Sunday, 5 April 2015

Making it up as we go along: writing for television


Let me let you in on a little secret – if season two of Sonnigsburg ever happens, we know where the story is headed. But if we only ever make six episodes, it’s a satisfying and self-contained story. It’s the whole first story we wanted to tell. We started with a premise, had a good idea of where episode six ended and worked our way to that ending.

Writer Javier Grillo-Marxauch, who worked on the first season of Lost, posted a lengthy essay on his blog recently – discussing the old accusation that the series’ writers were just “making it up as we went along”. For me, the essay went a long way to explain a fundamental truth – writing for television is nearly always being made up as it goes along. That’s the nature of television production.

Grillo-Marxauch does a great job at explaining the pressure the writing staff were under to build that first season on the back of an incredible pilot episode – a pilot that wasn’t necessarily written to begin the story they ended up telling. The premise of the pilot is low concept – people surviving a plane crash on a remote island. The TV series is high concept – it’s science fiction and melodrama.

There are elements in the pilot that point to those elements of science fiction and melodrama, but where the story was headed was not planned before the pilot. Planning began in earnest once the pilot was in production. I found Lost incredibly frustrating for the first season, enough that I gave up on the show. There were a lot of questions posed, but very few answers in that first year. The second season threw up a bunch of new characters, but the show – if the writers knew where it was headed – didn’t satisfy me enough. Not until the end of the third season, when the showrunners knew they had three more seasons left to wrap up the narrative did the writing and the characters come into sharper focus.

And I watched from there until the end, each successive season building on what came before. But year one was still shifting sands.

There’s a new documentary been released called “Showrunners” – about the men and women who create television series and oversee every aspect of writing and production. Joss Whedon is likely the most famous showrunner in recent memory – having made and run Buffy, Angel and Firefly. He also created Dollhouse and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which is run by his brother Jed.

A lot of avid viewers and fans are so engaged with TV series these days that showrunners have gained a level of fame that was unusual even ten years ago. Social media has allowed viewers to interact with these creators – and fans know they are the ones with the answers. Showrunners are more engaged with fans because they have to be – a lot of them go to ComicCon to sell their shows and new seasons to their committed audience.

The documentary focuses on the day-to-day running of TV series, mostly focused on Bones and the success and failure of TV new series (at the time of the doco’s production) House of Lies and Men of a Certain Age. What it mostly reveals is how time consuming the job of showrunner is, without any real insights into the creation of TV narratives.

But, it does prove Grillo-Marxauch’s point about making things up as you go along – given the time constraints and the long hours, once you’re into a production schedule that lasts ten months of the year, it becomes harder and harder to plan ahead. Especially on network series that produce 22 episodes a year, where writing might begin in June, but shooting will begin soon after and the showrunner must find the time to write and produce.

Even from my experience on Sonnigsburg, which we absolutely hoped to have written – at least to first draft stage - by the beginning of filming, as soon as production had started, writing had to take a back seat sometimes. Our showrunner and Executive Producer, Fiona Bulle, had to oversee casting and scheduling and location scouting. As well as having to write episode five, having already written and re-written the pilot to production quality.

Our series is only six episodes long, because we’re working with a small budget in our off-hours. Premium cable dramas – like Mad Men or Breaking Bad – are usually thirteen episodes per season. Having listened to a few episodes of the Nerdist Writers’ Panel recently, it seems these thirteen episode series have about the same amount of time as network dramas – giving them more time to get the script written and right.

BBC Dramas come in different shapes and sizes, depending on the stories they want to tell. I’ve just finished watching the first two series of The Fall – starring Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan. Series one was five episodes. Series two was six. The third and probably final series will be five episodes long. Creator/writer/director Alan Cubitt clearly knows the story he wants to tell and how long it will take to tell.

But is he just making it up as he goes along? Almost certainly. Is that a bad thing? Not really, but I think the series is a clear indication of the trouble with a lot of TV shows – they have great concepts for one year but aren’t sure how to proceed beyond that.

