Plunge – Contemporary Dance Theatre – a Review

On Saturday night, I went to another fabulous event of Frankston’s Anywhere Festival. The advertising blurb intrigued me as well as the venue, Yoga-MeStudios specialising in Yoga, Pilates and Barre.

What better place to view storytelling through contemporary dance!

Buddha's profile through the window of Yoga-Me Studio Frankston
Buddha’s profile through the window of Yoga-Me Studio Frankston

Yoga’s physical activities and movements can be challenging for many physiques, but it promotes a balance between mind and body with exercises geared to the individual.  I wondered how the artists would use the venue and if it would have a bearing on the work.

I soon discovered that the movements expertly performed by Joel Fenton and Jean Goodwin in Plunge are more than challenging to any ordinary person – the flexibility and control they demonstrated truly awe-inspiring. The polished boards and spartan lines of the studio perfect to showcase their performance!

I was green with envy – not just for their youth, but their talent.

A striking pose from Joel & Jean
A striking pose from Joel & Jean

The promise of the promotional advertising blurb:

“Playing out the many possibilities of the single moment when eyes meet, desires peak and you make a move, ‘Plunge’ examines the short and long term impacts of romantic advances that are reciprocated, rejected or unrequited.”

Intrigued, to say the least – I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

Warmly welcomed at the door, I joined a small group and listened while Darren Vizer, Director/choreographer of Devize Co introduced the show.  He requested members of the audience stay behind and give feedback to the performers and share their opinion about the show. This is one of the pluses of arts in the community – artists and audience conversing, discussing, sharing ideas and opinions – the constructed barriers of being ‘in the audience’ of a traditional theatre non-existent. Instead, up close and personal, genuine rapport can grow.

‘Plunge’ , developed from a workshop at La Mama where performers were given two words: sex and bullying and asked to develop an original piece of theatre merging contemporary dance with narrative. The result, a  story told through movement and words exploring attraction, lust, love, pleasurable and unpleasant and/or unwanted touch.

Darren explained there were several variations on what we would see, the work organic and continually developing.  The performers would be featured at the up-and-coming Fringe Festival, therefore our feedback welcomed.

The show began with appropriate mood music and for the next 45 minutes we watched two young adults (Joel and Jean) enter the uncertain world of romance the way most of us do – an initial physical attraction or desire.

We stayed engaged as Joel and Jean put on a riveting performance with a seamless action replay showing different reactions to a young man’s attempt to ‘hook up’ with a girl.  The first scenario showed acceptance of the advance, then switching stage position, we saw the rejection. The prop switch a clever way of making the audience change the physical focus as well as the alternate scenario.

Joel Fenton (Australia’s Got Talent, Grand Finalist 2012) revealed his acrobatic as well as dance abilities with some moves breathtaking. Without words he illustrated a range of emotions from shyness, reluctance, fear of rejection, joy, frustration and desire, anger, sorrow, despair, defeat and pride. At times almost flying across the floor or letting his upper body and facial expressions display whatever emotion or attitude Joel wanted.

Actor Jean Goodwin (ANZACs Victoria’s road to remembrance) the perfect companion, believable as the willing partner and stunning as the angry long-suffering woman dealing with body image issues and unwanted male attention. For many women it begins in adolescence, continues through womanhood and can result in damaged self-esteem, injury and even death. Jean manages to evoke the full gamut of emotions, moving her body with flexibility and ease.

The Victorian Royal Commission into Domestic Violence and a spate of high profile rapes and murders has focused attention on inappropriate male behaviour: from minor harassment, through to stalking, violence, and persistent misogyny. The home and workplace dangerous places for women, as well as jogging through the park, or walking home late at night. In fact women  can be targeted anywhere!

Plunge dives into the many realities of  sexual attraction, declarations of love or desire, ‘hooking up,’ fleeting or permanent romantic encounters, appreciating and enjoying time with that special someone, and how quickly the ugly flip side appears to become an abuse of power.  The body language and timing of Joel and Jean exceptional, evocative, explicit, entertaining.

We are told so much without words and it’s impressive, especially for someone like me who deals in words. Writers know all about the senses, the sensual, and also the importance of silence, but dance, like film, expresses all of this instantly and effectively!

Unknown-2

Different interpretations or motivations shown right at the beginning. Is Joel, the shy suitor or obsessed stalker penning a note declaring his admiration and dropping it into Jean’s handbag. She sits absorbed, unaware reading her kindle or is she really unaware of her attraction, and of Joel’s attention?

This opening scene interesting – what does the digital age mean for relationships juxtaposed with the handwritten note and traditional ‘rules’ about boy/girl approaches?

Physical attraction or revulsion? Devotion or obsession? Bargaining love or lust?When does no mean no?  Some of the story subtle; your interpretation, emotional engagement determined perhaps by life experience or prejudice. A man can be just as devastated and hurt as a woman, have similar body image issues.

Unwanted advances can take some effort to reject, a tirade of abuse or a physical attack can explode from either the giver or the recipient.

When Jean must cope with unwanted advances: hand on shoulder, hand on hand, attempt at footsies, hand on knee, too close a hug… the shrugs, the pushing away, the attempt to walk away, the grabbing and escalating violence of unnerving embrace… movements so aesthetically calculated and cleverly executed they pack a punch.

A heartfelt confession of dissatisfaction because of body image issues and how it can damn both males and females into a spiral of self-hate and unsatisfactory relationships or loneliness is a very powerful ending.

Plunge a memorable performance doing what all good art does – touching an emotional core, confronting important issues, provoking deep thought and leaving the audience in awe at the talent of the artists!

Unknown

I sincerely hope they get the audiences and adulation they deserve for the remainder of the festival and at The Melbourne Fringe.

And to think the innovative exploration was sparked by two words: Sex and Bullying. Two words with traumatic implications regarding relationships.

Yoga-Me, Frankston host to Plunge
Other guests leaving Yoga-Me, Frankston after experiencing Plunge – a bright spot in a dark and dreary night!

Go along to Yoga-MeStudios, Crn Beach Street & Olsen Street, Frankston – and catch a performance of  Plunge and see how great Joel and Jean are for yourself:

Sept 3-5 at 7:00pm.

You won’t be disappointed – and remember they welcome feedback – young artists honing their talent and craft. Fabulous!

A Sunburnt History, Savages – a Review

Nick Waxman and ukulele
Nick Waxman and his ukulele!

In June, I clicked on a link and discovered the Anywhere Festival has been making arts a bigger part of everyday lives since 2011 with performances anywhere but a theatre and for the second year there would be events in Frankston.

The festival will run from 21 August to 6 September with “100 comedy, music and drama acts – and a few hard to describe – in the nooks and crannies of Frankston.” The organisers, Paul Osuch and Alex McTavish asked for photographers and reviewers and yours truly obliged.

outside of barber shop
Lord & Master Barber Shop 116 Nepean Hwy Seaford

Last night, I sat in a Barber Shop in Seaford and an hour disappeared as Nick Waxman entertained the audience with a fast-paced history lesson; the facts explained with rhyming wordplay, songs, mini sketches, mimicry, and a non-stop energy that must be seen to be believed.

With an ever-present smile, Nick put his show Savages in context. From day one of the European colonisation of our ‘Sunburnt Country’ we must question who were/are the primitive and uncivilised people in Australia’s history!

As historical truths are revealed, occasionally like all good satirical comedy, the laughter becomes a little uncomfortable because yes, the truth can hurt. However, when delivered by Nick, in a convivial atmosphere and a drink in hand, the ‘inconvenient truths’ of social commentary can be noted to mull over later.  Even if some of the information is shocking, Nick doesn’t let anything spoil this thoroughly entertaining evening.

1433125970105

The sheer breadth of his knowledge is stunning. A self-confessed ‘drama teacher with a passion for history‘ his memory and flawless delivery mesmerising as  he weaves  Australia’s history from the time of mega fauna and arrival of the first people, into modern day facts, encompassing big philosophical and political issues such as racism, democracy, the rights of indigenous people, women, and homosexuals, along with the myths around war and peace. Along the way we learn of the importance of community’s knowing and understanding their history …

Anywhere Festival provides a way for independent artists to present work that removes the burden of theatre expenses and allows for the creation of works in amazing spaces anywhere but a theatre.

