Saturday, 12 May 2012

Learning from Ray: Playwriting and EVERYNIGHT, EVERYNIGHT


Damian Hill as Flannery, Everynight, Everynight
Photo by Wendy Joy Morrissey

Ray Mooney’s play Everynight, Everynight is a tough and uncompromising look at prison brutality in H Division of Pentridge Prison in the 1970s. It’s a semi-autobiographical play and a response to the Jenkinson Inquiry, which downplayed the officer-on-prisoner abuse. It’s not the story of Mooney, though – it focuses on the character of Flannery, based on real-life “Mr Rent-A-Kill” Christopher Dale Flannery.

Ray Mooney was a teacher of mine during the two years I studied Professional Writing and Editing at Holmesglen TAFE many years ago. He was a great influence to me and to my writing; in fact, I first met him in my last year of high school and his encouragement played a small part in me committing to a couple of years of writing study. I’d always loved to write, but when you’re looking to move on from high school, you’re quite often told to be more practical with what you study.

The first year at TAFE, Mooney took a class called “performance writing” – which covered everything you might write for someone to perform: screenplays, radio plays, stage plays or even performance poetry. The performance poetry scared the crap out of me, because we were expected to perform it... and I was much happier just being a writer.

I went to TAFE thinking I was going to write novels, with a small dream about writing for movies and television. By a quirk of enrollment and class schedules, I never actually studied novel writing; I studied short story writing as the way to develop my prose skills. And I continued to be excited by the idea of writing feature films.

But with Mooney’s enthusiasm for stage, plus Holmesglen’s commitment to staging new work by their past and present students, I quickly became intrigued by writing plays. And theatre. While I never had anything performed during my time at Holmesglen, I did direct a one-act play while I was there and had a couple of small pieces performed here and there.

I saw a lot of theatre while studying at TAFE and there are things I learned in Mooney’s classes that I still think about when I’m writing a play or structuring a piece of dialogue or if I’m being indecisive on how frank or brutal or truthful a scene needs to be.

When I was studying, the catchphrase of the day was  “political correctness” – which was used in a myriad of ways to shut down arguments or to dilute the way people, places or ideas were portrayed. It wasn’t always used to criticise theatre or film, but when writing it could case a writer to second guess themselves. Should I hold back on portraying that type of person in this kind of way? What am I saying if I depict this problem – am I condoning it?

Mooney urged us toward “personal correctness” – we each have our own experiences and our own voices. We should tell the story we want to tell in our ways, because anything else is inauthentic.

Mooney’s work was often about criminals or disenfranchised people and it always had a ring of truth; often because it quoted directly from reality. From the Jenkinson Inquiry for Everynight, Everynight and from court transcripts for The Truth Game – based around the Walsh Street murders.

That was the other thing that Mooney taught me – looking at story and character through the eyes of people who are not like me. Finding empathy in characters that are different than I am and have different life experiences. 

Australian film and television may have a reputation for brutal crime dramas now, but back in my youth, local cop shows were much more black and white and the only prison drama I was acquainted with was Prisoner. (Known elsewhere as Prisoner: Cell Block H.) I have a vague recollection of Mooney telling the class he was asked to write for Prisoner and he declined because it was too far from reality as he’d experienced it.

Everynight, Everynight was turned into a film directed by Alkinos Tsilimidos, while I was still studying. It was an incredible achievement for writer and director – and a very stark, brutal and confronting film.

The film has lost none of its power in the intervening years – and the stage production currently on at Gasworks proves a story about institutionalised violence and corruptive power is as relevant today as when the play was original produced in the 1970s. The play went on to influence public policy in the early years of its life, bringing about some changes to the way prisoners were treated in prison in Victoria.

Director Stuart Grant has brought together an incredible team of performers and production personnel for this revival of Mooney’s play. The set is stark and menacing. The sound design gives the impression of a cavernous jail at times, while occasionally trapping us in the smallest of cells with the character of Flannery.

The violence is not shied away from. The language is as rough and as tough as you would expect. The entire cast is praiseworthy, but any production of this show hangs on the casting of Flannery – and Damian Hill brings a lot of power to a young thug tortured into a man who is so thoroughly beaten and demeaned, he “resigns from life”. And encourages his other inmates to do the same; once you resign, he explains, they have no power over you. It’s a strong statement about solidarity and self-preservation.

I see a lot of Mooney in his play – his sensibility and his personality and his striving for truth; both the truth of reality and the truth of his characters. And where his early encouragement helped me to even consider writing for the stage, I hope the lessons I learned from him help me to be as clear and evocative in my work and he is in his.

Everynight, Everynight is presented by Frank Theatre at Gasworks until May 26th.

Cast: Steve Bastoni, John Brumpton, Damian Hill, Adrian Mulraney, Paul Ireland, Tony Rickards and Kaitlyn Clare