The first series of The Fall is tight and gripping – we follow the daily routine of both the detective on the case (Gillian Anderson) and the serial killer she is tracking (Jamie Dornan). The writing is smart and clever. The direction is stunning. And had it finished with episode five and never returned? I can imagine some people would have found it unsastisfying on a plot level, but in a way I was emotionally satisfied.

But I was glad there was a second series to watch. And, thanks to Netflix, I could just press play and keep going.

Because the first season of The Fall was so tightly plotted and well executed, the second season feels a lot more loose – trying to find focus with character and plot. There were a lot of threads left hanging after the first year, particularly as far as evidence the police hadn’t yet found, but the premiere of year two does a bit of regression to get the characters back to where they were before.

I think the second year of The Fall is great, but it had a lot to live up to after the first year’s success. But it also does things you expect from a crime drama, mines some old cliches and was rarely as surprising to me as the first five episodes. It was, however, a very tense cat and mouse game between Gibson and Spector.

No series, save Babylon 5, ever had the luxury of planning its entire series’ narrative arc before production began. Even B5 needed to switch horses midstream with a change of leading men, but most television is made up as it goes along. That’s the nature of television production.

I don’t mean to pick on The Fall. I think it’s extraordinary. Up there with the best of the best. When a show is so great from the beginning, even one step down can magnify its flaws. And, besides, it’s the last show I watched – so it’s at the forefront of my mind. I literally just finished series two when I started to write this.

I love the ongoing narratives of television series, but sometimes shows run too long and they lose what made them so great to begin with. I’ll be happy to see a third series of Stella Gibson and Paul Spector, but I hope it’s not dragged out too long – the story has ended really well twice. Let’s hope it can end well a third and final time.

As for the ending of Lost - I found it really satisfying, where a lot of people who watched and enjoyed from the beginning were upset.

And the ending of Sonnigsburg? So far, so good. If season two ever happens, let's hope we have a lot of time to make it all up as we go along.

Monday, 30 March 2015

See, Watch, Hear: March 2015

A monthly round-up of what I've seen, watched and listened to. This month I'll talk about the best-of-the-best in each category and then give a quick overview of the rest.

SEE

I went to Adelaide in early March for another season of my show Who Are You Supposed to Be, which got great houses and a 4.5 star review from the Adelaide Theatre Guide.

I love being in Adelaide at Fringe time - the atmosphere is great; so many shows, so many creative people, so many people I know from Melbourne putting shows on there.


Spotlight on... Bryony Kimmings: Sex Idiot & Fake It 'til you Make It

I missed Sex Idiot when it was on at the Melbourne Comedy Festival last year, so I was excited that I was going to get to see it in Adelaide. Such a fun, confronting, honest piece of theatre from someone I'd heard such great things about. It's fun to sit in an audience that has no idea what it's in for - I'd had some idea - and to be taken on a wild ride that is as hilarious as it is sexy as it is gutsy.

I'd heard great things about Kimmings new show, Fake It 'til you Make It, in Adelaide but I waited to see it back in Melbourne at Theatre Works. The show is about Kimming's boyfriend and his depression. It's an even more remarkable feat than Sex Idiot. For Fake It, her boyfriend - not a performer - is the focus of the show and on stage the whole time, hiding behind masks. And for a show about depression, it's delicate and considerate, hilarious and moving.

It's hard to describe Kimming's work without saying what's happening on stage. She's a performance artist, which makes her part actor, part dancer, part theatre-maker. The songs make it feel like cabaret and then they make it feel like a musical. And then it's something else entirely.

Fake It is on at Theatre Works as part of the Comedy Festival. And you will laugh. But the fact it's been programmed as part of MICF is a stroke of genius - because it'll sneak up on some people and give them something they never expected.

And the performers will be there at the end to make sure you're safe and looked after.