The relaxed and cosy venue suited the show. It’s amazing how a rearranging of barber chairs and an old comfortable leather lounge suite with some plastic chairs sandwiched between, creates a mini theatre. A portable projector screen with laptop controlled slideshow completed the ‘props’ along with Nick’s ukulele, of course. A makeshift bar in the back of the shop ensured a convivial atmosphere indeed as patrons chose champagne, wine or Gippsland Gold beer!

Malcolm Blair from Lord & Master Barber our host and just as he promotes his traditional business during the day, ‘a relaxed welcoming environment’ greeted each guest on arrival. For a business that started only a year ago Malcolm and his staff have built a loyal local following.

They offer a range of services not seen for many years, including Face and Head Shaves, Beard Design, which includes shaving and shaping the outline of the beard and also traditional and modern cuts. Their client base varies from kids through to seniors with servicing the 20 – 40 age group the majority of their work.

Malcolm’s mantra is to keep the prices as low as possible so clients return more regularly to keep their style sharp, but also build personal relationships with a local business. Community is very important  – shopping and buying local keeps places alive, encourages community spirit. He offers the Lords Exceptional Cut, which includes a complimentary beer – the same Gippsland Gold on offer last night. I can testify this is a tasty drink!

The Anywhere Festival promises “performances right where people live, work and play to make stronger, more vibrant communities.”


Nick Waxman’s show Savages at Malcolm Blair’s Lord & Master Barber Shop a fantastic fulfilment of these expectations. The venue easily accessible by public transport with Seaford Station an easy 4 minute walk away.

You can see Nick’s show on the following dates – it would be a shame to miss it:

  • Saturday, 29 Aug  at 7.30pm
    Thursday, sept 3 at 7.30pm
    Friday Sept 4, at 7.30pm
    Saturday  Sept 5 at 7.30pm

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it! Savages chronicles the all-too-many moments in our shared history that seem very much like a broken record. The foolish, fool hearty and fooled fill this fast-paced fifty five minute frenzy of facts, figures and forget-me-nots (fingers crossed)! Savages can be found everywhere… after all, it was such a primitive time.”

Presented by Flak Productions

Me as an unashamed groupie congratulating Nick after the show
Me as an unashamed groupie congratulating Nick after the show

Echoes of The Past

Unknown

“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.”

Henry David Thoreau

When I think about my father I appreciate he always supported my dream to be a writer. He encouraged and praised me. He was the first person to show me how powerful, amazing and entertaining the English language can be. He introduced me to many brilliant and effective authors and poets, but most of all he believed in my desire and need to write.

Although a flawed man with many personal demons he truly loved his family. When I discovered a notebook of his after he died my tears were for his lost dreams as I read poems, snippets of stories and even a short play.

As my older sister Cate said at Dad’s funeral, ‘who knows what dad could have achieved if he’d had  educational opportunities and economic freedom to make choices…’  Like many of his generation who lived through the Great Depression and WW2, he never went to high school and always chased money to survive, and support his family.

 However, he did go to night school, he did constantly improve himself no matter what job he had and he was a prime example of someone with a thirst for knowledge, who educated himself. Education was the key to success as far as Dad was concerned. We must study hard at school and not waste ‘the talents God gave you’. No doubt the regrets he felt at his own failure to stay engaged with the school system coloured his attitude.

Today, the tenth anniversary of his death, I reflect on how glad I am that he was my Dad and be grateful for the gifts he gave me and the memories I choose to honour.

dads ashes 1

“Why am I compelled to write? . . . Because the world I create in the writing compensates for what the real world does not give me. By writing I put order in the world, give it a handle so I can grasp it…”

Gloria E. Anzaldúa

August 25, 2005

The air carries the smell of spring, but it will be some hours before the sun provides daylight and any warmth. I make an effort to peer into the night with weary and moist eyes. The raucous laughter of kookaburras breaks the stillness – an echo triggering memories of childhood days spent at Croydon in the 1960s. Kookaburras swooped down and stole our cat’s dinner, the raw kangaroo meat an irresistible and easy meal. The birds returned to the trees their laughter like petals blown in the wind.

Tonight the birds swoop from tree to tree, searching for breakfast or perhaps a late supper, their demeanour similar to a hawk. It is 4.00am. Are they congratulating each other on a successful hunt, or have they spotted prey? The hospital grounds and car parks studded with trees may provide what the birds seek. If not, the mini forest stretching north towards Belgrave like a thick, mottled green tablecloth undoubtedly holds enough scurrying mammals to keep the kookaburras laughing for some time.

I can’t recall the last time I heard a kookaburra in Mordialloc where I have lived for twenty-one years. Close to the sea, the gulls are prevalent, but because of the prolonged drought, it is more likely the squealing of rosellas and harsh caws of wattlebirds and ravens demanding or complaining at the lack of food.

I look from the window of Room 2 East Ward on the second floor of William Angliss Hospital, in the aptly named Melbourne suburb, of Ferntree Gully. The shadows of the night change shape to become recognisable objects. There is solace in the ordinariness of the scene – a maintenance worker parks his car and toolbox in hand disappears into the bowels of a building I assume houses the hospital generator. Nurses travel between the adjacent nurses’ home and the main hospital; navy cardigans clasped around shoulders, the only indication there is an early morning chill to the air.

I press my legs against the wall radiator, but the artificial warmth of hot water pipes will not relieve the coldness I feel. I want to open the window wide and scream, ‘Don’t you know my father is dying?’ Nothing has prepared me for this night, even although it is barely three years since I farewelled my husband, John. You can never prepare or become used to losing someone you love. Death is indeed the last frontier. I grip the windowsill realising the harsh reality of day may deliver a cruel blow.

The nurse turned down the wall radiator earlier in the evening with no noticeable cooling of the room apart from the removal of body heat when others in the family left just before midnight. The dodgy heater a bit like Dad’s health the last few years: sometimes okay, other times difficult to know if operating well. The intermittent work of his pancreas made his diabetes almost impossible to regulate. So many years he struggled with diabetes – a terrible sentence for someone with a sweet tooth and robust appetite.

The softness of Dad’s hands as I held them a few minutes ago lingers on my skin. Hands, once dry, calloused worker’s hands transformed soft and smooth despite the accumulated wrinkles of 83 years. Stretched over arthritic bones, his fragile skin, like precious parchment. The paleness almost transparent, belying his olive complexion inherited from the survivors of the wrecked sixteenth century Spanish Armada intermarrying with the inhabitants of Scotland’s west coast islands. Well, that’s the mythology still hotly debated by historians. I can hear Dad’s voice disparagingly saying, ‘but what do academics know.’ He was a great storyteller and as Robert McKee teaches, it’s all about the power of story!

The memory of our trip to Australia in 1962, on the migrant ship SS Orion, makes me smile. The ship picked up 500 Greek migrants at Piraeus and after a few days in the Mediterranean sun, the Greek passengers approached my sun-tanned Dad thinking he was Greek. How could this olive-skinned man, sporting coal black hair and moustache be Scottish!  For the rest of the voyage, they tried to strike up conversations. ‘Sorry Jimmy,’ said Dad like a typical Glaswegian, ‘don’t know yir lingo.’

The subdued lighting of the hospital room dulls the age and sun spots, mottling the backs of his hands. The marks fade into insignificance on his thin muscle-wasted arms. When younger and stronger, and employed as a ‘boy wakener,’ he knocked the doors of sleeping drivers with those hands at a time when working class people didn’t own watches or clocks and there were no telephones for early morning wake up calls.

