zizz in it to take it to the next stage. Because the cool thing about a play is actually even after you’ve opened it on opening night, it’s still developing. The difference between opening night and two weeks later when you close is immense. I’m one of those writers who rewrites bits of the play every night. I’m a bit obsessive like that. That does mean that the actors have to be up for it as well. But even after you close, on that first season, the saying is it takes three seasons of a play to make it good to the point where it’s probably ready to publish in a play script for other people to put it on. So it’s a long process, but it’s a very enjoyable process, because you get to play with your friends along the way. That’s what it is. 

Audience member

Do I apply for funding first before I can get a dramaturg or a director, or do I do it at the same time? 

AC

My recommendation if you’re applying for funding is that the strength of your application will be supported if you already have someone you’ve talked to about dramaturg or any of those key roles because often you have to support that with a letter of support, so getting a person to say “Yep, I read the script and I would love to work on this with you, and if you’re successful with your funding I’d love to move forward.” So it’s a bit chicken or egg but you have to approach someone before getting that funding and then apply for the funding. 

Audience member

The hardest thing I found, I remember, when I was making some stuff was a rehearsal space. Finding a cheap rehearsal space is so hard. 

AC

That’s where robust institutions really help. 

RL

I want to say as well that it’s even harder now than it was when we were making stuff. Once you’ve looked, it’s easier the second time now and the third time because you have your allies and your relationships. Just like filmmaking, there are people and institutions and venues you know will be helpful. It’s about asking around and being a good user. Keep your space tidy. Make sure if you agree to put on a play that you actually put on the play. It’s that kind of thing so people will trust you the second or third or fifth time around. 

CH 

I have a question for the audience before we wrap up because I know when I was starting out, there’s a lot of ‘basic bitch’ questions you’re just afraid to ask. Do we have any ‘basic bitch’ questions that you guys want to know? 

MI

What’s an example of a ‘basic bitch’ question? 

CH

An example of the practicalities of how do I come up with an idea? How do you format your script? What do you do when you get writer’s block? 

Audience member 

How do you know when this thing is dead? How do you know when to give up on your idea? 

NJ

When you don’t want to write it anymore. I’ve got scripts where I’m like, “Oh yeah…” 

AC

Talk to someone else about it, and if they see that you’re dead in your eyes… and I’m only saying this because PANNZ is next week, which is the Performing Arts Network of NZ’s Arts Market. It’s a market where festivals buy and sell work. That’s how work travels in Australasia — you go to this market. So I had a one-on-one coaching session and two-thirds of the way through she called me on my shit. She was like, “Are you even into this project anymore?” I was like, “No I’m not.” But it was through talking to her, because I was obviously like [deadpan] “Yeah this is really cool”, so just jam it with someone. Do a 90-second elevator pitch and if you can’t spark joy, let it go.

Audience member

On that question of, “How do you get ideas for your play?” — I’ve only been writing for a month and already I’m always drawing on my own personal experiences for my characters and my storylines. I try to challenge myself, write a character that I’ve never experienced myself, for example. I’m Japanese and a male character. Even just writing a female character I’m struggling because I don’t have personal experience being a female character. Maybe everything I can write can only be sourced from my own personal experiences. So how do I break that barrier? Do I need to start living more of a life? 

RL

I’m going to tell you a thing. I am every single character that I ever wrote. And that includes the old white guys. I am in every character because the audience will call you out on your shit if your character is not real. That is one thing. If you lie to your audience and make a character out of your brain, your audience will know that is a fake character. So you have to put someone that you know into it and the closest person is yourself. You can steal other people and put them into it as well, and I do that frequently, I won’t tell you who. But I do that all the time. I walk around and I see somebody and I’m like, “That’s my character” or “That’s a bit of my character, I’m going to take them and put them in and steal them.” The other is true. If I have to write, say, a Maori character, I totally need to take advice on that. I need to do my research, read, read lots of stuff, talk to people, and get at least one other person to help me but probably lots of people because, like we talked about, the problem with consultancy. The problem with consultancy is if you’re paying lip service it’s never going to work. You have to not only ask someone to help you but listen to them and do what they advise you to do or at least consider doing what they advise you to do. The audience are in the theatre — the belief is that the audience are bright genuine people who are there for a reason. They want ideas and they want truth. Therefore, if you lie to them, they will turn off straightaway. And you cannot do that with your characters and you cannot do that with your story.

CH

I have an alternative for a first-time writer. It took me so long to admit that my plays were about what I care about and my own lived experience and the things that have happened to me in my life that are important to me and important to people that I love. It took me so long to go from like, “No, no I’m just writing these characters, I’m inventing all that stuff.” Admitting that to yourself is really great, that it is going to be about work, especially your first work. It’s going to be about you. Admitting that to yourself is really helpful. I don’t think there’s anything wrong necessarily with your first work being like that because the more plays that I’ve done I think you find facets that are going to be more than what they are just for yourself and expand into their own things, but the jumping-off point is always going to be you and something that you care about. Because otherwise if you’re writing it and have zero joy in it there’s no point. Which is why I think writing as a gun for hire is so hard. I just really struggle doing it. I’m a terrible gun for hire. I think that characters that have an element of truth to you, putting yourself in the shoes of that character, is always a helpful exercise. 