Elsewhere... Bec Hill's stand-up show was a great start to my Adelaide Fringe experience this year. She's hilarious. East End Cabaret was a smart and crazy show, too. Showgirl Addiction was a sexy night of burlesque. A Butterfly Effect was some clever improvisation, as was The Ronin.

Also in Adelaide, as part of the Adelaide Festival, I got to see the State Theatre Company of South Australia's Beckett Triptych - Eh Joe, Footfalls and Krapp's Last Tape. These productions were exquisitely realised, Krapp being the absolute highlight of the night. I'm so glad I got to see this production.

Back in Melbourne, the Comedy Festival has started - and so far, apart from Fake It, I've also seen Sarah Bennetto's Funeral which was some adorable lunacy and Innes Lloyd's Men of Your Dreams, which was clever and ridiculous - I'll leave it up to you to decide which part was Innes and which was Lloyd! Heh.

WATCH


Spotlight on... Netflix

I haven't actually watched much on Netflix yet - a bunch of episodes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine and, let's say, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I recommend both highly, though their senses of humour are entirely different.

Netflix, of course, will revolutionise TV watching in Australia as it has done in the US. There might not be as much content on our version in comparion, but there's still more than enough to watch. I'm already eyeing off The Fall, Bloodline, House of Cards Season Three and, coming soon, Daredevil. Even just their original programming is enough to justify the monthly fee, but with the addition of shows I've just never gotten around to watching, Netflix is going to have me stuck to the couch a lot.

From traditional television...

There's been a few articles recently about how The Americans is the best show on television, but I'm not quite up-to-date with it, so I haven't actually read those articles. But, I basically agree with the premise. A+

Justified's final season is one of its best years and with only three episodes to go and no idea where it's headed, I'm so glad to see it going out on top.

Broad City is hilarious. Episodes' fourth season was a disaster. How to Get Away With Murder is downright crazy, but I love it. Looking's second and final season was a disappointment to me, but I'm glad to hear it will get a wrap-up special sometime.

And I seem to have taken a month off from my Wonder Years rewatch.

HEAR


Spotlight on... Radio Lab's Fu-Go

The less said about this episode, the better. It's an extraordinary piece of World War II history that is barely known, because word of it was suppressed by the US government at the time. Even now, the story - and its suppression - brings up great questions about what the media should and shouldn't report - and what effect reporting and not reporting can have. Can it make us safer or make us more prone to panic? Either way, it's a fascinating curio about a silent invasion.

Other podcasts

I listened to a lot of Radio Lab this month: Patient Zero, In the Dust of this Planet, For the Love of Numbers, Brown Box and - my favourite - Quicksaaaand!

The highlight of This American Life this month was Three Miles, though it was thoroughly depressing, as well.



Sunday, 1 March 2015

See, Watch, Hear: February 2015

A monthly round-up post of what I’ve seen on stage, watched on film or TV and listened-to podcast-wise.

SEE

Just like in January, I only saw two things on stage: WOT? NO FISH!! at the Malthouse – which is an exquisite little show about a Jewish family’s history in the east end of London, stretching from the 1920s through the 1980s and right up until now. Danny Braverman is an engaging performer, who brings his great uncles’ sketches to life in a charming and sometives very moving way.

I also saw Flesh Eating Tiger at the Owl & Pussycat. This is the first show at the Owl & Pussycat, under co-Artistic Directorship of Gabrielle Savrone & Thomas Ian Doyle. Previous artistic director Jason Kavanagh has returned to direct this new work by American playwright, Amy Tofte. Really great performances by Zak Zavod and Marissa Bennett. A solid start to a new year at the Owl & Cat.

Wot? No Fish!!


WATCH

Film

The Academy Awards were on this past week and I’d probably seen the least number of nominees before the ceremony than I ever had before. I’d only seen three of the Best Picture nominees – and I’m glad that Birdman won. Though I would have liked to have seen Boyhood take a prize or two.