As a fireman, he shovelled 5 tonnes of coal a day into the ferocious flames of a steam train’s furnace. As a locomotive driver, he manipulated train controls and signals and became a diesel instructor and acting depot foreman during a twenty-five-year career with British Rail. In Australia, Dad worked at many semi-skilled jobs as he chased money for his family during a further twenty-seven years driving. His arms steering everything from petrol tankers, delivery vans, trucks, tractors, forklifts, buses, utilities, and station wagons.

IMG_0026

He never went to high school, but when it came to a car engine he could revive and fix motors others would abandon to the wrecker’s yard. I picture him wiping oily hands on a cloth or his dungarees.  I’ve never driven a car but surprise myself with the mechanical knowledge absorbed from endless conversations between Dad and my brothers.

I remember as a little girl in Scotland waiting for my dad’s train to pass by the house. Whenever he drove the steam engine he nicknamed “Ivanhoe” he would blow the whistle loudly just as he rounded the bend. In the distance, we could see his once snowy white handkerchief appear as a tiny speck amongst the belching smoke and steam as he gathered speed for the hill before him. We knew he could see the bed sheet we frantically waved with Mum’s help from the upstairs bedroom window because another long-drawn blast which sounded like “Ivanhoe, oh, oh,o …” echoed throughout the valley.

dad on engine

Younger, stronger arms cuddled a wife and six children, ten grandchildren and embraced four step-grandchildren when they joined the clan. How I ache for those arms to hold me close once more, to make me feel safe. Dad always fearless, his strength, a refuge. He took on bullies in the workplace, bullies in the street. His slightly misshapen nose testimony to defending a stranger from would-be muggers, teaching a scab a lesson on worker solidarity and corralling a bull that escaped in the rail-yards. A trophy of fights he could have done without, but Dad often as game as a dozen commandos.

I rub my thumb along his; trace the outline of his nail. His fingernails, longer than I recall, strong and manicured – testimony to the attentive personal care received in the nursing home where he has lived as a dementia patient for the last seven years.

Strangers cut his nails, bathe him, trim his hair and moustache, and even wipe his bottom. I remember, his fingernails never long but always clean. Scrubbed to remove the embedded coal dust when he was a railwayman in Scotland. Scrubbed even harder to be rid of engine oil with his first job in Australia of petrol tanker driver and then a serviceman for Exide Batteries. Over the years, scrubbing removed a variety of debris from his many blue-collar occupations, including pottery dust and garden soil.

Yet, Dad’s hands were much gentler than Mum’s – not the skin, but his touch. He was the one who washed wounds gently, dabbed calamine lotion on even the tiniest mosquito bite or chickenpox blister. Perhaps, if he had not been the youngest of thirteen children and denied the opportunity for further education, he may have been a doctor. His dedication to self-education at night school and constant thirst for knowledge proved he had the intellectual capacity.

A moan reminds me that Dad is still in this world. His laboured breathing eases to an almost gentle rhythmic snore. I sit in the uncomfortable visitor’s chair, grateful my sister, Rita left a large curved pillow squashed to support a back beginning to ache with tension and lack of comfortable sleep.

Dad’s slack-jaw repose, unsettling. Awed at his vulnerability, I remember a man with an explosive temper, yet the patience to teach and to learn. Now he lies helpless at the mercy of a hospital system that sees him as a nuisance. A dying old man, taking a bed and resources more useful to younger, fitter others. I relive the argument between my brother George and the Charge Nurse earlier in the day when they tried to convince us Dad should be discharged and sent back to the nursing home. Our system has a lot to learn about dying and grief.

An unwanted patient here, Dad showed much patience in his life. He spent hours to find an intermittent fault on electrical equipment or the origin of an unusual noise in a car or motorbike engine. More hours in makeshift darkrooms developing black and white photographs until the best possible copy was printed. He often shared a useful or attractive object produced from leftover scrap wood from off-cuts in the bargain bin outside the local hardware shop. His photographic and developing skills, his expertise with cars and motorbikes and his DIY talents all passed on to his children with varying success.

To be a good provider for his wife and children and to be a good parent his driving force. He never appeared hesitant making the tough decisions once we were capable of understanding and contributing. He laid down rules about our social life, the friends we chummed with, insisted we apply ourselves at school and take responsibility for chores in and out of the home. Robust arguments about the length of my brother’s hair in the 60s, when my sisters and I could start ‘dating’, our behaviour at school and at home all memories that fade into insignificance in comparison to the years he sacrificed to keep us healthy and safe.

The Protestant work ethic and the Church of Scotland shaped much of Dad’s thinking, but also socialist writers like Robert Tressell who wrote, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and he identified not only with the poetry of Robert Burns but the imperfect man. We grew up with Burns’ quotations ringing in our ears and all of us can recite verses, especially the ones with moral and ethical points! Dad admired politicians like Keir Hardie and the Bevan brothers. Papa had bought Tressell’s book for Dad to read, and Dad encouraged his children to read it.  I bought copies for my daughters.

dad on bed reading

I change the cassette tape that is playing softly in the background. Rabbie Burns poetry set to music or songs he has written. Scottish singers as diverse as Duncan Macrae, Andy Stewart, Kenneth McKellar, the Alexander Brothers and The Corries singing their hearts out

I flick through the box of tapes brought from the nursing home. Each song or artist stirs memories of family celebrations or other occasions. I picture Dad working in his shed happily ‘making sawdust’ as he referred to his woodworking hobby. Or he’s reclining in his armchair, a glass of brandy (or a good malt whisky when he felt flush), not far from his hand. He loved his music and the advancements in technology from old 78s to vinyl LPs; reel to reel to cassette tapes – all marvellous inventions in his eyes. Unfortunately, with the onset of dementia, he missed the proliferation of CDs – and I can’t conjure an image of him with an iPod or MP3 player either – his hearing aids would get in the way and I think he’d be a vocal critic of social media! ‘If someone wants to talk to me let them say it to my face, or pick up the phone!’

When diagnosed with Tinnitus in the 70s his love of playing music intensified as he tried to block the constant noises and ringing in his ears. He used alcohol too and became someone else, his personality forever damaged by attempts to cure this cruel byproduct of industrial deafness and medication after the Hong Kong Flu. I recall the pain in his eyes when he read a poem of mine about Bermagui where I referred to ‘the silence of nature’.

‘Oh, what I’d give for silence,’ he murmured through tears.

A gurgling erupts from Dad’s throat and his brow furrows. He screws his eyes even more tightly shut and pulls his knees up towards his chest and moans. I remember the stabbing pains of early labour and assume his frail body is experiencing waves of uneven pain. I shiver. Is that the scent of death on his breath? I know medication and his lack of sustenance are probably causing the unusual sweet/sour smell, but fear freezes my heart.

I stand up to seek out a nurse when the door creaks open and two nurses on night duty tiptoe into the room. I chatted with these friendly women at the beginning of their shift. They have no problem with my family’s determination to ensure one or more of Dad’s kinfolk will be with him until the end and are not surprised to see me.

The small dark-skinned nurse came from a family of eight and trained in England, ‘We just want to turn your Dad and check how he is going.’

The grey-haired nurse with a Queensland drawl worked as a relief sister in Dad’s first nursing home. She speaks with familiarity, ‘We’ll just give George a bit of a sponge and change.’

Thank you,’ I whisper. ‘He appears to be in a bit of pain… writhing around.’

The other nurse flicks through Dad’s chart, ‘No problem, we’ll give him something for the pain.’

‘Yes,’ agrees the Queenslander leaning over to take his pulse,  ‘we’ll look after your dad, don’t worry.’

Kenneth MacKellar is singing ‘Keep right on to the end of the road’ and my heart begins to race.

Ev’ry road thro’ life is a long, long road,
Fill’d with joys and sorrows too,
As you journey on how your heart will yearn
For the things most dear to you.
With wealth and love ’tis so,
But onward we must go.

Keep right on to the end of the road,
Keep right on to the end,
Tho’ the way be long, let your heart be strong,
Keep right on round the bend.

I desperately need fresh air. ‘I’ll just go outside for a few minutes,’ I stutter. The nurses nod their approval.