AC

There’s a really great exercise you can do, like a verbatim writing exercise. I was doing this really terrible solo about Hunter S. Thompson so I listened to a lot of Hunter S. Thompson, and you write verbatim the interview stuff of real people so then what you are picking up on — and the most important thing is that you articulate it — you find a way to score how that character speaks. So, if for example, they pause a lot, figure out: is it one of those [mimes a dash], is it one of those [mimes a page break], is it one of those [mimes a dash] but with one of those [mimes parenthesis] around it? And that gets you out of your own verbal patterns. Just chuck something on Youtube. Not constructed narrative but real interviews, real people stuff. If you’re looking for a character and then you find that character of Youtube, it gets you out of your own pattern. 

MI

Thank you so much for coming out at TAPAC. If you want to ask more questions and get in touch with some of these panellists up here, we’re on Facebook, and we have a website: proudlyasiantheatre.com

Panel 2: Stage

In the second panel, Renee Liang, Alice Canton, Chye-Ling Huang, Marianne Infante, and Nathan Joe offered their advice on writing for theatre and the stage. 

Photos by John Rata


Differences between theatre and the screen

Renee pointed out the role of the audience and how the work changes each time it’s performed, sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally where the actors make mistakes or make different changes. Where film remains unchanged, theatre is dynamic. 

That goes to the production process prior to performance too. Chye-Ling compared theatre to a webseries she’s been writing. For her, the form of theatre invites more experimentation and rule-breaking than the screen does. It encourages writers to move beyond three-act structures and traditional narrative arcs. The dramaturgy — or the shape, the architecture — of the screen has more limitations. 

Alice made an important distinction between playwriting and theatre-making, with the latter being the creation of a visual space as opposed to the written word. In her view, playwriting is not a literary form. Plays exist in multiple dimensions, in space and in time. Theatre-making would include a whole range of other forms like dance, performance, poetry. 

 

What’s missing in the theatre scene

The panel had an insightful and in-depth discussion about what they were hungry to see from theatre. The answers ranged from wanting more new and diverse voices to seeing movement as language to recognising our privilege in New Zealand raising the stakes for new work. Don’t be afraid to take risks and make people uncomfortable. Figure out the purpose of what you want to say and figure out the best way to deliver it in a way that isn’t just the fourth-wall, three-act play. 

 

Industry advice

It’s hard to know how to put on a play. The panel offered advice around funding, getting people on board to build confidence in the project, and how to get help from institutions on really practical matters such as finding a rehearsal space. 

 

Writing advice

Audience members put questions to the panel, such as: how do you know when an idea is dead? How do you write characters that are different from your own experiences? 

In answer to the lifelessness of an idea, Alice related a story about how she found herself telling someone about a project and being dead in the eyes when she was talking about it. When you’re not excited about it or you don’t want to write about it anymore, leave it to rest. 

As to writing characters that aren’t yourself, Renee related how she manages to put bits of herself in every character she writes — including old white guys — because that’s how she makes them real. Make sure also that you do research and ask people with experience on those identities. Chye-Ling spoke about how helpful it was to admit that your work is always going to jump off from you or what you care about, while Alice shared a practical writing exercise to write out verbatim the way in which people spoke in interviews to help dislodge your own verbal patterns.

And ask for help! There is a growing ecosystem here, so reach out and ask for advice or a coffee. 

 

Full transcript here

Panel 1: Screenwriting – Transcript

Nathan Joe

Welcome everyone! I am Nathan Joe. I am a playwright/critic. I am very grateful to be here today to facilitate this conversation with these brilliant writers. 

We’re starting with the first half of the evening with screenwriting, these brilliant screenwriters. From left, we have Mingjian Cui, Roseanne Liang, Shuchi Kothari, and Kathryn Burnett.

Mingjian is a Chinese late millennial bilingual filmmaker now based in Auckland. She’s passionate about writing screenplays as well as sound designing for film and television. She’s particularly interested in depicting the life stories of the younger Chinese generation who has lived overseas for years, and the impacts of that kind of cultural experience on them. She has written one semi-biographical feature screenplay and several short stories. Over the past four years, she has gained production experience on over 40 short films in both ATL and BTL positions. 

What’s ATL and BTL stand for? 

Mingjian Cui

“Above the Line” and “Below the Line”. 

Shuchi Kothari

Does everyone know “Above the Line”, “Below the Line”?  For those who don’t, in film when you make budgets, people who are over the line are producers, writers, directors, and talent. And everybody else is under the line. The top of “under the line” usually begins with a Line Producer and then crew, equipment, facilities, deliverables, and so on.

NJ

Thank you for that succinct description. 