I saw Julianne Moore’s Academy Award-winning performance in Still Alice just the day before she won. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Moore give a bad performance and not here, either. I just didn’t think much of the film, overall. Odd that she would be finally honoured for a film that is not a patch on the films she’s previously been nominated for.

Julianne Moore in Still Alice


Television

Parks & Recreation is over and it went out in an emotional one-hour finale. It used a clever structure to really pay off seven years of a sitcom that, at the height of its powers, was one of the best on television.

Agent Carter had quite a strong first season and wrapped up in solid fashion. I really hope it gets another season, because I’d hate to never see Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter again.

I caught up on Galavant, which was a bunch of silly fun. Better Call Saul started really strongly. Looking continues to impress. And The Americans & Justified have returned, and are still exciting in their own ways. Oh, and I hadn’t noticed Episodes was back – so I’m catching up on that.

And I must say that the fifth season of The Wonder Years on DVD is very odd – mostly because early 90s TV really doesn’t care much for continuity, plus it had sidelined most of its regular characters to focus on Kevin and a bunch of new kids. Weird.

Parks & Recreation - the final season


HEAR

This American Life is never dull – and their two-part episode “Cops See It Differently” is a fascinating insight into how police see recent news stories very differently than most of the general public. It’s engrossing and depressing.

Invisibilia’s “The Power of Categories” was a highlight from that series.

Scriptnotes’ interview with African American screenwriter Malcolm Spellman (who writes for the series, Empire) is incredible: he talks about the evolution of his career and they discuss writing black scripts and black series and how the landscape is changing. Highly recommended.

And I’ve started Pleasuretown, a serial drama podcast. I’ll have more to say when I’m done with the first season, I’m sure.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

"See, I'm Smiling": THE LAST FIVE YEARS from stage to screen

Jeremy Jordan & Anna Kendrick, The Last Five Years

When I wrote my review of Into the Woods, I thought a lot about adapting stage shows to film – and whether or not the musical genre, in particular, is next-to-impossible to translate to the big screen. If something is written with the stage in mind, sometimes it can be hard to open it up on film – and sometimes opening it up breaks the fragile reality created on stage.

Stage plays can suffer the move from stage to screen because plays are often static – a couple of scene changes or a small number of fixed sets. August: Osage County presented a large ensemble family drama on one set, but the film insisted on opening things up – and an odd tonal shift. God of Carnage benefited from the claustrophobia of one set; a film in one location is anathema to the form, but then the tension of the story can be lost.

Musicals, by their very nature, are theatrical. Singing the story isn’t natural, but it’s no more odd on stage than minimalist sets or a curtain or seeing a show in the round. This is not to say musicals can’t work on film, but as musicals have evolved, they are playing more and more with stage conventions – making the translation to film much more difficult.

The film version of Into the Woods struggled with a massive change in tone from Act 1 to Act 2. The film eschews the act break, obviously, but into trying to streamline the two parts into one whole, the shift is jarring – it doesn’t feel like a new chapter, it feels like a sudden left turn. Even some of the humour that works so beautifully on stage seemed to be missing in the film – a lot of the time it just felt like a joke played on stage just wouldn’t work the same in close up on a giant screen.

Today I watched the film version of another of my favourite musicals, The Last Five Years. In most ways, it survives the move from the stage to cinema. In many ways, it elevates the material – making a very rich film, indeed. 

Like Into the Woods, I’ve seen three productions of The Last Five Years – though I missed the Off-Broadway revival, and all three versions I’ve seen have been from amateur theatre companies. Though with varying definitions of what constitutes amateur. Just quickly: one production had a great Jamie, one production had a great Cathy and one production had an awful director. If we take it as written that Jason Robert Brown’s book, lyrics and score are stunning – and they really are – the show obviously relies on the other three pieces for it to work.

The Last Five Years is the story of Jamie and Cathy – their five year relationship, from beginning to end. Cathy’s songs tell their relationship from end to beginning. Alternating between Cathy’s songs are Jamie’s, which tell their relationship from beginning to end. They meet at the middle, when Jamie proposes and the two get married.