Outside I stare at the sky and try to identify Orion – the shapeshifter that to me is a saucepan – and the Southern Cross. If I can see them, the world will be okay because for as long as I can remember since moving to Australia, I have always searched the night sky for those constellations. I breathe in the eucalyptus air. A dark shape swoops. Kookaburras laugh.

Who am I trying to fool? My world will never be the same again. I realise I’ve been crying and dab away the tears before returning to resume my vigil. It will be daylight soon and my sister Cate will come to relieve me, but I know I will not leave Dad – not just yet.

Dad 2004
Dad 2004

Sharing Words That Work

“Seeing yourself in print is such an amazing concept: you can get so much attention without having to actually show up somewhere.”

Anne Lamott

The Melbourne Writers Festival

At the moment the Melbourne Writers Festival is in full swing and there are plenty of writers showing up to share their writing journey, words of wisdom, promoting their books and ideas, taking part in debates and engaging with each other and audiences.

My daughters and I attended a session with Rob Thomas the creator and executive producer of the popular Veronica Mars television series, movie, and several young adult books. It was a delightful evening as Rob shared inside stories of trying to get his concept and pilot accepted and also the selection of actors, scenes, and storylines.

images-1

For all the would-be authors in the audience, it’s always good to hear that a successful character/story eventually finds a home after years of hoping – in Rob’s case Veronica Mars sat in a drawer for 7 years, occasionally being tweaked, but waiting for the ‘right moment’ to be accepted.

A Rob Thomas groupie at MWF 2015
Me being a Rob Thomas groupie at MWF 2015

You are lucky to be one of those people who wishes to build sand castles with words, who is willing to create a place where your imagination can wander.”

Anne Lamott

The Mordialloc Writers’ Group

My love of words and writing led me to establish the Mordialloc Writers’ Group in 1995 with the aim of providing a supportive environment, not only for local writers but also for others living beyond the City of Kingston. My dream always to ensure people who joined the group had the opportunity to see their words in print and I know for many members our anthologies are valued for that reason.

Like the moon, Mordialloc Writers’ Group has waxed and waned in membership but still thrives. Members workshop each Tuesday evening fortnight (8-10pm) at the Mordialloc Neighbourhood House in a supportive environment where talent is nurtured and constructive criticism  encouraged. Information about current writing opportunities shared with several members achieving writing awards, success in competitions, publication in other anthologies and even publishing contracts.

“One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore. Another is that writing motivates you to look closely at life, at life as it lurches by and tramps around.”

Anne Lamott

We welcome poets, playwrights, novelists, family historians, children’s writers – anyone interested in creative or factual writing, whether for publication or personal pleasure. The majority of our members are over 50, but we also have younger writers  ensuring the group is representative of the community.

Anthology Number 1 – Writers By the Bay – 15 writers:

Writers By The Bay
Writers By The Bay

The group hosts the public Readings by the Bay at the Mordialloc Neighbourhood House at 2pm on the last Sunday of the month where the entertainment is followed by refreshments and interaction with wordsmiths from Frankston to Fern Tree Gully.

Anthology Number 2 – Casting A Line – 17 writers:

Casting A Line
Casting A Line

This year Mordialloc Writers celebrate 20 years and we are producing another collection of current and past members work entitled: Kingston My City. Twenty writers sharing their personal recollections and views of interaction with the City of Kingston – including memories before the amalgamation of suburbs created the entity.

Each published anthology shows a progression and improvement in our writing abilities – this was another challenge to the writers to fill the pages of our ninth anthology . The personal essay is not as demanding as the personal memoir because it can be about almost anything, whereas the memoir tends to discuss past events. However, a memoir is similar to the personal essay, except that  memoir tends to focus more on significant or life-changing events. The personal essay can be a relatively light reflection about what’s going on in life right now.

Anthology Number 3 – Up the Creek with a pen! – 17 writers:

Up the Creek with a Pen
Up the Creek with a Pen

Contributors were asked what Kingston means to them. They don’t all live in Kingston but are connected in some way –– either in the past or present, (birth, residence, schooling, work, regular visitor, holidays, tourist, hobbies, attending workshops, readings, festivals…) Their essays explore this connection free from any need to interpret, analyse or seek the deeper meaning beneath the surface experience of particular events. The variety of subject matter and style of writing is amazing as well as entertaining. There is a cross section of past and present writers associated with Mordialloc Writers’ Group and although all pieces are creative non-fiction, there is also haiku and free verse.

Anthology Number 4 – Eleven o Four – 12 writers:

Eleven O Four
Eleven O Four

Our anthologies have always included poetry and prose, but also articles or memoir. They reflect the community’s history as well as being a record of the times in which we live. There are always new writers who have never been published as well as accomplished authors. Our group prides itself in providing a means for every voice to be heard.

Anthology Number 5 – A Rich Inheritance – 20 writers:

A Rich Inheritance
A Rich Inheritance

Our oldest contributor, Frank Jones is almost 90 and he writes about coming to Mordialloc in the 1950s, our youngest contributor is in her 30s and first time published. She writes about coping with motherhood and how the Maternal & Infant Welfare Services helped her. There are essays about the Eisteddfod, the Town Hall, the Farmers’ Market, U3A, football teams and schools. One of our writer’s has a disability, but she explains what it was like when Patterson Lakes was formed and how improvements make it a desirable location to indulge her love of swimming and bush walking.

Anthology Number 6 – Scandalous Bayside – 20 writers:

Scandalous Bayside
Scandalous Bayside

We are the oldest established writers’ group in Kingston and as such represent a cross section of the community as well as keeping a literary tradition alive. To demonstrate the importance of the written word and to celebrate our language it is important there are examples of the work of local writers for future generations to read.

Many of the writers have published individual work, but it is valuable for the community to see a collection of local writing and appreciate the richness of the literary arts in Kingston. We thank the City of Kingston for giving us grants to help towards the printing costs of our anthologies and appreciating Mordialloc Writers’ contribution to the Arts in Kingston.

Anthology Number 7 – Carnival Caper – 23 writers:

Carnival Caper
Carnival Caper

We will produce an E-book (yes, we are embracing the digital age)  as well as  traditional printed books. The launch, on November 14 at the Allan McLean Hall in Mordialloc will celebrate our 20 years and allow the public to meet the writers and perhaps encourage others to join. We always have a spike in membership after a book launch and it is a good way of raising our profile.

We pride ourselves in making sure each anthology improves on the one before and readers can see the progression, hear from new writers, appreciate the improvement of the craft in longtime members and read work that reflects the community, a range of abilities, skills, and topics. We are a community writing group with a high standard, however, the writing varies from popular genres to more academic pieces.

We decided on using the personal essay style this time, but one submission is in haiku.  We are celebrating as well as promoting a literary tradition and although several of our writers have a language other than English, our anthologies focus on the richness, flexibility, and vibrancy of the English language.

Anthology Number 8 – Off the Rails – 21 writers:

Off The Rails
Off The Rails

Many people have touched our lives and we theirs. Writing is a solitary task, but it is important to stay connected with others and a writing group provides that safe nurturing environment. Camaraderie and mentoring, socialising and networking, improving skills, generating ideas, receiving positive feedback and having fun. Lifelong friendships have been formed and through the public readings, we host people from outside Kingston too. Readings By The Bay enables links with other writing groups such as Bayside Poets, Mornington Writers, Henry Lawson Society, Melbourne Poets et al.

Our creative writing group offers a sense of community, and within this community exists an environment that is not only pleasant but conducive to achieving publication – and to be read and appreciated is the aim of most writers. With new writers in our up-and-coming anthology, we will have helped 65 individual authors see their name in print.

917da39f2bc86d594aaada3142e9321d

Watch this space for more information closer to our launch date, but please join us on Saturday afternoon on November 14th, 2015 and help make our twentieth anniversary celebrations a day of happy memories!

And remember – please support local writers – wherever they may be!

Trauma at the Shrine

“There are wounds that never show on the body that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds.”