Next we have the phenomenal Roseanne who, having a Master of Creative and Performing Arts, Roseanne Liang followed award-winning student films with her documentary “Banana in a Nutshell”. This led to a successful feature film adaptation of the same documentary with glowing reviews: “My Wedding and Other Secrets”. In between “Banana” and “Wedding”, Liang directed, wrote, and edited “Take 3”, which is a very funny short film, which received a special mention in its section at the Berlin Film Festival. In 2013, she teamed with actors JJ Fong, Perlina Lau, and Ally Xue to create comedic web series “Flat3”, which was later invited to web festivals in Melbourne, London, and New York. The trio’s adventures continued via two seasons of FRIDAY NIGHT BITES and one of UNBOXED. In 2017, she directed an action short, “Do No Harm”, about a Chinese surgeon facing off against gangsters just as she’s about to operate. “Do No Harm” was featured at Sundance Film Festival and won several awards, including the Audience Award for Favourite Short at the 2017 New Zealand International Film Festival and a nomination for Best Short Film at Sundance. Iin late 2018, Liang announced she was set to develop and direct the feature length version of “Do No Harm”, produced by the husband and wife filmmaking team, David Leitch and Kelly McCormick — “Deadpool 2” and “Atomic Blonde” for those who are not in the know. She is also set to direct Chloë Grace Moritz in a coming American feature film called “Shadow in the Cloud”. Whew! Credentials.

And Shuchi who is a writer, producer and academic. Born in Ahmedabad, Shuchi studied screenwriting at the University of Texas at Austin. New Zealand has been her home since 1997. She teaches screenwriting at the University of Auckland where she is currently the director of the screen production programme.. Her creative work spans across feature films, short films, television comedy, documentaries, and digital storytelling in health communication. She devised and produced NZ’s first all Asian prime-time television show “A Thousand Apologies” in 2008. And she holds the singular distinction of having two feature films at the Toronto International Film Festival representing two countries. The New Zelanad family drama “Apron Strings” and the Indian film “Firaaq”, the directorial debut of “Fire” star Nandita Das. 

And then we have the lovely Kathryn Burnett, who is an award-winning screenwriter who has worked in the New Zealand television and film industry for over twenty years. She has significant television and film credits and has developed numerous television series for major New Zealand production companies. She’s been nominated for the 2017 Adam Best New Play Award and in 2017 was a co-writer on the two television series, “Cul-de-Sac” and “Fresh Eggs”, and a seed grant recipient. Kathryn also works as a script consultant assessor for NZ on Air, not to mention numerous writers and producers. She regularly runs sell-out workshops at the Auckland Writers’ Festival and was a speaker at the Fourth World Conference of Screenwriters in Berlin. 

First of all, what is, when we say something is an Asian story, because that’s the premise, right? We’re here to talk about ‘New Year, New Writing’ in the context of Fresh Off the Page which is run by Proudly Asian Theatre. So to crack that egg, what is an Asian story, everyone? I’d love to break this down, open this up. It’s a pretty broad question. 

Roseanne Liang

It’s whatever we say it is. 

NJ 

Great.

RL

If we wanna make an action movie with maybe no Asian people in it, if we decide that that’s the movie we wanna make, then that should be an Asian story. Justin Lin, for instance, worked on Fast and Furious — I mean, he started with Better Luck Tomorrow but then moved into Fast and Furious. But he was only able to put one Korean character in Fast and Furious, but that is an Asian story. That’s Justin’s work, I would say.

SK

Or the way Ang Lee made Sense and Sensibility, right? And you know that that is Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, which is different from BBC’s Sense and Sensibility. You can’t help but mediate yourself, interpolate yourself into your writing, into your making. So if you’re an Asian making work, you are in a way making an “Asian story” because who you are is kind of part of what you’re putting on the page or on screen. It doesn’t have to be ostensibly“Asian” it just is. At the same time, if you want to write a story that is deeply located in any of the Asian cultures that you feel you have a say or a stake in, then that’s an Asian story too. It’s dangerous to think about Asianness only as screen representation, or that Asian stories are where Asians are on screen. I think we have to fight for who’s making the story, who’s telling the story. 

NJ

Jumping off that point, have any of you in particular felt the pressure to write a story that would represent the Asian diaspora in a way that isn’t what you actually want to write? To create representation in spite of yourselves? 

SK 

If you have an option, you walk away, right? There’s no point in being pressured into representing the community or a person or a gender in a way that doesn’t make you comfortable because we all know that none of us are in this for the money. If someone’s giving me two million bucks, I’m kind of having a moment here – how much do I want to, you know? But for the five bucks I get paid to do it, the only thing that gives me joy is that it’s the version of the story I want to tell. Sometimes you can fight back against that pressure. But when you can’t, then you walk away. Or I should qualify and say, I walked away. Just once. Just thought it wasn’t worth doing. 

Kathryn Burnett

People are often quite lazy, and I think it’s very easy for people to be boxed. And the pressure you’re talking about I suspect comes under that. Would you guys agree? It’s like, you’re this person so surely you can do this. And I think it’s a really lazy way of viewing the world and art. I’m not really soft and fluffy and romantic, and I’ve lost count of the times when people go, “This would be right up your alley, I’d love for you to write it, it’s a romance” and I’m just like, “I really like sci-fi and comedy”. It’s really funny. I’m just being boxed and it’s because of this business. It’s just hilarious.

