Monday, 21 July 2014

In the context of rational madness: THE BOOK OF LOCO


How do you tell a life in 90 minutes?

How do you give the audience enough context to tell even one story from a life in the same amount of time?

The Book of Loco is a semi-autobiographical monologue by Alirio Zavarce, covering what he terms “rational madness” – bizarre things some of us accept because we don’t (or can’t) know any better. It’s all about context.

In the context of Zavarce’s “book of loco”, a notebook he carries around to keep track of the stories of his life, we get to know him quite well. Depending on how semi this autobiographical show is.

Did he really get pulled over by customs officials over a reinforced suitcase? Did he really get interrogated on another return trip over the “convenient excuse” of his mother’s cancer? Did his marriage really collapse on September 11, 2001?

The Book of Loco is theatre, of course. It’s a performance. And it’s very theatrical. The set is a large stack of boxes. But inside those boxes are the stories of a life. Some of the stories are whimsical. Some of them are terrifying. Some are just awful.

But Zavarce and his director, Sasha Zahra, keep things moving – and keep the audience on edge by having Zavarce interact from even before the lights go down. Even that is a trick. The lights go up on the audience several times during the show. The line between performance and real life is thin. Just as the line between rationality and madness can be.

The show isn’t just about one life, though. It’s about stories and the context we hear them in. So in a show that also touches on terrorism and plane crashes, this show had a whole new context on Friday night – after having listened to the news all day about flight MH17 being blown up over Ukraine. We all come to theatre with our own life stories to inform us. But sometimes we come in with the same story in the front of our minds.

The Book of Loco, after the events of last week, was both upsetting and exhilarating. In any context.


The Book of Loco plays at the Malthouse Theatre until August 2.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Inevitability: The rise and the dawn of the Planet of the Apes


I think one of the hardest narrative tricks to pull off is writing a story to an inevitable conclusion. A conclusion that the audience knows is coming. Some authors want you to know; Shakespeare tells us that his two star crossed lovers take their lives in the prologue of Romeo & Juliet. It’s a tragedy and you’re waiting to see how that falls into place.

Prequels suffer a similar pressure; we know what’s coming, but what happens on the way there. And if we're already emotionally invested in the outcome, maybe we won't care about what came before? David Lynch’s Fire Walk With Me tells the last week of Laura Palmer’s life; the object of Twin Peaks becomes the subject of the film. The dread comes from seeing what we know to be true come true.

When Rise of the Planet of the Apes was released in 2011, it had a lot to live up to – The Planet of the Apes is a classic of the genre, as well as having one of the most famous endings in the history of film. In fact, its ending is so well known, people who haven’t seen the movie will still recognise the indelible image of the Statue of Liberty.

But Rise also had a pitfall to avoid. Tim Burton’s 2001 remake was not very well received and for good reason – it had no real reason to exist. It seemed to have no purpose and no real point of view. Burton’s film also tries to outdo the original’s twist ending and it is laughable.

Rise and its sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, are playing toward the ending of the original film – there are seeds planted in the first prequel that will lead to an astronaut landing on the Planet of the Apes, in a film that is due in 2016. And to that end, we are watching a tragedy and the pieces fall into place.

I think that’s fitting for a pair of films that is so critical of modern society and, in particular, our treatment of animals. They are not saying that war can be avoided. They are not saying we can defeat the worst parts of our nature. These films are saying that, well, power corrupts. In fact, even in ape society, they fish and subjugate horses. And there are apes that are in power and apes that want to wrest that power away.

The parallels between the humans and apes in this story are drawn clearly but with subtlety. We are certainly not lectured to. And the filmmakers know that the best way to tell this story is to find a balance; in fact, much of the first act explores the ape society – the mere appearance of a human being is the first significant narrative turn in Dawn. But by then, we are emotionally engaged with Ceasar and his family and their society.

Andy Serkis is stunning in the role of Ceasar, helped enormously by the CGI artists involved in bringing all the apes to life. Well, to be honest, the CGI is so life-like these days, some of those scenes might have been guys in suits. But don’t even tell me if you know. I think maybe they found apes who could act.