Laurell K. Hamilton, Mistral’s Kiss

This week there has been much in the news about war – it is the 70th anniversary of the end of the war in the Pacific when the Japanese surrendered shortly after the dropping of the atomic bombs and in Australia, a government backbencher exhorted the government to start bombing Syria deeming the escalation of the ‘war on terror’ necessary.

I’ve been writing a series of stories about my family that may turn into a novel and in the research process I’ve attended lectures at the Shrine in Melbourne because one of the “characters” is  an uncle who fought at Gallipoli and later died in Alexandria of enteric fever.

Through reading factual accounts, novels and poetry you learn of the deep and abiding sorrow that comes from war. Why are some people so keen to fight? So desperate to invade or bomb another country? Whether it’s the 100th anniversary of Gallipoli or the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII, the mourning and grieving never ends and as writers we must try and be honest about that and perhaps make our contribution to world peace. We must try and put a human face on statistics.

This quilt block from an exhibition I attended in April needs no words.

receiving the telegram

And this one a sentiment that touched my heart as I write about our family’s loss in the “war to end all wars”.

a beautiful sentiment many shared_1024

Three days after Hiroshima, an American B-29 dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki. It was  August 9, 1945,  74,000 people died. Most of the dead were civilians and much of the city obliterated. On a summer morning three days before, the epochal use of the first atomic bomb  on Hiroshima stunned the world. Tokyo and Yokohama and other cities had been extensively fire-bombed, but no one could have imagined the devastation of the A-bombs (I hope no human being will ever again wreak such widespread and long-lasting pain and suffering on fellow human beings).

This poignant expression of grief from a survivor, interviewed in 1995, 50 years after the bombings:

Like so many, Shima has always wondered why she lived and her daughter did not. Not a single photograph of Akiko survived, but Shima still carries her image everywhere, just below the surface, like the tiny shards of glass embedded in her scalp.” 

Watching television and reading the various reports this week reminded me how the loss and devastation of World War One also ran deep. And like all wars, the conflicting emotions and opinions about its necessity, its causes and consequences are still being debated today. Death in war always more senseless than the usual death by old age, disease or accident.

I often think of the effect of Uncle George’s death on his family – how do you recover from farewelling a 19 year old and welcoming home his rabbit skin vest, Bible and pipe? Never seeing his dead body, never visiting his gravesite – having to accept, along with thousands of others, your son, brother, husband, father is no more. 25000 dead in ww1 have no known grave!

“We find a place for what we lose. Although we know that after such a loss the acute stage of mourning will subside, we also know that a part of us shall remain inconsolable and never find a substitute. No matter what may fill the gap, even if it is completely filled, it will nevertheless remain something changed forever…”

Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939)

Some time ago, I attended a lecture by Jen Hawksley from the School of History and Politics at the University of Wollongong where she presented Bereft, a selection from her PhD exploring Trauma, Memory and Madness. A three minute summary of her thesis is here and well worth watching: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6E9hPito5Vc

There were ideas and facts Jen discussed that gave me the proverbial food for thought:

There was a callous use of language by doctors and others when describing the grief experienced by those who lost someone, especially the descriptions of mothers grieving their sons. Many of these women ended up in asylums and were treated abomniably. Many were  not just coping with the death of loved ones, but those missing, and also those who survived, but grieved for the way life was before.

We are not born all at once, but by bits. The body first, and the spirit later; and the birth and growth of the spirit, in those who are attentive to their own inner life, are slow and exceedingly painful. Our mothers are racked with the pains of our physical birth; we ourselves suffer the longer pains of our spiritual growth.”

Mary Antin

Parental bereavement is different to other grief. A language of mourning did/does not exist. We have no word in English for a parent who has lost a child, but we have widow and widower. Uncertainty and with the grief of losing a son, mothers retreated to their own world – many visiting spiritualists.

I have to be grateful my Granny was not committed or admitted to a mental institution. My father’s oldest brother was drowned off the coast of Texas in 1927. As a merchant seaman he was a victim of the economic war of the Great Depression and just like the young men of WW1, he left for an adventure overseas never to return. My Grandmother spent the remainder of her days seeking some word or sign that her John was okay. She went to many meetings of spiritualists who grew in number after WW1.

The rituals of funerals are missing for those whose bodies are never found, or for those buried in foreign soil without loved ones being there. Family can’t see the grave, don’t get the support of the community – all of this traditional support mechanism lost.  “The individuality of death buried under millions of corpses.” (J Winter)

Vietnam was the first war where the Australian Government brought bodies home. However, it makes a difference how popular or unpopular a war is – whether the public consider a soldier’s death a glorious sacrifice or not.  In the first and second world wars parents cloaked themselves with the comfort their sons were one of 40 million combatants and fought in a “just war”. The Vietnam War was controversial from day one and Vietnam Veterans suffered tragic ignominy on their return as Australian poet Bruce Dawe‘s iconic poem indicates:

HOMECOMING – BRUCE DAWE
All day, day after day, they’re bringing them home,
they’re picking them up, those they can find, and bringing them
home,
they’re bringing them in, piled on the hulls of Grants, in trucks, in convoys,
they’re zipping them up in green plastic bags,
they’re tagging them now in Saigon, in the mortuary coolness
they’re giving them names, they’re rolling them out of
the deep-freeze lockers – on the tarmac at Tan Son Nhut
the noble jets are whining like hounds,
they are bringing them
home
– curly-heads, kinky hairs, crew-cuts, balding non-coms
– they’re high, now high and higher, over the land, the steaming
chow
      mein,
their shadows are tracing the blue curve of the Pacific
with sorrowful quick fingers, heading south, heading east,
home, home, home – and the coasts swing upward, the old ridiculous curvatures
of earth, the knuckled hill, the mangrove-swamps, the desert emptiness…
in their sterile housing they tilt towards these like skiers
– taxiing in, on the long runways, the howl of their homecoming
rises
surrounding them like their last moments (the mash, the splendour)
then fading at length as they move
on to small towns where dogs in the frozen sunset
raise muzzles in mute salute,
and on to cities in whose wide web of suburbs
telegrams tremble like leaves from a wintering tree
and the spider grief swings in his bitter geometry
– they’re bring them home, now, too late, too early.

With a poet’s eye Dawe shows how worthless a soldier’s life is when war strips your identity, makes you insignificant even if  bodies are shipped home, not to a hero’s welcome or a society that respects their contribution, but ‘where dogs in the frozen sunset raise muzzles in mute salute,’

Jen Hawksley mentioned there are iconic photographs encapsulating WW1 that like propaganda influence our feelings:

  • the silhouette of a soldier leaning on his rifle by a cross
  • a row of graves
  • devastated countryside and a line of weary defeated soldiers
  • a group of women quayside waiting for soldiers to disembark

If these photographs are deconstructed, as we do with the volume of poetry from the war from Wilfred Owen, Sassoon,  McCrae, Hodgson and others a tear-filled ‘Why?’ rents the air.

images-1

Increasingly, we realise war is not even about soldiers – the greatest casualties are always civilians – just like the atomic blasts all those decades ago.

Returned men and women, damaged beyond recognition suffering the extremities of loss and bereavement. They do not get over it, or move on, or get closure. Survivors with grievous wounds
often chose suicide, others clung to another existence, a shadow of their previous life. There were soldiers who had accidents or illness and died without getting near a battlefield.

How to make sense of all of this?

  • the soldier full of grog and adrenalin coming back off leave and run over by a tram the night before heading for Gallipoli…
  • Clifford later died after 43 years in an asylum in Sydney. Aged 70 he was hit by a taxi on a day out. Irony was that his severe depression, which led to him being committed was because he had been hit by the tram and lost a limb.
  • Aussies bemused to be in Egypt referred to the place as Shit Sand Sin and Syphilis – many died from disease, accidents, crime… families at home refused to accept or were ashamed to announce these deaths as ‘heroic’.
  • Many families abandoned their soldiers if these damaged sons did not live up to expectations.

kollwitz3

The sculpture, The Parents by Käthe Kollowitz in  Roggevelde German war cemetery shows the father being stoic and the mother prostrate at the gap in their lives when ‘boys’ died. As a mother and an artist Käthe captures the anguish endured by mothers on both sides of a conflict. This expression of broken-hearted and traumatised parents easily recognised.

