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