Rise was a stunning achievement – a reinvention of the Apes mythology for the twenty-first century. Dawn is an even greater feat – building on what had come before, in Rise, and toward what we know is inevitable. The Planet of the Apes. Set for release in 2016.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Sonnigsburg: Day One


Late in 2013, Fiona Bulle had an idea for a television show – and we’re just about ready to start shooting it. Today, though, was a table read of Episode One, with as much of the cast and crew and we could get together on this chilly Melbourne Sunday.

It’s been seven months since Fiona corralled a group of four writers into a room and we started throwing ideas around. Sonnigsburg will be a six-part supernatural drama that is scheduled to air on Channel 31 in 2015. And the writers room was a new experience for all of us. Early on we decided who would take ownership of what episodes – and then it was a matter of pitching the kind of stories we wanted to tell and the kind of characters we wanted to populate the series.

Sonnigsburg is a mystery; a town in the woods that hasn’t been visited for seventy years. Or so the legend goes. Nearby is the town of Mount Sunshine – and it’s there that our main character stops on her way to research Sonnigsburg. Savannah’s ex has called her out of the blue, desperate for help – but when Savannah arrives in town and her past begins to catch up with her, she realises that the residents of Mount Sunshine are haunted by their pasts, too.

Fiona, our creator and Executive Producer, wrote the pilot episode that begins shooting next week in Walhalla – a town in country Victoria that bills itself as “the most haunted town in Australia”. Perfectly fitting for our supernatural drama.

Today was our first opportunity to get most of the cast and crew together; to meet, hang out, get to know each other a bit better – and have a read through of the first script. It was great to finally hear the whole script being read by our amazing cast of actors.

I’ll post semi-regular updates about the production process here, but you can also follow our Facebook page, Twitter account and Instagram. There will be a website soon enough as well.


Sonnigsburg - [Official Teaser Trailer] from GLENN - DARK EPIC productions on Vimeo.

Sonnigsburg will be produced by Rock Bottom Productions and Wrongtown Films with assistance from the Community Broadcast Fund and Channel 31.

Sonnigsburg was created and written by Fiona Bulle, Alex Scott, Meaghan Bell and Keith Gow

Sonnigsburg stars Ann Troung, Don Bridges, Dushan Philips, Maree Shefford, Soren Jensen, Nadia Andary, Gavin Williams, Juliene Vanner, Sam Eddy, Petra Elliott and Ian Stenlake. With Eryn Saunders, Ethan Oppy and Olivia Sprague.

Friday, 4 July 2014

“That was pretty good for a play”; Roald Dahl’s THE WITCHES on stage

Above is a quote from one young audience member, even before he’d exited the Beckett Theatre at the Malthouse. I don’t know what other experience he’d had with plays; ‘pretty good’ might mean that he wasn’t really impressed with other stage shows he’s seen. Or maybe he just didn’t know what to expect from a one-man version of Roald Dahl’s The Witches.

The theatre was basically full, mostly of parents and their children – some of whom were delighted by their interaction with actor Guy Edmonds before the show even began. The boy sitting next to me – who would later become part of the play, as a Witch – was talking to his mother about what he was expecting. Or, rather, they were discussing how they thought Edmonds might pull off different parts of the story.

“How is he going to become the witch, do you think?” his mother asked.

“Masks, probably.” He was quite confident.

“What about the mice? How do you think he’ll do the mice?”

The boy thought for a while and figured out that Edmonds might just crawl around on the floor. The answer to how he “does” the mice is what makes the show such fun – and I won’t give it away here, but he uses three different techniques to bring the mice to life, each more thrilling than the last.


For a show that runs for fifty minutes, it’s full of invention that many plays of twice the length can lack. The script and direction are tight. Edmonds performance is so full of energy – as you might expect, but also clever and layered. The twist and turns of his body and voice as the various characters act and interact was precise but also felt spontaneous. There was so much life in a show that could feel like just a technical accomplishment in lesser hands.

I don’t know what children expect when they go to the theatre. I see so much theatre, I come in with baggage – it’s been so long since I’ve read The Witches or seen the film that I really wish I’d remembered it better. But the conversations I overheard before and those I heard after meant that whatever these kids wanted, they got something they really enjoyed.

I expected to have fun. I didn’t expect to be grinning from ear-to-ear from beginning to end.

Australian children’s theatre is some of the best in the world. This production of The Witches continues that tradition. Though the show has already played Sydney and closes in Melbourne this weekend, I expect a tour will come soon enough. Because there are a lot more children across Australia to be delighted by this show.