The  extremities of bereavement could have been changed by knowledge during WW1 – parents wanted to know how and where and when their sons died. Photographs of the battle for Lone Pine show utter decimation – so many missing and official silence led to rumour and misinformation. Early dog tags were of compressed cardboard so decomposed with the bodies – so many bodies  lost and no official attempt at recovery for 4 years. Families never received personal effects and there were many suicides at home in Australia after the news of the large numbers killed and how they died.

And what of the non-military casualties? The total number of deaths includes about 10 million military personnel and about 7 million civilians. Rarely are the deaths of those not in uniform recorded in official history.

War is beyond the ordinary person’s control – unless of course we can organise a peace movement:

A peace movement is a social movement that seeks to achieve ideals such as the ending of a particular war (or all wars), minimise inter-human violence in a particular place or type of situation, including ban guns, and often linked to the goal of achieving world peace.

Ordinary people standing together saying loud and clear that the loss in war is never over. The trauma continues for generations. The mourning too.

Bereavement exacerbated by ongoing pain, shame, stigma, confusion lasting decades. How many were ‘put away’ into asylums unable to come to terms with their grief. Unspoken family secrets. Violent alcoholism, domestic abuse from physically and emotionally damaged men and women trying to cope with the tragedy of their lives because of war.

In every process of remembering there is also forgetting. Anniversaries are celebrated, people’s contributions and sacrifices acknowledged, but we must never forget how ugly war is, the devastation left, the people’s lives destroyed.

There is a huge disparity between public remembrance ( the monuments, solemn artefacts) often misused for militarism and nationalism compared to the ambivalent stories of sacrifice and experience of survivors. The poems and stories that people write about their experience so very important for true understanding. We must share our stories and listen to others as they share theirs.

“The following poem brings us face to face with what is easily forgotten. However large or small the conflict, whatever weapons are being used, war means murder, and more often than not a painful and possibly slow death. The dead may be counted, but that’s just a number. What’s important is that each one is an individual, each one’s ‘body is susceptible to pain’, each one shudders, writhes, bleeds, and cries out. Each one could be oneself. The mind or soul may wander, but the body, the individual physical being of each one of us, inescapably ‘is, is, is’. It’s the same for all of us, tortured and torturer, killer and victim. We should not inflict on anyone the pain we would not want inflicted on us.”

Tortures by Wislawa Szymborska

Nothing has changed.
The body is susceptible to pain;
it has to eat and breathe the air, and sleep;
it has thin skin, and the blood is just beneath it;
an adequate supply of teeth and fingernails;
its bones can be broken; its joints can be stretched.
In tortures, all this is taken into account.

Nothing has changed.
The body shudders as it shuddered
before the founding of Rome and after,
in the twentieth century before and after Christ.
Tortures are just as they were, only the earth has grown smaller,
and what happens sounds as if it’s happening in the next room.

Nothing has changed.
It’s just that there are more people,
and beside the old offences new ones have sprung –
real, make-believe, short-lived, and non-existent.
But the howl with which the body answers to them,
was, is and ever will be a cry of innocence
according to the age-old scale and pitch.

Nothing has changed.
Except perhaps the manners, ceremonies, dances.
Yet the movement of hands to shield the head remains the same.
The body writhes, jerks and tries to pull away,
its legs fail, it falls, its knees jack-knife,
it bruises, swells, dribbles and bleeds.

Nothing has changed.
Except for the course of rivers,
the lines of forests, coasts, deserts and glaciers.
Amid those landscapes roams the soul,
disappears, returns, draws nearer, moves away,
a stranger to itself, elusive,
now sure, now uncertain of its own existence,
while the body is and is and is
and has nowhere to go.

Perhaps one day we will build an effective peace movement and there will be strong and immediate public disapproval when politicians take us into war, or as we heard this week a politician recommending we escalate our involvement in someone else’s war. We could instead follow the women who were involved in the peace talks in Northern Ireland:

Male negotiators sometimes worry that having women participate in the discussion may change the tone of the meeting. They’re right. During the Northern Ireland peace talks, the men would get bogged down by abstract issues and past offences. The women would come and talk about their loved ones, their bereavement, their children and their hopes for the future. These deeply personal comments helped keep the talks focused. The women’s experiences reminded the men that it was people who really mattered.’

jk_dvoice

Still Life – still alive!

MV5BMjIyMzI1ODU5MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTIyMTI2MzE@._V1_SX214_AL_

Feverish and aching from flu I couldn’t settle to read so took advantage of modern technology and decided to relax in front of the ‘goggle box’. The limitations of free to air television were soon apparent, so I chose a DVD I’d had for awhile, but never got around to watching, a film I’ve also wanted to write about because it has what all writers seek: a memorable character, engaging storyline that makes an emotional connection, conflict, and an unforgettable climax and resolution.

I saw Still Life last year with my older sister Cate and was so impressed that I never stopped talking about it – according to daughter MJ – and when JB HiFi had a sale, I received the DVD as a gift.

Now, choosing to watch a movie promoted as: “A council case worker looks for the relatives of those found dead and alone,” may seem a strange choice when your feeling so ill you might be his next case, but that’s what I did – and like the first time I experienced this film, I was profoundly moved by it’s life-affirming message and deep belief in humanity. Rare messages in a world terrorised by ‘the war on terror’ where refugees and ‘the other’ are demonised. A world where Nihilism often triumphs.

Unknown

For watchers of British drama, you’ll spot one of the best English character actors this century in Eddie Marsan, who plays the lead, John May with the right amount of melancholic sympathy and detached compassion you’d expect from a bureaucrat trying to instil dignity for those dying alone without becoming maudlin. ‘Mr May’ has been doing his job for 22 years when we meet him, finding the next of kin of those who died alone, or officiating at the funeral for those without friends or family interested in saying farewell.

The poignant opening scenes of sole mourner, John May choosing the music, listening to eulogies he’s written about the deceased using information on public record or gleaned from their belongings, and then solemnly sprinkling ashes on carefully selected flower beds is powerful cinematic storytelling. Beautifully scripted and shot by Uberto Pasolini, producer, director and writer of Still Life.

The film took four awards from the 2013 Venice Film Festival, but if you want to read a sour review Village Voice has a very critical, and in my opinion, harsh appraisal whereas FilmSchoolRejects understands “Still Life is a simple, small movie, but it has something big to say about the need for human contact.”

Conflict occurs almost immediately when John May is told he is being made redundant. His meticulous and organised search for relatives and then ‘appropriate’ arrangements for those left alone deemed too expensive and unnecessary in the world of bean counters and government economy drives.

When the downsizing is announced, John manages to gain a reprieve to finish his last case and this quixotic journey transforms his own life as well as others. His spartan dull life slowly changed, his obsessive neatness that borders on OCD challenged and a courageous liberating pattern of breaking the rules begins – all sparked by the realisation that the final “nobody” was Billy Stokes, a neighbour – unknown and friendless living in a flat across the walkway from John’s.

The wonder and talent of cinema is that so much story can be told visually, without words, explanations, exposition… Still Life is one of the finest examples of this I’ve seen in a long time – although I’d never set myself up as an expert on screen! The scenes where John pastes photographs of the deceased into a huge family album speaks volumes – not only about his own aloneness, but about giving a family to those who were friendless and isolated.

We writers must always consider our audience and filmmakers have the same brief – for me Uberto Pasolini’s “Still Life” ticks all the boxes. If you can borrow the DVD please watch it and I’d love to hear your opinion – and you don’t have to wait until you have a bout of flu!

080512_filmgood

When You Have To Give Bliss A Miss

Goodlife-242x300

It’s safe to say that one of the delights a writer can have, apart from uninterrupted time to write, is spending time with other writers. Not just any writers, of course, but writers who are respected by their peers, successfully published writers, writers who can speak about their journey, share tips, encourage others to follow their dream, and writers who can perform and entertain.