The film doesn’t struggle with the theatrical conceit of dual timelines, nor does it try to explain it. It just is how it is. It took me a few times of listening to the original Off-Broadway score to really appreciate how well-structured the show is and how everything fits chronologically. And when you have time and the inclination to think about it, it works – but the film (and the best stage productions) knows that you don’t need to understand how it all fits together, to realise it’s just about how these two characters are going in different directions.

On stage, the two actors are rarely on stage together. In the film, they are often singing to each other. My fear was that where the stage show isolates the two characters, seeing them together might rob the story of its power. It’s almost the opposite; the way the scenes are staged, we still see how isolated the characters become to each other, even when they are in the same room. There are scenes where it’s even more powerful than the stage version, because we can see how Cathy and Jamie really aren’t listening to each other.

In looking at Into the Woods, I was struck by the fact the film had some very well-staged songs – and some that were awful. Many of them were pedestrian. They might have been well sung, but they didn’t necessarily feel like great moments of film. Into the Woods might have been opened up, but it doesn’t transcend its stage origins.

The Last Five Years feels like one coherent piece. There are a couple of songs where I think the staging gets in the way, but most of them are strong – and the use of film language by director Richard LaGravenese, elevates the whole piece. 

Where minimalism works on stage, the fact that the director puts the show solidly into reality is a bonus. Where Cathy writes letters from Ohio in the theatre, in the film, she and Jamie Skype. This is partly due to the change in time since the show was first produced in 2002. But obviously Skype is much more visual. (There are a couple important letters still in the film – one of which bookends the film, the other appears as a post-it note.)

A lot of film musicals seems to fetishise the singing, over making it visually interesting. The film version of Les Miserables took this to the extreme – live singing on set, extreme close-ups on mouths. LaGravenese knows that we can listen to the lyrics, without having to see the actors mouth it. While I think the song “Shiksa Goddess” is a little bit too over-cooked with visual flair, remembering that we are watching actors means that Jamie can interact with Cathy without being bound by the fact the next lyric is coming along.

This happens throughout the film. LaGravenese isn’t worried about the audience, he trusts them. In some ways, because we are seeing things happening, we don’t need to hear every lyric. It’s fun to hear Cathy think/sing “why is the director staring at his crotch” – and this is one of those times where it’s also funny to see it. But early in the film when Cathy sings about “sitting on this pier”, it seems oddly heavy-handed to actually have them sitting on the pier.

Some lyrics have been changed because the references are dated. Some have been changed just to excise a few uses of the word “fuck”. On stage, there is very little dialogue. On film, there’s still very little dialogue – but the additional dialogue fits with the piece and most times even enhances it. Perhaps allowing LaGravenese to script the film meant he could break it open in a way that composer and creator Jason Robert Brown might not have been able to; sometimes you’re too close to your original conception. And Brown directed the recent Off-Broadway revival, so I’m glad the film got fresh eyes that enhanced the piece.

I haven’t even talked about the actors yet. And where to begin? The thing about a two-hander stage show is that both characters need to be equally strong and both actors up to the challenge. And a match for each other. The thing about the story of The Last Five Years is that every time I see it or listen to the score, I appreciate different things about each character. If you wanted to particularly analyse whether Jamie or Cathy is most at fault of their relationship breakdown, I could give you a dozen reasons from both sides of the arguement. Sometimes I come away thinking Jamie is the problem. Sometimes I think it’s Cathy. Seeing it on stage, your perception could change every night. Film seems like it might be a bit more fixed.

I’ve only watched the film once so far, but I cannot imagine a more perfect match than Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan. I went in expecting that Kendrick would be adorable and Jordan would be a bit jerky – because those are the parts I have seen them play so well before. I was worried that I would automatically side with Cathy over Jamie. And while who is at fault isn’t actually the point of the story, it’s part of what makes the show so rich. Sometimes you sympathise with him more than her. Or her over him.