It is pretty good for a play, after all.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Theatre in New York, 2014

Seeing theatre in New York inspires me. Being in a city with such a vibrant theatre culture is exciting. We may have gone slightly overboard to start with – seven shows in four days, but even the ability to be able to do that is thrilling. We slowed down after that, which was good for our sanity and our theatre-going mood. It’s hard to not want to sample everything that New York theatre has to offer, which is impossible – but still tempting.

Here’s some short reviews of the shows I saw.

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Hedwig and the Angry Inch
It’s true that the reason that this production is so great is that Neil Patrick Harris is perfect in the lead role – and he brings the audience along with him. What makes it even better than expected are the tweaks to bring this cabaret show to a Broadway-sized stage, plus – a masterful performance by Lena Hall as Yitzhak, whose character is fleshed out here like never before.


Violet
I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see Sutton Foster on stage, but I went into this show blind – having no idea how beautiful it would be, how sweet and charming and just delightful.

Sleep No More
This show, on the other hand, had a lot of expectation to live up to. Everyone I know who had seen it, loved it. And a version of Macbeth set in a noirish Hitchcockian hotel that is a total immersive experience for the audience – that’s exactly my kind of thing. It was actually better than I expected. From quiet moments of exploring rooms by myself to the wilder banquet room scenes – to the intimate one-on-one moments with an actor in a closet or a phone booth. Unforgettable.


Pippin
I love Diane Paulus’ work – her production of Hair from a few years ago still ranks as a theatre-going highlight. The thing about Pippin is that the show is very messy; there’s some great songs, but the script wants to say things and quite often it come across as heavy-handed. This production makes the show work. This production makes me think more highly of Pippin that I ever have before. And it’s the circus that makes the show fly.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder
Farce is not my thing. There’s a lot to enjoy about this show, in particular Jefferson Mays’ playing multiple roles with relish. But the songs are most unmemorable – and there’s really only one song/sequence where the show was firing on all cylinders for me. But if you like a ridiculous farce and amazing costumes, this is the show for you. It wasn’t the Best Musical of the year though, was it?

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill
Only a couple of days ago I wrote, “If Audra McDonald had not already won six Tony Awards, she would have deserved six Tony Awards for this performance alone.” Though every aspect of this show (direction, production, performance) is note perfect, it is also deceptively simple – Audra is Billie Holiday in the last few months of her life, performing in a South Philly bar. That’s it. But what perfection that performance is. Often you can see the seams of a performance on stage. Not here. Audra becomes Billie.


Heathers
I have a great love of the film version of this 80s high school satire, which I still think is far more biting than any of its imitators since. I went into this musical adaptation with a lot of hesitation; maybe I could enjoy it, but how much? I thought it was great. I enjoyed it a hell of a lot. There is some really clever changes, some awesome songs – and really solid performances. And I was so happy to be front row centre and briefly part of the show. Big fun!

Idina Menzel at Radio City Music Hall
She opens with Defying Gravity and closes with Frozen and in between gives an eclectic performance of songs – from an Ethel Merman medly to a cover of Radiohead’s Creep. Her stage persona is relaxed and silly and fun, which I honestly didn’t expect. She swore. There was a boob slip. And she kept going like the powerhouse performer I expected. And all at Radio City Music Hall. The unplugged version of For Good was another highlight.

If/Then
On the other hand, this show which stars Idina Menzel, is an utter mess. I guess it was written for her and built around her and it’s worth seeing for her performance alone, but – it makes me despair. This show is going to run and run on star power, but most of the songs are bland and most of the characters are cardboard. And given the show’s pedigree, it should have been so much better.

Cabaret
A remount of a twenty-year-old production. But when the production is this good, why not do it again and again? Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall’s “Cabaret” is perfect, especially with Alan Cumming as the Emcee. Design, costume and most of the performances make this a production for the ages. The less said about Michelle Williams as Sally Bowles, the better.


The Cripple of Inishmaan
I love Martin McDonagh’s writing and it was great to see Daniel Radcliffe playing cripple Billy. The script is sharp and funny and the performances were full of the energy that McDonagh’s text needs.

Broadway Bares
Half-naked people singing songs with cameos from Broadway stars to raise money for charity! How can that not be a good time? It was a good time.

