I listen to more than one podcast about the art of screenwriting. No wonder that people think they want to write movies and television. There’s an industry of books and podcasts and lectures that break down the rules of screenwriting. It’s the three-act structure. It’s the hero with a thousand faces. It’s Robert Mckee’s Story.
Theatre, though, is struggle. Michael Gow spoke about “The Agony and the Agony” in his keynote address at the National Play Festival. It wasn’t, as I suspected, just about the agony of writing, but about the struggle of the characters – from moment to moment and scene to scene.
Agony derives from the greek “agon” meaning “contest”. It’s where we get the terms protagonist and antagonist from. The person we want to win the contest and the person who is trying to stop them from winning the contest. This is particularly clear in film and screenwriting books.
Gow has an addiction to self-help and “how to write” books. When I did his masterclass as part of the Play Festival, he expanded on this notion that the rules were laid out in books; he both believes that and distrusts it. He likes Robert McKee’s Story and hates Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces.
Television, in some ways, is more daring in casting its protagonists into grey areas. We have Dexter and The Americans; The Sopranos and Game of Thrones. I think television needs its characters to struggle with good and evil, simply so the writers can find ways to keep writing them for years at a time. In cinema, characters almost by design need to fit more neatly into boxes; we spend less time with them, their motivations can’t be so murky.
Theatre, for me, exists somewhere in between these two things. It needs to tell a compact story (mostly) but it can be driven by characters who exist in grey areas and whose struggle can be defined by the smallest thing. Theatre doesn’t always have a clear three-act structure, even though we can usually intuit a beginning, middle and end.
Zoey Dawson’s Conviction is, as with most of her work, a play about herself. It’s an arrogant play about arrogance. A pretentious play about pretence. A very Zoey Dawon play about Zoey Dawson.
As much as I love a well-made play, let me revel in the naturalism of Tennessee Williams or Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, there’s something about the play that tears down expectations of theatre that’s thrilling. And I think disassembling theatre can be a more complete experience than a non-narrative film and it may be due to the live aspect; the visceral experience.
Zoey Dawson is a writer who writes about writing. This is a fraught exercise, of course. Writing is different for everyone and not everyone wants to be reminded that they are at the theatre while in the theatre. But this is Zoey’s struggle; antagonist and protagonist of her own plays. What do I write about? How do I write it? And what do I leave the audience with?
The first play I saw of Zoey’s was The Unspoken Word is Joe (the title a reference to Angels in America) ended with the audience being ordered out of the theatre before the traditional applause. To this day, I feel like that experience was incomplete; an experience that film could never replicate. An experience that television only approximates when a series is cancelled.
Conviction left me with a deep sense of unease; not just about writing but about how we engage with theatre. The play begins with stream-of-consciousness thoughts on what Zoey might write about and then we start to get a story about convict-era Australians. We get the opening of a well-made play, but even as that unfolds, the seams are exposed and the audience is unsettled.
Is this a satire? Is this black comedy? Is it just full of shit? The cast has the courage of its convictions, but what is the writer bringing? Self-doubt.
The play shifts from colonial Australia through the modern day and zips into a post-Apocalytic world. We get pretty clear stories about women’s roles in those societies and, in some ways, the three time periods evoke that three-act structure we expect from film and well-made plays. Set-up. Rising Action. Climax. And denouement.
Zoey Dawson struggling with herself. The audience struggling with Zoey Dawson. And women struggling with society’s narrative expectations. It reminded me very much of Rachel Perks’ Ground Control at Next Wave. This feminist science fiction story played with our expectations of what a space drama should be. We are introduced to an astronaut alone in space, escaping a post-Apocalyptic world, her only companions a plant and the ship’s computer.
That is a set-up worthy of great science fiction films, but like Zoey, Rachel wants the story to not just be about a hero’s journey, but about the story she’s telling and deconstructing all at once. Both women want you to feel like you’re at home in the narrative you’re expecting, while also pulling the rug out from under you.
Conviction and Ground Control both end with uncertainty and the set being deliberately dismantled. The immersive aspect of theatre makes this literal deconstruction more visceral. The soundscapes of both are discomfiting. The monologues of Captain Chris (played by Rachel Perks) are as confronting as the relentless harmonies of the four actors in Conviction, who are voicing Zoey’s self-doubts.
In a world where women’s voices on stage are still the exception and science fiction on stage is a rarity indeed, these two (well-made) plays were experiences I won’t soon forget. And there are no books or podcasts or self-help books that could teach you how to write either.