A lot of people will talk about Kendrick claiming the mantle she has been working toward her entire career. And they aren’t wrong. She gives a layered performance in Cathy that is quite stunning. Sure, she relies on her charm and cheeriness in a few scenes, but there are dramatic depths here that I never expected to see. Not that I didn’t expect her to be a great Cathy, but she found moments that I had never seen in the character before. It may not be surprising that Kendrick shone, but it is surprising that she has made Cathy her own. This is a performance for the ages.

But the whole thing cannot hold together without an equally stunning performance from Jordan. If Kendrick claims a mantle she’s been striving toward, Jordan strides in and takes the seat alongside her. Not that he does it effortlessly. Not that the jerky self-confidence he’s shown in other roles allows him to slide easily into the role of Jamie. The character is I think harder to pin down; he shifts all over the place. Jordan does everything he’s supposed to and then does more. He’s a revelation, particularly with the song “Nobody Needs to Know” – it’s devastating.

I could probably break down this film from scene to scene, moment to moment and talk about all the choices they made – the director and his two stars. I could talk about costumes and sets. I could talk about musical orchestration and sound design. (Seriously, one of the great moments is when Cathy snaps her compact shut, just before one audition – another moment where the sounds of reality creep in, where in lesser hands we would have only focused on the song she was singing and the music underneath.)

Here’s the thing – if there’s a particularly high degree of difficulty in moving a stage musical to film, that’s probably more likely to happen with a two-act blockbuster than it is a two-hand, one-act chamber piece. The Last Five Years has all the songs from the stage show and it still runs only 90 minutes. There’s no “unnatural” break to fix or forget. There are two characters and their two stories and five years of their lives.

If Jamie is “Moving Too Fast” and Cathy is “Climbing Up Hill,” the film is neither - effortlessly bringing us into their world.

If Into the Woods was not good and not bad, but just nice, The Last Five Years broke my heart but kept me happy. See, I’m smiling.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

See, Watch, Hear: January 2015


This year, I’m going to do a monthly round-up post called “See, Watch, Hear” covering the highlights in what I’ve seen on stage, watched on film or TV and listened to podcast-wise.


SEE

I’ve only seen two things on stage so far this year: I, Malvolio which I found disappointing, because I never engaged with it at all. Charming performance, but lacklustre show. 

Whereas Jumpers for Goalposts was a strong play, with a likeable cast in a sharp production at Red Stitch. I heard great things about the show last year and I’m glad I got to see the return season during Midsumma.

Red Stitch’s 2015 season looks really strong, too – so I’m going to try to get along to more of their shows this year. They really do produce some of the most exciting text-focused works in Melbourne.

Jumpers for Goalposts at Red Stitch

WATCH

Television

Parks & Recreation has returned for its seventh and final season and I’m looking forward to seeing how it wraps up. I think the overall quality of the six episodes so far has been quite variable but “Ron & Leslie” was so strong, it almost made up for it single-handedly.

Archer is back and might not be at its height, but it’s still hilarious – if a little predictable. Revenge is in full-blown soap territory now, but I am still enjoying the hell out of it. Looking isn’t quite as strong in its second season, but happy to watch where this season goes. Agent Carter is kicking arse, even if it won’t change the world.

The Daily Show is strong, but The Nightly Show is very shaky – I hope it picks up soon, but right now I can’t imagine watching it for much longer.

I finished a rewatch of Mad Men in preparation for its final season in May. And rewatched the second season of Hannibal before its third-season return later in the year. And I’m into the fifth season of The Wonder Years on DVD, which I mostly haven’t seen since it aired in 1991.

Archer season six

Film

Birdman is an incredible experience, which I enjoyed on multiple levels – just as a film, but also as a technical achievement, as well as making me really feel like I was in that place. It was a New York I felt like I knew.

Selma is an incredible film that takes the story of the Selma marches with Martin Luther King and really shows us how far Civil Rights have come in the half century since those events too place – as well as how much still has to change.