MC

I’m really lucky that after graduation I’ve been approached by these two very experienced and talented filmmakers. They asked me to collaborate with them to co-write on a Chinese New Zealand co-production, and it’s a multi-platform project so we have film and a TV series, and we also want to do VR, AR, things like that. But at the beginning, the reason they approached me was that they wanted to create these authentic characters that are basically four Chinese young women. Two of them live in Auckland, and two of them live in China. And they want to make sure that they’re getting the characters right, that they’re getting their voices right. And I don’t know why they think I can write. But I did it and I just feel really lucky that they so respect me. 

SK

Because you’re a very good writer. That’s why you were recommended and that’s why you’re working for them. Just take that compliment and wear it!

RL

But we did say that the people you’re working with do not have that experience of authenticity. They’re asking you, not just because you’re a great writer, but because you have an authentic — you come from — and they’re Pakeha. 

SK 

They came seeking that. That’s good for them to have actually said, “Can you recommend young Chinese women writers that would work on this show?” And I truly appreciate that because it was “write” not “consult”. She didn’t say, “Can you give us young Chinese writers to consult on the show as we write it?” She said, “Can you think of writers who would write this?” And I think this is a very important distinction, and one that we should be very consistently vigilant about. 

RL

It’s really worrisome when cultural consultancy is shorthand for carte blanche. For instance, if you had a Māori advisor on your show, but then it’s carte blanche to do whatever you want because you can say, “I had a Māori advisor.” And I think we have to hold the cultural authenticity and representation really carefully because we’ve all heard that people have come to us for this cultural consultancy, when really they just want someone to validate the script that they’re writing without having any real respect for the representation. 

NJ

Let’s say everyone here is a new writer and they’re all looking for juicy advice. I mean, I know I am. What are the most common pitfalls that you’ve encountered or discovered or seen in other writing when starting out writing a screenplay. Kathryn, you’ve probably been through a lot of this. 

KB

We could do like a day on that. Put it this way: there’s business pitfalls and then there’s creative pitfalls. So which would you like me to discuss, because they’re quite different.

NJ

Let’s go with creative. 

KB

I think the pitfalls creatively, at least for me — perhaps I’ll just talk about things I’ve done wrong because that’s such a massive topic. Sometimes when you’re really new, you don’t trust your own instincts and voice and you — well I did — let people push you around a bit. And sometimes that’s because there’s a hierarchy and that’s your gig and that’s it, and you’re new so you allow yourself to be pushed around. But I think the bigger part of that is just be careful about what you say yes to. Absolutely write your own stuff. That’s very important. As Shuchi was saying, that’s the stuff that will sustain you when you’re working on something that you think is so embarrassing and awful. But it’s that you’ve then got a thing you’re doing on your own which is great. And you can split up the work you’re being paid for — where you’re being a gun for hire for something — and the work that you love. I always think about my work as there’s either money or love involved. And so if a project has neither, then I’m like, “Absolutely not.” Be careful what you say yes to when other people are asking you to work for them. Make sure you like it. I think this is the mistake I really made over and over again because I was a writer and I wanted to make a living as a writer, and I have, but I was so when I was younger so like “I have to keep working” that I said yes to a whole lot of stuff that I so should’ve spending that time going to film school, writing beautiful things I really wanted to write instead of bashing my head against other people just to make a buck. That’s a piece of advice: be careful what you say yes to. 

On the flip side of that is if you get an opportunity to work on something even though you don’t think it’s great and you’re really new. I always like to say to people if you can get a job making coffee on the Shortland Street table, take it. Awful job. Who cares? But when you’re brand new, just any way in is really really good. But once you’ve got in, be careful of what you say yes to because life is quite short and I’ve ended up with a whole bunch of stuff on my CV that I just go, “Oh I’ve got the worst CV in the world.” And it’s not, I have a lot of stuff on there, but it’s really only been — I’m just such a slow learner — it’s taken me ages to start going, “Stop saying yes to the stuff you don’t really believe in and work on things you do really believe in.” I was just talking to Renee about this. We were saying that we’re both in a position to be going, “I just want to work on this because I really like it and because I believe in it.” Which is fantastic. Such a great place to be, as opposed to what I used to be which was I’d just say yes to anything if there was a paycheck in it, which was not a great thing to do. 

My second piece of advice, which is sort of to do with business and to keep your sanity, is invest in a membership with the Writers’ Guild if you haven’t already. They are your best ally in a world that you won’t know. Hweiling, you were just saying to me, “Should there be money?” And I’m going, “Oh, where do I start?” Get wised up. It’s really boring. Tax is boring. Understanding IP is boring. But get yourself sorted on that. Just put yourself in a position where you can’t be exploited, which would be my key for you.

