After a triumphant Melbourne Fringe run, Sean M. Whelan reflects on the process behind writing his first full-length play, Everything All the Time.
What do I know about writing a play?
After writing and staging one, it turns out what I know about writing a play is remarkably similar to what I know about writing poetry. Which is not very much at all. And so far, I’m okay with that.
And when I say I don’t really feel like I know what I’m doing, I’m not trying to be overly modest or self-effacing but rather to wonder at the ridiculously messed up mystery that is the act of writing.
From poet to playwright has been a jump I’ve been considering for a while. Way back in 2006 I first adapted one of my poems, ‘Seven Dead Astronauts, Seven New Stars’, into a ten-minute play for the Short and Sweet Festival, directed by Alix Stirling. I think I went into this quite naively and soon found that adapting one of my poems into a play, even a very short one, was considerably more difficult than I thought. Alix did a brilliant job, especially working with a cast of nine. For whatever reason, though, I didn’t really follow up on this.
Then a couple of years ago I was asked to write another script for the 48 Hour Play Generator as part of the Emerging Writers Festival. A forty-eight hour turnaround works perfectly for me, because I’m a last minute kind of guy: even if I had a month to write it, chances are good that I would have left it until the last forty-eight hours anyway. I do not recommend this writing practice. Really, I do not. It causes me all kinds of anguish and I keep telling myself that one day I will change these bad habits. Hasn’t happened yet but this old dog lives in constant hope of a new trick.
For the EWF 48 Hour Play Generator I worked with director James Tresise. The theme for the play was Bike. This caused me some consternation for a while because I was determined not to have a play that had people riding bikes around on stage. Then an acronym came to me, Because I Know Everything, and this opened up a door in my mind for the rest of the script to flow through. I managed to write a play that didn’t feature a single bicycle in it but was somewhere still totally on point. I loved this experience. James and the cast of Sarah Ogden and Josh Price were a dream to work with.
At the time I marvelled at what collaborators can bring out of a script, which the writer may not have initially recognised or possibly was planted subconsciously only to be activated by a kindred creative soul.
Since that experience James Tresise had been leaning on me to write my first full-length script. I kept saying yes in practice but wasn’t really doing anything about it. Finally James took the bull by the horns and told me he was going to register for Melbourne Fringe. I didn’t have a script written at that stage but this was perfect for me. I need an impending deadline to kick me into shape. We started to meet on a weekly basis and I would bounce ideas off him. Kali Hulme, the other cast member of Everything All the Time, managed to convince the good staff at the Hill of Content Bookshop to allow us to stage the play upstairs in the store. Initially I thought this would be an empty room, but at our first meeting I discovered it was still part of the bookshop. So I changed the script to reflect the surroundings.
There’s something quite joyful about writing to a site-specific space. You sit down and all the prompts are right there in front of you and you respond accordingly. This makes it sound simple. Here’s a fact: it wasn’t. My early attempts at playwriting were both very short plays, so they were basically one scene per play. Writing beyond one scene – and creating a large vivid picture with many moving parts that all work in harmony with each other – seriously did my head in at times.
It was a pretty fascinating process and one that is perhaps not common in theatre, although what would I know? We would meet in the space three times a week and I would bring in scenes and workshop them directly with the actors James Tresise, Kali Hulme and our sound designer Damian Stephens AKA Isnod. The play had no single director or producer; we all had a hand in both roles. So the storyline was built from the ground up in a very organic way. Thank god that James, Kali and Damian were quite blunt with me at times when things weren’t working, and they often weren’t working. This goes back to my original statement, that I really didn’t know what I was doing. But, just like writing poetry, I knew that if I kept turning up then something would happen.
Maybe that something would be glorious, maybe it would be completely shithouse, but the only way to find out was to keep turning up.
At one point I had dozens of potential scenes written on A4 sheets of paper and I covered my living room floor with them to try and help me with structure. It did help, eventually, but I did have one slightly psychotic moment standing in the middle of this mess when I felt like my brain was a shattered jigsaw, which I would never put together again.
Everything All the Time is a play about a love and ghosts and becoming unstuck in time in much the same way Billy Pilgrim did in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. And just like Billy I became a little unstuck in the process of creating Everything All the Time. But I think that’s necessary, to swim out beyond the flags to see what the flags look like.
What do I know about writing plays now? A big bunch of nothing, but it’s a nothing that I want a whole lot more of.
Featured photo by Caterina Fizzano