Julie Klausner @ Joe’s Pub
I hadn’t heard of Julie Klausner – podcaster and comedy writer – before we booked tickets to see her cabaret show. My friend Lana has been listening to her podcast “How Was Your Week” for a few years – and I’m glad this show popped up on a Monday night while we were in New York, because Klausner is the exact brand of oddball, biting and hilarious that I love on a cabaret stage.

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There are 40 theatres that constitute Broadway. After three visits to NY, I have now been in 20 of them – some multiple times. I don’t think I saw one actor across all three visits, but I did see a different Michael Greif production each time: Next to Normal in 2010, RENT Off-Broadway in 2012 and If/Then in 2014.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Five projects: why I'm only now writing my second blog post of 2014

Where does this lead?
I never have enough time to do everything, but so far this year, I’ve used all my spare time to do the things I want to do. I’m balancing several projects at different stages of development. It’s mid-April, though, and my first blog post was this week – about spoilers and Shakespeare and “Game of Thrones”.

And though I’ve been to see some amazing theatre this year – so far the highlights have been “Neighbourhood Watch” at Melbourne Theatre Company and The Rabble’s “Frankenstein” at the Malthouse – 2014 has been mostly focused on writing. My writing and collaborations. Productions and pre-production. Applications and workshops and improvisation.

I’ve never really believed in writers’ block. I always have more projects that I’d like to work on than time in the day, week or year. Ideas that have bubbled away in the back of my mind for months and years before I’ve committed words to a page. Sometimes I can’t make the small things work. Lines or dialogue or scenes. But I tend to always have ideas waiting to be realised.

And the list of projects I want to get to next grows ever-longer. For example, there’s a new play I want to write – but I don’t think I’ll find the time this year. Uncharacteristically, I wrote the first few pages of (working title) “Asylum” just to get those first few images and ideas onto the page, before putting it on the back-back-back burner. And turned to all the projects that are in full swing.

The Dead End

A feature film script that is still in its very early development stages. I’ve been working on this project with a director and a producer since last year, but after beating out a very rough first draft last year, we’ve decided to step back and take a different approach to the material. There are elements of that script we want to keep, but we want to devise a different story altogether.

For a long time, I put off writing a feature film script. There are two or three in the bottom drawer, that shall never see the light of day. But they feel like training, while The Dead End will be the marathon.

The House of Goodbyes

I’ve been playing with this idea with actor/producer Wallis Murphy-Munn for a while and this is the year we decided to get the ball rolling. Though we’re keeping the details of this project close to our chest, we do have some really great actors on board to help us workshop ideas and characters around our central conceit and concept.

A couple of weekends ago we spent a full day with six actors and lots of improvisations based around the premise I gave them and some vague character outlines. Then I let them go and they worked magic. Excited to have finally kickstarted this one.

Sonnigsburg

A six part TV series I’m developing with writer/producer Fiona Bulle and Alex Scott and Meaghan Bell. Channel 31 are interested in looking at the pilot, which is scheduled for filming in July. But for the first four months of the year so far, the four of us have developed the characters and story in a “writers room” model – which is a new way or working for all of us.

Film and theatre are all very collaborative, but plotting a TV series around a table with three other writers – pushing each other to make it the best it can be, is really exhilarating. If I was working on a project like this by myself, I expect it would have taken a lot longer to get to this point – and be nowhere near the shape it’s in now.

Casting is soon and then I can talk more about what the show is about – and maybe give you a sneak peek at some footage we’ve already shot.

A Modern Superwoman

2013 saw two readings of this work – one in Melbourne and one in Adelaide. This year will see a third research reading much further afield, and plans are afoot for a full weeks’ workshop later in the year. The team that’s been assembled for this project is amazing, but there’s not much more I can say about what will happen next. But it’s been at the forefront of my mind for much of the past twelve months and will continue to be for the next twelve months.

Who Are You Supposed To Be?

After its debut at Edinburgh Fringe last year to great reviews and solid audiences – and a short successful run in London a few months later, this show will have its Australian premiere at Melbourne Fringe in September/October. We’re currently searching for a venue and planning marketing strategies. And I’m going to settle in sometime this weekend to do a little bit of a re-write, having learned things from the two previous seasons – and knowing that some pop culture references are very well dated a year later.