So those are my two quite big bits of advice. Creatively, there’s a fine line between ‘just really believe in your own voice and do what you want to do’ because particularly when you talk about film or TV — theatre to a lesser degree, though certainly in those two — it’s collaborative. You could be brilliant, but at some point there’s going to be a whole bunch of other people you have to work with, and that’s just how it goes. That’s just the way those forms are made. There’s that. It’s a fine line of going, “I listen to my own voice and I’m thinking about it and trusting myself, but I’m just going to tuck that away and learn what I can from working with other people.” Trust your gut. One of the first things I ever worked on was “Melody Rules”. Those of you who are old enough will remember this. That was one of my first writing credits. I was beside myself that I had a job. It’s a terrible sitcom and it’s just been pilloried. I love telling people I worked for it because they’re just so like, “What? You worked on that terrible show?” It was my first job; I was so excited. And as it was happening, all of the writers, really smart people that went on to do a whole bunch of cool stuff, we were all sort of sitting there going, “This is really wrong. It’s just not going to work. It’s awful.” We had no power at all and it was a massive failure but it was a really great learning experience for me to go on a gut level, on an artistic level, saying I was right about stuff but I didn’t speak up because I was so excited to have my first proper job. That was a really big learning thing for me. 

That’s three things. There’s a gazillion more but I’m sure someone else would like to talk now. 

NJ

Any other pitfalls to avoid? 

SK

I’ll add two quick things to that.One is: You can make things; you can keep playing and making. That’s fine. That’s play. But if you’re writing something, you have to get to a point where it feels like, “Yes. My script is ready.” That’s a pitfall I see often when people don’t put the hard work. It does take eleven drafts. It does take rewriting and rewriting. It takes breaking down the edifice and then putting it back again. It takes all of that. And commit to it because that’s what endures. In the meantime, have fun, take your iPhone, go shoot. Don’t be one of those people who says, “Don’t touch equipment because it all has to be sizzling on the page.” But know the difference. 

The other thing is you are not just a writer: you’re a screenwriterAnd as a screenwriter, you’re part of a long  industrial chain. You’re not writing a diary. Even though screenwriting gives you a high (I know it gives me a high) and there are  times I get huge lows when something’s not working because I’m so invested in it. Best despite this heavy emotional investment, and BECAUSE it’s not my diary,  people have to read it. So stop holding it close to your chest : let people read what you’ve written. Take advice, take feedback, take it on the chin. If they don’t love it, It’s not you; they’re not knocking you. It’s something you’ve produced. 

KB

Can I add one thing to that? Which is: have more than one project. So no matter what level you’re at, just be really confident that you will have many ideas. This is what we do: you’re all creative people, or else you wouldn’t be here. You’re not going to run out of ideas, so calm. This “I’ve spent two years working on my seven-page short film script and I’m not letting go of it and if it keeps getting rejected—” 

SK

And “I’ve applied seven times, I’m not getting any money—” 

KB

It’ll save your sanity and make you feel better about getting rejection because you need to get used to that. If you’ve got a bunch of projects, you’re constantly moving from one to the other. And these are your own babies so these aren’t things you’re necessarily getting paid for, but you’re working on a bunch of things. You’ll find rejection so much easier. And just understand that holding on really tightly to one project and going, “No, it’s brilliant, it must be right, it must be made”, and you really are embedded and not changing it and not listening to anybody, it doesn’t serve you. What will serve you is to put that one down, start something else, come back to it, and you’ll see it really differently as opposed to just holding onto grim death. I know people in the industry that have been shopping the same feature film around for ten years. That breaks my heart a bit because all of their energy and love has gone into this thing. Have a bunch of stuff. Don’t just do one. You’ll have loads, trust me. 

RL

Great stuff. I’d just add one, which is: develop your own taste gauge. This is something that I think will separate the people who will progress in this industry and the people who will fall away. If you know what is good, and you develop your taste of what is good and how to get better — and you get there by making a body of work. Unless you’re a genius, you’re going to make five to ten shitty things, and you have to be okay with making shitty work to develop your own taste gauge to know what is good and what is not so good. I once mentored a guy who had a script and it was the third time he had applied to the short film lab with, and it was his last time he could apply. After three applications, you can’t. And it was a very wrong script, and I said, “Do you think this is a good script?” And he said to me, “It’s won all these awards.” And he showed me all these awards. There is a terrible industry of false accolades or external validation out there in the world. You can pay an American scriptwriting contest to give you prizes in a script. So he was showing me like, “It’s an award-winning script.” And I said, “Okay, do you think it’s good?” And he said, “Well other people think it’s good so it must be.” The guy did not have his own taste gauge. He just had no idea what was good or not. He just grabbed external validation. That was his bread and butter. That was the currency he thought he had, and he had no idea if it was any good. And it wasn’t good, and he wouldn’t listen to me when I said I had a problem with this and that. He said, “Well these people think it’s award-winning, so…” I don’t need to mentor you because you clearly think it’s good because all these external people have said it’s good. 