Into the Woods was better the second time I saw it.

Oh yeah, I finally saw Guardians of the Galaxy, which was a hell of a lot of fun.

Birdman, starring Michael Keaton

HEAR

This American Life is the high-water mark for podcasts, so it’s a wonder anything else can live up to it. After Serial last year, I got back into This American Life as a regular listener – as well as diving into their archives. May I recommend “180 Degrees”, “It Never Ends”, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, SAY IT IN ALL CAPS”.

After the “Batman” episode of This American Life, I started listening to Invisibilia – and I have mixed feelings. Each episode often has one strong story and one weak story. But I like the concept. Recommend: Histoy of Thought’s “Locked in Man” and Fearless’ “World without fear”.

I also listen to Scriptnotes, a weekly podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. And I tried out a couple of episodes of Bald Move's Mad Men podcast after my rewatch.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

And Gina Torres as Indiana Jones





A female Doctor. A black James Bond. Four female ghostbusters. And Chris Pratt as Indiana Jones.

One of these things is not like the other. Also, the first two haven’t happened yet. 

The last one is both a surprise and not a surprise. Remaking or rebooting Indiana Jones seems like a no-win situation; people love those movies and still watch them. Do they really need to capture a new audience when the films are already 80s action adventure pastiches of 30s movie serials?

Casting everyone’s new movie boyfriend, Chris Pratt, is probably the most obvious – and dull – choice that could have been made. His character of Starlord in Guardians of the Galaxy is very Han Solo-esque, just a bit of a dick. And he’s just about to star in Jurassic World, another Spielberg franchise. It’s predictble and it’s probably the smartest and safest choice.

That’s what makes me excited about the new line-up for the next Ghostbusters film. If you’re going to remake something, go all the way. If you can’t get the originals back for a long-wondered-about third installment, start again. Be bold. Cast women.

But the Doctor has always been a man. But James Bond has always been white.

But the characters who fight ghosts with proton packs in New York City, they... see? Why not?

And you think the director of Bridesmaids teaming up with Melissa McCarthy for the third time and bringing along three Saturday Night Live alumni isn’t a really smart way to honour the original?

Theatre-makers both locally and internationally talk about gender and racial diversity on our stages. We talk about it a lot. We talk about systemic bias. We talk about colour-blind casting. We talk about casting white guys as the King of Siam.
 
We talk. A lot.

I don’t think the discussion happens in film as much. I certainly don’t see things changing on film very quickly. I think American television is getting much better at telling diverse stories. When Orange is the New Black won for Best Ensemble at the SAG awards this week, more non-white women took home SAG trophies in that one night than in the entire history of the awards before.

I think Australian television needs to look beyond its various shades of white, something we kept in mind during casting for Sonnigsburg.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences was criticised recently for it’s entirely white line-up for each of the four acting categories. Someone pointed out that the 1939 Oscars were more racially diverse, given Hattie McDaniel’s win for Gone with the Wind. 76 years later, we can still have years that seem like  throwback to a century ago.

Right now, it’s too early to tell what the new Ghostbusters is going to be like. There’s no point overthinking it. Bad enough judging a film by its trailer, let alone its casting announcement. Except, of course, that in comparison to Chris Pratt as Indiana Jones, four female ghostbusters is kind of revolutionary.

Film studios are very protective of their properties. They don’t like to take risks and there isn’t a lot of opportunity to mix it up when it comes to their big name franchises. There have been more men step foot on the moon than have played James Bond. In comparison, there have been more men play the Doctor than have been on the moon. Still, though – all white guys.

Stage gets to be a bit more daring. Indigenous Lear. Female Glengarry Glen Ross. Black, male Witch in Into the Woods. Because there’s always another chance to have a go. And yet, with all the productions of Hamlet I’ve ever seen – I still have yet to see a woman in the role.