You find all this and more at writers festivals and recently through the generosity of my friend Lisa Hill I was gifted a ticket to the Bendigo Writers’ Festival. Bliss indeed – until the dreaded winter flu virus decided to strike. The best laid plans not only stalled but shattered.

Today, I managed to stay vertical for a few hours and teach my lovely Monday class who were considerate of my lack of verve and sympathised that over the weekend as I nursed a body aching with raging temperatures, a head threatening to explode and a cough more suited to a tuberculosis ward I felt very sorry for myself indeed!

Thank goodness Lisa, who presented at the festival interviewing two authors,(Lily Yulianti Farid and Roger McDonald)  is an excellent writer and by reading her blog, although salt in a still open wound, I appreciated the delights of an ideal weekend for those who love writing and reading.

The Australian Government website suggests writers festivals help close the gap of isolation:

Reading is essentially solitary. Writing is essentially solitary. Though we connect with others far away through our reading and writing we tend not to meet them face to face. We are always one step away. Is this the reason why writers’ festivals are so popular? They invite us to close that gap and meet in person.

The statistics on the website haven’t been updated since 2012, but they do tell us that in 1962 there was only one writers’ festival in Australia and by 2012 there were over 30, with the Sydney Writers’ Festival the third largest of its kind in the world. An amazing feat considering Australia has such a small population compared to continents sharing a similar literary tradition like North America, UK and Europe.

The increase in blogging and social media has also made writers festivals all the more important. At a time when it is possible for almost anyone in the Western world to be published and read on a daily basis, never before has it been so important to gather together to hear prose and poetry read aloud alongside radical and world-illuminating ideas.

Jonathan Holloway, Artistic director, Perth International Arts Festival

At writers festivals you get the chance to hear your favourite authors read their work, discuss their inspiration, share their writing secrets. Your admiration may be reinforced, or you may be disappointed or you may be able to pick up an autographed copy of a book for yourself or as a gift. Readers meet authors, writers meet their audience, the connection and communication is rarely boring and in many cases festivals are a hub of exciting exchanges of ideas.

We reach across the written word – in books or newspapers, magazines, eReaders or iPads – to explore ideas, to start arguments, to rail against injustice, to expose each other, to console each other and to discover our common ground. We read because we are interested in ideas.

Danielle Benda, Program Manager of Perth Writers Festival 2012

Last year, again courtesy of Lisa, I was able to attend the Stonnington Literary Festival when she lead a lively panel discussion on a theme of “the glittering facade” with Paddy O’Reilly (The Wonders), Catherine Harris (The Family Men), and Nicole Hayes (The Whole of My World).

lisa hill at stonnington writers festivalat stonnington literary festival 2014

glitterfacadebookcovers

 On any given weekend, across Australia there will be people coming together to celebrate the written word. There are boutique festivals: Emerging Writers, Noosa Long Weekend, Write Around the Murray, National Young Writers, festivals celebrating Indigenous Writers, Poets and even online festivals acknowledging the advance of digital technology.

Discussion panels, live music, poetry slams, comedy debates, festivals of ideas, short plays – so many ways the written and spoken word can entertain and inspire – and all to a backdrop of amazing scenery, delicious food and bottomless wine glasses or coffee cups with endless conversation…

I’ll stop now because I’m beginning to feel miserable again for such a lost weekend. Although I was nurtured and loved by my beautiful daughters who fussed over me just as I remember my mother looking after me when I was little. That’s the plus side of being ill – the comforting hands, the meals in bed, the lazing on the couch all worries aside as your body fights for recovery. I experienced that and more, along with gorgeous roses to remind me that spring will soon be here and winter blues dispelled!

DSC_5178

And the Melbourne Writers Festival is coming soon – fingers crossed I’ll get my energy back by then because the girls and I have tickets to a session to hear Rob Thomas, the writer of Veronica Mars – lightning better not strike twice!

Plays from the Past still relevant for the Present

images-1

In the 70s, when I attended university in Canberra, the memories I cherish are the hours solving the world’s problems while sitting with friends in the campus bar at the Australian National University. At night, we’d have a beer; during the day, a coffee. The intellectual discussions and debates stimulating and meaningful, adding value to the lectures and tutorials provided at one of Australia’s most prestigious universities. I was lucky many of the staff wrote the text books for their particular subjects. My teachers included: Manning Clark, Humphrey McQueen, Daphne Gollan, and Dorothy Shineberg.

images-1

At university, I was continuing a tradition started at home by my father and mother. The family would sit for hours after dinner, listening to family anecdotes, sharing stories of our day, discussing current affairs, politics, religion, exploring philosophical questions and ideas thrown up by books, films, TV shows or the daily newspapers.

Unknown-1

I miss the conversations my husband, John and I had about so many  subjects and events. I appreciate writer friends, other members of the Union of Australian Women, my two daughters and my writing students, filling the gap left by John’s untimely death in 2002, because I  crave intellectual stimulation.

Life gets busy, people are short of time; we can all be distracted or self-absorbed. Conversations can be minimal, repetitive and shallow, only touching the surface of a topic, ignoring the philosophical to concentrate on the popular, avoiding the controversial and challenging issues. We  live in the digital age, the 24 hour news cycle, the era where investigative journalism is almost non-existent. Important issues often ignored or underreported.

However, on Saturday, I relived university days courtesy of my dear friend Lisa Hill who told me about a wonderful new project at Arts Centre Melbourne, in The Channel, the Centre’s newest venue.

The Script Club is an invitation to rediscover classic Australian plays, and share your opinion ‘in a robust round-table discussion led by John McCallum – Theatre Critic for The Australian and Senior Lecturer in Theatre at UNSW.’

Copies of the plays provided beforehand, plus a copy of John’s book Belonging, Australian Playwriting in the 20th Century. The website advertising blurb promises, ‘This is an open discussion, not a lecture – you bring your own opinions and we’ll bring afternoon tea!’

John McCallum explained the motivation behind Script Club, which was first presented by Griffin Theatre Company, Sydney

“There are many great plays in the Australian repertoire that have, mysteriously, been more or less forgotten. They still have a lot in them to excite us and to say to us, and they ought to be revived. Script Club highlights three of these. It is like a tasting menu (there are many more). When you read an old play you should always ask, ‘What’s in it for us, now?’ That is what we will be asking.”

Unknown

The first of the three classic plays to be considered was Brumby Innes by Katharine Susannah Prichard, and considering the current controversy over Aboriginal footballer Adam Goodes and the subject matter of the play, there’s an easy answer to John’s first question. A definite yes for relevance!

The preface in the Currency Press 1974 edition we were given, states:

…The one guiding principle will be to make the play as accessible as possible in the imaginative sense. Whatever the format adopted to meet individual circumstances, the editor will include a discussion of the play and of its place with the work of its author. Where appropriate, comment will be made on the stage history and staging of the play…

In one summary Brumby Innes “begins with a corroboree and, like Coonardoo, attempts to engage with a portrayal of Aboriginal life. Its central character, Brumby Innes, is a swaggering drunk who exploits the black workers on his station and abuses the women; he bears a close resemblance to Sam Geary in Coonardoo. Yet, Brumby Innes provides the central energy of the drama, and the celebration of that energy in the play conflicts with the dramatic critique of his sexism and racism. Brumby Innes’s character exemplifies the ambivalent attitude in Prichard’s work toward this type of male hero. Portrayed as stereotypically masculine, such characters are admired for their energetic, vital sexuality; yet, the extreme limitations of such maleness are also acknowledged.”

The prize-winning play, although written in 1927, wasn’t performed until 1940. A press cutting from Western Mail  Thursday 26 December 1940 can be found on Trove:

article37942080-3-001

Here’s a link to a review and reasonable summary under the title Realism, racism and seduction in Brumby Innes when the play was performed again in the 70s.