MC

As a very new writer, I learned from last year that uncertainty is very good. Especially when you’re writing the things that you think you live it or you’re very familiar with. From my Masters, I did one based on my family story and I wrote about my hometown. I thought, “That’s good. I’ve been living in my hometown for years, I know my hometown.” I finished my script and I felt so certain but then I knew something was wrong. The image was not right. I went back to my hometown this holiday, and it was not my hometown. I was so confident about it, and the more I write about it and the more I explore it, I know there are so many things I’ve never discovered. It started with one screenplay but it’s going to develop throughout the years and I think to me a good screenplay will last maybe a lifetime. I’d love to continue to go back to it and embrace the uncertainty. That’s going to make the characters better and the story better for me. 

SK

Another way of saying that is don’t reach out for  the first milk bottle on the supermarket shelf. It expires first. Reach your hand deeper and take one from the back. It’s colder and lasts longer. When we write things that are familiar, we take the first milk bottle. Our hometowns, our love affairs, our parents, everything that first pops out is what we write about. When in fact we need to take the milk bottle that’s fifth or sixth in the row, hidden at the back. Dig deep.

RL 

But they do tell you, “Write the truth.” 

SK

Yes, but what you think you know is different from what you will find if you look hard enough. That’s what I mean. What you think you know is the first milk bottle. But if you spend some time thinking about these things a little bit, the uncomfortable bits come out, the harder bits. 

NJ

What you truly know.

SK

And that for me is what you really need to work through with good writing. All those things that you didn’t know you knew. That kind of internal discovery. 

KB

And if something is making you uncomfortable, you’re probably hitting gold. Like if you’re really going, that idea for whatever reason is something.

SK

If you find yourself not wanting to tackle it because it’s too upsetting or difficult then you know you must.

NJ

Jumping off something you said about redrafting, Shuchi, I’m interested in the idea of how drastically has something you’ve worked on changed over time in the redrafting process? I think that’ll give people an insight of how significant the power of a rewrite is. 

SK

Different experiences with different projects. . For  instance with “Firaaq”, which is an ensemble film, we had five stories in the ensemble but we e wrote seven. Two completely disappeared. They got conflated into the rest.. One changed protagonist, one changed gender. You really have to be open to the idea of things evolving, morphing, finding their own place on the page. What never seems to go away despite several drafts is why you wanted to tell this story in the first place. In my case, that original impulse hat always seems to remain at the core of every iteration. I’ve never changed the reason for which I’m writing something: the theme. . Once I commit to what it’s about, that does not change.. Everything else is a delivery mechanism for that theme. So the guy may become a girl who may become a unicorn but if the film is about giving hope wings, then that “message” stays the same. You have to give yourself the space to change things drastically, otherwise you’re just putting bandaids on every draft. Occasionally I havestudents who come up to me and say, “This is a new draft.” No it’s not. You added  a semicolon on the third page. That’s not a new draft. It’s just punctuated better! With people I’ve mentored over several years, I’ve found the ones who go far are those who can actually admit , “This is not working for all these other reasons, so maybe this is not the mother’s story — this is actually the father’s story. Darn. I have just lost 3 months of work. Back to the drawing boardAnd if you are committed to being a good screenwriter you have to be willing to go there. Unlikely you’ll do such a massive overhaul during the tail end of your rewrites, but at least in the early drafts you have to be willing to pull things inside out.

KB

Can I offer a tip? If you’re about to rewrite something, particularly if it’s a sizeable piece of work, this is just a little trick that I do which makes me feel better about it, particularly if you’re going, “It’s quite a big rewrite, and I’m nervous about the stuff that I love in this one.” Just copy it and put the existing draft safely away, and then you can carry on playing with the new one and throwing it around and carving it up with a knife, and it doesn’t matter because the real proper good one is safe there. And just do it that way because then you don’t have that anxiety of, “I’m messing it up” or “I’m cutting stuff up”. I find that so good. It’s just there, and I don’t have to look at it. And then once you get into the rewriting, you go, “It is better” but I’m like a child, I just need something to get me over the line to start work. So that’s something I do all the time and I recommend it to lots of newer writers because it will calm down your nervous system about it. 

SK

I save every single day’s work with that day’s date. So I sometimes have 45 versions of my screenplay because if today’s the 23rd, then today’s version is 23rd. Tomorrow is the 24th. I need all of the previous versions to exist somewhere even if I’m not consulting them because who knows? The world could end. 

RL

You could be like, “Two days ago I wrote this incredible monologue that I stupidly deleted and I have to go back and find it!” 

KB

But also sometimes the rewrite makes it worse. That’s the terrible, terrible truth.

SK

That’s why having the previous iteration is a good idea. You mess it up and do it again, and you go, “Actually there was something beautiful from a week ago  which I know wasn’t working but now that I have made these changes, I can bring it back.”