Tom Baker joked about a female Doctor when he left the role in 1981, but only recently has it seemed like a possibility. The co-chair of Sony Pictures, Amy Pascal, is on record as wanting Idris Elba in the role ofJames Bond. And as I keep saying, these are your new “Ghostbusters”.


If Hollywood must keep mining their back catalogues and rebooting their franchises. If Bond gets to live to fight another day, if the Doctor regenerates forever, why not take a chance on who plays them next? If stage actors all want to play Hamlet, why not let all film actors strive to be James Bond?

And why not let Gina Torres play Indiana Jones? It's a gender-neutral name, after all.


* thanks for Jill Weinberger for the suggestion of Gina Torres as Indiana Jones. Follow Jill on Twitter.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

2014: Tiring but satisfying


On the set of Sonnigsburg, episode 3.


2014 has been a big year for me. I am tired, exhausted, drained. But there’s also an extraordinary feeling of accomplishment that goes with everything I’ve done this year. More so than most years, I was very focused. I had to be, because I had so many things going on. Having multiple projects on the go, in various stages of development, taught me how to prioritise and how to make the most of my time.

I am often called prolific, but I’m not always disciplined. I like to have multiple projects on the go so that if I’m stuck on one, I can move onto another. Sometimes that just means I procrastinate with one thing by working on another, which might lead to lots of writing but not necessarily good outcomes.

This year there were deadlines: for submissions, for grants, for rehearsals and for production. Deadlines keep me focused. Deadlines keep me honest. Deadlines aren’t always met, but at least when I miss them I’m usually most of the way there. Just give me another week. I’ll definitely have it done in another week.

There were a couple of projects that stalled this year – because of missed-out-on grants, because of other people’s workloads and because of my workload. I’ll pick up a couple of those next year and see what happens. Given how much work I did have this year, it’s silly to gripe about work that didn’t happen. But the projects that didn’t go forward, I’m still invested in them – I don’t want them to just go away.

But the projects that did happen, the goals that were achieved, the development that continued – I am so thankful that I work with such amazing people, continue to be supported in doing what I love doing.

Doctor on Doctor action: spoilers for Who Are You Supposed to Be
Thank you to everyone involved in Sonnigsburg. This has been an amazing learning experience and continues to be. Can’t wait to show it to everyone in 2015, but so happy to be involved in such a great project. And thanks to everyone who has given to our fundraiser, so far.

Thank you to everyone involved in Who Are You Supposed to Be at Melbourne Fringe. It was lovely to finally see the show, after it premiered at Edinburgh last year. It was also great to get so many people along to the show, particularly people who wouldn’t normally attend a Fringe show.

Thank you to those who brought The Riverbank, Once More to life as part of Play Six. It’s so wonderful to be able to step back from my work and leave it to others to bring it to life. (If I hadn’t been so busy, I might have seen a rehearsal, but no such luck.) A lovely little production that I wish more people could have seen.

Thank you to all those who took part in the research reading of A Modern Superwoman at Playwrights Horizons in New York in June. To be able to work with such amazing actors and director on the other side of the world and present it to a select audience was a very special experience. Thanks to those of you who attended and gave me such great feedback after.

Thank you to my producer and director on The Dead End. Thanks for knowing when we should step back and when to regroup and keep going. Thanks for being encouraging. Sorry about the missed deadline.

Thank you to all the great people I met in Los Angeles and New York this year, many of whom I’ve only known through Twitter and Facebook before now. And thanks to my friend Lana, who traveled with me and introduced me to a lot of her amazing friends, too.

Thanks to Augusta, who offered me her spare room on my impromptu visit to Sydney for a theatre binge.

And thanks to the amazing Melbourne theatre community – those who make it, those who see it and those with whom I can discuss it afterward.

I fit a lot of things into 2014, some of which are certain to pay off in 2015. Some of which will continue to grow. This has been a crazy full-on year that won’t soon be forgotten, but I would like some rest now. But I still have to do my day job this week.

And I’ve still got some writing to do before the end of the year.