I’m really excited about bringing this show to Melbourne, with Edinburgh/London star Jennifer Lusk being joined by the wonderfully nerdy Rob Lloyd.

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I could talk about a short play, another full-length play, a short film and another TV series idea I’ve had. But these are all mere figments, compared to the five projects above.

As always, thanks to my collaborators, who keep me passionate about projects, even when the work seems difficult and the future still hazy.

It’s nice to be busy, but boy am I glad for this four-day weekend. Which, sure, will be filled with writing and re-writing and a Sonnigsburg meeting – but at least I’ve got time to sleep in and make my second blog post for the year.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

SPOILER ALERT: George RR Martin is not Shakespeare



Note: there will be no spoilers in here for “Game of Thrones” but there will be for some of Shakespeare’s work, specifically Romeo & Juliet.

Romeo & Juliet: not yet dead in this picture
Something happened on last night’s episode of “Game of Thrones”. A momentous twist in the make-up of the show. I haven’t seen the episode yet, but I have already been spoiled. Though Twitter blew up with spoilers yesterday, it was mainstream media outlets that let the cat out of the bag for me. Not so much because of what they said, but what their headlines implied. I get subtext, guys. I can read between the lines.

This led not to a discussion about the storytelling in the show, which can be a minefield at the best of times, but to the subject of spoilers: who should reveal them and when. And are spoilers from a fourteen-year-old novel really spoilers? Once they’ve aired on television, in one market, are they fair game?

Because Twitter is instantaneous, it’s only the East Coast of the US than can watch the episode without fear of spoilers. A few hours later on the West Coast can be too late, if you’re not careful. In Australia, there’s a couple more hours to wait if you can watch it live on a Monday afternoon. Or a few more hours if you have to wait until after work.

By that time yesterday, mainstream press was alluding to the plot twists. Mashable spoiled it in a headline. Stephen King had tweeted the spoiler. I hadn’t watched the first episode of the season, let alone the second – plus I was distracted by the “Mad Men” premiere. No spoilers for that here, either.

Sometimes plot twists seep into the culture. Some of the great works of literature and film cannot really be appreciated in the same way as they once were because we know the major reveals of the plot. That said, if a story is really good, it’s the detail of the story that should make it worth watching. Knowing what happened in last night’s episode of “Game of Thrones” shouldn’t ruin the experience of watching it – if it’s done well.

Someone I follow on Twitter said that reacting to a spoiler in a fourteen-year-old book is like saying that you’re surprised that Romeo & Juliet die. There’s a lot of things wrong with this, I think.

“Game of Thrones” is a different kind of story. Romeo & Juliet is a literal tragedy. We are waiting for that ending to come. Let’s not forget that Shakespeare spoils the ending of Romeo & Juliet in the prologue:

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life

He wants you to know it’s coming. He wants you to watch his characters meet their inevitable fate. “Game of Thrones” is on one-hand about political machinations. It’s about characters wanting to ascend to the Iron Throne. And there are dozens of characters vying for that position. We know the end game, but we don’t know who will be left to play it.

Cersei, not yet dead - as far as I know!
Cersei says in the first season of the series, “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.” George RR Martin is sticking to that promise – several characters playing the game have died. Often in shocking ways at surprising times. But because the narrative isn’t over – on screen or on the page – we can’t yet know which losses will impact the end of the story. The journey is barely half done.

“Game of Thrones” is not a tragedy, it’s more of a melodrama. It seems epic in the Shakespearean sense of the word – lots of characters, political and court intrigue – but it’s hard to judge a story on the revelations of one chapter. Yes, I’ve had last night’s episode spoiled for me, but will that ruin the experience of watching the series? Probably not.

Should people who haven’t read the books expect to remain unspoiled? I think so. Not everyone can read everything ever. And there are more people watching the series now than have ever read the books. And, in fact, it’s not the book readers who have been doing the spoiling over the last couple of days – it’s been TV viewers hell-bent on revealing that they’ve seen it first, everyone else be damned.

I try my best to avoid social media on days when I know it will be difficult to miss spoilers, but I’d appreciate it if mainstream media kept a lid on some of the reveals – at the very least until the episode has aired in each market. And don’t be too clever with your vague headlines, allusions can spoil as much as outright declarations.