KB

And also because it’s collaborative, sometimes you’re sent down a path by someone that is just wrong. They’ve just got it wrong and they’ve sent you down this path, and you go there. And this happened to me on the feature film I’m sort of hoping is going to go into production. The person who gave us the advice was really flash so we just said, “Oh my god, amazing. They’ve given us this amazing advice.” And the director and I looked at each other after I’d finished the draft, which was a lot of work — we looked at each other and we both just went, “This isn’t the film I want to make.” And he went, “I don’t want to make it either.” It was a great thing though because it was the perfect time because we were both aligned. This isn’t what we started off with. It’s turned into something we don’t care about. How fantastic when we found that out midway through the process as it happened. We sat back and went, “What is it we want to make?” That set us off on a better path and we basically had to go back to the person who gave us the great notes and went, “Really amazing. Just not the story we want to tell.” It was a great moment though because I love the director I’m working with and it was so lovely that we could both look at each other and say that and go, “I don’t like it.” And he went, “I don’t like it either.” More work for KB. But that’s all right. 

NJ

I’d like to ask Hweiling and Mayen: what’s been the hardest part of the process for you as young, new writers? 

Hweiling Ow

For me, it was actually my grammar. I was always worried about my grammar and stuff and sentences because I, believe it or not, get things mixed up in my head because I am Malaysian-born and there’s like five languages in my head. I had to put that aside and go, “Up the language. Just write it out and the ideas will be there.” And then I wrote this story and it got picked up and I actually fell out of love with the story. What is this shit and why am I writing it? I got really good feedback from Kathryn because I was going in different angles and I was trying to break it and trying to do different things to it because it was a non-story where nothing happens. So I’m okay with pulling things apart and messing shit up. I don’t have a problem with that – that’s kind of my life in general. I was willing to go places but I just didn’t know where to go. Basically, it is a story about unusual connections and I was like, “She needs to be connected with people within this area.” I started taking her out from this location and set her up, and I found my way. I sat for two or three months just thinking about it and not even writing back to her because I had nothing to offer. I was just thinking, thinking, percolating, asking the questions in my head, washing the dishes, doing driving, whatever else, just thinking. And that’s my process of tackling the script is just to keep thinking. To me, it’s like a Rubik’s cube, the story. And you’ve just got to find your way through it. Problem-solving is part of my day-to-day life as well in my head.

SK

That’s also why you produce. 

HO

Yeah! And everything you said about the writing is so true because I’m producing this online series called “The Basement”. I’ve actually been asked by Greg Sullivan (? 34:29) TV2 to do it. The writer, the poor guy, he’s been working two years with Carmen — Carmen’s an EP who did a lot of biopics, like “Hillary”, so she’s got her heart in this particular one and navigating through that’s been a bit tricky as well. But he’s had to look at so many different angles, and then I’m coming on board and the director’s coming on board, and he’s had to navigate all the ideas and package it and present it to Carmen and hope that she says okay because she actually has the final say. But then also we have to go through TVNZ. It’s been a new interesting process as a producer because you have to get all your cast approved as well. And I was like, “What? But web series – I thought it was more freedom.” But I’m learning the proper process with big TV shows. They have to approve all the HODs as well, but on a web series not so much – it’s fine. So I got to work with people with whom I’m quite flexible.

SK

And then you also learn clever ways that you get them to approve of your ideas by making them think it’s their idea. 

HO

There are ways — yeah, it’s been interesting. The writer’s only 26 as well so he’s experiencing this whole new journey. I’m like, “I’m on your side. I can see what works and also just put in a way that she understands.” And she’s been great but she basically — not scared us — but made us take it really seriously because she is taking a risk with me, because I’m an unknown to her, and the writer as well, first time writing. TV shows are a collaboration. It’s your baby but then after that people are trying to help it, lift it forward and up and make it great. And as long as you’ve got the right team and the right people, it will be better. Everybody wants it to be better. 

KB

If you’ve got the right team. If everyone’s making the same thing, it tends to go really well.

HO

Coming back to the writing, some days are great, some days are shit, and some days I just sit there going, “I’m going to spend a few more days thinking about this”. And then it becomes weeks, and then it becomes months. But I got there in the end. 

NJ

How about you, Mayen? 

Mayen Mehta

With me, it was interesting hearing what you were all saying about the writing process. I think for me my biggest thing is that I held that initial idea really really tightly because it’s like your baby and you feel really passionate about. So when you get feedback, you’re like resistant to change. But I think my struggle has been, as a writer, I’ve always articulated. I’ve always, when I’m writing my script, I know how people are going to read it. So when I’m writing my script, I want anyone else who’s reading it to visualise it exactly how I see it. And I think that’s a problem because it’s subjective. Everyone’s going to perceive it in a different way. My biggest thing was overtelling points — it was exposition. I was thinking the audience was going to be a lot dumber than what I expected. It was one of those things where getting the feedback was really really good because as a writer I think I enjoy constructive criticism and I enjoy having someone else read the script and asking the ‘why’s. The little things that we, as a writer, wouldn’t ask ourselves. As simple as the title or as to a characterisation. So I think I feed off that really well. Kathryn’s been really really awesome in that regard.

HO

Great script supervisor. 

MM

Asking the ‘whys’ where I would’ve never asked it myself. And so I did the same thing — I stepped away from it for a while because I was so attached to the vision of it and the narrative that I stepped away from it. When you step away and you do focus on other things, like you focus on other projects or write other things, you come back to it and you suddenly see it in a whole different light. I suddenly see how much I can simplify it now. That’s helped. There are areas where it feels uncomfortable and there are areas where I notice in my initial drafts that I chose the easy way out. But the great thing about Kathryn was she was like, “No. What’s the hard way out?” 