Lisa and I read the play before the Script Club and as I sat at the table with the others, I mentioned the controversy over Adam Goodes, and suggested Australian society needs to, in the buzz word of the moment ‘have a conversation‘ about our attitudes, in the past, present and our future relationships with indigenous Australians. The racial inequality and power structure the play highlights (between Aboriginal and White Australia, between men and women, between those who own land and those who have nothing) remains, as this article by Aboriginal journalist Stan Grant illustrates.

John McCallum led the discussion with the question: – Reading this old play, what’s in it for us in 2015?

The 9 of us around the table at the inaugural session offered plenty of reasons of why the play should be performed with suggestions on how it can be staged using modern technology and stagecraft.

The group comprised John, Joshua (a producer at Arts Centre Melbourne), two other men (one a theatre actor, the other a West Australian with personal experience of the setting of the play), five women (a translator and university educator, two theatre actors, a project officer with Arts Centre Melbourne, and myself). Unfortunately, Lisa couldn’t attend,but when she does we’ll have her wealth of experience as a blogger specialising in Australian literature.

There because we loved various aspects of Australian theatre, whether it was writing, acting, stagecraft, historical setting and background, topics and themes explored, or just the whole appeal of drama, we discovered that apart from John, none of us had heard of Brumby Innes.

John said each play chosen for Script Club will be looked at in view of modern day performance.

  • Can we recapture original script?
  • Do we want to? ( If the subject matter and the way it is written is controversial, or deemed inappropriate/irrelevant.)
  • Can we do something new?  A reinterpretation perhaps, capturing the spirit of the original, or perhaps a mash-up and revision.

Although performed rarely, Brumby Innes (along with a great body of the author’s work), is studied in drama courses and at universities. It was written when the Australian dramatic theatre tradition was yet to be born and Prichard confesses many times that she didn’t consider herself a playwright. However, John McCallum’s mission is to see Brumby Innes performed again and considered a classic among Australian plays.

Under his guidance, we explored the characters and themes and agreed how wonderful this play could be if staged. Perhaps become a ‘game changer’ if performed today in collaboration with indigenous artists and dancers. The need for authenticity demands discussion with indigenous actors.

images

The importance of reading the script twice became obvious as we shared what we remembered, forgot or misunderstood as the discussion progressed. John advised the first time you read a script you pick up some clues, but the second time is when you begin to appreciate the nuances of the plot and characters. (Memo to self, before Script Club in October read the selected play twice, and then again just before the session!)

Brumby Innes was written in the early part of the twentieth century and some of the language used when referring to Aboriginal people is not used today. (for example: reference to women as ‘gins’) However, the play does challenge the conventions of the time – the Aboriginal cast outnumbering the whites, the opening scene being of a corroboree and much of the action from the perspective of the ‘black’s camp’ as opposed the settler’s homestead. Aboriginal words are used throughout the play; the Aboriginal characters often speaking at length in their own language.

Prichard notes:

“The corroboree in this play is used to give something of the dignity, beauty and mystery of a primitive people in their natural surroundings: against their appearance under the conditions of a vanquished race…

Words sung to the corroboree are treasure really. The Aboriginals seem reluctant to tell them, superstitious of unravelling their mystery, perhaps. Often the words they sing are not words of their everyday language. Many of the corroboree songs, or tabee, are in a dead language, I think… hereditary legends and sag, drifted down from remote ages; others are inspirational, sung by the yinerrie, inventor of corroborees, or poet of the tribe, and director of ceremonies, as the spirit moves him.

Only folk reared on isolated stations, who have had lifelong associations with the blacks, or a native who has broken with his people and traditions, are able to gather some of these songs and to tell us their meaning.”

The opening scene lets you see the Aboriginal world, the community that is being destroyed by the white ‘invaders’ when a drunken Brumby Innes arrives demanding Wylba, a young Aboriginal girl goes with him to the homestead. When Wylba and her boyfriend Mickina protest, Brumby pulls out a gun and fires it. Peace shattered just as Aboriginal culture is shattered by arrogant men like Brumby wielding their power.

The link between land and power a strong message in the play. The Aboriginals are vanquished, but not vanished despite the loss of their land, the oppression and indignities they suffer. There are instances in the play, and certainly the ending shows they understand Brumby Innes and know how to survive.

Prichard sees the white invasion of Australia as having the same dimensions as the Trojan War. Aboriginal Polly (Brumby’s discarded lover) ‘a Hecuba in bronze‘ representing all the raped and abused Aboriginal women, abducted and taken by men like Brumby Innes. She is given a powerful line in the play  when she challenges Brumby in front of his white peers and says, ‘Liar.’ Her quiet dignity showing she may be defeated, but is a survivor.

It is said about Euripides play Hecuba that it ‘is one of the few tragedies that evoke a sense of utter desolation and destruction in the audience, and there is almost no let up in the mood of suffering and anguish, and no sign of any silver lining. Few ancient tragedies culminate in such unmitigated hopelessness for all the principle characters concerned, and even fewer imply that their terrible fates were quite so richly deserved.’

This sums up how I felt after the first reading of Prichard’s play – difficult to find any likeable character and feeling immense anger at the accurate depiction of the dispossession and abuse of indigenous Australians and all women, whether white or black.

However, listening to other opinions at the Script Club and  John’s persuasive and knowledgeable guidance as he coaxed responses and ideas for staging Brumby Innes, I confess to being excited that the play may be revived. If performed today, the emotional controversy and meaningful discussions generated should engage a huge number of people – force us to have much needed awkward conversations about human rights, equality and social justice.

DSC_5160-1

How the roles are interpreted by the actors will make a huge difference and we spent some time dissecting the character of Brumby, May and Polly. Prichard was a progressive thinker and her play considered radical, the probable reason of why it wasn’t performed for nearly two decades. She reveals the plight of Aboriginal and white women. Brumby marries May after raping ‘the struggling, but yielding‘ young woman. Brumby pushes her towards his bunk, ‘I like ’em thoroughbred and bucking’ a bit at first.’

It is revealed that Wylbie is only thirteen years old, little more than a child, but Brumby has no shame or remorse when taken to court for abusing her. Another land owner (May’s uncle) lies for him. Brumby is not punished, but two Aboriginal men are sentenced to jail for assault (they challenged Brumby) and stealing supplies (their rations are meagre). Injustice piled upon injustice, but an accurate depiction of the era.

Prichard’s anti-romantic approach and attitude to sex challenges the idea you could or should marry for love. Brumby and May’s marriage happens because Brumby is ready to have children and they must be ‘purebred’. May has come up from the city seeking excitement, with her eye on marrying someone with land and wealth. There is a shortage of white women in the bush, it’s not unusual for landowners like her uncle and Brumby to make arrangements for marriage to carry on the dynasties they want to establish. May is attracted to Brumby’s arrogance and macho behaviour. He has a charisma women find attractive apparently – like Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, one of the participants at Script Club suggests.

John compares the machinations of cattle station owners to the popular Game of Thrones – the play is full of personal and political power struggles. One of the women agreed, confessing she had to stop herself from being trapped in a TV mentality and applying those expectations when reading the play.

The two hours flew and the refreshments provided much appreciated, especially a scrumptious selection of scones, jam and cream. Brains and vocal chords received a good workout and when I left to catch a train home I thought the lovely surrounds of Southbank an ideal setting for The Channel – the Yarra River a metaphor for the flow of ideas and opinions in Script Club, the backdrop of old and new buildings like the revival of old plays in a modern setting!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I studied playwriting many years ago under John Powers who wrote The Last of The Knucklemen, which was later turned into a film by Tim Burstall. He liked a play I wrote about domestic violence and encouraged me to keep writing plays. The Bitter End was performed at a women’s forum in Melbourne 2002; a ten-minute play I wrote was short-listed at Kingston’s Write Up Festival in 2013 .

The Script Club has stirred my creative juices and although like Prichard, I don’t consider playwriting my forte, perhaps I’ll have another go at this genre!

DSC_5162-1