SK

If it’s too easy, you know it’s not good. 

MM

Exactly! 

HO

Make your characters work hard. 

MM

It’s going to take time, it’s not going to happen overnight. But now it’s just opened up a whole new way of me looking at it. 

SK

One thing I might add. Mayen, you know you were talking about your tendency to over-articulate, making things expositional because  you want people to see exactly what’s in your head. I think a better way for a writer to think is: I want people to feel what I feel, not for people to see what I see. And that frees you up in a very different way. Then the focus of your writing becomes the emotion you want to deliver, and sometimes it doesn’t matter whether you’re describing this tree. It changes the way you approach a scene, and we don’t think enough about what we want the audience to feel when we’re writing. 

RL

How many people in the room want to write for screen? How many of you read scripts and read screenplays? 

In screenwriting class, we were told certain rules. Like, what novels have over screenplays is you can’t write an internal monologue. But when you start reading scripts, you see that they break those rules. If they want you to feel a certain way when you’re in the read, if an executive is reading your script and you want that executive to feel a certain way, then you can break those rules. 

SK

You have to know the rules and break them. This is the way I think. 

KB

You can get sneaky about how you break those rules. This is my thing I have in my head. There’s going to be an actor’s face, and actors are amazing, so I can just write in my description something they can convey with their face. I’m all good. 

S

And then you excite an actor who’s reading it because they see the potential in this part because it’s not all on the page. You’ve strategically left enough out  for them to pour something of themselves in it. Space. Leaving space for people to enter is a really good way for screenwriters to think because we’re only one part of all these other things. Directors do their job, actors do their job, sound people do their job. If you try and do everyone’s job on the page, it can get overwritten. Like good ikebana principles. Don’t crowd it. Leave space between your flowers so they can breathe; be happy. The arrangement works because of the blank spaces between the stalks.

KB

I certainly used to do that when I was a newer writer for sure. You’re totally right. You really really need to understand how screenplays work. Looking at screenplays that have been produced is really great. It’s such a great way to see how professionals do it and how they are manipulating sound and visuals. Also the interesting thing is how different the styles are of people. Sometimes you come across big print that you just go, “I’m just going to give up because that’s just so beautiful. I hate you now, stupid screenplay.” You read stuff in the big print that you think, “That’s just so gorgeous. It’s just so beautiful.” And then you’ll read something else and go, “Wow, that’s just as good but a completely different way of writing.”

Panel 1: Screenwriting

In the first panel on screenwriting, Kathryn Burnett, Shuchi Kothari, Roseanne Liang, and Mingjian Cui shared their wisdom on how to succeed in film and TV as well as general tips on tackling the art and business of writing. 

Photos by John Rata

Industry advice

Kathryn talked through the lessons she’s learned in her career, and began by identifying two kinds of pitfalls: creative pitfalls and business pitfalls. She emphasised the importance of being careful about the jobs that you choose to take on: learn how to say no! But find the balance between projects that pay, projects that you love, and projects that will help you get your foot in the door. 

The panel emphasised that the industry is a collaborative one. Along those lines, the industry is a collaborative one. There is a fine line between listening to your own voice and learning from other people. Shuchi reminded everyone that writers aren’t writers — they’re part of an industrial chain. Don’t hold what you write too closely, and take feedback on the chin. 

 

Personal projects

How are you supposed to balance earning a paycheck alongside working on your own projects? The panel offered valuable insight on keeping the passion alive. One key point was to have more than one project and trust that you, as a creative, will always be able to come up with new ideas! Move from one project to another to keep your sanity, and this will also make rejection easier because you won’t be so wedded to one idea. Invest the time to refine it but also be bold enough to take the leap and start bringing it to life. 

Roseanne’s key bit of advice to develop your own taste gauge came out of a personal experience. You’ll make shitty work to develop that taste. But if you know what’s good, you’ll know how to get better.

 

Writing advice

As a young writer, Mingjian’s advice was that uncertainty can be very good. She related a story about digging deeper into the feeling that something about a place she’d portrayed didn’t seem right. If you think you know the right answer, you probably don’t. To put it in Shuchi’s words, “Don’t take the first milk bottle off the shelf. It expires first.” What you think you know, which is the first milk bottle, isn’t the same as what you really know. And this will lead to uncomfortable truths coming to the surface. But if something is making you uncomfortable, then that’s what you should really be exploring. 

Are you so scared about redrafting that you haven’t even dared to open your word document again? Save old versions of your work and save anything that you might want to delete. This frees you up to play around with your writing without being afraid of messing up and not being able to go back. 

When one of PAT’s new writers from last year, Mayen Mehta, shared his tendency to over-articulate in the script, Shuchi posed a great way for writers to think: “I want people to feel what I feel, not for people to see what I see.” The focus of your writing then becomes the emotion, and everything else becomes a way to deliver that emotion.

 

Full transcript here